10 Gifts for Filmmakers and Movie Lovers

The holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a surge of blog posts about finding the “perfect present.” For filmmakers, a Christmas wishlist tends to contain some pricey and potentially unattainable items (I would love for Santa to bring me a few Zeiss Prime Cine lenses… but it’s not in his budget). While a $4,000 lens is not a stocking-stuffer, there are a lot of cheap gifts filmmakers would love to receive or grab for themselves over the holidays. Whether you’re building your wish list, or buying for a friend, here are some suggestions to gear up over the holidays…

Full disclaimer: I have no stake in these products or the companies that sell them and I encourage you to shop around for the best fit. However, Amazon and Zazzle do give me a little referral bonus if you purchase something after using these links, which does not alter the item price, and in no way implies endorsement. That means if you use these links, you’ll be helping me out this holiday season, too! Maybe I can get that Zeiss lens after all…?

1. A slate/clapper

Not only does a slate make you look like you know what you’re doing, it’s also an extremely helpful tool for labeling footage and synchronizing multiple cameras in post.

2. Books

From production techniques to cinema history, any filmmaker will benefit from having vast information at their fingertips. I also think my private library dramatically improves the cool-factor of my editing workstation… here are a few I can’t live without:

3. Storyboard Dry Erase Board

This one is a shameless plug for a product I designed on Zazzle, but I think it’s a pretty practical choice. Great for sketching, but you can save them for later too by snapping photos on your mobile device. All of the 19×9 panels have small marks indicating where you should draw top and bottom crop marks for the CinemaScope aspect ratio. This one’s available in the medium size depicted here, and in a large size for really serious storyboarding.

4. Inspiration (other movies)

Although I’ve depicted a personal favorite here, James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), there are thousands of classic films to stimulate any budding or experienced filmmaker’s creative mind.

5. Painters Tape (All colors!)

There is very little Painters’ Tape cannot do on a film set. Marking actor and prop locations, labeling gear, holding equipment together without leaving a damaging residue, and attaching things to the “set” without damaging the walls are just a few examples. If you can find more colors besides the classic blue, that’s very helpful!

6. A Big Bag o’ Clamps

I love me some clamps. Hanging a backdrop, holding a reflector in place, pinching an ill-fitting costume, the uses are endless.

7. Magazine Subscription

This one delivers monthly joy throughout the year. Magazines I’ve found extremely useful include Videomaker, Filmmaker Magazine, and American Cinematographer Magazine. Although the content and level of skill expected for readers of each varies, there’s usually great inspiration and tips in these that will apply to everyone.

8. Sun Hat

If you read my post about the surprising burning capabilities of the sun, you’ll know why a wide-brimmed sun hat is in my toolkit. This not only shields your face, ears, and nose from the discomfort and dangers of a serious burn, it also blocks the LCD and black plastic of your camera while shooting. Straw hats are made from renewable natural materials, are lightweight, and breathe really well compared to many fabrics.

9. More Memory Cards

You can really never have too many memory cards. This is a very specific area though, and you’ll want to make sure you get the brand, size, type, and speed appropriate for your filmmaker’s needs. Personally, I only buy SanDisk brand and I find anything less than 60MB/sec. will have issues with some cameras I use. If you’re buying one as a surprise, get a peek at one of your filmmaker’s best cards and take a picture.

10. Donate to their crowdfunding campaign!

When all else fails, you can always donate to your favorite filmmaker’s crowdfunding campaign (if they don’t have one going yet, you know they’re about to start one). Indigogo and Kickstarter are popular platforms for raising money online, but some filmmakers do it the old fashioned way too: begging! Just ask if there’s a project they’re trying to get off the ground and see what you can do to help. Don’t forget to twist their arm a little and get that “Producer” credit.

Have you purchased or received an affordable filmmaking tool that you’d like to share? Do you sell handmade clapboards on Etsy? Share any suggestions in the comments and I’ll add them to my list for 2016!

Happy Shopping!


Anatomy of an Independent Film Budget

As my weary team and I near the close of our independent film’s second year of production, I often think back on our purchasing decisions. Before we started filming we set budget caps for each ‘department,’ distributing our funds across each area, and although we managed to stay within our budget, our estimate about the distribution of those funds wasn’t quite as accurate.

[Bone to the Dog; est. budget: $5,000; Genre: Dark-Comedy; Main Characters: 8 +1 dog]


Where does this money go? What does the budget of a $5,000 film look like? My guess is that the answer to these questions varies widely depending on who’s making the film, genre, and total budget. This experience will inform my budget estimations for future projects, and how confidently I spend money in each area, but I also hope that the same information can lend you insight as you budget your projects. Keep in mind that in this example I’m only factoring money we actually spent in each area (some budgets calculate value of items they already have in inventory).

Right away, the Camera/Electrical department blew its cap – even though we had free access to a camera and light kit. Lenses and rigs, memory cards, spare lights, and diffusion sheets, just to name a few expenses in this category. Luckily, we were equally surprised that our $300 “Locations” budget was never touched, and neither was our “Emergency” category; both of these are eliminated in the graph below. This exemplifies the sort of push & pull that kept us within our budget. The graph below shows the following other expenses on our film: Wardrobe (e.g. tie, apron), Props (e.g. Arm Sling, Dog treats), Business (e.g. Business Cards), Catering (e.g. water, pizza), Special Effects (e.g. fake blood, digital effects), Misc. (e.g. Duct Tape… twice… as I discussed in an earlier post)…

2011-2012 Budget for Bone to the Dog

2011-2012 Budget for Bone to the Dog

I think the biggest surprise for us was the hefty Wardrobe department. In our student film production, we mostly went with clothing our actors already owned. I guess that’s the advantage of writing about slacker characters wearing t-shirts. This time we needed suits for most of our characters, and we often couldn’t find what we wanted at the thrift store. The biggest factor inflating this part of the budget was that we felt like we could afford to be picky. I think we would have spent more conservatively if we’d realized how much it would add up, but the payoff is very consistent and appropriate styles and colors in our characters’ clothing. Keep in mind though that even Jeff Bridges supplied all of his own clothing in The Big Lebowski, and that worked pretty well for the Coens.


Again, easier for some characters than others. (This image belongs to the copyright holder)

This budget breakdown is very specific to our circumstances. Had our film taken place in space, special effects and costuming might have weighed in a lot heavier. If our local setting, charm, and good luck hadn’t helped us acquire so many locations for free, we could’ve spent a lot there as well; several businesses opened their doors for us to film during business hours and their generosity saved us.

Free Equipment Rentals, Anyone?

Werner Herzog once said “If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock, sneak into a lab and do it!” but in the era of digital filmmaking it can be even easier… and less dangerous! I think it’s fair to say every independent filmmaker, amateur or expert, has a few pieces of equipment outside of his/her budget, so I’m going to focus this post on a resource you may not have considered for your free filmmaking tools: Universities.

In the university media department where I work, there are several DSLR cameras and other HD video cameras one can rent for FREE several days at a time, as well as a host of other filmmaking equipment and a modest but well-equipped editing lab. Here’s just a sample of the equipment we loan out:

  • HD-DSLR Cameras
  • HD Video Cameras
  • Boom mic/pole & miles of XLR cables
  • Wireless mics
  • Tripods (fluid-head Manfrotto types)
  • Light kits
  • Bounce/reflectors
  • Extension cords!!!
  • USB Microphones
  • Headphones (not ear-buds)
  • Computer monitor calibration device & software

Additionally, our editing lab has the complete Adobe Production Suite and a padded audio booth – and you don’t have to sneak in, it’s open all afternoon. I should point out that this university is NOT a film school (although we have many film studies, multimedia, graphic design courses.) Of course, only students can borrow equipment, and I should note that your university may have certain policies restricting which students can borrow equipment and what it can be used for. If you attend even the smallest college, check with your technology, communications, or multimedia department to see if there’s a hidden media lab somewhere on your campus. Just because you don’t go to film school doesn’t mean your school can’t help you make films.

Memory Cards

Memory cards come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their prices. Back when I was shooting on tape (typically mini-dv), I wouldn’t hesitate to buy large packs when I saw a good deal – but I never wavered from my brand loyalty. In addition to paranoia of volatile tape lubricants and other problems with mixing tape brands, I probably wasn’t tempted since tapes were rarely any cheaper than $5 each. With a memory card though, the difference can be substantial. Lucky for you, I have experienced several brands by now and will use their names with no hesitation.

All cards are not created equal…

When I first starting shooting HD-DSLR video I looked into issues like card read/write speed, capacity, etc. more than reliability. Memory is memory, right? Quite the contrary. For card speeds, I primarily consulted a discussion posted on Vimeo (link now missing) and determined that 133x (20MB/s) would suffice; I stand by this decision. However, I figured I’d go with the cheapest 32GB card I could find and buy two of them, despite a heavy split in reviews on Newegg ranging from “DOA” to “Does the job!” The brand was “Transcend” and I got my card for about $50 (compared to ~$140 at the time for leading brands in that speed category of 133x); considering that higher card speeds increase cost even more, I felt very confident that I had saved enough money to make a big difference in a low-budget filmmaker’s wallet.

Due to my decision, I encountered repeated issues with writing lag on set, a couple of corrupt files, and now 1 of my 2 cards is entirely dead. In addition to these headaches, I’m of course dealing with the RMA forms now to replace these cards and hopefully get some money back. As soon as my first card failed, I ordered a SanDisk card (same speed, same capacity) and it has worked like a charm. I ordered another on Cyber Monday when the price came down to $80 – a price which diminishes even further the cost of upgrading to a reliable product (this price has remained, by the way). At the media department where I work, we ordered the same. Guess what? All of the aforementioned headaches are nonexistent.

When it comes to memory card purchasing decisions, I now view it as if I did when purchasing tapes in bulk back in the day (after all, your memory card is re-usable and thus a semi-permanent piece among your equipment). Sure, I could always reuse tapes. I could use them as many times as I wanted and never have to buy tapes again – believe me, I have a mountain of them. But in the end I always said “sure, reuse a tape… as long as what you’re shooting isn’t important.” Students in our media lab always raised an eyebrow at this statement, but it’s true. In short, you get what you pay for.

Is my wallet empty? Almost. But I can shoot with the confidence that I won’t be losing any more of my time, gas, catering budget, dignity, etc. bringing my actors out for a reshoot.

Maybe if I got an endorsement by SanDisk…

Duct Tape, Safety, & Budget Faux Pas

This anecdote should illustrate a few matters of safety on a film set, as well as some budgetary implications arising from lack of preparation in the safety department.

When you need a solid scene of somebody’s arm getting hacked with a butcher knife, what’s the best prop to use? A real butcher knife! The initial plan was to swing carefully, far from our actors, using camera angles and make it look like they were closer. When we stepped into our tiny set, however, we quickly realized there was absolutely no room for handling a sharp blade, not at any speed or fashion which would produce a believable shot. It became immediately clear that we might actually injure one of our actors (or worse… the camera), and I’m here to tell you that eliminating the need for fake blood would not have made it worthwhile.


A member of the production team went out with a cast member to pick up some materials, and came back with duct-tape, cardboard, and silver spray paint. The plan to cover the sharp part of the blade was a success: the speed at which this attacker-character swings the knife blurred the effect and the knife came out perfectly realistic in the final footage. Additionally, every time our knife prop banged into our victim-character’s knuckles, arm, torso… he didn’t die! In that sense, it was a success.


Cory duct-taping the knife on set, completely aware of the ironic wardrobe choice.

However, here’s the problem:

Duct tape, cardboard, and silver spray paint are all items I have back at home in my garage, making the entire (~$13) purchase an unnecessary and irresponsible expense. Furthermore, two layers of duct tape were sufficient to cover and dull the blade, so the cardboard purchase was super unnecessary. Given that the paint didn’t stick to the blade, there was no uniformity obtained by coating the entire prop. Since duct tape comes in “chrome,” purchasing it this way would have eliminated the need for paint (by far the most expensive item in the purchase), while still obtaining the gleaming effect needed.

Careful planning beforehand would have prevented the need to waste time and resources modifying this prop, allowing us to keep our actor’s arm and the money in our budget.