Travel Documentary, How-to, gear, equipment
Warning: this post contains extremely geeky insights into the technical side of making a documentary.

Since I wrote the update on the Wireless Generation documentary we’ve been filming over this summer, a lot of people have gotten in touch asking about the gear, how we’ll promote it, what we plan to do — basically “how do you make a documentary?” — which is usually followed by, “Cool! I’d love to do that too!” You can. There’s a lot of information out there, so it can seem daunting, but we found our way through the data overload and were able to come up with a game plan. If you’ve always dreamed of making your own film, this post is intended as a starting point for further research — your needs and budget may vary.

The Gear

For us, the goal was to shoot at a professional level, with good sound quality, in high definition (HD) and at a film frame rate and size that could potentially be shown in a movie theater. While it’s possible we will end up going straight to DVD, we didn’t want to spend a year of our lives shooting, writing, editing and producing a film, only to limit our options because we didn’t pick a format that was inclusive enough. So we’re shooting in full HD at 1080 X 1920 at a frame rate of 24 fps. From this level, we can always downgrade or resize for the web, TV or DVD but it’s never possible to increase quality if you shoot a smaller size.

We’re also shooting a film that has multiple types of shots.  When picking your camera, it’s important to think about what kind of shots you’ll be getting.  Since about 50% of our film is interview based, we decided to use the Canon 7D (a digital SLR camera, that now has HD video) as our main camera for interview scenes.  The advantage is that it has a big sensor — 20 mb — which is many times more powerful than any of the entry level professional camcorders available on the market.  In fact, several TV shows and films have been shot entirely on the 7D.  The video quality is absolutely amazing.  The downside is that unless you buy a very expensive camera mount, there is no stabilization — so the camera always has to be on a tripod.  This works perfectly for our interviews, as we set up the 7D and start filming from a set location that doesn’t change.

Since the other 50% of the film is travel footage, shot on location and on the go, we knew the 7D wouldn’t work for this.  It’s time consuming to set up and using a tripod isn’t always practical — especially if you’re doing something like walking through the night market in Bangkok.  So we decided we would invest in a second camera, the Canon XHA1 which is the cheapest Canon camcorder you can get that will shoot at a professional level (and is the staple of many indie film makers).  This is a true camcorder, that will do all the cool things the 7D isn’t designed for… if you set it to “easy” mode, it can even handle most challenging situations on it’s own (fast moving objects, low light, camera shake and so on).

Canon 7D and accessories breakdown (total for everything listed $3758):

Canon 7D ($1699) This is a digital SLR camera with a video component.  One of the things I’ve learned is that it only shoots in easy mode or manual mode for video.  If you’re someone who likes to shoot in aperture priority, you’ll probably need to start using manual mode for video, because otherwise the default will make your entire depth of field in focus, which is often not what you want.  I’ve also had little luck shooting at night with bright objects (in my case it was fire dancers).  I’m sure there is a technique for this, but so far it’s alluded me.

EF 24-70mm f/2.8L ($1449) This lens was reviewed as one of the “best general purpose lenses available” and after two years traveling with it, I completely agree.  It’s really great for portraits (excellent for getting that crisp subject with a blurry background shot, so adored by wedding photographers) and it does pretty well for general travel photography as well.  It’s not quite wide enough to do landscapes and it’s just barely wide enough to do architecture shots, so for true travel/landscape photography you’ll be constantly on the edge of getting that great shot.  But for the purposes of this film, it does 90% of what we need, and for interview shots, I don’t think you can do better in the price range.  It’s a very fast lens that handles low light extremely well.

Tamrac camera bag ($50) We carry the camera, lens and accessories in this bag and take it as a carry-on when we fly.  (It also doubles as a purse and diaper bag, when we’re about town… we can fit a billfold, a room key, two diapers and some wipes — but not much else).

Additional Canon 7d camera battery ($100) I would highly recommend getting an additional battery.  The camera will start to get too hot after about an hour of continuous filming, but if you’re out filming for the day, you can easily need two batteries — or at least not have time to charge between sessions.  For a traveling production, like ours, this has been key.

32 GB compact flash card ($140 X 2) To record 12 minutes of video, it takes 4 GB of memory.  So one 32 GB card will do about 90 minutes of filming.  We travel with two 32 GB cards, which seems to be enough for most days.  If you’re not able to pull your film frequently (this is time consuming and requires connecting to your laptop) then you’ll want more.  We also have four 8GB cards for backup.

Wireless remote ($80) One of the very nice features of using the 7D is that you can make some stunning time lapse photography.  We just let the camera run for 20-30 minutes and then speed it up into a 20 second clip in Final Cut Pro.  Because the image quality is so high, it can just look amazing.  If you want to try this technique, you’ll need a tripod and a wireless remote… especially if you want to do longer sequences (like overnight) so that you don’t shake the camera when you reset the video.

Tripod ($100) We debated on getting a nice carbonite tripod, and one day we will, but for this production we thought we could work around not having the pan/tilt features that a nice $1000 (or more) tripod will give you.  Because we went so cheap on this, there will be no pans with our camera (it’s really noticeable when you do it with a cheap tripod), which is something we work around by how we set up our shots.  (We only have one tripod, even though we have two cameras.  We typically hand hold the camcorder and set up the 7d on the tripod).

Canon XHA1 and accessories breakdown (total for everything listed below $5549):

Travel Documentary, How-to, gear, equipmentCanon XHA1 ($4999) This is our camera B, but it always surprises the me the level of quality that it can capture.  You can hand this camera to almost anyone and get a decent shot.  If you want to do advanced features, it’ll let you do those too.  In fact, for about 48 hours I thought I had broken the camera, but I had just flipped one of the many toggle switches on the body to display the colored bars (like you’d see when a TV station is off air).  You’ll definitely want to read through the manual and consider if you want to use things like gain or auto white balance, and understand how this will effect video quality.

Aluminum Hard Case ($250) We use this to store the XHA1, all of our sound equipment and any electronic accessories we may need.  For flying, we always take it as a carry on and it fits in the overhead compartment.

Additional battery ($60) The camera has a setting to turn off after a set time (I think we have a 60 second period before we go into standby mode) so it’s good with battery life, but it definitely helps to have a back up for those long production days.  Unlike the 7d we’ve never had a problem with it overheating after a long shoot, so it can just keep going if you wanted.

HD video tapes ($6 each X 40) I’m not sure how we did the math on how many we’d need, but we calculated 40, and now 1/2 way completed with filming we’ve used exactly 20.  We may need to pick up a few more, but for a 90 minute film (what we’re doing) plus getting lots and lots of b-roll footage, this seems like a workable amount.

Audio Equipment (total for everything listed below $2,040)

We have two main ways of recording sound.  First, if you’re thinking of using the built-in mic for recording, forget it.  Bad sound = bad video, as we were told over and over again by the industry pros we got in touch with.  We settled on a pretty standard sound set up for an independent film.  For interviews we record using the Zoom H4N which is a multi-channel hand held recorder.  We also use a Sony lavalier mic (the kind that pins to your lapel, like on TV) and the wireless mic connects to the Zoom.  Then we’ll also record audio on the shotgun mic, just to have a back up and to pick any room noise that the lav mic might isolate.  I’ll either mount it on the Canon 7D and connect it to the Zoom (if can record two sources at once) or we’ll attach it to the Canon XHA1 (the hand held camcorder) and record into that device by turning on the XLR input.  For shots other than interviews, we use the shotgun mic attached to whatever camera we’re using.  If we’re just recording sound (like a musician playing on the street) we might just use the Zoom and it’s built in mics.

Travel Documentary, How-to, gear, equipment

Zoom H4N ($600) This hands multiple sources of audio.  It can be used with the shot gun mic, the lav mics or with it’s own built in mic.

Rode NTG3 shotgun mic ($900) We paid a bit more, to make sure we had really good audio, but this mic is so sensitive (a good thing) that you can’t use it without the wind muff (see below).

Rode Deadcat microphone wind muff ($60) This does a very good job of reducing wind noise, which is a big problem when you’re shooting outdoors.

Sony wireless lavalier mic ($480) The basic wireless lav.  It is only one mic, so if you have two subjects at once, you’ll need another complete set — our you can use a boom mic for those situations.

Computers and software (total for everything listed below $3447)

Travel Documentary, How-to, gear, equipment

Macbook pro 15 inch ($1999) Since Final Cut Pro is a Mac based software, it makes sense to edit the entire thing on a Mac.

Final Cut Studio ($999) We could use Adobe Premiere as well, but we prefer Final Cut, and it’s the industry standard.

Plural Eyes ($149) This is a plugin for Final cut that takes multiple sources of audio and merges it together with your video, so that you don’t have to worry about matching everything up in post-production.

2 TB external hard drive ($150 X 2) You’ll quickly eat up about 1-2 TB of storage space over the shooting of your film, and it’s critical to have a back up, so you might as well build it into your budget from the beginning.

Grand totals:

Camera A (Canon 7d) and accessories: $3758

Camera B (Canon XHA1) and accessories: $5549

Sound equipment: $2040

Computers and software: $3447

Total: $14,794

Did I pay this much?  No.  I paid just under $10,000.  How was I able to get almost $5K off the retail price?

How to get cheap gear

  1. Watch Ebay religiously
  2. Look at the used sections on B&H Photo and Adorama
  3. Search Craigslist
  4. Scour the film and photography forums
  5. Check online retailers for discounts

Shooting your film

You can shoot anyone and anything you’d like.  But wait!  Did you get them to sign a release?  Does it matter?  Well, it depends.  Generally we follow the rule, “if they talk, we get a release”.  For our film, this has been relatively straight forward.  We know who our interview subjects are, and we always have them sign a release.  If we’re filming them walking down the street and other people walk into the frame, we don’t bother getting signed releases (besides it would be impossible anyway).  If one of their friends come along for the interview, but is in only some of the shots, we usually get a release.  If we’re shooting a street musician with the intent of using their original song in the movie, then we try to get a release, just in case.  We’re using a modified version of this release (pdf).

Tips for shooting

  • Charge all of your batteries every night.
  • Pull all of your video every night.
  • Always keep extra batteries, duct tape, memory cards, and video tapes on hand.
  • For the best interview lighting shoot outside, on an overcast day.
  • Make sure the video is recording and the audio is on.

Remember to shoot multiple shots, so you have lots of options later.  Get a long shot, medium shot, and close up.  For the close up, try to get the hands on some shots, the face on others.  Watch documentaries, films and TV closely and start noticing the different shots that they use.  Decide on a basic shot list before you go out and consider things like getting an establishing shot (will you show the exterior of the building before cutting to your interior shot), transition shots (perhaps you’ll use a shot of clouds moving across the sky to transition from setting to another) and how you want to frame your interview subjects.

Tips on interviewing your subjects

Help them relax.  The lesson we’ve learned time and time again is that is doesn’t matter how brilliant your interview questions are or how smart and interesting your subject is, if they freeze up when the camera comes on (and almost everyone except polished professionals will do this) then it will come across as forced, stiff and uncomfortable.  Tell a joke.  Make them laugh.  Ask an off the wall question.  In fact, if your interview is going too well, this can be a problem too, as no one wants to listen to your subject give a memorized stump speech.  Be prepare to challenge them.  Shake them up.  Your job as the interviewer is not to ask awesome questions, it’s to get awesome answers.

Then what?

Then you edit it.  And sell it to someone.  We’re in the editing mode now, but our plan for next spring and beyond includes a tiered approach.  We’ll aim for as high as possible, then revise our approach as needed.

  1. Submit the film to multiple film festivals.
  2. Hope to get screened at several of them.
  3. Attend the festivals to collect our awards (naturally) and to talk to agents, studios and distributors.
  4. If we get an offer, we’ll find an agent to negiotate it for us.
  5. If we don’t get an offer we’ll self-distribute via DVD on this website.
  6. Or if none of that works, then we’ll just use the film to get hired for other projects or to raise funds for a new documentary.

Or we’ll just take a long break from film making and settle down somewhere in the south of France, where I can develop my palate for fine wine and my husband can practice pouring it for me.

Still want to support this project?

You can pre-order the DVD here or you can make a flat contribution (of your choosing) here.

Pic: Ari