10 invaluable tools for independent, low-budget film-makers

So, you’ve got a camera, a mic and a sound recorder. Hmm, what else do you need to make a movie?

The answer, of course, is ‘lots of stuff’. The buying never ends. Even short films require a surprisingly large amount of equipment.

But every now and then you look at something you’ve bought – often something inexpensive – and think, “wow, that thing is worth its weight in gold”. Of course, sometimes it’s also expensive.

So what would we, at  Zolascope, not want to be without? As low-budget, independent film-makers, which items of kit do we definitely not regret buying? These are some of the items we use regularly and which I think were very sound investments.


1. Apple iPad

MovieSlate-250How did we live before iPads? I can’t remember, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to those dark days.

The iPad has numerous uses on set. It’s our slate/clapperboard – using the excellent Movie*Slate app. This makes sound syncing a breeze because, in addition to the clap, it emits three loud bips, which our editing software (Final Cut Pro X) can easily identify on both the video clip and external sound files. We’ve never had an error using FCP’s automatic syncing facility. But the benefits don’t end there. Movie*Slate also acts as a detailed camera log, focus target and more.

We also use the iPad for shooting continuity shots. It’s much better than a smartphone or digital camera for this job because you can easily review the images on a large screen without having to offload them to, say, a laptop.

We’ve also got the Final Draft Writer app which helps ensure that I’ve always got a copy of the script with me. And the iPad is a great place to gather all the other production documents, so that I never arrive on set having left something at home.

And last, but certainly not least, there’s StoryFlow


2. StoryFlow

Shot list in shoot day mode

Shot list in shoot day mode

Okay, so this app cost us nothing because I wrote it. But it was certainly worth the investment in time. StoryFlow is a shot-listing app for iOS. I created it because I needed more flexibility with creating shot lists – both in pre-production and on set while shooting – and couldn’t find anything that would do the job.

We’d struggled with reports output from Final Draft, usually cut’n’pasted into a spreadsheet. And that gives you something usable, but hardly flexible. Moving, adding, deleting and renumbering shots was always tedious and prone to error. And making changes during shooting often led to hastily scribbled notes that were hard to decipher later.

StoryFlow lets you import a script from Final Draft to set up the scenes and shots (or you can do that manually). You can add an image to each shot – either by picking an existing image on your iPhone or iPad or by using the device’s camera. That means you can do simple storyboarding. And you can add, delete and reorder to your heart’s content.

Finally, shots can be viewed in the order in which they appear in the script, or in the order in which you plan to shoot them, with all of a single day’s shots gathered in one place.

» Check out our StoryFlow page for more information »


3. CineBags Production Bag

cinebags-cb01-300Okay, so I have something of a fetish about bags. I’m always on a hunt for the perfect bag. And for its job, this one comes pretty damn close.

The CineBags CB01 Production Bag has actually won awards. It swallows an enormous amount of kit, but its somewhat modular design makes it very flexible. In particular, the four internal, Velcro-attached pouches quickly come out so that you can have them with you on set while the bag remains in the staging area.

For example, of the two large pouches, I use one as a lens/filter kit, with cleaning wipes, lens brushes and sets of ND filters. The other is used for the Zacuto viewfinder and other associated camera bits. The other two pouches are used for pens, pencils, screwdrivers and the like. Even with all four pouches inside the bag, there is still plenty of room for stuff like my collection of gaffer tape.

There is a large, zipped pocket running the entire length of the bag both front and back. These are big enough to hold an A4 clipboard, documents and the iPad. I use the other zipped pockets, at either end of the bag, for things like HDMI cables and batteries.

The lid of the bag has four zipped pockets on the inside – great for USB cables and memory cards. More importantly, the lid is very rigid, meaning that, when closed, you can load a certain amount on top of the Production Bag without worrying about damaging the contents.

The construction quality is superb, meaning that this is a bag that will withstand a lot of use and abuse. I was so impressed, I also bought the CB17 Laptop Producer Bag. This is a more conventional shoulder bag, but also has that first-class build quality.


4. Atomos Ninja 2

atomos_ninjaWe shoot on a DSLR (Nikon D800) because that’s what we’ve got. But the 8-bit, 4:2:0, H.264-compressed video that it saves to SD cards has a tendency to start falling apart if you do too much grading.

The Ninja-2 addresses this by recording the D800’s 10-bit, 4:2:2 output via the HDMI port. By recording in ProRes HQ, far more detail and information is preserved and the resulting images will withstand much greater manipulation later. This is just as well, given that, at Zolascope, we seem to be going for productions with a certain ‘look’.

The Ninja also acts as an invaluable external monitor with handy features such as focus peaking and false colour. It records to 2.5in hard drives (we’re mostly using SSDs), and just lately we’ve been using these directly (after backing up) to do the post-production work, rather than offloading to other disks. (Though that’s just very short stuff like our workshop videos.)

The Ninja lets you attach two batteries, using one at a time, so there’s no need to stop working just for a battery change when the first one runs out. Just wait for a convenient break to swap out the depleted battery (which can be done even while you’re recording – although I wouldn’t try it personally).

We’ve also used the Ninja as a playback device – for example, showing footage to people at the workshops simply by plugging a TV into the HDMI-out socket. And because the Ninja can play ProRes HQ files, this means we can load it with very high quality versions of our films for screening purposes.


5. Edelkrone FocusOne Pro follow-focus

focusonepro-300Most follow focus units are designed to be used by a separate focus puller. This means the disc showing focus settings faces out to the side. But we don’t have the luxury of a separate person to do this job. So we’ve gone for the Edelkrone FocusOne Pro.

Made in Turkey (and delivered with astonishing speed from the manufacturer), this superbly built piece of kit has a major advantage for the small-crew independent film-maker – the focus disc faces the camera operator. The disc also has a reference mark that can be turned to line up with any point on the surrounding scale, so you rarely need to get out the chinagraph pencil and make your own marks.

The quality of engineering is absolutely first-class. The gearing is designed so that it will work with both Canon and Nikon lenses (which focus in opposite directions). It will also work equally well to the left or right of the lens. Everything is highly adjustable, meaning that you can get it into the perfect position for your rig or your way of working.


6. LanParte shoulder rig

lanparte-250Rail systems and shoulder rigs mostly come in two flavours – good’n’expensive or cheap’n’nasty. The Red Rock brand is an example of the former. And eBay is littered with examples of the latter. I spent a lot of time reading reviews of shoulder rig systems, and I advise you to do the same. For example, I was tempted by a certain Indian-made brand until I found reviews complaining of bent rods and failed tightening bolts.

In the end, I went for LanParte. It’s not the cheapest make – a fully equipped shoulder rig is still going to cost hundreds of pounds. But it seemed to me to be the best compromise between cost and quality.

LanParte is a Chinese company whose main occupation is making parts for helicopters and race cars – which means it has the equipment for turning out well-crafted hunks of aluminium. I started with the BP-02B Universal Adjustable High-Riser Baseplate because that gave me the 15mm rails I needed to attach the follow-focus and a magic arm to hold the Ninja. From there, I’ve slowly built up a (nearly) full rig, one piece at a time as I’ve had the money (just the matte box to go).

The LanParte kit inspires confidence. And while I wouldn’t say we’ve used it heavily yet, everything seems tough enough to stand up to whatever we might throw at it.

By the way, a quick shout-out to CineGearPro, the company from which I bought our LanParte gear. It’s a UK-based firm but has always provided us with fast delivery to France at very reasonable rates.


7. Zacuto Z-Finder

As a stills photographer, I had one of those ‘Doh!’ moments when I first shot video with tzfinder_gorillahe D800. The viewfinder went black!

Well of course it did. It took me about a second to realise that this is what should be expected. It took me another second or two to understand that trying to focus, pan etc by looking at the camera’s LCD screen with the unaided eye is something of a challenge.

You can buy an expensive Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) that plugs into the HDMI port. But why bother when the camera already has an excellent LCD screen? You just need to get a closer look at it.

As with all things, there are cheap loupes you can buy to attach to the screen. But again, the reviews put me off this idea. So, instead, I went with one of the leading brands – Zacuto and its famous Z-Finder.

The most common way of using these finders is to glue an attachment piece to the LCD screen. That, however, doesn’t work with the D800 because it would foul on one of the controls. Instead, you can glue the mounting piece to a screen cover. I tried that for a while and it worked fine. But, during the blazing summer we had last year, the glue eventually gave way and dropped the expensive viewfinder on the ground.

Now I just use the ‘gorilla plate’ supplied with the finder (shown in the picture). This is very secure and means I don’t have to put up with something attached to the camera all the time – which would be annoying when I’m using it for stills.

The Z-Finder gives a very clear view of the screen. The optics are excellent and the eyepiece has dioptre adjustment, meaning I can use it with or without glasses.


8. Limelight Pixel Zoom light

pixel-zoom-300Lighting is another of those areas into which you can sink a lot of money. If you read blogs and forums aimed at low-budget film-makers you’ll often see people being advised to buy ordinary worklights from DIY stores. And that’s not bad advice – in fact, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Having 350W, 500W and even 1K and 2K floodlight lamps gives you a lot of light for very little money. And if the colour temperature isn’t perfect – well, you can often fix that in post.

Sometimes, though, you want more control. You need lights that fix to proper lighting stands, so you can raise them high. You want to be able to flag the light using barn doors. You want to be able to dim them. (Yes, you can buy inline dimmers, but they can be expensive, when they’re not horribly noisy.) And you want to be able to easily add filters.

On our first three films, much of the lighting was supplied by the 275W modelling lamps of my trusty Bowens flash units, for which I have umbrellas, soft boxes, barn doors and snoots.

To this, however, I’ve just added the Limelite Pixel Zoom light (also by Bowens). At 300W, it’s got modest output. But thanks to its focusable beam, that light is reasonably well concentrated, so the actual amount of light on the subject is more than you might expect. It uses relatively inexpensive halogen bulbs and comes with an inline dimmer and soft-start (to save bulb life). I also bought optional barn doors for it, which are fitted with clips to hold filters.

And one of the best features of the product is that it’s very small, making it easy to fit the light in the confined space of a cramp set.


9. Manfrotto MVH502AH fluid head

mvh502ahI already had a sturdy Manfrotto tripod, bought when I was shooting on a Mamiya RZ-67. But I needed a fluid head in order to get those smooth camera movements for video.

I bought this via Amazon and was astonished at how large it was when it arrived, given the price. It’s built like a tank and has already sustained a fair amount of abuse without showing any signs of complaint. Being big and heavy, you need a good tripod and, preferably, an uncomplaining camera assistant (luckily, we have both of those).

Locking off the movements is very easy. And although the quick-release plate is a tad large for DSLR use (it’s obviously designed for ENG cameras), it’s very sturdy and easy to use.


10. Lastolite Panelite 180x120cm reflector

lastoliteI’ve really no idea how long I’ve owned this Lastolite Panelite reflector – but I do know I was still shooting stills on film at the time! It’s been one of my favourite and most useful photo accessories ever.

It’s big, but folds down reasonably small (once you get the knack). It’s almost impossible to open it without a flourish, as though performing some kind of magic trick.

Lastolite produces several versions with different colours and finishes. I went with the model that is white on one side and silver on the other. Other versions, like the gold reflector, have their specific applications, but the white/silver, being neutral, is the most generally useful.

I use an old projector screen stand to hold it up, although it also requires the careful attentions of a grip to stop it flying away if there’s any kind of breeze.

Laid on the ground or propped just under the lens, it provides excellent fill to get rid of that dark-eyed look in bright sun.


I’m sure I could have added many more items of kit to this list, but these are the ones that give me the greatest satisfaction and a sense of money well spent. As film-makers working without the benefit of investors, we need to get the maximum value out of everything we buy. These 10 items definitely fit into that category.

One thought on “10 invaluable tools for independent, low-budget film-makers

  1. Pingback: Nice roundup of tools – everything from apps to hard disk recorders – for the low…

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