When I first told networks and industry professionals that I was teaching myself to film and edit and travelling the world making shows for TV and Youtube alone without a film crew, people thought I was a bit naive. Others said, “But once you start making money, you’ll need to hire a cameraman, right?” Why? Just because that’s the way it’s always been done? Technology is racing ahead into stuff like virtual reality, the ‘prosumer’ market is out of control, even senior citizens are making movies on their phones and editing them, so why shouldn’t the filmmaking process evolve as well? Just to be clear, I’m still learning everyday so if you’re a professional filmmaker with years of experience you will probably find this post utterly boring – but for anyone looking for an honest unpaid account of the gear I love as a self-taught amateur on a shoestring budget, you might find something useful.
BENEFITS OF WORKING ALONE
I’ve worked with film crews and post production houses and even when there is one guy for audio, one guy to collect all the material at the end of the day, multiple editors to sift through footage, mistakes still get made and somehow everyone blames everyone else or assumes their role is the hardest. I think the best lesson in filmmaking is when you have a holistic view of the entire process and realise how important every element of the production is. Working alone, I go to extra trouble to test the audio when I’m setting up a multi-cam interview because I know I’m going to be the editor suffering when when the footage is being cut if it needs hours of cleaning in Adobe Audition. I can lug my tripod for 20 hours straight without complaining because I know I will benefit at the other end when I don’t have to sift through hours of shaky handheld footage. It can be more exhausting having to think of everything yourself, but even if you intend on working in a team for your filmmaking career, I think it’s a crucial experience to have so that you will always have empathy for everyone else’s job.
The other advantage, which I have spoken about at length in many interviews, is INTIMACY. There is nothing like an interview or an interaction with only two people in the room – you and your subject. I believe the best moments in photography or cinematography come when we capture real life, the beauty of spontaneity, raw emotion, authentic detail. Filming can be very invasive, particularly with my work where I’m always shooting strangers, often in foreign-speaking countries, and travelling light and alone is the best way for me to be respectful to those who share their stories, their time, their world with me. Once I started seeing the moments I could capture alone, I couldn’t bare going back to scripted content where the host pretends to be experiencing this personal spontaneous moment when in reality, there is a producer, cameraman or assistant off camera who have set up the whole scene. Audiences want something honest; they will forgive slightly less impressive shots if you give them a perspective, a story, a moment that’s real – look at how television with its production companies of 50 people per show is scrambling to compete with Youtube putting out content shot by vloggers. An AOL State of the Video Industry report in 2015 found that “nine in 10 buyers are shifting dollars from linear TV to digital channels”.
CAMERA (AND INTERVIEW SETUP)
I know it’s so hard when you’re looking at investing in a camera – that crushing moment when you realise that the price you’re looking at doesn’t even include the lens, just the camera body, can really deflate your dream of pursuing your passion. But we’re pretty lucky. Just a decade ago, there was no way a completely unknown filmmaker could put their work out on a free platform and potentially get it out to millions of people and be taken seriously by industry heads. And sometimes, I think we put off starting a project by blaming our lack of funds. I started off with a Canon 60D and a kit lens (that’s the lens the camera body comes with). I looked up the prices of film school courses and they were all way out of my budget. It’s easy to put off embarking on a project because you haven’t got the perfect camera but honestly, that’s just procrastination. If you’re talented and have a good eye, you should be able to tell a story filming and editing on your phone.
Here are some essentials I’ve found when choosing my own cameras.
First of all, I love slow motion. Some cameras can only capture a maximum of 60fps and although you can slow a clip down when you’re editing your footage, it won’t be crisp or smooth because your camera is just not taking in enough information to properly capture any kind of fluid movement. I progressed from my Canon 60D to a Panasonic Lumix GH4. I was so happy with the results that I then bought another as my second camera. Having two cameras when you’re shooting documentary-style and hoping to film things on the fly really helps. I always have a 100mm Canon macro lens on one and a zoom lens on the other. I generally don’t have time to be changing lenses when I’m outside and something happens spontaneously so this way I’m covered for close or long distance action. You will need to buy a Metabones adaptor to fit a Canon lens onto the GH4, which is annoying.
After learning on the 60D I got used to the great feature of having a flip display so I could set up a camera and then check my position in the scene with the lens still facing me. The GH4 is one of the few cameras that also has that option and it’s so useful. However, when I’m talking up close to camera I check my focus and my face in the frame and then flip it back because no matter how many times you tell yourself not to look sideways at the screen, your eyes will invariably dart back there and you’ll lose engagement with your audience.
When I’m setting up an interview I position the macro lens on my interview subject and set up the zoom lens for a wider angle of me and the other person. The macro gives me this beautiful depth of field and detail in people’s faces, however, it does make for a challenge getting them in focus when I have to set the camera up and leave it for the duration of the interview to be in the scene. I generally talk to my interviewee for a few minutes before hitting record, looking at far they lean forward or back when they speak naturally so I get a more accurate estimation of where to set the focus.
I can’t take lights with me on the road so I tend to always shoot in natural light outside. When I need to shoot at night or inside dark buildings, I attach a little LED light panel to the top of my camera. The only challenge here is that your shoe mount is then taken by the light so you have to take off the shotgun mic. See below in audio for my solution. Although the GH4 isn’t so good in low light, this little LED light makes a huge difference and has given me some rich vibrant footage in situations where the camera alone would have just recorded pitch black. I hardly ever ever ever up the ISO. It’s just not worth it. At least, not with the GH4 – the footage will be so grainy. I find it easier to lighten dark clips a little in post than to try to work with grainy footage.
I recently purchased a Sony A7s (with a Metabones adaptor and a Canon EF 24-105mm UMS lens) to counter the poor lowlight performance of the GH4s, as this camera can capture scenes in the dark that even the naked eye struggles to see.
I always take my GoPro with me but I rarely use it. I honestly find the whole process a little unreliable. I’ve put it up in places to get an aerial shot and connected my phone so I could control the settings only to have it disconnect for no apparent reason. I’ve recorded footage in 1080 and Premiere Pro lets you import footage from all different cameras, but I still notice a difference between the GoPro footage and the stuff shot on my DSLRs. Perhaps I just need better training on how to use it but so far, I only really get it out for scenes in the water.
I’ve recently been training to get my drone pilot license so that I can operate a drone by myself. This I am REALLY excited about. I’ve been learning on the DJI Phantom 3 with an instructor named Holger from UAVAIR. I looked around quite a bit at courses and I chose these guys because they have instructors who have been out in the field working on filming projects so they could teach me not just how to operate a drone but how to get the best camera angles. At the end of the day, I’m flying internationally and you can’t get a license that is international but more important than the piece of paper, is getting a thorough understanding of how to fly safely so I’m not putting anyone in danger.
TRIPOD & RIGGING
I always travel with a Miller fluid head tripod. It’s not the lightest tripod on the market but I need a tripod that is stable enough that I can leave it and step into the scene and know that a gust of wind isn’t going to blow it over and smash my camera. It gives me an amazing range of different heights and the smoothest pan in every direction. I have a second super light and much less stable tripod that doesn’t pan at all for using when I’m in a restaurant and need to put a tripod discreetly on a table or for my interviews where I’ve got two or three cameras set up.
I also take a SmartSystem Reflex S fluid drag slider. Even in a 5-minute Youtube video, I don’t think it’s enough to repeat just stationary or panning shots so to make my work a bit more dynamic I started taking this slider with me. You only need a couple of seconds and you can wonder if it’s worth the extra weight but I absolutely think it is. Often I’ll just attach the slider to my tripod before I set out for the day and carry it around like that so I’m read to film normally, pan or slide in any situation without having to assemble the head and fiddle with all the screws out in the field.
I also travel with a GlideCam HD-2000. Again, it’s adding weight (literally it has weights on either side to balance the camera so you get that floating effect) but it’s phenomenal when I’m walking and weaving through alleyways or up stairs and want to avoid that bumpy handheld result. If you can’t afford this piece of kit and you need to walk and shoot, put the camera strap around your neck and pull the camera out as taut as possible so at least you have some sort of resistance. It takes a little while to balance the camera on this GlideCam but once you get the hang of it, you can literally run with the camera and the effect will be as though you’re filming from a drone a metre off the ground. It also helps to give that very personal point of view so the audience really feels like they’re walking in your shoes. Don’t take this out to shoot for anything professional or where you’ll be keeping people waiting until you are confident in how to use it because it does take some practise.
I use a Rode VideoMic Pro that just attaches to the top of my camera. I had trouble with their earlier model because the little rubber mount was so flimsy it kept coming apart, which was frustrating but they’ve made a much stronger mount on the new one so now it sits perfectly. Definitely invest in a ‘dead cat’ or wind shield because there is almost nothing you can do with windy audio and it’s so disappointing when you discover an amazing interview is ruined because of wind. Any camera’s internal microphone shouldn’t ever be relied upon. Bad audio can be so distracting and have people disengaging with your video in 5 seconds if they have to strain to hear something. I always have both cameras with a directional Rode mic on top and then I mike the person I’m interviewing (or myself if I’m alone speaking to camera) with a lapel mic, which I attach to my iPhone.
I always ALWAYS want two or more options for my audio because you cannot know when there is going to be some background interference that could lose you an important phrase or moment. I have a fairly loud and clear voice so with my interviewee miked it usually balances out so our voices are recorded at the same volume. Plus I figure, worst case scenario – I can always ask my question in a voiceover but I can’t explain their answer in a voiceover so it’s more important to capture them clearly. I love recording on the iPhone because then as soon as the interview is over I give the file a title and email it to myself so that I have an organised safe and easily searchable way of preserving and archiving all audio files. I bought a zoom audio recorder and often use to record interviews but to be honest, I haven’t really needed the audio files from it because everything else has been giving me great results.
When you are attaching the lapel mic, it seems counterintuitive but be sure to point the mic down as this will help you avoid plosives (those hard consonant sounds like ‘p’ or ‘t’ where a little too much air is released and messes up your audio). Once you’ve attached it to your subject, get them to wriggle around or make them laugh while recording a quick test to see whether the movement of their body will create any unwanted rustling of their shirt or jewellery. The mic is so good with this setup that sometimes if I’m sitting close enough it will pick up the whole two-way dialogue without any need for my other backup recordings on the mics on the cameras.
Try not to ever talk over your interviewee. This seems pretty obvious but even if you’re agreeing with something they’ve said, it can get messy if you suddenly decide in the editing stage that you want to close on that soundbite but you’ve got your voice leading into the next question. That said, you want to make the conversation as natural as possible and TOTALLY AVOID that awful routine Q&A where the interviewer has a list of questions and doesn’t seem like she’s even listening to or digesting the person’s responses. I never ever prepare any questions in advance. See where the conversation takes you. Really think about the person’s response and let the dialogue be organic. If the interviewee feels you have a list of questions in your head they feel a certain pressure and it reminds them that you are filming. If, however, you focus completely on their responses and let that guide your conversation they will quickly forget the camera and it’s much more respectful to whoever is sharing their story with you.
Every night when I get back to my base (or sometimes twice a day if I’m shooting a lot), I will take everything off the SD cards and save two copies onto two external hard drives. I have been using Seagate 1 or 2TB hard drives just because they’re widely available in most countries and fairly cheap. I then got a big Promise Pegasus2 8TB hard drive for storing my footage and editing files once I got back home to edit. Unfortunately it’s too heavy to be mobile and needs a power source. I’ve recently been trying out two of the GTechnology 1TB G-Drive portable hard drives. They come in these awesome cases that makes them drop-proof and waterproof, which sucked me in straight away because I’m always editing on planes or in airports without a lot of room so there are times when they could get dropped. The only problem I’ve found is that lately they’ve been disconnecting for no reason. The slightest bump will have them disappearing from your desktop in the middle of an edit, which is endlessly frustrating. However, they’ve got a better reputation than Seagate so I feel a little safer on them – even though Seagate hasn’t once given me a single problem. I know I should really be backing up to the cloud but I’m often in places where there is barely enough internet to send a text message so this isn’t really an option while I’m on the road.
So I’ll end here for now but let me know if you’d be interested a post like this on my editing process. I hope that reading this will help you realise that with time and research online you can get your head around all of this even if you can’t afford film school. 🙂