Saturday, February 25, 2012

A decent budget film making kit

I've got my own little kit that I use for indie film making and some of the lower budget TV commercials that I've made. Of course if a client has the budget then it's probably a good idea to go and hire a decent kit like a RED or ARRI Alexa and a set of Zeiss CP2 Primes along with a decent DP (or DOP), but that isn't often an option these days where budgets are tighter than ever and your client probably has a cousin that can produce a video for him for next to nothing. If you're making your own short film well then unless you take a second mortgage your budget is next to nothing. So here's a kit I built up over the last 2 years or so to do just that. Occasionally I actually use it for pro jobs where a client has a tight budget.


One of the biggest issues for me has always been how to simulate a film look on a low budget and as most people know that one solution arrived several years ago with video-capable DSLRs, which aren't without their various problems of course.

Currently I'm using a Canon 7D for that kind of work because it's APS-C sensor size is really close to Super 35 mm film which is one of the major reasons why I would use the 7D over the 5D. Of course here we're just trying to look as close to the bigger budget TV commercials and films as possible but choosing a different sized film-back needs to ultimately be a creative decision. The other reason is pulling focus on the 5D with it's shallower depth of field - due to the larger sensor one has to use a longer focal length to get the same framing - and that can be a real pain the ass especially if the budget doesn't cater for a dedicated focus puller. If one is using a smaller frame size such as the popular 4/3 rds sensor the trick to get shallower DOF is to use a longer focal length and move further away from the subject.

Why the fuss about Shallow Depth of Field?

Well it all revolves around the creative ability as a Director or Director of Photography to be able to direct the viewer's attention to what is important in a shot. If you've framed an over-the-shoulder shot for example, you want the focus on the talent that is currently speaking rather than on the shoulder and back of the head of the talent on the reverse - in fact as a director you would like to isolate the part of the shot that is most important. Our eyes actually do this naturally and if you hold your thumb in front of your face and focus on it you will notice that the background is out of focus and vice versa. Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't a place for deep focus (where the entire scene is in focus) and in particular wide angle shots of landscapes or opening shots that set a scene where the viewer needs to take in the entire environment. That's the beauty of a super 35mm sensor size - just slap on a wide angle lens and you have deep focus. you will probably have to stop down a little as well, probably down to f11 or higher depending on the exact focal length you're using. and that leads us on to lens choice...


I have several lenses in my kit that I use for different purposes. Of course, this is a budget kit so there are no Zeiss CP2 Primes here. If budget allows you can always hire them. My goal with setting up my kit was to cover a wide variety of focal lengths with some reasonably good glass. On the zoom side I have a Tokina 12-24mm, a Canon 24-105mm F4 and a Canon 70-200mm F4. On the prime side I have several old Zeiss Jenna Pentacon lenses from 50mm to 180mm which I attach with a Pentacon to EOS adapter. These are in no way the best lenses out there and I might have built my kit differently had I known the ins and outs of these lenses but in coming weeks I'll write about the good, the bad and the ugly of all of them.

Support, Mattebox and Follow Focus

For support I use a Manfrotto 503 Tripod which is ok but not really that solid. I would suggest finding a good old school Sachtler or Conner second hand if possible as they're way more stable than a Manfrotto (But a lot heavier too). Again, if budget allows go and hire one.

I've got a Cavision Follow focus unit which I customized with a Zacuto gear in place of the original. The Cavision does have some play which is not unusual for a budget solution. I'm using a Genus 2x4" Mattebox that secures to the rail system. In my opinion it's crucial to secure lenses to the mattebox if you want to pull focus during a shot on an DSLR. Reason being that the rig is so light you're going to get play on the camera and lens if it isn't secured in at least two places. You can buy adapter rings for the mattebox that come in a variety of sizes and allow the lens to be securely fastened to the mattebox.

I also have a DIY slide-n-glide (DSLR slider) that is great for dolly-type tracking shots and a bunch of other bits and bobs.


At the moment I'm just using some cheap old Halogen worklights with 300Watt and 500watt bulbs. They produce more than enough light but get extremely hot and the 500Watt bulbs tend to melt gels. Having worked with hired lighting kits in the past I find that investing in something like a redhead kit just isn't worth the price - they produce little light and are pretty expensive. The kino-flos and other pro lights are great but outside a small budget. Another option is to look around for something like second-hand 2K lights which I have seen available and they kick serious ass for lighting a set. I've also got a few reflectors and with the 7D I can usually get away with using natural light in shade or indoors and just bouncing it. One of my reflectors can also double up as a scrim to soften direct sunlight.

All in all this kit allows me to produce reasonably decent video with something of a 35mm film look. In retrospect I would probably have chosen different kit and there are a whole lot of caveats which I will go into in the coming weeks -pitfalls to watch out for when selecting what equipment to buy for a budget DSLR film-making kit. On the whole it's not bad but quite a few things I might have done differently.

If you want to see some of the results check out my showreel (under the Directing / DOP section). Everything there was shot with this little kit even some of the commercial work:

Happy Film-making!

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