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Low-Budget Documentary Production Tips: Equipment and a Few other lessons

Kyle filming release of tagged brown trout. 

Kyle filming release of tagged brown trout. 

After months of planning, a quick shoot for Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS), we were ready.  Despite the lack of funding, we had the essentials to making a quality documentary, equipment wise. A quick run down of our gear list

  • Cameras: Canon 5D Mk III (magic lantern installed on both), Canon t2i (ML), GoPro Hero 3+
  • Audio: Tascam DR-60D field recorder, Rode Video MicPro(s), and Sennheiser Lav mic
  • Lighting: Lowell DV Creator kit (total 1950 watts), pocket LED panel, 5in1 bounce, diffusion
  • Misc: Manfrotto 504HD video head and sticks, Varizoom Chickenfoot monopod, LCD viewfinder for 5D
  • Our knowledge of filmmaking. The most important ingredient.

As you can see, pretty basic. However, if you know what you are doing with this equipment and work within each items limitations, you can get really great results. We had been using each piece of gear for a long time and knew all the quirks of each piece. I would have loved a bit higher end camera with more features (pro xlr inputs, better color space, and more dynamic range) but it wasn't necessary. I still got some beautiful shots with the 5D.  The GoPro got us some awesome shots underwater that turned out great. The DR-60D is not the highest end audio recorder but it fit our needs.  The lights were super simple and the biggest pain and I would highly recommend this to any one shooting docs is to get battery powered LED bi-color panels.  It added a lot of time to add CTB to my tungsten lights every time. Also super light and portable and worth every penny is a 5 in 1 bounce/diffusion disc. We used this more than any other lighting gear and pair it with a powerful little LED panel, it is run and gun heaven.  I have seen a lot of people shooting with video monopods but never seen anyone with the Varizoom Chickenfoot. I love this thing. It goes way higher than most other monopods and the feet come off and give you a super sturdy high hat tripod! It is light and portable and I have used it as a boom arm for the camera and as an impromptu shotgun boom arm! Worth every penny. All of this gear fit into one pelican case (camera and audio) a light case, and the tripod bag.  POINT BEING, be prepared TECHNICALLY so that you can concentrate on the CREATIVE. Use the gear that is available and make sure you know the gear in and out.  You cannot afford to miss any moment. 

Some other lessons we learned during our six weeks.  

  • If an opportunity arises, take it then. Do not wait. Be prepared at all times, carry a camera with you everywhere. You never know when something is going to come up. (Make sure you have a back up camera and REALLY good insurance).
  • Spend the money to get the right gear for the job but nothing more.  Lots of people like to shoot with big fancy cameras and shoot RAW but then have a puny system for post-production. This should be reversed. Having a beefy post-production set up will save you time and money.  
  • Have multiple backups and do not keep them sitting right next to each other. If the place burns down or the briefcase gets lost what good is having multiple copies in the same place? Each key member should get a drive at the end of the day with the day's shooting. This may seem redundant but you will save THOUSANDS on reshooting or loosing all your footage by spending hundreds on drives. Use a good system that everyone knows and follow it! Use software like Prelude to offload your footage to multiple places while only having to set it up once.  You can also add metadata, transcode footage or whatever else. 
  • Most people are excited and happy to help. Communicate early and often (going back to pre-production).  Make sure you talk to potential interviewees so you know what they could add to the story before you show up with all your gear and set up. We did a good job of screening people and knew what they were going to offer the story before hand. It saved us a lot of time.  It would be hard to have too many interviews. You can always not use an interview you have already done but it is time and money intensive to shoot more.
  • Do not be afraid to say NO. If someone is not going to be good for the film, do not waste your incredibly valuable time and money on them! You will never get it back.  We thankfully did run not into this but it did cross my mind once or twice. I got lucky and they turned out to give us something valuable (although one of the fishermen was took his time and was giving us tall tale after tall tale, we still had fun and got some great material). 
  • Shoot for the edit. This is the sign of a mature filmmaker.  Have a concept of what your day of shooting is adding to the story and exactly what shots you need to tell that particular part of the story. Constantly ask yourself, how is this shot adding to my film? 
  • That being said, do not be afraid to shoot more than you need. Files can be corrupted, drives can fail, or sometimes the shot that looked amazing in the screen was actually out of focus or underexposed.  Also a likely situation, your story will change. Maybe the story changes to focus on an individual or grows to focus on an entire community.  Have enough b-roll to cover every thing without filling 50tbs of storage. It is a fine line.  
  • Give people positive energy. Most interviewees in documentaries are not professional public speakers. You have to put them at ease and build trust. Be polite and interested and never be fake about it. Find some common ground and go from there. Get everything set up, roll camera and sound with subtly and start a conversation.  Conversations will get you much better material than a Q&A session

There are so many things to say but these are a few of the more important ones. Do you feel these are valuable lessons? What have you learned from you experiences?

Be part of the o'fish'al story by getting your blurays and t-shirst here.

The trailer for the film here, we are submitting to film festivals and will have the full film available online next year.