In the name of all that is holy- please help a doc-maker with equipment

Videomaker – Learn video production and editing, camera reviews Forums General Video and Film Discussion In the name of all that is holy- please help a doc-maker with equipment

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    • #49808

      Folks- I am so frustrated. I don’t want to bore you with the extended director’s cut version of my story. The thing is- I’ve had this idea for a documentary that I’ve wanted to make for many years now. What has always stood in my way is the dizzying array of choices of equipment and technical requirements involved. Believe me, I do my homework; I’ve read tons of books, have experimented with different cameras. I’ve even developed some degree of proficiency with the stuff I have- enough to make training videos for my company, wedding stuff, etc.

      HERE is my situation: I own a Panasonic PV-GS400, with a low-end lavalier mic and a shotgun mic. I have a copy of Final Cut Pro on my Mac and have used it for small projects (haven’t begun to scratch the surface, I know). As I begin to consider making my ‘dream’ project I am CONSUMED with anxiety-

      “You can’t use that camera, you have to use a DSLR…”

      “You can’t use a DSLR, you have to use [insert expensive camera name]”

      “oh, you shot it in 16:9? You can’t do that. You just wasted your time.”

      “Oh you didn’t use [insert arcane name of accessory]? You just wasted all your time.”

      “Oh you don’t have a lighting package? you just wasted all your time.”

      “Oh your lighting package isn’t set at 1915623 degrees of red-orange chroma-field? You just wasted all your time.”

      Folks, I just don’t know what to do and I”m absolutely paralyzed with fear over how to proceed. A couple of questions:

      1) Do I have to buy a lighting kit? If so, can something jerry-rigged from Home Depot or maybe a ‘bounce card’ work? Is it undheard of to use available light in creative ways?

      2) I see a lot of people using these little DSLR cameras (looks like a regular photo-cam but they are using it to make video). Do I have to use one of these? Why would I want to use that?

      3) My cam is not HD, but honestly I don’t like HD all that much. It seems ‘too clear’ if you know what I mean.

      4) 16:9 or 4:3?????? I am terrified of finding that I’ve shot it all in X and X is unsuitable.

      Again, this is my dream project. Any help appreciated. I’d be willing to pay $ for a tutor or a class. I just want to get this right.

    • #203754

      CJ, let me see if I can ease your mind about a few things.

      1) You do not need a lighting kit if you want to use nat lighting, it is perfectly acceptable to use a reflector to fill in the light where you need it.

      2) You don’t have to use a dslr to shoot a documentary. Think about how they were shot years ago. It would even be appropriate to shoot in 4:3 format if it is a historical documentary, could give a kind of nostalgic feel to it.

      Have you seen the Blair Witch Project? You do not need a lot of fancy gear to get started. What you need is a plan and execute it. Watch some of the videos on here about making documentaries and you will get a lot out of it. It is not the equipment that makes it a success but how it is made with a good story line.

      Hope this helps.



    • #203755

      I too was going to mention Blair Witch as an example of concentrating on the story. You’ve got analysis paralysis, and it’s not going to get any better by reading more books. The tools available to you today for under $1000 would rival cameras costing 10 and 20 times as much just 5 years ago. Case in point, in a recent Zacuto shootout, a majority of cinematographers preferred the Panasonic GH2 ($700) against cameras such as the Red Epic and Alexa.

      If Michelangelo were alive today, people would ask about what chisel he prefers. The point is: the most important tool is the one between your ears. Of course, you can make your life more difficult by using tools that work against you. Unfortunately, it takes some experience to figure out what works and what doesn’t…and it changes with each situation.

      I should add that I’m an advocate for spending money on the gear that will serve you the longest (lenses, tripod, microphones, lights and support gear).

      In general, I prefer a light-sensitive camera with plenty of manual controls and long recording times for documentary work. That might rule out some DSLR’s which have record time limitations. The Panasonic GH2 might be a good option for you if you’re willing to invest in good lenses. It’s small, sensitive, doesn’t have record time limits, and can be used inconspicuously if needed. A portable battery-powered LED light can be used to great effect (especially off camera). Invest in a good wired or wireless system, don’t skimp in this area. Bad audio makes for unwatchable video. Hope this helps.

    • #203756

      The correct camera for you to use is the one that will get you up off your butt and doing it. Forget the gear, let those that are consumed by such stuff wallow in it, constantly thinking of what would be better, all the while they rarely actually produce anything. I’ll quote Nike…. JUST DO IT!

      my last doc was shot on SVHS and Hi8 and edited with Ulead Media Studio Pro on a Celeron400 (completed in 2005).

    • #203757

      I love it when Bill pop’s in with common sense, just wish he could do that with the coming elections. πŸ™‚

      I couldn’t have said it better than he did. It truly does come down to how well you know the tools more so than the tool itself.

    • #203758

      Guys, thanks so very much for these replies. I’ve read every word and you’ve all been helpful.

      Let me ask this, because it will help me get going: I really like the camera I have (Panasonic PV-GS400). It takes beautiful video. I also tend to like 16;9 ratio as more ‘film-like’. I understand there is much more to it than this, but could I, using these tools and good sound equipment, go ahead with my documentary??

      Thanks very much.

    • #203759

      YES! Absolutely! Don’t wait. Just DO IT! You have the tools and the drive to approach this with confidence. Make it happen!

    • #203760


      The guys have all dropped valid points. To back up Earl’s point, if you want to make your documentary take what you have and go shoot the damn thing. Before you do that though consider these important points:

      1) What is your primary distribution source going to be?

      That means, are you planning to show your film in theaters, go straight to DVD/Blue Ray, On-Demand or direct to web? Knowing what your primary distribution source will be has a distinct influence on the production resources you should be looking for prior to getting started.

      2) Is your project a short or a feature length production?

      This is the big ticket decision point. Short films require far less resources than features do. They also require less coverage than features. Lastly the amount of time to secure footage in a ratio to cover your topic in a manner to make your Doc interesting is a lot smaller on a short compared to a feature.

      3) Based on your project length, what resources do you already have access to?

      Having as much of your own gear is a bonus because any money raised to make the film can go where it’s needed. I checked out your camera’s specs and you can shoot a documentary with it. Just be realistic about what your ultimate distribution goals are. If you stick with direct to web, on-demand (web) and direct to DVD (not Blu-Ray since your cam is not HD formatted), you’re good to go. Just be advised that you won’t get the same results with that rig than if you used a pro rig. Now that said, unless you’re doing a doc on a subject that requires serious beauty shots, most can get away with that gritty look only standard def with a consumer rig can provide.

      4) Light your scenes. Even if you don’t have your own grip and gaffer’s truck, you don’t need them. There are numerous techniques from using a small dedicated light kit, to straight up ghetto workarounds including bounce cards and reflectors made from household items. There are numerous tips here at VM so you should sift through what’s available and take notes.

      5) Plan your doc well. Don’t just run out and start shooting. You’ll end up wasting a lot of time and end up shelving your work because you don’t have the footage you need to tell the story.

      Here are some links to help you get your head around what you’re planning on doing;

      Cinema Verite’

    • #203761

      First thing – as explained above, the most important thing to remember are the 6 Ps.

      Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

      I always remember this one.

      Second is your vision. In your head you have the end product. What does it look like?

      Think in terms of what you need to do to to achieve it. Try to visualise each shot, and maybe even draw the old fashioned storyboards to focus your mind. Then go off and shoot it. As the Producer/Director/Cameraman, you can then make sure each shot earns it’s money. Regularly review what you are shooting and sign each shot off. I like to use an informal system 1, 2 and 3. Grade 1 means absolutely perfect. 2 Means not brilliant, but useable and 3 means unable to be used. Decide for yourself how many grade 2 shots you will allow through. If you don’t trust your judgement to be neutral because of your interest in the project, use an outsider who isn’t interested in the content, just the quality. One tip – if narration is required, resist the temptation to use your own voice – use somebody you can direct who sounds good. As far as equipment goes, does your kit produce good pictures and sound? If it does – get on with it. I’m working at about 70% 16:9. Most of my work is theatrical, and in some venues, the proscenium is a good match to 16:9, but in older venues, the height is greater, meaning it is more like 4:3. So I use the one most appropriate.

    • #203762

      My contribution is to ask that you identify your audience and keep them in mind while you put this project tohgether. You’re really doing this for them, right?

    • #203763

      I started out with a Sony handy-cam, and Pinnacle studio 9 and jumped in. As my skills built I added equipment as needed, or as a new project required. My training came from this site and you tube, sites like film riot or the frugal filmmaker and I built many of my own tools like a camera stabilizer and a shoulder mount and re applied my tripods and lighting from my days as a still photographer. As the others above have started, get a camera and start shooting it get an editing suite and start putting together some footage. Post your video and get feedback from the knowledgeable people on this site. Also the video tips that this site posts almost on a weekly basis will provide you with a good foundation as you grow in this art/craft

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