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!

Say “Thank You”

This post, and the latest addition to my camera bag, comes from a “duh” moment I had recently on set after a lengthy location shoot following two consecutive rehearsal weekends. Each day we were on set, the gracious owners of our location vacated for our convenience, allowed us to rearrange their furniture and swap out their light bulbs, and even cooked lunch on the day of the shoot. Granted, this home belonged to our director’s parents, but that does not diminish our appreciation for their contributions to the film.

We expressed our gratitude verbally, and I’m sure it was not overlooked in various text messages and phone calls, but as we were packing up to leave, one of our actresses pulled a “Thank You” note from her purse and we all gathered around to sign it. If you’ve ever received a hand-written “thanks,” you know how far the gesture goes – perhaps more so as digital communication has become the norm. A note is a very simple and inexpensive way to follow-through on your collaboration with a person or business in a personal way.

Although this post is focused on locations, there are a lot of different people along the way who help make our films possible and thank you cards will only cost you some spare change. If your budget is tight and you have a lot of cards to give, here’s one you can print at home:

Film Reel Thank You Card

Print this card at home and fold it in half. Consider printing several per page, using cardstock, or decorating it to make it more personal. Get creative!

For something with a touch more professionalism than the freebie above, here are a few customizable designs you can get from me on Zazzle:

FilmReelWoodCard FilmReelGreetingCard FilmReelThankYouCard

With my feature film, I waited to distribute Thank-You’s after the movie was completed. For some of our locations, this was two years after they opened their doors for us. I can’t believe it never occurred to me to write something on set while all of the cast and crew is there to sign it, rather than scrambling to hand-deliver or pay for postage down the road. Later, when someone sees your note proudly displayed by the recipient, it could even spark a conversation about your film. Since these little gems are lightweight and don’t take up much space, I’m adding a dozen to my camera bag just in case. I have had good and bad experiences with locations, and a bad experience can ruin a location for you and for all of the filmmakers in your area. Do yourself, your cast and crew, and all other filmmakers a favor and tell your location how much you appreciate their willingness to be a part of your project.

To all locations out there: “Because of you, we didn’t have to build an entire set from scratch. Thank you!”

Burn

It’s that time of year again. It’s Spring: when days get longer, sleeves get shorter, and we all get reminded that the ball of fire in the sky will burn us at the slightest opportunity. Last weekend I was reminded after an eight hour shooting day which began with a windy morning, so we didn’t feel the heat, and carried on through a pleasantly warm spring afternoon. Only later did I realize my forearms and my nose were scorched.

The burn-of-the-day award goes to the crew member who dutifully blocked the sun from our actors with a large bounce. This reflector is the two-sided type, such that the black side was facing our actors and the silver side was redirecting unwanted sunlight directly into the face of the grip holding it in place. In addition to potentially blinding a grip this way, we also bounced sun into every shadow of his face. The insides of his nostrils are probably burning.

Reflector

After witnessing a few on-set injuries over the years, I made a med-kit a permanent fixture in my camera bag. The latest addition is a small tube of sunscreen. Here are some extra tips for avoiding sun exposure on outdoor shoots:

  • Sun is harshest when it’s directly overhead (11am-1pm); most people try not to shoot at this hour for lighting reasons, but even if you’re taking lunch it’s still worth reminding everyone to get out of the sun for a moment.
  • Sunscreen is greasy! Bring hand towels to wipe hands after applying, especially for camera operators and grips who will be handling expensive equipment
  • Cloud cover does NOT prevent sunburn (as my mother reminds us every summer)
  • Reflected sun will burn too; keep this in mind when shooting around light concrete, snow, & sand, near mirrors and reflectors, etc.
  • A wide-brimmed hat is a great way to shade your face and neck, preventing burn and unwanted glare. As a camera operator, a large hat often keeps the sun out of my face and off of my camera.

If you have a good sun tip, or cautionary story, share it in a comment below!

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.

Solution:

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.

DuctTapeKnife

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.