Help me trick out my indie video studio, please.
August 15, 2010 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning on making an indie documentary. Help me figure out what I need in terms of equipment.

I'm working on a low-budget indie documentary, and am looking to outfit my studio for as little cash as possible while still getting the max results. I'm thinking high-end new iMac, copy of Final Cut. The movie will be 50% interviews, filmed sitting down in a well-lit room, the rest a mix of old photos and amateur video.

But what about cameras and lighting? I know there are some still cameras that shoot amazing video these days. So what's the sweet spot between budget and quality, and how much could I expect to spend on the whole deal? (cameras, lights, tripods, software, storage, et al)
posted by jbickers to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What's the subject (is it about old gravestones or dancers with lots of heavy movement)? What's your budget? Is it a short or a feature? Personally, I'd make the short first, before signing on to the feature.

I wouldn't sink all the money in a high end mac, but get a mid level or use someone else's and spend more on the equipment but this is such a broad question that it'd help if you could narrow it down some.
posted by history is a weapon at 8:17 AM on August 15, 2010

I would recommend getting in touch with mefi's Jason Scott, if you can. He has quite a bit of experience in creating and funding independently developed documentaries.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:17 AM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with everything said so far. Also, keep in mind that it may be more cost-effective to rent gear than buy. You can get access to some awesome gear without the completely unacceptable-for-an-indie-shoot price-tag
posted by Alterscape at 8:25 AM on August 15, 2010

Response by poster: I certainly appreciate the general advice - but does anybody have specific thoughts on cameras, etc.?
posted by jbickers at 9:05 AM on August 15, 2010

I'll post some details when I get to my computer, but the Canon 5D is an amazing DSLR. That being said, it is not well suited for long form interview. You must use external audio, and clips are limited to 12 minute segments. Lights - You can get by with relatively affordable systems. Links and specifics in a bit.
posted by shinynewnick at 9:22 AM on August 15, 2010

Okay, specifics. For sub-$1000, Lowell makes several different kits containing between two and four 750/500w Omni (spot) and Tota (flood) lights, plus stands and diffusers/umbrellas. It's hard to go wrong with that gear for the price, assuming you're lighting small interviews. They're rugged little lights and

Are you shooting high-def or standard? In the SD days, my camera recommendation would've been a Panasonic DVX-100B, hands-down. If you can accept 1080i, I've done some shooting on a Canon XH-A1, which has given me very good results. If you're renting, the Panasonic HVX-200 is supposed to be incredible (and shoots 1080p, I believe), though I've never got hands-on with that.

Tripod-wise, Bogen/Manfrotto is my pick. I don't remember the part number for the exact sticks/head I've used off-hand, but they have a very nice lightweight DV fluid-head with adjustable drag that's quite sweet. You definitely want a fluid head. It's worth the extra cash.

I don't know that much about mics, honestly, but for docu interviews you're probably going to want a lav for your subject, and probably to have a short shotgun in reserve for b-roll or anything where you can't stick a lav on somebody in advance. I've had good results with Audio-Technica and Sony wireless lavs, but I think there are better options out there. Sennheiser shotguns are definitely a good way to go, though. If you'll have a dedicated sound man, I recommend a midsize boom pole; otherwise, I've got good results for on-the-run interviews by mounting a short shotty in the mic mount on the XH-A1.
posted by Alterscape at 9:38 AM on August 15, 2010

For camera, I'd go with the Panny AG-HMC 150, or wait until the end of the year for the Panny AG-AF100 (though the latter will be around $6K) - even of you don't get the af100, prices on the hmc150 might drop. Also, I disagree about renting cameras for a documentary - it might make sense for a short (or even a feature that has a short shooting schedule), but not a documentary, because a feature/short usually has a much more limited number of shooting days, whereas a documentary can drag on for months/years - if you rent for that long, you'll pay for 10 cameras or more. Even on a feature it usually doesn't make sense to rent the kind of camera you'll be looking at - the low/medium cost camera, at best, it might make sense to rent a high end camera for a special purpose. Instead, buy the camera, then re-sell it once principal photography is over - you'll recoup most of the cost on an almost new camera if it's just one shoot - it'll be way, way cheaper than renting.
posted by VikingSword at 10:06 AM on August 15, 2010

Most of my recent (HD) experience is with the Canon 5D and the Sony PMW-EX3. I'm a huge fan of the 5D, but for the reasons I gave above, I wouldn't use it for documentary work.

The EX3 is a great all around camera, and even better for a doc is the smaller and cheaper EX1. Cheaper is relative, still at $6,200 new. Sony batteries are relatively cheap, you can use SDHC cards and adapters instead of the Sony SxS cards (but the SxS cards are rock solid).

I don't have any personal experience with the Panasonic HVX200, but it comes in at almost half the price as the EX1 and has great reviews. P2 media is expensive, not as high as the SxS, but I don't know if there are any alternatives for the HVX.

The Lowell light kits around $1200 are fantastic, and I can't recommend them highly enough for basic interview lighting. In the past I purchased a crazy cheap light kit from ImageWest for around $600. Certainly not the quality or flexibility of a better kit, but I lit some decent interviews with them. You do have to learn how to light, though; you'll be surprised how much light it takes to make a scene look good, and how much of a difference it will make when you know placement, shadows, etc.

I'm not a fan of the Bogen/Manfrotto DV tripods for any kind of moving work, but they will get the job done - especially for set up interview work. I have a Libec tripod for under $800 that is great, and three Cartoni tripods that are great, upwards of $1200 each. Certainly out of a low-budget range.

I understand not wanting to rent, but it might be something to consider depending on your schedule. You could also look into buying some used gear, cameras are fairly durable if treated well.

The iMac is definitely workable, even without being decked out. You must have external FW800 drives to work from, you never run your media off of the system drive.

For any camera, I'd find one that shoots 1080 24p, no question about it. That will give you the closest to a legitimate "film" look with any of these digital video cameras. Feel free to MeMail me with any questions, and I can send you some short interview clips I've set up with the EX3 as well.
posted by shinynewnick at 10:54 AM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would just rent everything and have professional equipment right out the bat.

I think your main concern should be to find a cinematographer and an audio tech that could help you. They will also be able to choose the proper gear. Doing everything yourself is really hard when you should be focused on the directing.

Also for editing I would rather rent a editing room with all kinds of hardware, especially if you need to transfer a lot of archive footage from diffrent formats. Also budget some money for a real editor that sits along you and you will get 20x better results in half the time.

If you really want to buy a camera for documentary a big concern is how long shoots you can take. I am afraid tape is still the best solution theese days but may become obsolete very soon. So far I know theese DSL-R have great picture but very limited recording time and limited audio options.
posted by ilike at 5:17 AM on August 16, 2010

On reading the other answers, I think that VikingSword and ShinyNewnick make a lot of points that supercede my (at this point, aging) experience, so please listen to them instead!
posted by Alterscape at 2:28 PM on August 16, 2010

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