Tools of the Trade

Filmmaking is an expensive way of life. The gear is pricey. Location fees can run up quick. It can be a big lift to hire professionals at the rates they deserve. Let’s not even get into insurance costs. Despite the money needed to plan, edit, and distribute media projects, it’s production that really burns the budget. This brings us face-to-face with the big question: what’s the best gear for me to use on set? The best lens? Best camera? Best microphone? 

The answer often has little to do with price. Sure, Arri Master Primes will get you beautiful images to the tune of $25,000 each, but will you have to mash it onto a Sony alpha series camera to accommodate the budget? Conversely, maybe you want to hop on the DIY bandwagon and shoot your whole film on an iPhone. Well, you’ll need lighting to make it cinematic. It’s going to run you about $500 per day to rent a single 4K HMI. Is there a budget for that? 

Money isn’t everything, but it certainly helps. The most expensive gear in the right hands means more creative possibilities, and more flexibility to achieve your production goals, but price shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all. Cameras, lenses, microphones, lights, and all the rest should be considered tools. You wouldn’t spend all your money on the newest, fanciest drill if you were building a birdhouse. I’m sure you’d be happy with the results if you used a good, old fashioned hammer and nails. Then you can still take your kids on vacation. Birds are happy, kids are happy. 

What I’m saying is this: before you start drooling over all the sexy gear you could play with, evaluate the project. Who is your audience? How will you measure the success of the project? Where and how will it be shown? The answers to these questions can bring your budget into focus. A car commercial airing during the Superbowl probably deserves the millions of dollars it took to make. On the other hand, a Facebook video to promote recycling in a local community can have success and reach a wide audience whether it’s shot on an iPad, DSLR, or RED Epic. 

This goes for narrative projects, too. A horror short may benefit from being shot on an old camcorder with clamp lights by creating a ‘gritty’ atmosphere. If you own the look, and make careful decisions to accentuate those technical limitations, you may be surprised at how awesome your film turns out. Conversely, we’ve all seen Hollywood films--horror or otherwise--that were dull and uninspired. They certainly had the best gear, but that didn’t make the story any more compelling. 

There are no hard and fast rules in filmmaking. You shouldn’t get bogged down by what the best lens is, or if shooting is worthwhile when you can only record 8-bit video, but realize that you still need to keep up with the times. Using an old P2 camera and claiming that it’s just a tool that still works well isn’t going to get you hired. Tastes change, and what passed as professional 10+ years ago may not apply today. Examine your application, examine your market, and capitalize on it. In the DC Metro Area, there isn’t a huge demand for commercial-level content, and certainly not the budget for it. But, we’re still able to craft beautiful images and tell compelling stories with the tools & budgets available to us. This is true in any market, with any client pool, be it corporate, government, ad agency, or indie passion-project. 

Following the line of reasoning about film equipment really being tools, it’s important to make certain distinctions. These aren’t the same as the artifacts you’d find in your uncle’s garage, caked with decades of dirt and grime. I’ve seen a disturbing number of posts on social media where filmmakers have run a camera through hell and snapped a photo with captions like, “It’s a tool, treat it like one.” Quite frankly, that’s an irresponsible oversimplification. Your tools only work well if you take good care of them. Running a camera through the elements may need to happen for your project, but you’ll see responsible creators and technicians take steps to keep their equipment safe and clean. Getting mud and water all over your camera and lenses doesn’t do anything for your filmmaker clout--it just ruins your gear. 

At the end of the day, which is more important, the tools you have or the story you’re telling? I’d hope the answer is obvious. Your tools may facilitate which stories you can tell faithfully, but at the end of the day they are a means to an end. What the audience remembers won’t be how great that shot looked, or how crisp and clean the audio sounded, but how they felt when those elements came together to tell a story. To be clear--it’s certainly true that you wouldn’t get far into production without the tools or technicians to make it happen, but they wouldn’t be there at all if it weren’t to serve the story you’re telling. 

To channel the manic energy of Werner Herzog, if you have an idea for a film, podcast, web series, whatever--go out there and do it. Get your hands on camera, an audio recorder, a microphone. Buy it, rent it, borrow it. Above all, treat it responsibly. Even if you don’t have a lot of money, find creative ways to tell your story on the cheap. This mentality will always serve you well.

At Istrico Productions, we have plenty of tools to use, and often need to mix and match brands to suit a particular client’s needs. We even have different preferences based on who you ask. For instance, Jared loves shooting with the Canon EOS C100, while Marco & Gavin prefer using the SONY alphas and PXW-FS5. Both are perfectly acceptable, depending on what the goals of the project are. 

Stay tuned to this page and check back every couple of weeks. We’ll be dropping wisdom, telling production horror stories, and pushing out more of that hot content!

Lionel Tax

Lionel Tax

Anthony IstricoComment