I got an email from a new filmmaker named Geoff Arbourne, who wrote this:

“For the last four years I’ve been living and working in Southern Africa (working in International Development), when I came across the story that thousands of people were being evicted because of the football World Cup in South Africa. This led me to quitting my job for six months and trying to tell the story as I saw it first hand. I made it self-funded, and finished it at the beginning of the year.

“I now have an idea for my first feature length documentary. But to do this I need to buy the equipment for myself. So far I only have the body of the [Nikon] D7000 (no lens). Therefore, what do you recommend I buy first? Do you have such a thing as a Kit List? As a two-man team what do I really need?”

Geoff said his budget is about 3,500 Euros, so maybe $5,000. That’s a number that would have been impossible a decade ago, but now is an amount with which documentary film is eminently doable. It’s spending it well, and understanding what you can do with it, that matters.

Is the best $5K kit a given?

The Film Look


First, a bit of philosophy.

The whole pursuit these days, which manufacturers have been happy to oblige with a stream of products instantly making obsolete the ones just before, is about this: “Look like you belong.”

It used to be that filmmaking was an exclusive club. Like most exclusive clubs, exclusion was determined by money. The insiders could afford to do things the outsiders could not. In filmmaking, the more you could afford to do that stuff, the more you separated yourself out from the wanna-be’s. Super-8 cameras, and later videocams, were the mark of the great unwashed. Even television news’ expensive Betacams just didn’t match up with shooting film. I remember attending the old New England Film Festival in the 1990s and seeing seven-minute student films shot on 35mm that cost $20,000 and upwards.

The question was how to get into the club. So the Holy Grail of digital filmmaking, for a decade now, has been that of “looking like film.”

Then technology hit its tipping point in the last five years. The gap between film and video got remarkably smaller. Actual picture sharpness and color became much closer to film; suddenly, staying in the exclusive club had to nibble around the things film still could do but video could not. That, about three or four years ago, became shallow depth-
of-field. “Cinema adapters” such as those from RedRock Micro, Cinevate and Letus were the rage.

Camera sensor size comparison

Camera sensor size comparison (Wikimedia user Moxfyre, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Then, almost unexpectedly, came a round of HDSLRs that closed that gap, and brings us to the current state of affairs. There is almost no one who can’t afford a camera that can get them in the game.

But if everybody can be in the game now, should we still play by the old game’s rules?
So, in essence, the first thing in selecting equipment is to decide which rules you want to play by.

The obvious way to go, given a $5,000 budget, is a set-up that has become as ubiquitous in indie filmmaking as skinny jeans, a flannel shirt and black-framed glasses — the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, with a lens in the 28-70mm f/2.8 range and a Zoom H4N audio recorder that can be used on the camera or as a hand-held mike. It’s a tried-and-true setup, and you’d still have a thousand dollars left to spend on other stuff.

Indie Filmmakers Weigh In on Budget Documentary Kits


James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot

James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot,
directors of Indie Game: The Movie
(At First Sight Cinematography)

I touched base with some filmmakers I’ve profiled on DocumentaryTech.com, where my interest is largely about doing the best work for the least money. Several were happy to respond. Many are using some variation or another of the above. Here is the kit list for Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, whose film is Indie Game: The Movie.

Geoff has a Nikon D7000 body. It shoots 1080p but uses a smaller sensor than the full-
frame 5D, so the first question there becomes, “Does it matter?” The 5D has set up a look for film that has been largely unrivaled at its price point because of its “full-frame” sensor, which is actually twice the size of a 35mm movie frame. All the other HDSLRs are using sensors smaller than that, but the D7000, and Canon’s EOS 7D, T2i and 60D (and the GH1 and GH2 from Panasonic) are all finding followers.

James Colquhoun, an Australian documentarian who with Laurentine ten Bosch made the widely-sold doc Food Matters, says that on their latest project, the kit has been something that has been basic, light and reliable (I’ve added the prices in USDs):

We’ve just recently arrived home and are in post for a new film due out in the next few months so have shot with the following kit:

1. Canon 7D$1,600
2. 24-105 l series f4 (best interview lens)$1,000
3. 35mm l series f1.4 (really nice for those shallow depth of field overlay shots)$1,400
4. Tokina 11-16 f2.8 (great for wide shots and steady when hand held) – works well on a glidecam also$650
5. Manfrotto legs with video head (190XPROB)$200
6. Lowell Tota/Omni Core 44 kit (3 lights)$1,100


James Colquhoun of Food Matters

James Colquhoun of Food Matters

The total is about $5,950, above Geoff’s budget, but he already has the camera body. James and Laurentine have done damned well on this easily obtainable kit. “Food Matters” sold more than 100,000 DVDs. But some purists complain that the HDSLRs have created a bit of a genre we might call “film moiré.” The cameras do bust lines and make a checked shirt take on a life of its own — HDSLR documentarians are wise to ask interview subjects to wear solid colors — a concession to the limitations.

Going Second-Hand


So another route to go with money in hand is what documentary filmmaker Robert Greene, director of Owning The Weather, Kati With An I and Fake It So Real, does and what seems not to have hurt his success. He often picks up second-generation equipment that works perfectly but has been cast aside in the arms-race mentality of newer and better. Remember HDV? While some people have relegated that, and the tapes it records on, to cave-painting status, the stuff still works well. Robert’s philosophy on equipment has taken him to Full Frame, True/False and DocNYC, among others. And it didn’t hurt filmmakers such as Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, who made the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Restrepo on HDV.

Robert Greene (Owning the Weather, Kati With An I, Fake It So Real)

Robert Greene, director of
Owning the Weather
Kati With An I and Fake It So Real

The advantage of buying “real” camcorders that might be a tick behind the times is because they use three-chip technology, integral lenses with long zoom capabilities, have clean audio, have built-in neutral density filters and don’t need add-on viewfinders or monitors. A look on Monday morning at eBay and Amazon show a lot of Sony, Canon and Panasonic HDV cameras selling for $2,000 or so. What some lack is 24p, but the question is whether 1080i will really exclude you from the club. Lots of people are using it, and broadcast still premises on interlaced. Progressive was the rage when everyone wanted to convert their video to film stock. Who does that anymore? While it’s easier to convert 1080p to 1080i than the inverse, progressive may be overplayed.

A few years back I used a JVC HD100u to do a film — it shoots 720p (the so-called “poor man’s HD”), and you know what? It was great. Not one person at the film festivals I screened at ever said, “Hey, was that only 720p?” These JVCs, oddities in a way, are currently selling used on eBay for down around the $1,500 range (from $6,000 new four years ago). And remember, three-chip camcorders are soaking up more color information than the one-chip HDSLRs, some old film-camera people will think of as the difference between shooting negatives or transparencies. The latter requires perfect exposure.

All this goes toward a blunt question: Where is your film really going to be seen by most people? Robert’s first film, Owning The Weather, was on iTunes, and it didn’t hurt him that the film was shot not even in HDV but in standard definition. Same with a more recent film, the highly regarded 45365 by the brothers Bill and Turner Ross was shot on a pair of SD Panasonic DVX100Bs, which are selling used for about $800. Those cameras took them to SXSW in 2009.

I think of Stefan Sargent’s “Four Times Better” rule — to wit, never upgrade technology until the new stuff is four times better than what you have on hand. For Robert, that also means editing his films on used, cheaply gotten iMacs; for others it might be used lighting kits, microphones and the like. And by the way, those cinema adapters everyone was killing for three years ago are widely, cheaply available. I have a Letus Elite that still works wonderfully with my EX1 and Nikon still lenses; you can get one on eBay for about $800.

What interested me with the filmmakers I queried on the technology question was also the stuff you didn’t expect. For example, while I use a Sony EX1 as a workhorse camera, I’ve found that I use my Canon T2i ($800) much more than my 7D ($1,600). The reason is the Magic Lantern hack for the T2i which allows more camcorder-like function such as focus peaking, more-selectable ISO and sound monitor bars. That software is free.

More filmmakers are combining — a DSLR makes a great sit-down interview camera, and a run-and-gun tool might be that used HDV model. Viewers are much more forgiving of some grainy action footage, and that’s where such camcorders’ deep depth of field is actually to great advantage, especially combined with autofocus. And this may be sacrilege, but some really small consumer camcorders, such as the Canon HF-S21, shoot very sharp 1080p video that plays surprisingly well next to much more expensive units. At about $1,000, it’s maybe something to put in that extra pocket of your gear bag. Even cheaper than that is the Canon HV40, which shoots wonderful “true” 1080p and costs about $400 used.

So what major choices, beyond cameras? Lights, of course. My workhorse light is a $500 Flolight LED — runs cool, bright enough, easily portable, doesn’t break. There are amazingly cheap lights out there, and lightstands and the like. One-point lighting is still a staple of doc filmmaking (see Ken Burns’s films) and it seems that it’s network TV that is obsessed with three-point lighting, scrimmed backgrounds and the like. But look at a documentaries and you’ll see a lot of outdoor shooting with what seems just a bit of fill with one light or even just a $30 reflector. Simplify, simplify.

What?! Don’t Forget Your Audio!


Nathaniel Hansen (The Elders)

Nathaniel Hansen,
director of The Elders

People find out what works when they’re out there. One is Nathaniel Hansen, Boston-
based director of The Elders. His gear list is on his site, but here’s how he replied to the question of Geoff’s kit. He thought audio is often underlooked and underthought. He says to get “a $30 boom-mic stand (from any music store, make sure it has a boom arm and is at least two stages.”

Nathaniel adds that “a good shotgun mic kit (check DVinfo.net for good used gear in their classifieds), and some precise positioning just out of frame, can get you crystal clear audio even in a noisy room. You’ll want a cheap 5-lb sandbag as well to keep the rig from tipping on accident. Practice the set up. You’ll be shocked how close you can get a mic and still have it be miles out of frame. When I’m rolling two-person, two-camera set-ups (80% of my work), it’s the only way I capture audio and everyone’s always impressed with the results.”

Accessory Necessities


James Swirsky of Indie Game: The Movie had these thoughts:

  1. Monopods – by far the most useful form of support on “Indie Game: The Movie.” When I first got into HDSLR, I immediately tried to replicate the shoulder-rig form factor that I was used to. This led me to buying a rather expensive piece of kit that made my rig heavier, more cumbersome and immediately erased all of the form-factor advantages of an HDSLR. In general, the more I build up my rig, the more I want to tear it down. Don’t be pressured into thinking that you need to build up your rig in order to achieve professional results or appearances. Eighty percent of non-interview shots in our past project was shot with a monopod. It provides just enough stability, while still retaining the camera’s inherently small footprint and flexibility. In specific, I love love LOVE the combination of a Manfrotto 562b Monopod and a 701 fluid head.
  2. A general gear tip: Make sure you’ve used your specific equipment before you begin your shoot. And I don’t mean the obvious pieces of gear, like cameras, lenses, audio recorders, etc. But the smaller, less obvious pieces. I’ve bought pieces of gear during shoots that I thought would slip perfectly into my workflow as soon as I received it. But, in reality, I found that, often, it takes time to warm up to a new piece of gear, in order to become comfortable with it and confidently include it in your workflow. A lot of DSLR gear is positioned a bit like a plug n’ play solution. Rarely, is it ever that simple. Make sure you have the time to familiarize yourself.
  3. If you can’t afford fast glass and find yourself upping the ISO to noisier levels in certain situations, the noise-reduction plugins on the market do a really good clean-up job. Obviously do not rely on them to perform miracles, but do know that they’re there and do work quite well. Of the two bigger names: Magic Bullet and Neat Video, I’ve found both create great results, but Neat Video is the more stable of the two by far (at least in my setup).
  4. There are a lot of people online advocating the faithful use of primes over zooms, and rigs over Image Stabilization lenses. The points they make are extremely valid, but many times come from a narrative filmmaking perspective and do not take into consideration common documentary filmmaking conditions. I often think, to a beginning filmmaker getting most of their info from forum and blog posts, this can create an unnecessary self-imposed dogma. Let me state for the record: There is nothing wrong with shooting with zooms, and I.S. will make your picture better 99.99% of the time. And if HDSLRs had a reliable auto focus, I’d be telling you not to be afraid of that, either.

So, a body or two, some lenses, some lights. A mic with stand, maybe a solid lavalier mic in the $200 range. (I have a Sony ECM-88B to go with some Rode and Audio-Technica shotguns). A good tripod; for a light camera that’s under $300. A monopod. A light or two. Light stands. Some wide gaffer tape ($20). I advise these little reading glasses with built-in lights for shooting at night and packing equipment in the dark. For $15, they’ve saved my butt more than once.

“Story Trumps Everything”


And a last list from Biagio Messina and Joke Fincioen, the husband-and-wife makers of Dying To Do Letterman:

Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina (Dying To Do Letterman)

Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina of Dying to do Letterman

  1. Story trumps everything. A raging fire or riot breaking out on the streets only requires whatever camera you can get to quickest. We’ve aired iPhone footage, flip cam footage… you name it. The cheapest camera you can instantly pull out of your pocket tends to get the most priceless footage.
  2. Audio is important — and usually overpriced. For most interviews in Dying to do Letterman we used a $15 clip on radio shack microphone with a $5 extension cable. $20 versus hundreds on a wireless system. We even shot a few scenes in confined spaces like this. Further, in a pinch, just get within 3 feet of your subject and use the on camera mic.
  3. Another audio tip: Have one wireless mic and two people to shoot? Wire up your main character and send that to channel one. Use your on-camera mic for channel 2, and shoot over the shoulder of your secondary character. We’ve made that work in a pinch.
  4. Sometimes you’re better off spending $200 on a fancy dinner for someone who owns or has access to expensive equipment. Feed them well, pitch your project passionately, and you may find you now have $100,000 worth of equipment for the cost of a dinner you enjoyed as well.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask people for stuff. You can’t get your dream package for $5000, but if you’re passionate about your project you can get thousands of dollars in favors. Make others a part of your cause, and you may find you have more help and gear than you ever dreamed.

Welcome to the Club


In closing, I believe that $5,000 will get a new filmmaker to a point at which he or she is not at all outside the club, and from there on, what matters is the tale you tell. And for one- and two-person projects, it goes toward a basic business notion: That solid revenue and low costs mean a bigger profit. Find ways of telling a good story cheaply, and you’re more likely to have a chance to tell another someday.

Thanks to the filmmakers who contributed to the discussion!

For more documentary news and features, follow POV on Facebook or Twitter @povdocs.

Published by

Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.