WHAT EQUIPMENT DO YOU NEED?
I should perhaps see it as a compliment that I am regularly asked my opinion on what equipment I think people should buy. More options doesn't necessarily mean more choices, because at the end of the day, what do you really need to make your film?
I'm sure the phrase "there's plenty out there" is going to be a running theme throughout this article, but for editing, I reckon there is probably only two or three pieces of software you should consider if you're taking yourself seriously as an editor. When I was at Uni, we were still stuck in the dark ages and so we recorded our footage onto tapes (tapes?! Do you even know what they are??), and the program of choice was AVID. I have no idea if AVID is still around, I assume it is, but like HMV, it's a sign of a bygone era. Like Premiere and Final Cut, AVID did all the same things a non-linear editing suite does now, but apparently it's fallen out of fashion. Which you choose is totally up to you, but I wouldn't spend too long deciding, because they all do the same thing. Think of it as choosing your brand of 2H pencil to use. I use Adobe Premiere Pro for no other reason that they offered me a very attractive student discount when I left Uni - that's how they get you, see? 10 years later, and I'm still using it. Now I pay a monthly subscriptions but I can quit whenever I want. But yet I don't, why is that? Because I am familiar and comfortable with the software, and it does all the things I want it to do - which are the two most important things you need to consider when purchasing a piece of editing software. Like a pencil, it should become automatic. If you have to remember where something is, or dive within folder after folder looking for that tool you once used, it'll slow you down and frustrate you. But inevitably, the more you use the program, the more you will become familiar with it. I use Premiere a lot, daily in fact, so it feels like a second home. It does the job for me.
Cameras, HD and 4K
For obvious reasons, a camera is a very important piece of equipment you're going to film something. You could hire your equipment, which is a reasonable option if you're only make one or two films a year, but personally, I typically film something every week, so I want to own my equipment - for no other reason that saving me a trip to the rental house every week. Until recently I had the same camera set-up for almost eight years (the same gear I left Uni with). I was never particularly interested in upgrading or following the trends, so I stuck with what I had - it was still doing a god job. In my mind, if the cameras does what I want it to do, then I'm happy. Having said that, I've recently upgraded to a smaller 4K DLSR and I am very, very happy with it (so much so, I just bought a second one). I can do a lot more with it, such as attaching it to a gimble for example, which I couldn't do before. I am slightly worried that it won't last as long because it's smaller, but Sony haven't let me down yet, so let's see. What camera you decide to go with completely depends on what you'll be using it for. There is a temptation to go for the 'best' and most expensive piece of kit going, but you should ask yourself, what do you need it to do? Most of the time camera quality can be forgiven as long as the audio is great (more on that next), and often audience's will lose themselves in the world that they don't even notice if it's 4K or HD - I mean, do you even know the difference? Most people don't have internet capable of streaming 4K yet. Also, when you choose 4K, you'll probably have to upgrade your computer because the file sizes will be more difficult to handle, or you may want to look into using proxies when editing - which is what I do. Personally, if I was starting out and I didn't have my own set up, I'd buy a mid-range DLSR with a decent zoom lens with a fixed f-stop. Then I would go practice with it for hours and hours until I started hitting its limitations. But until you reach that point, there's no point spending £££ on your own set-up if you're not going to make the most of it. Just make sure what you shoot is in focus and well light, and you can choose 1 of the 1000s of camera out there and it won't make much difference to the end result. Perhaps even consider picking something up second hand one, that way you can sell it on once you've finished with it and it shouldn't lose much value.
Don't ever, ever forget about the sound!
There is a cliché about student (and some not-so-student) films that they tend to forget about sound. There is another one that says that films are 50% visual and 50% audio, but I suggest that in fact good sound is probably more important than good visual (let's say at least 60-40 in favour). We listen to radio, but we don't watch silent films anymore (I do, but I'm one of the very few), so what does that tell you? Perhaps we are more audible than visual, maybe? I'm not sure why we tend to forget about good sound - perhaps because it's less seen, and less glamorous. It's not something we use to impress another person with. It's like being the bass player, I suppose - but try getting rid of the bass, and the music will sound flat. It's so important. And like with cameras, there is a tonne of sound equipment for you to choose from. Most filmmakers when they're starting out will probably record audio straight into the camera. There are many benefits to doing this - namely, you don't have to sync it up in post (sync means to match-up the audio and the visual footage so it plays as one file as opposed to two separate), but there is something about the compression or the quality of the recorder within cameras that just aren't up to snuff. They're okay, but not great. And you need great audio! The best option is to buy yourself a semi-professional field recorder, something from the Zoom range, so that you can get good audio on the move. But remember, good audio is dependent on how much attention you pay it whilst on set - stick your microphone 10 feet away from your subject and guess what will happen? Yep, bad audio. So the equipment is only as good as the person operating it, remember that! I would also consider purchasing yourself a wireless mic/lav (short for lavalier microphone) system so you don't have to worry about 'booming' your talent with a microphone. This will give you much more freedom, especially if you're filming on a low-budget. But lavs are not totally without their own problems. They tend to pick up small amounts of friction and bumps which can ruin the audio, so be careful. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials detailing how to get the best audio from lavs, so be sure to check them out. If you're going to spend your money on anything, good audio equipment should be a top priority.
Experience and time
It's taken me over ten years to know what I know about filmmaking and the tools it offers, and I still feel as though I am only scratching the surface - only this week I learned something new about editing and animating motion graphics. It can feel overwhelming, especially when you have to purchase the equipment with your own money - you want to get it right. But admittedly, you're going to make mistakes with what you buy. But don't worry, you've got to see this as the learning curve. Try understanding the premise of each tool, and that should inform your choice with what you buy. I recently had a conversation with someone who purchased a fix-focal length lens because they felt it would give them better quality. This is partly true, but it depends on many other factors. For me, the most useful thing a fix-focal length lens offers is a wider aperture - this means the lens will let in more light to the camera, so you can shoot with less available. But, and this is a big but, it also makes the depth of field shallower, making it harder to focus. So you have to consider how you're going to use the lens first before purchasing. Which is more important to you? That the image is sharper, or that you're in focus? I'm not saying you can't get focus with an f1.4 or an f2, but it's certainly harder than an f4 or f5.6. With this narrower aperture, you'll have a smaller hole from the lens to the sensor, which means less light - so you may need to buy some lights. A lot of companies are now offering entry level pieces of equipment, but my advice is to not spend all your money on one thing. Slowly build over the years and buy the things you need as you go - that's what I did, and it worked for me. Recently I purchased a mono-pod because I want to do night photography but don't want to carry my tripod around - I had a use for it before purchasing, so it makes sense. I then did a tonne of research and ordered the best for what I needed.
What if my equipment is no good?
This is a genuine worry for a lot of us - that's why I do a lot of research before buying anything. But if it turns out to be no good, the first thing you want to try and do is return it. That's what I never rip open the box before testing it out. The reviews are often largely correct, but sometimes you may miss a little quirk with the item that otherwise renders it useless for the use you had in mind for it - this has happened to me countless times, and I have several boxes under my bed of unused equipment I didn't need to buy. But if for whatever reason you can't return it, you need to bite the bullet and find a use for it. Like I said before about the camera, you don't need the latest equipment to make a good film. The tools should be able to carry out what you want it to do - a tool is only as good as it's operator. So learn how to use the equipment first before spending loads of money on 'better' equipment. I made a film on my old HD camera (which I regret a tiny bit) but because the film is only being played on small screens and computers, the difference between HD and 4K is hardly noticeable. Plus, people are watching the film, not the camera I shot it on. I recently watched a film that was in 4K and was using a gimble for most shots, but guess what? It was rubbish. The filmmakers forgot to tell a story. So even when you have the best equipment, it doesn't make you the best filmmaker. If you've got some 'rubbish' equipment, don't worry to much about it. Just learn your craft and become a better filmmaker. The equipment will naturally follow you, I promise.
Lastly, oh yeah, don't forget about the story!
I think I've said everything I can say on the subject - that's the first time that's happened! Equipment means you can do interesting things, and test your boundaries a little, but don't be a slave to it. The most important thing is story. If you don't have a good story, regardless of what your filming and what with, no one will care. If you have a great story, but need some tools to tell it, fair enough. Fill your boots. But the equipment you have shouldn't make you feel bad or regret your life choices. It can be expensive, and not all of us can afford it, but that shouldn't stop you. Use what you have, and make a great film. That's all you need to do.