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!

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Recording Voice-overs at Home

A friend recently asked for advice about recording her own voice-overs (VO’s) at home, and although I get asked frequently about home studio setups I was surprised to find I hadn’t written on the subject. Although she was asking about corporate video VO’s, this would apply to voice acting, audio books, ADR, podcasts, and pretty much any home audio recording. If you’re recording music at home, you will need additional information. This article is based on my research, experience, and DIY no-budget indie video/movie production, so any additional input is welcome – please comment!

Low Budget ADR Booth

With little resources, my independent film ADR booth was essentially a padded closet.

When NOT to Record at Home:

I like to start with this advice, especially if you’re getting paid for your work. Whenever it’s convenient, I recommend that new talent record in their client’s studio (if applicable) or in a nearby studio if the costs are low enough to be covered by the gig. This ensures that from the very beginning you submit work which is of a high enough quality to get you more work; in the meantime, you can glean a little knowledge of the “professional” studio’s equipment, space, and technique.

Recording at Home:

So, you’ve decided to ignore the advice above and delve into home recording. Recording from home can save you travel and studio rental expenses on every job, allow you free reign to experiment on your own time, and potentially bring in more income if your setup is impressive enough to charge others for its use. Honestly, it is not terribly difficult to set up an acceptable home recording space. There are several considerations when recording your VO’s at home, and I will focus on these essentials:

  • Isolation (Filtering External Noise)
  • Absorption (Stopping Reflections)
  • Recording Equipment
  • Monitoring Equipment

Getting each of these factors to the level of professional, near-perfection can get very expensive, but getting to an acceptable level isn’t.

Isolation:

The first factor here is location. It is generally harder to isolate sound in the city than in rural areas. You may not have many choices, and likely don’t plan to change residencies to accommodate your recording needs, but you can choose which room is the most isolated from outside noise. Listen for car/air/train traffic, outside AC units, lawnmowers, neighbors (especially in apartments), and running water (e.g. toilets flushing elsewhere in the home).

Absorption:

This pertains to what your voice does within your chosen recording space. The simple rule is: soft surfaces absorb sound (good), and hard surfaces reflect sound (a.k.a. echo = bad). If you record in tiny box, it will sound like you’re in a tiny box. For most recordings, the sound should be as “dead” as possible (no echo), because echo can always be added later, but never removed. Empty closets make great booths because there is so little surface area to account for if you’re trying to pad the walls.

Reflection Filters: A compact, very cheap solution, which also has a professional look, reflection filters work by blocking sound reflections directly around the microphone instead of for the entire room (here’s a search on Amazon)

Auray Reflection Filter (Photo property of Auray)

Auray Reflection Filter (Photo property of Auray)

If covering the area around the mic isn’t enough, many studios “treat” the whole room. Your largest hard surfaces are your walls, which you will want to cover as thoroughly as possible. First cover the wall behind your microphone, the direction you’re speaking towards. Then work your way around.

Sound Panels: The most attractive and stylish solutions are VERY expensive. They range from very thin to several inches thick. Cheaper ones look like egg crate foam, more expensive ones look like thick canvases.

Sound Blankets: Big ugly blankets that cover large amounts of wall space for very cheap. The ones I bought for my booth at home came from Audimute. I didn’t care about color, so I got an offprint pack (about $300 for five 8’x4′ blankets.) Audimute discontinued this version, but they are essentially glorified moving blankets. You could ask a moving company for used blankets, or try hardware stores, just make sure they’re very thick.

Audimute Sound Absorption Sheets

Audimute Sound Absorption Sheets (Image Property of Audimute)

Recording Equipment:

This area can be largely a matter of opinion, so I won’t dwell much on microphone models and makes. You will need a microphone, and you will need a reliable way to get it into your computer without having it sit directly next to your computer. The clicking, whirring sounds a computer makes will ruin a recording every time, so try to get a long cable to distance your mic from the computer. Some folks will use a mixer, and in the long run I would recommend it, but it may not be necessary at first. Audacity and Reaper are free software options if recording to a computer. Personally, I run a cable all the way out of my closet, under the door, over to my computer desk. Building a divider “wall” between your mic and computer will work too, and could be as easy as propping up a pillow beside the computer. If the wall on the other side isn’t treated though, the sound will bounce right back at you.

Monitoring Equipment:

This is often the most overlooked part. You cannot ensure that you’re capturing and sending off a great quality audio file unless you have professional equipment to listen to it with. Laptop speakers, earbuds, and portable devices are complete garbage. A good set of speakers will cost you, and won’t block outside noise while you strain to listen, so I recommend a good pair of headphones. Not all headphones are accurate. An expensive brand of music headphones, promoted by a famous rapper, for example, may boost the bass too much and make you incorrectly adjust your voice to remove this heavy bass. I haven’t used every pair of headphones, but I would bet my career on my Sennheiser HD-280s. At $100, they are one of the cheapest pairs of passive noise-cancelling, high fidelity headphones on the market (Sennheiser HD 280’s on Amazon). You do not need to buy $2,000 headphones when you’re starting basic voice-over work.

You can do all of this with nearly nothing, or you could wipe out your bank account getting the best gear available, it’s all up to you. You can record great sound on the cheap just by considering the four key topics above. Happy recording!

New Template: Prop & Equipment List

Two of my biggest fears on a film shoot are leaving props or equipment on location when we pack up, or forgetting to bring something in the first place. If you have an elaborate shooting day ahead with a lot to keep track of, then this Prop & Equipment list is for you.

Prop and Equipment List

Download my Prop and Equipment List

The purpose of this list is pretty self-explanatory. If you’ve ever made a packing list for a vacation, you’ll know what to do with this template. I’ve included space for equipment, wardrobe items, makeup, props, as well as food and beverage, but you can modify this template in MS Excel as needed. To the left of every item, there are two check-boxes – one for packing-in and one for packing-out. Familiarize your crew with the items on the list, and make enough copies of this sheet to share with everyone who helps you pack up the equipment. If you have a lot of extra hands on set, put someone in charge of checking off each item as it goes back to your vehicle.

Some expendable items, such as food and drink, may not need to be packed up when you’re through, but in many cases you may be responsible for packing out the trash associated with these items. Ensuring you take everything home with you is a great way to maintain your inventory and your relationship with the owner of your shooting location.

I’ve added this template to the Templates and Freebies page, where you’ll also find storyboard templates and other production essentials.

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…

Going steady with the Glidecam (HD 4000)

In film class, we were taunted (challenged) with tales of the unaffordable Steadycam: a magical device that would allow a cinematographer to move freely around with a camera attached most unattractively to his/her midsection (despite the typical advertising efforts, these are never sexy) and end up with footage smoother than the best rail, dolly, crane shot. Then a couple of weeks ago I discovered that I could rent the Glidecam HD 4000 for 40 bucks.

Photo from Amazon


At the moment, we’re shooting a feature-length film with a Canon 7D (HD-DSLR) and attached Hoodman Cinema Kit Pro (loupe, arm, eyecup). Along with any of our lenses, our kit still lands in the “small camera” category, which is perfect for the Glidecam; so my team and I recently took advantage of the opportunity to rent the Glidecam for our weekly shoot.

What is the Glidecam HD-4000? B&H describes it as “a lightweight, hand-held camcorder stabilizing system,” which I feel needs some elaboration. In reality, this device can turn a patient, dedicated low-budget cinematographer’s footage into a masterpiece. I say patient and dedicated because the Glidecam is not “magical.” It’s not even “Easy as 1, 2, 3.” It actually takes quite a bit of practice and effort to get it to work with you. My first walking tests gave me footage that looked like a POV shot from a ghost, or maybe a Gaspar Noé film, which probably isn’t the look you want for your documentary, wedding video, etc. I did, however, notice right away that not a single footstep or tremble was visible. Once you have the feel for it you’ll never want to go back to your DIY PVC rig again.

What’s so difficult? I was warned that setup was “crucial” or even “difficult” with the Glidecam, and I have to agree with both of these warnings. What’s worse is that there appear to be several different schools of thought on how to balance it! Luckily for me I had it for a whole weekend, and I was able to practice and watch tutorials on YouTube to get it right. The technique is equally challenging. While one hand grips the handle firmly, the other guides your pans, tilts, or lack thereof. This thing is counter-weighted so it can rotate in any direction with ease – and it will do so if you don’t get a grip on it with your guide hand. Too much grip, and your inferior human movements transfer to the camera. There’s a delicate balance in between.

After a few hours, I was shooting very comfortably and very confidently. I still feel like I could use another weekend of practice, but the looks on everyone’s faces as we reviewed our footage let me know it pulled through. Once I had it working with me, the Glidecam unlocked all of the barriers in my mind telling me what shots I could get away with. I started experimenting. And when you start experimenting, you create things that are truly worthwhile. Heck, even our behind the scenes footage looks awesome from that day.

Of course the most important thing to remember is: Don’t overdo it. A couple of shots we took were simple pans, tilts and other stationary shots that could have easily been done with any decent tripod, because that’s what was needed. In fact, I wish I’d been able to remove the camera and put it on a tripod for those shots – my arm/shoulder could have used a break. There is a quick-release accessory that matches Manfrotto’s standard video head plate… but I did not have access to it on my shoot. Removing the camera altogether is, unfortunately, out of the question. Setup is a very delicate process, and even changing out a lens in the field could compromise your weight balance enough to delay a tight shooting schedule. I stuck with my wide angle, deep DOF lens, because I wouldn’t have been able to use my loupe and hold focus with a shallow DOF anyway.

Conclusion:

The Glidecam HD-4000 is a serious filmmaker’s tool on an indie filmmaker’s budget, and a great accessory to add to your kit. At $40/day for rental, vs. $550 to purchase, my only debate is whether or not I can afford to go ahead and buy the thing. Hmm… and what accessories do I want…

7D with Hoodman CKP, attached to Glidecam and the creepiest elevator operator ever…