If you’re finding your way into the world of video production or filmmaking, call it what you will, and let’s face it, these days the boundaries are more blurred than the bokeh from an F1 prime lens; chances are, that in addition to your all-consuming passion for the moving image, you’ve also developed an equally all-consuming passion for the kit involved. We love it and lust after it! From lenses to LED panels and from sliders to shotgun mics, the latest and greatest, the biggest and best, are all the stuff that dreams are made of and bank balances decimated by. If there’s anything worth betting your most recently acquired and most treasured moviemaking gadget on, its that it won’t be either of those things for long. Our gear is our bling, and long may it shine!
What I want to look at in this article, however, are the less shiny, less lust-worthy, and arguably downright boring items of equipment. Those things that, while unlikely to stir anything in our metaphorical groins, are nonetheless the stalwarts of our video production kit list, the unsung heroes of our gadget bags and arguably crucial to the success and sanity of any hardworking movie maker. So, I’ve compiled a list of 10 unglamorous essentials, that I think should be as high on your acquisition list as any camera, lens, microphone, field recorder or gimbal. The list is certainly not exhaustive, and I’m sure many of you will have your own thoughts on other items that you feel should make the cut.
I don’t mind admitting that several of the items I’m going to mention definitely fall into the ‘if I’d known then what I know now’ category. I’ve certainly had my share of Homer Simpson style ‘DOH!’ moments, as I realised the self-inflicted ramifications of omitting to use certain video production tools; and I’ve also swallowed the bitter pill of making false economies on essential kit on several occasions.
Anyhow, without further ado, here we go with ten boring but essential items of filmmaking kit.
Number one is the humble tripod, or to be more precise, a combination of tripod and video head. No matter how action-packed and dynamic your movie productions are, there will inevitably be times when you’ll want to have your camera still, stable and safe, or when you want to pan or tilt your camera smoothly. For these operations, you need a decent tripod and head combo. I say a ‘decent’ because the temptation will always be to put all your hard-earned cash into more exciting gear while opting for the lowest of the low when it comes to something as generally uninspiring as a set of sticks and a video head to go on top, which is a mistake!
There are several criteria that a tripod should meet as an absolute minimum and a few more that are extremely desirable. To begin with, if you intend to shoot any part of your video production outdoors, your tripod needs to be rigid enough to hold your gear still in at least a moderate wind. If it isn’t, vibration will be visible in your footage, particularly at longer focal lengths, which amplify the effect of movement. The video head tilt mechanism needs to be strong enough to hold your camera at any vertical angle, without gradually sagging and wrecking that perfect high or low angle shot. Adjustable tension on both the pan and tilt mechanism, along with an adjustable counterbalance on the latter, will help keep your camera movements smooth and enable you to come to a stop during a tilt, without having to lock the tilt mechanism off. As a general rule, the more capable your camera system is, the heavier it is, placing increasing stresses upon and demanding increasing capabilities from your tripod and video head.
A half ball levelling mechanism may not seem that crucial if you’re fairly static, but if you’re changing location every few minutes, you’ll soon tire of trying to level your tripod by adjusting the length of its legs. Levelling a tripod is best done without the weight of an attached camera, so a solid but easy to activate quick release system for your camera, preferably with some kind of failsafe, will also prove to be worth every penny, potentially saving you hours of frustration over the life of the system. And, of course, if you’re trying to level your tripod, a reliable built-in spirit level is extremely useful.
You will need to adjust the length of your tripod legs in order to capture high and low angle shots, so it’s important that the leg release mechanism is easy to operate. Good height range is also highly desirable, particularly if your work involves shooting over the top of standing crowds, or if you want to shoot very low to the ground, etc. Weight can be a handicap on a long shoot with lots of moving around, which is where carbon fibre legs come into their own.
The bad news is that you’re not going to get all this for £49.99 from Amazon. Reliable, versatile tripod and head combos start in the region of £500 and continue up into thousands for models capable of adequately supporting heavier cinema cameras. Bargains do occasionally appear on eBay, however, so it’s worth keeping an eye out once you’ve identified a few likely contenders. The good news is that, unlike much of your gear, a good tripod and head system will serve you well for decades, so it’s a solid investment.
You’ll be glad to hear that this is probably the costliest recommendation I’ll make in this post, with many of the following items being available for tens rather than hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
White balance card
If you’ve ever spent hours wrestling with the colour boards in your video editing software, in a vain attempt to colour match footage, you’ll understand the unquestionable wisdom of owning a white balance or grey card. They serve two purposes: firstly, they enable you to set an accurate manual white balance in-camera, rather than relying on auto white balance, which can be easily fooled by elements within the frame. Although much can be done in post-production to correct white balance inaccuracies, setting your white balance ensures that your camera is playing in the right ballpark before you start shooting, speeding up post-production colour correction considerably. Secondly, placing a white/grey card in the frame at the start of each clip gives you a consistent reference for using the white balance tools in your editing software. A sheet of white paper or cardboard will do the trick to some degree, but, as any photographer who prints their work will tell you when it comes to paper, there are a thousand variations on white!
For very little money, you can purchase a properly calibrated white or grey card, which you can carry around in your kit bag for use on set. At circa £20, products like the Lastolite EzyBalance, which fold down into a convenient, pocketable pouch, not only give you reliable white and grey surfaces for colour balance but also tend to have focusing targets included on both sides as an added bonus. As an aside, I also use my pop-up white balance card to help shade my camera monitor in bright conditions, enabling me to check focus and exposure more easily.
If you want to go even further, a colour checker card gives you a number of colour patches, including white and grey, which are again of a known colour value, that can help you to manage colour consistency with even greater accuracy and ease. In short, using a white balance card or colour checker will help elevate your video production by giving you more consistent colours between shots and cameras.
Unless your external microphone, whether camera mounted or boomed is going to remain absolutely static during a shot, without even the slightest chance of handling noise occurring, you’re going to need to place it in a suitable shock-mount. Fortunately, some microphone manufacturers supply shock-mounts with their products, but frequently, even with higher-end mics costing upwards of a £1000, this is not the case, so you’ll need to invest in a suitable third-party device. Rycote are probably the best-known manufacturers of shock mounts in the industry and have earned a deserved reputation for excellent products. While a good shock-mount will cost upwards of £50, it will prove to be worth its weight in gold, in terms of preventing all but the very worst handling vibrations from reaching your mic and therefore your audio tracks. Again, as with a decent tripod and video head, if looked after, good quality shock-mounts will last indefinitely, though one downside is that as your mic collection grows, you may well need several shock-mounts to accommodate different diameters of mic barrel.
Rather than being a gift from your friendly neighbourhood felinophobe, a dead cat/furry, or to use a more technical term windshield/windjammer, is a simple cover that uses fur fibres (of the artificial variety these days) to disrupt airflow into your mic, thereby reducing the likelihood of wind noise being generated. When filming outdoors, a dead cat is pretty much essential on any condenser mic, including shotgun and lavaliere mics, as even the gentlest breeze will play havoc with your audio and anything stronger may render it unusable. While dynamic microphones tend to be considerably less sensitive than condensers, stronger winds will also affect them. Unfortunately, while setting up in a rush for an outdoor corporate interview, I once left the dead cat off my shotgun mic, but attempted to carry on filming regardless, and although it was a very calm day by any standards, I should have known that outside air doesn’t actually stay still for very long. Much to my embarrassment, I had to abandon both my talent and my camera, while I legged it around a quarter of a mile back to the car to grab my furry friend. Needless to say, I only made this mistake once! While most wind noise can be filtered in post using a high pass filter; to be effective this invariably has to be set at such a high frequency, that the resulting audio is completely wrecked.
While many mics are supplied with a foam windshield, this is unlikely be up to the job of filming outdoors. Some mic manufacturers supply both a foam windshield and a dead cat with their products, but more commonly than not, the latter will need to be purchased separately. Again, Rycote products have an excellent reputation in this area. In conditions where the wind is really blowing, a blimp type windshield will be necessary and can be used in conjunction with its own furry dead cat for ultimate protection from wind noise.
C stands are one of those ‘how did I ever get by without it’ items, that seem completely OTT in terms of design, cost and, above all, weight; but its this last quality that makes a C stand so incredibly useful. Originally designed in the early days of Hollywood, C stands were used to hold 100” square reflectors known as Centuries, that were used to reflect natural light entering the studio through large skylights. Today, they find more uses than a Swiss Army knife, including supporting lights and soft-boxes, suspending overhead mics, mounting overhead cameras, supporting backgrounds, having acoustic blankets draped over their booms and just about anything else that requires a ‘take no sh*t’ approach to countering the effects of gravity. While I own and use a whole load of fold away lighting and background stands, it’s C stands that are my go-to; so much so that I keep a pair in the back of the car pretty much permanently. C stands are heavy, stable, and versatile, and can make all the difference between absolute confidence and hoping for the best when it comes to supporting equipment.
Quality mic cables of different lengths (and in bright colours)
Cheap, nasty mic cables are a false economy, period. In my experience, they don’t last, the cable tends to be more prone to kinks, the connectors are more prone to failure, and they can affect audio quality through signal loss and susceptibility to radio frequency interference. O.K. I’m not suggesting that every single cable you own needs to be the very highest spec available, but I am suggesting that if you’ve invested hundreds of pounds in audio gear like mics and maybe a field recorder or pre-amps, then using bargain-basement XLR leads to connect them is unlikely to be the way forward!
In terms of flexibility, I’ve always found it useful to carry mic cables of various lengths. For example, I have a couple of very short, 0.3M cables for the odd occasion when I camera mount a mic, and I also have cables that are 3M, 6M and 10M long. I’ve always found that there’s a kind of Goldilocks criteria to running cables around a set: too long and you have coils of cable snaking around the place, needing to be managed; too short and you have cables hanging between your camera setup and mic stand, just waiting to snare someone, who then pulls either your mic or camera to the floor, ouch! Better that they’re just the right length for the job and can be managed neatly. I’ve never really liked daisy-chaining shorter mic cables together, as I’ve traced unwanted noise to cable joints far too often when doing this. Buying so many mic cables may seem like an unnecessary expense when you could get away with one or two long ones, but I doubt I’ve spent much more than a couple of hundred quid on XLR cables in total, which is small potatoes next to the £1000s I carry in cameras, mics and lighting. Besides: I’ve always got spares.
Somewhat counterintuitively, I like to use brightly coloured cables on set because a) if I’m using multiple mics, I can trace individual lines very quickly, and b) if I’m working quickly and moving around, I don’t have time to repeatedly gaffer tape cables down, so bright colours that show up against the floor are generally a good idea from a safety point of view. O.K. bright yellow or dayglow green cables aren’t exactly discreet, but if you’ve done your job properly in rigging your mics, the cables won’t be visible on screen anyway. Having said that, I do carry a couple of black XLRs for when circumstances demand it.
Batteries fail, batteries run down, particularly at low temperatures. Almost everything we use in video production or filmmaking is battery powered, from cameras to field monitors and wireless transmitters to portable lighting gear. Working on the basis of ‘if it can happen it will’, it’s foolish not to carry spares of pretty much every battery you use and to check they’re charged before every shoot. I’m struggling to think of anything more annoying and potentially embarrassing than finding yourself out on location, unable to use your gear because of a battery failure, or having to cut short a shoot because a vital piece of kit is about to run out of power.
In the case of cameras, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying multiple OEM batteries, as they can be outrageously expensive, I would steer clear of the very cheapest clones, as they’re likely to prove unreliable. Check out reviews and user forums, and then choose non-OEM batteries that have a good track record within the community. I’ve personally had very good service from Hedbox batteries in my Panasonic camcorders, which run at about 25% the price of their OEM counterparts. This makes a mid-capacity battery, 7800 mAh, around £80, rather than £320 for the nearest Panasonic equivalent.
If you use anything that runs on AAs, I can thoroughly recommend Panasonic Eneloop rechargeable batteries. I’ve used these for years in everything from audio recorders to speedlights and transmitters, always finding that they work every bit as well as single-use batteries and that they hold their charge indefinitely when stored. I have some Eneloops that are circa ten years old and that I must have recharged literally hundreds of times. They’re expensive, but definitely an example of getting what you pay for.
If like me, you’re a solo shooter, you’ll inevitably be your own soundman, and, as any soundman knows, being able to monitor your audio clearly is crucial to the job. In order to do this you’ll need a decent pair of closed-back, over-ear headphones, sometimes described as extreme isolation headphones. These won’t necessarily offer ultimate fidelity, but that’s not what you need. What you need is to be able to hear what your microphone is hearing, clearly, well above the level of general room noise. Open-backed headphones, while generally offering better sound quality, let in far too much ambient sound to be of any use whatsoever. Likewise, the very last thing you should use for audio monitoring is noise-cancelling headphones. This is because, by their very nature (the clue is in the name), they’re likely to filter out hums, hisses, reverb artefacts and all sorts of other nasties, that will consequently end up on your audio track, because you were completely unaware of them during recording.
The good news is that pro-level isolating headphones, by manufacturers like Sennheiser, Beryerdynamic or Audio Technica, can be found for less than £100 and, if looked after, will last indefinitely. I’ve always been very fond of using Sennheiser headphones in particular, as a full inventory of user-serviceable spares is readily available if you do happen to tread on them.
There’s only one thing worse than running out of battery during a video shoot and that’s running out of storage space for your footage. Multiple takes of even a relatively short scene or interview can chew up storage quickly, particularly if shooting at higher definitions, frame rates and bit rates. O.K. you can always stop, trawl through your clips, find the redundant ones and then delete them, making space for your shoot to continue; but chances are that everyone else will have gone home by the time you’re ready to resume filming. Simply pausing for a few seconds to slip a new SD card into your camera or field recorder is another matter. As a general rule, I tend to carry enough storage to allow for my cameras running for the entirety of the scheduled shoot, i.e. without allowing for any re-set, rehearsal or break times, meaning that I always have plenty of storage to spare. After a day’s shoot, as a simple safety measure, I remove my camera cards and store them until I’ve had time to copy all of the footage to my RAID array. Because my cameras all shoot to two SD cards simultaneously, this means that I always have two copies of my footage secured. If I have to do any more filming in the meantime, I use a different set of cards.
Having spoken about the importance of having plenty of on-camera storage, having plenty of off-camera storage available is also pretty vital, particularly if you’re working on multiple ongoing projects, or if you want to store projects in editable form, ready for revision at a later date. While it’s a great idea to have super-fast SSD storage onboard your computer, this isn’t necessary for external storage and with HDDs still running at a fraction of the cost of SSDs, it makes sense to use these instead. While expensive at the outset, a good RAID array, with swappable drives will pay dividends, as you have the convenience and security of automatic backup and failing HDDs can be swapped out easily. I’d recommend an absolute minimum of 2TB primary storage, with an additional 2TB as a backup, or a 4TB RAID 1 array. However, more realistically, I’d suggest at least doubling this, particularly if you anticipate working on multiple projects simultaneously, or storing projects in editable form.
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