What equipment should I get for $1,000 that will make the best quality documentary?
September 27, 2007 1:02 PM   Subscribe

What I should buy for $1,000 in the way of equipment to make a decent-quality documentary film?

For graduation, my mother gave me a thousand bucks. I'd like to buy myself the equipment to make a decent documentary film.

I've made two shorts of terrible quality in the past (I like to think the substance made up for the nearly unintelligible sound). I greatly enjoyed the process and would like to do another, but on something way better than my Canon Powershot.

Can someone tell me what I should buy for $1,000 in the way of equipment to make a decent-quality documentary film? Please include video, mic, and editing software. I'd prefer if software is for the Mac, but PC is okay too. I already have iDVD, which is what I've used in the past.

The thousand bucks should not to include post-production costs. Also, equipment will in all likelihood have to be bought online (unless you can get it at Kmart or Radioshack).

I have read over the old posts and have looked at the microphones and equipment suggested as of a year or two ago. Would very much appreciate an updated and more tailored response.

Thank you all so much. Metafilter is my hero.
posted by letahl to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Rent the equipment and save the money to hire decent talent.
posted by JJ86 at 1:57 PM on September 27, 2007

You probably need to concentrate on the audio. For under $1000 you're going to be using a consumer camcorder -- accept and move on. That's fine, because most consumer camcorders shoot decent video. However, they're awful at audio, so that's where you should concentrate your resources.

At the very least, you should get an outboard microphone that goes onto the camera's hot shoe (or can be gaff taped to it, or whatever), and plugged into it's aux input.

If your shooting style is conducive to it, you should consider getting a boom mic, small battery-powered mini-mixer, boom pole, and nice headphones for the soundman. (This requires you to have a soundman, obviously.) One cheap mini-mixer is the Rolls MX124, for only $160. It's not too bad (I own one), and the next step up is $500.

For microphones, just get yourself a decent battery-powered or low-voltage phantom (don't get something that needs 48V phantom, because a lot of mini-mixers only put out 24V or so) shotgun with a windscreen. Audio-Technica makes some nice ones (good, better).

If you don't want to spring for a real boom pole, a photographic monopod, with a thread adapter to go from the 1/4" to a standard microphone bushing, will work OK.

For editing software, Final Cut Pro is overkill, but set aside three bills and treat yourself to Final Cut Express. You'll be glad you did, and it's such a vast step up from iMovie and other free editors that you'll never, ever look back. And someday when you afford an HD camcorder, it'll be ready.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:01 PM on September 27, 2007

Rent and befriend. People will work with you if you work for them, but a thousand bucks is killing it.
You can buy a really cheap panasonic 3-chip miniDV camera and a single microphone and a really terrible tripod. But if you want to make a movie, like you REALLY want to make a movie, it's going to cost more than a thousand bucks, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Make a short five minute piece about your subject. Spend money on it, take it seriously, borrow equipment, and rent what you have to. And then show people the short and ask them for money. Go to the library and read The Mad Hot Adventures of an Unlikely Documentary Filmmaker by Amy Sewell, directing the documentary by Rabiger, and think in terms of making a short that will get people to invest in your longer piece. It is doable, but you need to raise more loot.
Good luck.
posted by history is a weapon at 2:39 PM on September 27, 2007

As Kadin said, spend money on sound.
posted by jjb at 3:17 PM on September 27, 2007

Sound advice from Kadin. (sorry)

Close your eyes and listen to your favorite DVD. Notice what you hear -- and what you do not hear. In a Hollywood production every sound is put there on purpose. Every single one.

Poor sound can kill your beloved project, and when you're recording live you don't get second chances.

Now, if you can find a audio geek to be your sound expert, then you can spend those bux on other things.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:12 PM on September 27, 2007

Kadin is 100% on the money.

Camera wise, you're not gonna get much with $1000. But the upside to that is it's a lot easier to make video from a shitty camera look better than it really is (i.e. Color Correction) than it is to make shitty audio sound great. For documentaries, getting good sound is much more important than getting pristine video quality, in my opinion.

I'm an editor at a high end video post-production facility, and I am constantly amazed at how much time our agency clients spend just in audio post alone. It's really that important. The other week I finished a :30 second spot that took me only 1-1/2 days to do the color-correction on, but the agency ended up spending 7 days on the audio post!

I'd also suggest making contacts (and friendships) with people who may be willing to donate thier equipment and services to you. If you have an interesting enough idea for a project, and you do a lot of homework and preperation in advance to show them that you are serious about it, you'd be very surprised at how much you can get by on borrowed gear and crew. We just finished a short film (and i mean a literal film, shot on 16mm) for someone that took almost 5-6 months to complete, completely pro-bono, but we only did it because we knew the guy doing the film, and he was very serious about making a good film. Having a "good idea" isn't enough...you need to basically write a book, outlining your plan of attack, from shooting, to editing to distribution, and even details like food, ancillary supplies etc.
posted by melorama at 4:39 PM on September 27, 2007

nthing investing in sound. audiences are far, far more forgiving of bad picture (it's a documentary, remember?) than bad sound.

also, batteries and/or extension cables are a good idea to stock up on. they're more expensive than you'd think.
posted by Rykey at 5:37 PM on September 27, 2007

+1 for sound gear.

Sound is more important than images in terms of making a good quality video product.

Something like the BeachTek DXA-2S might be a good investment. Then I'd get a decentish shotgun mic for the camera (and a decent mount for it). While it's still sound recorded on camera, it will not have the handling and machine noice you get with the onboard mic.

You could also then look at a wireless mic to go with it - something like this for $249 (although you can probably do better).
posted by sycophant at 9:36 PM on September 27, 2007

Last night I went to the Milwaukee Filmmakers Showcase at the Film Festival here and even the top notch pros rented their equipment. There are lots of great places to rent better equipment than you can ever afford to buy. Take advantage of that fact.
posted by JJ86 at 6:09 AM on September 28, 2007

Lots of great advise, thank you. I feel like you've definitely given me enough to pick out some sound equipment. Which (or which kind) of consumer camcorder should I get?

I'm on an island, without much in the way of, er, amenities. I'd prefer not to mail-order rent, even if it is available.
posted by letahl at 6:52 AM on September 28, 2007

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