5 Filmmaking Tools That Kick Ass and Save Money

You want to get a top notch DSLR kit. What comes to mind when you need to buy and build this kit? Canon 5D or 7D, Zoom H4n recorder, Zacuto rig. What if I told you all of these (and more) have less expensive alternatives that provide an equal if not better user experience and quality footage.

This is a list that goes against the status quo, a head to head showdown of popular gear and its underdog alternatives. For some the price difference is a few bucks. For others, it’s thousands.

Every recommended piece of equipment I personally bought and own, usually after doing extensive research. Like saving money? Read on.

Panasonic GH2 vs Canon 5D Mark III

Panasonic GH2 – $679

Panasonic GH3 – $1299

Canon 5D Mark III – $3299

I love, love, love the GH2. I’ve had it for a little less than a year and it’s become my go-to camera, pushing out the solid Sony EX1. Amazing quality, wide range of lens adapters, fast and flexible touch screen monitor. No overheating. No clip limits. I’ve shot two and a half hour interviews on it, uncut, without a problem. I have very little complaints.

Out of the Canon lineup, the only camera I’ve had positive experiences with is the 5D. The 7D and T2i always become overheating duds, bringing production to a halt. And the full frame sensor of the 5D is gorgeous. But for maximum return of kick-assness to dollar spent, the GH2 can’t be beat.

Now unlocking a good portion of that kick-assness comes from hacking the camera, but it is extremely easy to do. The GH3, coming out in December, eliminates most of the benefits you got from hacking, so the kick-assness should come out of the box. High bitrate, timecode, audio in/out – it’s ready to shoot video, whereas video still feels secondary on Canons.

Zoom H4n vs Tascam DR-40

Tascam DR-40 – $149

Zoom H4n – $232

The Zoom H4N is the standard audio recorder paired with a lot of DSLR kits, and it’s great. But the Tascam DR-40 does everything the H4N does, has a much more solid build, and is about $100 cheaper. $100 that can be used for more toys.

Zacuto Stinger vs Gini Rig Extreme 17

Gini Rig Extreme 17 – $399

Zacuto Stinger – $2992

If you’re shooting handheld with a DSLR you’ll want some sort of rig. With the GH2, if I use a Panasonic lens it has a pretty good image stabilizer. But going handheld with my Nikon lenses and an adapter produces an unacceptable wobble.

Zacuto is the gold standard of rigs. Per ounce, it also trades at a higher value than gold. OK, not really, but they’re damn expensive. And I just felt kind of silly spending 2 – 3 times more than the cost of my camera on a rig.

Behold, globalization and the Gini Rig.

Made in South Korea (Gangnam, actually) the Extreme 17 is a huge bang for the buck. It’s all modular, but you get enough pieces to build a shoulder mount rig with two handles, counter weight, shoulder brace, camera cage, two flexible arms, AND a follow focus.

Ordering overseas I’m always worried about quality. Fear not, these parts are SOLID. Screws are tight, nothing wiggles. The follow focus has a nice weight and build. And the sizes are standard, so you can easily add a custom Zacuto or Red Rock part without having to buy the whole kit.

Two notes if you get this: Shipping is pricey. Budget roughly another $100, and make sure you get everything you want so you don’t have to order and ship again. Also, the rig doesn’t come with a lens ring for the follow focus (well, they have a holiday special where they’re throwing one in for free for now). They sell one, and like the rig it’s a nice build, but it’s a big hassle to put on and off. I’m planning on buying a pack of these zip tie focus gears.

Kino Flo Diva 201 vs Flolight Kit

Kino Flo Diva 201 – $892

Flolight 3 Light Kit – $549

I love Kinos. They produce great, soft light and keep the set and your subject cool. They’re also a fortune.

Browsing B&H, I came across a different brand of fluorescent rig. This Flolight kit comes with 3 fixtures comparable to the Kino Diva 200 plus stands, all for $550.

I just shot some interviews with them and I was very pleased with the results and light quality. Do they have the build of Kinos? No. There is no dimmer, but that was easily fixed with some diffusion. The website doesn’t list this, but they actually come with both 3000K and 5500K bulbs. And the fixture is compatible with Kino bulbs.

As for LEDs, I’d say stick to name brands like Arri or Litepanels. I bought one of those low cost fixtures and the light quality made people look ill without some gels.

Glidetrack vs Konova K3 Slider

Konova K3 Slider – $319

Glidetrack HD – $334

This one’s a close call and more of a cautionary tale. There’s lots of sliders out there, so this is a pretty competitive field and prices have come down.

My first entry into sliders was buying the raw parts from Igus. These parts are exactly the same parts that a lot of other sliders use, but only cost $150. However, it’s friction based. There’s no wheels involved.

My engineer friend, who was helping me drill the holes in the parts so I could use it with the tripod, laughed. He said it was going to get gunked up and stop working and that I needed something bearing based. He was right. (Though I did manage to shoot everything in this film on the slider, but not without a lot of creative applications of pressure and awkwardly contorting my body to keep it steady.)

So if you’re looking at a slider that doesn’t have bearings (like the Glidetrack above), beware.

Hunting for a new slider, I settled on the Konova K5. The whole unit is self contained, it’s bearing based, and there’s lots of available accessories for creative mounting and time-lapse control. I’ve been really impressed with the slider.

(I know, it’s not the K3 pictured above, but I’ve used the K3 and had the same positive experience.)


C-Stand and Flag Kit – I found Digital Juice to have the best price for these grip staples. Sign up for their emails – they run specials regularly, like $50 off and free shipping. It’ll save you some extra money on these items.

If you have a Costco membership, check out the electronics. Usually it’s consumer stuff, but occasionally they have some good finds. Right now they have GoPro HERO2 for less than Amazon.

Lastly, a shout-out for my favorite editor and one of the greatest bargains. FCPX is faster than anything else out there in so many ways. Whether it’s how you organize and find media or make edits, it just lets you get things done quicker. And for $300 it’s a steal and far cheaper than anything else out there.


Compound Clips Go Live

A while back while talking about why I like Final Cut Pro X, I devoted a whole post to Compound Clips. If you’re familiar with nested sequences, it’s like that but on steroids.

And there’s tons of ways you can use them. Up top is one way I’ve been using it while cutting Strike (bigger picture). The story has very definitive sections. I’ve been editing the assembly of interviews based on that. Now that I’ve whittled it down, I want to start reorganizing sections. So I grouped all the clips in a section into a Compound Clip. Now I have a birds eye view of the whole film, and can easily rearrange sections. Plus, I can also see where the bloat is and cut some more.

Just as easily as I created the clips I can ungroup them and restore my timeline.

FCPX 10.0.6 just came out. It’s got a lot of improvements, and one of the big ones is better Compound Clip (which I will now call CC) syncing. Up to now, you could create a CC in the Event, or on the timeline. But if you drag a CC from an Event to a timeline and then make changes in the Event, they wouldn’t sync to the timeline. Similarly, if you make a CC on the timeline, you can’t bring it to an Event.

10.0.6 changes that. Changes in an Event show up in the timeline. CCs on a timeline show up in the Event. Plus there’s lots more goodies. This Philip Hodgetts post covers them all.

5 Ways to Use Still Photos in Movies That Are Not the Ken Burns Effect

While not usually a problem for fiction films (unless it’s a stylistic choice), most documentaries find the only visual media available for some parts of the film are still photos. The most common method that comes to mind to add movement to still photos is the Ken Burns effect.

While obviously effective and the staple of many PBS films, with the advent of After Effects and other tools, there are many more ways to dynamically include stills in movies. Here are five.

The 2.5th Dimension

Using Photoshop and After Effects, you can achieve amazing results by removing elements from still photos and compositing them in a 3D space. These moves can be as simple as a pan or dolly with a little depth, to full blown camera fly-throughs of entire composited scenes.

Last Best Hope

American: The Bill Hicks Story



Ramit Sethi with Chase Jarvis – Business Advice For Creative Professionals

I’ve been following Ramit Sethi for a few years, back when I interviewed him for my doc You 2.0. He just had his blog, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, and offered a different approach to personal finance advice. He works really, really hard and in the years since has done a great job becoming the next generation Suze Orman.

Lately I have mixed feeling about his content. It seems like most of his emails have the one goal of trying to convert you to buy one of his courses.

That said this interview with photographer Chase Jarvis has some of the best advice I’ve seen, especially for creatives who make their living from job to job and don’t get a steady paycheck. Finding clients, negotiating, figuring out how much to get paid. It’s free, it’s an hour and a half of good content, and it has some concrete tips you can walk away with.

You should also check out Chase’s interview with Tim Ferriss. If you read 4 Hour Work Week or are familiar with Tim’s work, it’s mostly a rehash of that. But if not, you can get caught up in less than an hour (the last part of the hour and a half video is Tim playing photographer with a model).

How to Use Your iPhone Overseas Without Going Broke

Got back from Haiti – great trip, I’ll write about it soon. For now I just wanted to highlight some of the ways I use my iPhone to stay in touch without paying the ridiculously high data/voice rates.

(These tips are from first hand experience with an iPhone on AT&T. You’ll have to check your own provider for their data rates.)

Enable International Roaming

Whether you use your phone’s data or not, for AT&T you need to enable the International Roaming service. It’s free, you just need to have had an account in good standing for a few months. I did it over the phone with an AT&T rep, but you might be able to do it online.

For about $6 a month there’s a World Traveler add-on that will give you lower minute rates when using your phone in other countries. But that’s just an additional option to the free International Roaming.

SMS and Twitter are your Friend

After landing and turning on your phone, it will automatically connect to a cell provider. You’ll also get a text from AT&T with the current data rate for where you’re at. When landing in Haiti, it was $19.97 per Megabyte!

By default, International Roaming, an option in Settings, is off, which means your phone won’t use data when abroad (though you might want to double check that it’s off before you leave).

So aside from WiFi (which you should definitely try to find), the only other way you can transmit data to and from your phone is SMS text messaging.

For AT&T, it’s free to receive (or just deducted from your regular plan) and $0.50 to send. You can also pre-buy an international texting package, like 50 texts for $10 ($0.20 a text).

Twitter was natively built to work with texting (thus the 140 character limit). When setting up a Twitter account, it’ll ask for your phone number. Once setup, you can simply text a tweet to 40404.

What are the advantages of this even if you don’t use Twitter? Simple. 1 tweet, 1 text, unlimited recipients.

When going to Haiti it’s far easier and cost efficient to send one message anyone can read to know my status and well-being (well-being is more a family concern).

Family not up to par with technology? No problem. Any cell phone can follow you via SMS. For example, anyone could follow me by texting ‘follow @C47‘ to 40404. Done, that’s it. Updates go straight to their phone. Here are some more Twitter SMS tips.

It’s also a good idea to turn on SMS notifications for Twitter news feeds to get them sent to your phone, like CNN. And easy way to stay in the loop.

That’s all I got. This lets me keep people updated without paying crazy rates. If you need to communicate locally you can also buy a prepaid phone.

I’ve heard of unlocking phones and swapping SIM cards to have a local number (and be able to use data). Anyone have more info on that? Or any other tips?

In Russia, Subtitles Fork You!

With a tight budget I’m always a big fan of turning to Elance to outsource some work. I’ve had interviews transcribed with timecode reference, After Effects animation, and poster design done. Now I needed some subtitles for Bots High. I knew this would need a higher level of accuracy than I expect with transcripts, so I was willing to pay more than I do for transcription.

I got a bid from a Russian company. At first I was hesitant – I really wanted a native English speaker. But their emails had proper grammar and they said they had English speakers on staff. So I went with them.

You know how it goes, you get what you paid for. I knew I’d probably have to tweak some stuff, and I was expecting what I got back to be 90% towards a final product. It ended up being more like 50%.

The timecode with the subtitles didn’t match up to the dialogue (which I can’t fully blame them for, I think there was an issue on importing), subtitles with six or seven lines of dialogue on one card, and my favorite – some of the most bizarre transcription that leaves me wondering what the hell they think this movie is about. I know not all the dialogue is crystal clear, but if you’re a native English speaker doing this, where you excel over a computer is you can take context and infer what they’re saying.

I realized when working with foreign freelancers / virtual assistants you have to treat correspondence and outlines like a computer program. You need to state every parameter, think of how they could stray, and write out what you’d think would be obvious but probably isn’t. I can’t blame them for putting six lines of dialogue on one really long card because I never said “maximum of two lines per card.” I just assumed people doing subtitles knew that, but you know what happens when you do that.

Below are some screen shots of my favorite WTF captions. It made the two days of going through everything and fixing it tolerable. Enjoy!

When girls fight there’s no knowing what they’ll do.

Sounds like she lost her arm in a vicious robot battle and got it replaced with a wrench – because she loves robots so much. How can you take her arm from (form) her??

Just reading this it’s probably not that funny, but that’s because it’s supposed to be, “How long is the shaft?” To which Will replies, “That’s a personal question.” As with anything you can still find some sexual innuendo in ‘hollowing your shaft.’

The best for last. They did understand that the robots were fighting, not having robo-sex in the arena, right? Line should be, “Good game, that was awesome! We actually lasted thirty seconds, so I’m proud.” I guess a guy’s firmness and proud-ness could be considered the same thing…in Russia!

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