A friend of mine wrote to me today, asking me what she would need, the very basics, to start making her own short films. I wrote such a long reply that I realized it needed to be a blog post and it needed to be available to as many people as possible.
The info below took me a long time to figure out because I didn't start off knowing any of it. Obviously.
And I had pretty much nobody to ask about this stuff. So I just figured it out myself along with our great friend Google.
When I first started making videos/films I really didn't know much about xlr cables, or preamps, or SD cards, or directional microphones. If you don't know anything about any of those previous items, but you want to make short films, read this post.
This info is really only the tip of the iceberg.
But it will get you started nicely. And make you feel a little more in the know as you browse further info online.
As for where to buy? If you're in the U.S.A. buy from B&H Photo.
If you're in Canada buy from Vistek.
If you're elsewhere, I have no idea.
Okay, here's your started kit for what you need to know/to buy to make your first short film, video or online doc.
FIRST, buy yourself a camera and start making bad films.
It takes a while to get the hang of it, so waiting just means putting off learning.
That being said you do want to be sure you're getting the right equipment as it's easy to waste money. (No money? Make videos with your iPhone.)
In terms of what you will need for your filmmaking efforts... Without knowing what your plans are, and assuming you'll be wanting good sound, and a decent picture that will work for online purposes...and assuming that you're on a tight budget...this is what you need:
1. A DSLR Camera or a Video camera A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) mimics a film camera as you can use a variety of lenses, and are thus able to frame shots in a variety of cinematic ways and create a filmic look with shallow depth of field (this means that the background is all blurry and your talent's face is crisp).
That being said, if you don't want a huge learning curve, don't get a DSLR because the learning curve on them is much higher than for a video camera.
Right now I would recommend any of the Canon Rebel series cameras as great starter cameras.
If you have over $3000 for a camera then buy a Canon 7d or 70d and save half the money to buy a very good lens or two. (More on that below)
The Sony GH4 and GH5 are good too - especially if super crisp footage is something you care about. They will also be around $3000 once you include the cost of a lens.
Spend MORE MONEY on the lenses then on the camera, but do so AFTER you have gotten used to shooting with whatever cheapo lens comes with your camera.
In general the lens determines the quality of your image more than the camera does. But there is no sense in spending good money on lenses until you know how you like to shoot and what you like to shoot. Until you know that you won't be able to determine which lenses to buy.
Thus, take your budget for a camera, cut it in half, and only spend one half on the camera (or less). Save the rest of the money to buy 1 or 2 good lenses 6 to 12 months down the road.
2. An external microphone The audio on any camera is shit. You must get an external microphone. Rode microphones are my preference.
Get a shotgun microphone. Period.
For filmmaking that's what you need.
If it's not a shotgun microphone (looks like a long cylinder), don't buy it.
(Okay, you might eventually get an omni directional mic as well - to pick up more ambient sound - and you might want a lavalier mic - for interviews, but those are not your priority.)
A good shotgun is versatile. You can use it on your camera. You can use it with a boom pole operator (tall man or woman holding the mic where it needs to be held). You can use it on a microphone stand. You can use it for voice overs. You can use it to capture sound effects and soundscapes.
It's going to be one of your best audio investments, so buy a good one. (I use the Rode NTG-2 shotgun microphone.)
Feel very good about spending $300 to $500 on a good shotgun microphone as you will not need to replace this for the next 20 years unless you do something crazy, like drop it down a well, or break it in half in a fit of pique.
3. Microphone mount/stand You need some way to either mount your microphone to your camera or a boom pole and a tall man or woman, or a microphone stand you can hide out of the shot, but still have close to the sound source.
I use a microphone stand for doing interviews, voiceovers, and everything else. The key with capturing good audio is getting your microphone within about a foot of the sound source. This makes having a microphone stand key.
4. External recorder/Preamplifier For good audio with a high SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO (i.e. with the main sound way louder than the sound of background noise and recording hiss) you have got to get an external recorder of some kind. This is an external device that takes the sound your microphone picks up and amplifies it and then also records it or allows it to be sent into your camera to be recorded.
This then forces you to ask yourself whether you want to be working with separate audio i.e. audio that is not connected to your video which you then have to sync in editing. Or do you want your life to be easy for the first year and have your audio already nicely synced in-camera to your video?
If you want to capture separate audio from video, you will need to get an external recording device. The most popular one is the Zoom H4N...But you can go cheap and get the Zoom H1 too.
I use the H5N, which I highly recommend. It is more expensive than the other recording devices, but you capture beautiful clean audio, it's very easy to use, and you won't need to replace it for many years.
Okay, now if you've decided you don't want to mess around with syncing your audio to your video in post production for the moment, then you need to get a pre-amp that you attach to your camera, and that you use to override the preamps inside your camera, which suck.
But first, what's a preamp?
It is an electronic amplifier that turns a WEAK SIGNAL into a STRONG SIGNAL. IF you didn't have preamps you would still be able to record the desired sound, but it would be distorted and low quality.
Poor preamps will result in a recording that can be clearly heard, but that is full of noise. The preamps that are inside your camera are of poor quality. That's why when you play back a clip recorded on your camera, the audio can be clearly heard but it's got a lot of noise. Some of the noise is the ambient sound that the microphone in your camera picked up, and some of it is the noise and distortion of the preamp itself.
If you want to record audio straight to your camera's SD card, so that you don't have to sync the audio in post production in the editing suite, then you need to buy either a BeackTek Audio Adaptor or a JuicedLink PreAmp.
And a final note about these Pre-amps/External recording devices: there is a learning curve.
You will figure it out. Don't feel stupid. You will want to smash your devices at some point. You might even get really angry and start yelling at people.
(One more side note: some indie filmmakers will take an external recording device like the Zoom H4N, run it through one of the JuicedLink PreAmps or one of the BeackTek Audio Adapters, and in this way record pretty awesome audio for pretty cheap...but this is not something you need to be doing right away.)
Troubleshooting with audio:
- Keep your cables hanging smoothly.
- Make sure your batteries are fresh.
- Keep your microphone as close as possible to the subject.
- Coach your subjects to speak in a way that reaches the microphone.
- Get decent headphones so you can listen to your audio.
- Get good balanced cables.
- Spend money on good cables!
- A sudden weird sound & your batteries are fresh & your microphone is not damaged probably means your cables are dying.
- A whining electronic noise & your batteries are not fresh means your batteries are dying. :)
5. Tripod or monopod And finally you need a super lightweight tripod or monopod (it's a tripod with one leg) that you can carry anywhere and kick about easily if you're planning on shooting on the go. Cheap and light is what you want not heavy and high quality (for the moment). And don't worry about being able to do amazingly smooth panning for the moment. Until you've mastered still shots, which you currently haven't, you do not need to pan.
For the moment, the most important thing about a tripod is that you feel good when quickly opening up the legs and setting it up. This means for tripod shopping, don't do it online.
Go to every camera store in town and open up every single tripod and see how you feel. There is nothing quite so lame as feeling awkward while attempting to quickly set up your tripod to grab a shot.
And also you do not need any kind of steady cam or shoulder mount apparatus to start out. Frankly you don't need one ever unless that's your style. And if you are a one man band and will be interacting with your actors/presenters/subjects, any kind of body mount is going to be really impractical.
6. An editing system For editing you need a computer with at least 4 GB of RAM (more is better, preferably 8 B RAM) any MacBook Pro from the last 2 years will be fine to start off with) & you need an editing program.
I use the Adobe Cloud $60-ish USD per month subscription, and thus am using Premiere Pro to edit (I love it!). You can get the Adobe Premier Pro subscription for $20 USD a month.
You could also conceivably just use iMovie for the first few months of experimentation. You'll get annoyed with it pretty quickly though.
And if you want a nice and easy to use video editor for starting out, you can also use Camtasia - it gives you both editing and screen casting abilities. And it's got some fun features. It's a good starter tool. It's waaaay better than iMovie BTW.
7. CABLES, CABLES, oh and then more cables. A note about cables. You will need cables to connect your audio equipment to your camera or to the external device. What you need to know about cables:
- Spend money on the good balanced cables, unless you don't care about your audio.
- You will mostly be using 3 pin XLR cables. These are cables with 3 pin connectors on the end. There are male and female ends. The male end is with the prongs and the female end is with the holes. Vulgar, no?
- XLR cables result in professional quality audio. But you might also encounter 1/4 inch cables and 1/8 inch cables (that people also refer to as mini jacks).
- There are adaptors for pretty much anything, so worry about the cables after you have bought the main equipment. You'll know what you're missing because you won't be able to connect the stuff.
8. SD CARDS - More than one!!! For capture, you will likely need an SD card in order to record your video onto something. Modern video/DSLR recorders use cards not tapes. Get at least a 32 GB high speed card.
My camera uses an SDHC card, and I'm currently using some SanDisk Extreme Class 10 cards, and they work great. Too slow a card is not good. It could result in the camera stopping & just hanging out doing nothing as your shot passes you by. And too small a card means it runs out in the middle of something important. Confused about cards? Go to a camera store and ask for one that the seller recommends for doing HD video.
And get two cards minimum because you never know when your card is going to fail, or be suddenly inexplicably full, or fall into a glass of orange juice. Just saying.
No card = no video.
9. External storage Finally, you need an external storage device.
Let me say this again because you probably just ignored me the first time I said it.
YOU NEED NEED NEED AN EXTERNAL STORAGE DEVICE.
That is a non-negotiable. If you don't have one already, buy one today.
If your computer crashes, you don't want to lose all your footage. I recommend G-Technology as your brand of choice. I have many of their drives, and they have never failed me. They are awesome. Side note: Seagate on the other hand - not a fan.
Do keep in mind that even an external hard drive is not designed to last forever.
Your internal hard drive will eventually fail.
So will your external hard drive.
But if you have two, the likelihood of them failing on the same day is very very low. That's precisely the point.
Always always have a back up of your work.
If you encounter stuff about RAID drives, don't even bother reading that. Yes that will be important later, but not right now it's not. In terms of editing, for now you can edit your footage from right off your computer's drive and use your external drive as backup.
And you should also get a Dropbox account, and put your editing file and a copy of all your finished videos in THE CLOUD! If you're house burns down you won't want to have lost the only copies of your body of work.
10. A lens hood If you're using a DSLR buy a lens hood. Even a $10 lens hood, which is what I use right now will improve the image quality by at least 15%.
That's an invented percentage, but I hold that it's true.
A lens hood makes sure that rogue rays of sun and light don't bounce into your image. It increases the clarity and saturation of your image. And it actually works. Not a gimmick. It also protects the lens when you randomly kick your tripod over, which you will at some point surely do, and it just generally looks cool.
11. ODDS & ENDS you don't necessarily need right away:
- Reflectors to bounce light
- Tungsten, Fluorescent, or LED lights for low-light environments
- Dead cats to muffle the wind when capturing audio outside in the wind
- Rain jackets for your camera gear if you're shooting in the rain
- Lens filters to improve the quality of your shots under highly specific conditions
- Various fancy camera lenses to pimp your shots
- A camera bag to carry your stuff around (CINEBAGS are amazing if you can afford one).
12. AND A NOTE ABOUT BATTERIES: Always buy two batteries for your camera and have them both charged before you start a shoot. Buy more batteries if you plan on shooting a lot in one day.
Basically always have more batteries than you think you could conceivably ever use.
Batteries not working = no shoot. And you can't usually buy a video camera battery on a street corner or in the woods.
So it took me probably over 100 hours of research PLUS countless hours of experimentation over the past few years to take the vast amount of information out there and be able to simplify it into a single page of useful digestible fact. Seriously there is so much confusing tech writing out and about!
This info will help you so so much if you decide to dive into making your own online films.
Read this post 2 to 3 times and google any terms you don't understand. You'll be ready to get started.
P.S. If you're on a tiny budget you can get the cheapest version of all of these items, and buy them used off of Craigslist. If you do that you should be able to get a starter kit for under $1000. You'll just need to be scrappy about it. :)
-Colette Nichol, Vancouver