If you are just starting out as an indie or guerilla filmmaker and you are completely baffled as to where to get started in regards to equipment and gear, you are not alone. We’ve all been there. Don’t let the guys on the various indie / DIY/ DV filmmaking forums try to convince you other wise, no one starts out knowing everything about shooting an indie film. However, the information on what is the best equipment can be a bit difficult to come by.
If you do frequent the indie filmmaking message boards and communities, then you know that even attempting to ask a basic question will get you flamed, harassed and mocked. For some reason the majority of people on those boards are more interested in being complete dicks than in really helping…not everyone, but most. Aside from the insult responses you’ll get, the main bit of “help” offered by forum members will usually be along the lines of a very sarcastic post containing some variation of the phrase “search the archives for your answer.” Well, we all know that searching a particularly active forum can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. What this does is leave the majority of newbie indie or guerilla filmmakers scratching their heads on where to get started. None of us has an unlimited amount of cash to throw around and for a new filmmaker finding the right equipment for the right price is an absolute MUST…throwing away $500 on the wrong piece of gear can sometimes make or break someone.
What I’m going to be doing over the next week is going over a list of the top 10 must-have essential pieces of equipment for any indie or guerilla filmmaker looking to get started. This is the basic equipment you’ll need to go out there and put together a professional looking piece of film together. This list isn’t going to include anything on editing because that is a list unto itself. Right now we’re sticking with the essential equipment for any beginning filmmaker or someone looking to start their own guerilla production studio. And away we go!
#1: The Camera
First up, the most essential pieces of any filmmaker’s gear is a camera. What type of camera you choose is going to be completely based upon your budget. The main thing to keep in mind is that you absolutely must get a camera with a MIC input. Onboard mics for even higher end cameras tend to be terrible and having the ability to add on a shotgun or wireless lav mic is essential. Unfortunately, a lot of the lower priced camcorders are now being designed with out the needed MIC input, which sucks. What this means is you’ll have to be a bit more selective when it comes to purchasing a lower cost camcorder than with one on the higher end of the spectrum.
Using the MIC input as our guidepost, as I mentioned before, your budget is going to pick your camera for you. Starting at the lowest budget around is the Canon ZR900 camera. This is a nice little camera available for under $250. It will give you a very decent picture as long as you have a lot of light (it is great for shooting outdoors during the day, and even at night as long as you have a strong light source somewhere in your shot) and it has the much needed MIC input. Do not let a salesperson talk you in to the slightly higher end model, the Canon ZR950…it will provide you with an equally fine image and a few additional features, but it doesn’t have the option to plug in a MIC. Definitely a strange oversight on Canon’s part.
If you’ve got a little bit more money in your wallet and want to take your filmmaking to the next step, I suggest the Canon HV20 or Canon HV30 HDV camera. The amazing little Canon HV20 and its equally awesome successor, the HV30, have taken the indie and guerilla film community by storm. With their ability to shot some fantastic footage in HDV coupled with the ability to shoot in a beatiful 24p mode, it is no wonder why the HV20 / HV30 are now the only real choice for filmmakers with a budget of under $2000. These bad boys are now priced at well under $800 and, when coupled with a few add-ons, will have you shooting footage comparable to what you see on higher priced cameras like the Canon XHA1. Even if you’ve got $2000 to spend, I’d fully recommend you check out the Canon HV20 / HV30 as a base and then use your additional funds to upgrade it with additional lenses, microphones, rails, a mattebox and get yourself a tweaked out little filmmaking monster on your hands.
Stepping up from the Canon HV20 / HV30 range of under $1000 cameras, your choices become a lot wider. If you’ve got a budget in the $2000 range and don’t mind shooting in standard definition, the Panasonic DVX100B (and all of its predecessors) is still a great choice. Tons of films are still being shot on it.
Moving up to the $3000+ price points choices become a bit more difficult because the number of very good cameras in the pro-sumer level. My personal picks are the Canon XHA1 and the Panasonic HVX200. The Canon XHA1 is probably one of the best choices for a low budget filmmaker, at least in my opinion, with the HVX200 coming in neck-and-neck. The HVX200 is basically the HD upgraded version of the DVX100 series and anyone who has used one of those older cameras will find the new HVX200 surprisingly similar to operate.
Ok, so my #1 must have piece of indie filmmaking equipment has really just given you a lot of options to think about. The thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to cameras, as with everything, the more money you can spend the better equipment you can get. However, with options like the ZR800 and HV20/HV30 from Canon, there are some excellent choices out there for those of us on a budget.
My personal cameras for shooting my low budget projects right now are the Canon HV20 and the XHA1. The majority of my first unit shots are with the XHA1, with the HV20 acting as a second unit and for doing pick-ups. However, from time to time the HV20 steps up and is my prime camera. I’ll strap on one of my 35mm adapters (more on these later) to the Canon HV20 whenever I want to play around with using depth of field as a storytelling device and the footage cuts together surprisingly well with the XHA1. The combination of the XHA1 and the HV20/HV30 is an excellent options for those of us who are looking for a cheaper alternative to a second camera for a shoot but are worried about getting the footage to sync up.
Check back tomorrow for the next article in this series of essential equipment for indie and guerilla filmmakers where I’ll be going over numbers 2-5. As with everything else on here, feel free to leave me a comment with any thoughts or questions you might have.
-Mat N., the Film Sensei