Random Thoughts on Buying Gear for Film and Video

Here are some random thoughts I wrote down some time ago. Maybe they'll help you and maybe they wont. But here's a sample of my thought process:

Notes first written sometime back in 2014, before I had my Panasonic GH4 and Shogun recorder and my iMac 5k:

What should I buy next for my filmmaking kit? Often I find myself distracted by all the cool gear available on the market. This is a problem in two ways: 1) I lose precious creative filmmaking time by endlessly researching gear and 2) I sometimes get my priorities mixed up and end up with the wrong gear, at least it is wrong from the standpoint that it doesn't help me solve my most pressing filmmaking issues.

Here are a few ideas that I've attempted to use to work through this dilemma…

First, I list out the problems that I'm trying to solve for my current or upcoming project. I don’t worry about priority yet, just all the issues that I need to or would like to solve. I avoid listing gear, just list the problems I need to solve.

- No 4:2:2 4K record capability

- Lack of stabilized movement

- Mediocre audio quality with indoor dialogue in particular, but also outdoor

- Difficulty getting colors right when color correcting/grading

- Framing issues

- Lack of energy in recordings

Next, work through the list and choose the one that will make the most difference or, in some cases, simply must be done first because of client needs.

In this case, I chose color—I seem to really struggle getting consistent color and can never seem to really tell what my video is going to look like because I don’t trust my two monitors…

Next, think it through, what is the problem if you think it through in greater detail?

I don’t trust that either of my monitors closely represent the standard color space, gamma, etc. where my videos and films will be viewed. When I see my finished videos on other peoples’ monitors or projectors or TVs, they look different than on my PC monitor. Where will they be viewed? Mostly on office computers and projectors and TVs. But mostly on PCs. However, it is most critical that they look their best on the office projectors and TVs (where they will be viewed by larger groups).

Can this be solved with my current gear?

Maybe, but I’m not sure. I have calibrated my Dell Ultrasharp 2413 with an X-Rite i1 Display Pro and that seems to help, but it often seems too saturated and doesn’t at all match my cheapo HP monitor. Calibrating in this way is not very effective, I learn, because we're using an 8 bit color workflow via a computer video card. If colors are way off, there isn't much space to move around to compensate. It will never be amazingly accurate.

What are the potential solutions?

- Invest in a color workflow that works via a video I/O device (different than a computer video card) which supports 3D LUTs and ideally, 10-bit color.

- Buy a modest reference monitor

Added notes June 2015:

I opted not to solve this problem for now. I'm now working mainly on an iMac 5k. It is NOT a reference monitor, I know that. Colorists would scoff and some might even totally discount everything I have to say from this point forward. But let me give some context.

My jobs don't pay all that much. There is absolutely, positively no budget for a colorist in 99.9% of my jobs. My clients don't expect exceptional color (sadly). So they get what they pay for - a decent quality internal video that has not been edited or graded on a reference monitor and may look decent but may not look great.

For the record, I don't just go all cavalier. I do use an

X-Rite i1Display Pro colorimeter

to at least get me into the parking lot of the right ballpark. But I am fully aware that calibrating through a computer video card that supports 8 bit is problematic and not anywhere close to reference grade.

I will keep at this until at some point I can charge more and can afford a reference monitor. Perhaps I can start serving a higher tier client base. I'm working on it. But this is a decent start and working with a "color calibrated" iMac has produced content good enough for low-end corporate gigs.

So that's the context. And that's a problem that I opted not to solve for now.

Another thought that I don't think occurs to a lot of people. Some gear is a better investment than other gear.

I think that most sound gear, microphones in particular, are much better investments than camera bodies. Hear me out on this, it isn't quite as absurd as it first sounds.

Of course you need at least one decent camera to produce a film or video. But cameras become obsolete very quickly these days. I counted the cameras I've had over the last 9 years and I believe I've had 7. That's almost a new camera yearly. At this rate, I barely have time to get well acquainted with my camera before it is upgraded. Some DPs are so awesome that they can pull that off and adapt to a new camera really quickly. But I think many of us indy guys that don't shoot all day long every day could benefit from a little more practice with our cameras. A year may be enough time for some, maybe not for others. I personally could probably benefit from more practice with my cameras.

Now consider microphones. How many of us own a $2,000 microphone? Not many is my guess. I certainly don't and I'm a self-professed sound enthusiast.

Back to cameras. How many of us own a $2000+ camera? I do and probably a lot more of us than those that own a $2000 mic.

Schoepps Collette Series MK41 Supercardioid Microphone Set

Now try an exercise: Choose a movie and watch one scene from the movie two different ways. On the first viewing, don't watch the visuals, just listen to the sound. Second time, just watch the visuals and turn the sound off.

Which had more emotional impact? Which was easier to follow?

I'm betting that in most cases, it is easier to follow and there is more emotional impact from the audio only experience. That's not always true and of course we all want stunning visuals and awesome sound. But if you have to cut back your budget a little on one to invest in the other, it might make sense for most of us who have skimped on audio gear to re-allocate our budgets a little and use more for sound and a little less for cameras. Don't get angry. Just think about it. It may not apply in your case but for most of us, I bet it is a valid point worth considering.

To be clear, I'm not saying you should spend thousands on audio gear and just work with a $500 USD camera with a kit lens. But on the other hand, I am suggesting that might help get you out of a creative slump in you're in one.

Of course lenses are also probably a better investment than camera bodies in most cases. So there's that to consider.

Zoom H6 Audio Field Recorder

But I think my next big, multi-thousand dollar investment is going to be either a mic or a good solid field recorder. And to make a step toward that goal, in the next few weeks we're going to have a look at the difference between $200 - $400 field recorders and a Sound Devices audio interface that costs $900 (and only has two mic inputs). To do this, I'm borrowing a Zoom H6 and Sound Devices USBPre 2 to compare with my trusty Tascam DR-60DmkII. I opted for the USBPre 2 because it is really a proxy for a Sound Devices 700 series field recorder that many pros use. It has the same preamps and analog to digital converters. So it should give us a good idea of what a $3300 Sound Devices field recorder or mixer would do for us.

Now before you cry, "But that's not a fair comparison!" I totally get that. I'm not trying to compare, really, just answer the question, "What practical benefits do you get when you use a pro level field recorder?" I'm guessing that the difference in audio quality is not worlds better. Probably a little better, but not night-and-day different. I bet reliability and routing options and flexibility and powering options and durability are better on the pro units. But we'll see.

Thanks for enduring my rambling thoughts. I'm not sure whether this has helped anyone aside from me so you're a good sport for reading through if you've made it this far!