A few years ago, I was on a panel at London’s MCM Expo, answering various questions about writing and filming a webseries. One of the questions that came up was “What do you use to film your show?” The other filmmakers on the panel started reeling off a great deal of technical speak about DSLRs, HD-DV Cams, the pros and cons between digital and film, etc. When they finally came to me, I simply said, “I don’t think it matters. I’ve seen some really moving stories told using only camera phones. The important thing is that you tell a story, not what you use.” Sounds very insightful and wise doesn’t it? It’s mostly crap, I just couldn’t remember the exact model of camera we used at the time but I still stand by the statement. Granted, there are certain things you can’t do without the right equipment but if your writing connects with people, it won’t matter what you’ve filmed with.
Ok, that Zen mindset is all well and good but it will only take you so far. Frankly, decent equipment is expensive and after a project or two you’ll probably need things you didn’t even realise you needed. There’s no two ways around getting hold of equipment, you need money. Whether hiring, borrowing or purchasing, it all adds up quickly. In my opinion, there are about five things that an aspiring film crew cannot operate without. First is your camera. As stated earlier, you can use your camera phone or an IMAX camera but a commonly used happy medium is a Digital Single-Lens Reflex Camera (or DSLR). Fancy words, I know. It’s essentially a high definition stills camera that also shoots video. One of the reasons this is so commonplace is that the quality of your film isn’t always dictated by the box itself but by the lens you use. For any starting filmmaker, the kit lens that the camera comes with will suffice. The settings are vast and overwhelming and will mean next to nothing to you when you start out. Once you’ve familiarised yourself by reading manuals and watching YouTube tutorials, you’ll be talking about frame rates, f-stop, white balancing and all other manner of complex sounding words to make you appear knowledgeable and professional.
The next few items are separate components of the same thing but they’re almost never sold together. Because your camera can record audio, you might think you can save money by foregoing an external audio recorder. I cannot stress how big of a mistake that would be. In-cam mics are directional, meaning that if you’re not facing the camera, your actors will sound muffled. On top of that, the camera will assume you want all the audio and will record your actor talking and any other ambient noise at equal levels. This basically means you’ll hear every passing car, every shuffling on set and the exported shot will emit a constant hiss, which makes editing hell. To avoid this, you need to invest in a Zoom or Tascam audio device, a big microphone with a furry grey thing on it (which is called a dead cat), an extendable pole, headphones and a wire to link the lot together.
While exterior shots give you the greatest lighting, anything filmed indoors will cause trouble. Your camera doesn’t see the world as you do and has awful night vision. So if you think a room is pretty dark, chances are your camera won’t be able to make out anything at all. So how you choose to light your set is an integral element. Lighting and shadow work can change mood, time of day and performances. To start out with, I’d recommend LED camera lights. They’re not overly expensive, they don’t get too hot and whether camera or stand mounted, they can provide an exceptional amount of light in almost any condition and most come with amber/blue filters as standard which are useful.
With audio and video taken care of, an air of professionalism needs to be acquired. It may sound contrite but buy a tripod. I’m sure you’ll want to do edgy steady-cam shots and shoulder-rigged tracking shots and dolly shots but until you can afford these things (because they cost a surprising amount of money), try using a tripod. It worked for the first thirty years of cinema, it’ll work for you. Additionally, obtain tonnes of extra batteries and SD cards. There’s nothing worse than getting to that sweet point where everything is working in sheer harmony only to be undermined because your equipment’s out of memory or power.
Finally, after you’ve crafted and captured your production, you need to store your footage and piece it all together. This could be one of the more surprising costs. Essentially, you need a laptop or a computer with half-decent editing software. Eventually you’ll want to use things like Final Cut and After Effects (both of which cost a staggering £600 each) but to simply edit together your audio and video there are plenty of movie-maker programmes you can download/acquire for free or low cost.
From scratch, you’re looking at massive start-up funds (the above alone can come in at around £1,300) but if you think of it as equipment you’ll use again and again for multiple projects, possibly shared out between friends, the high sums are fairly manageable.