INVESTING IN A FILMMAKING EQUIPMENT PACKAGE
You’re eager to produce the film you’ve written or acquired. Or you want a great demo reel. The next step – assembling the equipment that can help you get your film to your audience.
We talked to James Sicignano, filmmaker (Think Big Productions) and salesperson (BandPro) in Burbank, California. With his filmmaking experience and his product knowledge, Sicignano’s expertise can’t be beat. Here are his equipment recommendations for an emerging filmmaker.
CHOOSING A CAMERA
Several excellent camera options from Panasonic and Sony will give you a great start and make a solid investment for your filmmaking career.
Sicignano says, consider the Panasonic HPX170. It’s affordable, rugged, and uses a tapeless workflow. The 170 is one of the successors to Panasonic’s DVX video camera, long a staple for indie filmmakers.
Panasonic describes the HPX170 this way: “… the solid-state handheld camcorder enables high definition and standard definition recording, the widest zoom lens in its class, … all in a lightweight 4.2-pound body.”
The HPX170 is fully solid state, with no DV mechanism (no moving parts). It records to P2 cards, for up to 64 minutes of continuous recording capability. P2 cards can be costly, but they hold an hour of footage and can be reused.
Sony makes the EX1R. This model comes with a larger ½” sensor. The bigger chip makes it good for low light shots. It too is tapeless. Sicignano states that this is the camera the footage for the Michael Jackson movie was shot on, and it held up well in theater presentation.
CONSIDER THE HDSLR CAMERA
The camera that some are calling a game changer is the HDSLR. Major players in this market right now are Canon and Nikon. The HDSLR is a hybrid video and still camera, basically a digital SLR camera capable of HD video. Canon’s most popular models are the 5D and the 7D. Nikon makes the D5000.
Sicignano says this is one of the cheapest camera options on the market, yet boasts a full frame sensor and interchangeable lenses to replicate a cinematic look and feel. SNL and House are just a few of the productions presently using HDSLR. Marcelo Lewin uses the Canon 7D for all of his corporate video work, and despite the camera’s limitations, praises its effectiveness. (See our interview with Marcelo on our Camera page.)
No doubt one of the game changing factors is the HDSLR’s ability to control depth of field. We all know how a great still photo can make the subject pop and push the background out of focus.
Traditional film cameras used on movie shoots can shoot with shallow depth of field, but the low end digital video cameras cannot. It’s always been considered a major flaw on smaller film projects using video cameras. No more. The HDSLR has changed that game.
With the HDSLR, Sicignano says, you need to build it out a little bit. There’s also a minor conversion step getting it into post for a Final Cut or Avid editor. But it’s a great option.
CAPTURING GOOD AUDIO
Don’t try to record your audio without a professional-level external mic. For good sound, you need to pick up your audio as close to the sound source as possible. Without getting the mic in the frame, of course. Any filmmaker will tell you – your audience may tolerate low quality video but they will not forgive poor audio. Poor audio means amateur work.
The Panasonic HPX170 is equipped with XLR inputs, which will allow you to connect an external microphone with professional (XLR) cables. In the camera, audio will record to the same P2 card as the video.
Sicignano suggests using a lavalier (lapel) mic, or trying the Sennheiser ME64 shotgun microphone. Sennheiser’s mikes are solid performers.
A boom pole is almost a necessity here to get that shotgun mic in close. You can rig a mic to a makeshift pole with gaffer’s tape if you can’t afford a boom pole.
Take audio capture a step further, says Sicignano, with an external recorder. The Zoom H4N is a four-channel recorder with up to an 11 hour capacity. The recorder has XLR inputs, so your external mic will plug directly into it. This is a career investment you won’t regret, says Sicignano. There’s one extra step involved in post, but it’s worth the clean sound you’ll get. Buy once, he says, and it’ll last a lifetime. The H4N works with all the digital video camera options, too.
On the subject of audio, the HDSLR camera has limitations. There are no XLR inputs, requiring you to buy an adapter (e.g. Beachtek) that accepts XLR inputs.
You’ll need a tripod for your camera. Most scenes call for a solid shot, without shake or jolt. Especially if you’re zooming, hand shake is just about impossible to avoid without a tripod. A solid tripod package includes the base and a fluid head for smooth panning.
The Manfrotto 504 is an exceptional tripod, says Sicignano. Libec also has a great line of inexpensive tripods. All of these tripods are fluid and versatile, and will work well in the field or in a studio production.
If you want a fast, nimble setup, Sicignano suggests an HDSLR camera and a shoulder rig, such as the one made by Chrosziel. The rig will actually work with all of these cameras, he says, and will give you run and gun capability when you need it.
According to Sicignano, if you have a good DP on your team, you can create the film look of controlled lighting without external lighting products. Use a bounce board or reflector to kill shadows and harshness. (See our article on assembling a gold/silver reflector.)
With a bit more effort you can use a diffusion screen. On an outdoor shot, for example, mount a 12’ x 12’ white diffusion screen (sheet or silk) over the shot to cut some of the light down.
Taking lighting to the next level, try the versatile Rosco LitePad. This LED light provides 6,000 degrees Kelvin, illuminates tight spaces, and comes in a variety of sizes. Try the 1’ x 1’ as a good general purpose light source. The price will easily fit most budgets. There are other LED brands that will provide stronger light but are also more costly. All of these LED lights provide soft light and work off batteries. Says Sicignano, technology has shifted the market to cater to independent filmmakers. And these lights throw no heat, so they can be handled without gloves and fear of burns.
READY TO BUY
When you and your team are ready to put together your production kit, Sicignano can help you. “Pooling your talents,” he says, “is where the strength comes in.” His best advice – balance high quality and cost effectiveness. Your purchases should be an investment, something that lasts more than one shoot. “If you can’t afford it,” he says, “use your creativity.”
Total expense for these packages will run you approximately $3,300 to $5,600, depending on camera choice and whether you include the LED light in your package.
FILMMAKER JAMES SICIGNANO
Here are clips of James Sicignano’s work. Enjoy!