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Old July 5th, 2004, 06:12 PM   #1
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Camera and related equipment for documentary


I am looking for a digital video camera to create a documentary, and am wondering what the best choice would be in order to maximize flexibility, versitility, quality, and value.

I believe that I will need something very flexible in that I plan to shoot both indoors and outdoors, during the daytime and during the evening, shooting both preplanned interviews with individuals and groups, as well as unplanned interviews on streets and in other indoor and outdoor settings. Some scenes will also include shots of large groups and speeches, and some landscape shots. Although many interviews will be stationary, some scenes will involve movement and action, both close up and at a distance.

As I am new at this I am wondering:

a) What camera(s) you might recommend that would work well for this wide variety of purposes;

b) What I would need in the way of other equipment to have the necessary "kit" to conduct the project of filming this, including audio equipment (e.g. microphones for the camera?, etc.) and what you might recommend for this. Here, I suppose, I am trying to determine what the essential equipment setup would be for such a project--what most people would regard as the basic necessities for filming and editing, the essential equipment list. As you can tell, I am quite new.

Apologies if the question seems too involved, and many thanks for any information that you can provide.


Dr. Alan J. Lipman
Washington, DC
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Old July 5th, 2004, 06:43 PM   #2
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Do you have an overall budget in mind for this? There's quite a broad spectrum of prices so the recommendations would obviously be very different given a $3,000 budget versus a $30,000 budget. Do you already have a computer and editing software? How about a good video monitor? These can get rather expensive as well...
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Old July 5th, 2004, 06:45 PM   #3
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Thanks for your reply.

I am thinking between 3000-5000 for the camera.

I do have a computer which I intend to dedicate to this; I do not have software as yet, and would appreciate any recommendations here.
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Old July 5th, 2004, 06:49 PM   #4
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Check out this book by Barry Hampe (click here). Also try the search function on this site, there's quite a few discussions on documentaries.

Any camcorder will work for a documentary but the favorites are probably the Sony VX-2000/2100 and the PD-150/170. They are very good in low light situations which make them much more flexible in the real world.

A sturdy tripod is a good investment.

For audio, you'll want different types of mics for varying situations. A shotgun mic is good for picking up audio in front of the mic and ignoring sound from the side and back. You usually see shotguns sitting on top of the camcorder or on a boom. A dynamic handheld mic is good for interviewing somebody close up especially in crowded/noisy situations. Lavalier mics, that you can clip on to a person's clothing, can be handy for those sitdown interviews.

You'll probably need an XLR adapter to connect the mics to your camcorder, a boom, and maybe a wind protector.

Check out the camcorder shooting combos at Zotz digital. They'll give you a good idea of the different accessories most people buy with their camcorders.
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Old July 5th, 2004, 07:19 PM   #5
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The PD-170 sounds like a good fit for your budget and it includes the pro audio features so you won't need the extra size and weight of an external XLR box. The included mono microphone should at least be a start for your audio kit.

Don't underestimate the cost of a good tripod, they start around $800. I'll let others suggest lights and sound gear. You'll also want a supply of batteries, depending on how long you'll have to go without an opportunity to charge. The Sony NPF-960's are real workhorses, I get nearly 8 hours with one on my VX-2000. Get the real Sony's from a reputable dealer and not the imitations which I hear are popping up on eBay. The PD-170 is bundled with a wide angle adaptor which should come in handy for close quarters.

Obviously you'll need carrying cases for all this stuff also. For editing it depends on your computer choice. I use Final Cut Pro on either my desktop of laptop depending on where I am. Do you have enough disk space? Additional internal and external firewire drives are good to have. Try not to edit video on the same drive that holds your operating system and applications. If you're doing a lot of editing you might consider a separate tape deck to save wear on your main camera. Some people like to use a second, less expensive video camera for this which can also serve as a backup camera in a pinch. You'll also want some sort of NTSC video monitor, or at least a decent TV set to view the footage as you edit.

Welcome to the world of digital video, where there's no end of things to spend your money on! :-)
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Old July 6th, 2004, 11:27 AM   #6
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Check out He is a real documentary filmmaker, with enormous experience in audio. He also has excellent comments on cameras as well.

Wayne Orr, SOC
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Old July 6th, 2004, 12:58 PM   #7
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I just want to second Boyd's suggestion of the Sony PD170.
It definitely sounds like the camera for you. There isn't a better
low light camera out there, and the audio control on it is good enough to not require any sort of break out box like Boyd mentioned.

I dont' want you to think I'm just some crazed Sony fan, I'm definitely not. But, if I'm shooting in a situation where I have no control over the environment, the PD170 is my camera of choice.

As far as Audio gear is concerned, it depends on how mobile you want to be, and how small (or big) your crew is. Will you have a sound person with you? Do you have the freedom to use a boom mic, or will the microphone have to be locked on the camera?

I use an Audio Technica 835b and I've been very happy with it, but I wouldn't recommend it for an ON camera mic, as it's a bit long. But, it's a workhorse. We've had that mic for over 4 years now, and it's still going strong, and I see no need to get another one anytime soon.

As far as lights go, it also depends on your needs. If you can schedule your sitdown interviews all at once, within a few days of eachother, it may be cheaper for you to rent lighting gear. However, if you want to have your own lights, so you don't have worry about the scheduling as much, I can suggest the JTL Everlight Softbox Kit. We recently got 2 of these lights, and for the money they have been great. $500, and you get what you pay for. Meaning, they take a while to set up, and to break down, and they may not be as rugged as other lights, BUT they do the job. For an interview situation, you could do much worse.

As far as editing is concerned, I would recommend getting software demos of the major programs out there, and seeing what suits you best. At the end of the day, every editing program does pretty much the same thing...they all cut. But, they
each have their quirks. Try them out and see what you like.

You may also want to think about investing in a DV deck.
Shooting a documentary you will rack up a lot of footage very quickly.
It would be a shame to spend 3000 on a camera, and then wear it out by rewinding and playing tapes all day long on it.

Hope this helps,

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Old July 6th, 2004, 04:57 PM   #8
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Good advice here.

If you were choosing between the PD170 and the VX2100, I would also strongly reccomend the PD170, for the given audio setup and for the Sony Pro support, as well as the DVCAM option.

Are you planning on going out to film, or just television? Some still recommend using a higher res. PAL version of given 60i cam, and others feel that the Panasonic DVX100A is the way to go (to film). The light sensitivity of the PD170 sounds like a deal breaking concern, between these two cameras.

Are you more than one person? A secondary audio device is something to consider; having your audio not tied soley to the cam can make for more flexibility, as well as better attention paid to just the audio.

Definitely soak up Alan Barker's website. A diamond of a doc resource.

Some kind of playback device, such as a cheap little Sony cam, is a great investment, in an effort to save your main heads. Some might contend that a dedicated DVCAM vcr is the way to go.

Is 16:9 important to you? You will need a good, and somewhat expensive, adaptor for this. Centurty Optics is probably the best around.

The Sennheiser Evolution 100 series is a highly regarded, affordable wireless system.

Other items:

long life battery(ies)
sunhood for LCD
lense cleaning kit
white balance card
slate (if needed)
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Old July 7th, 2004, 02:25 PM   #9
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First thing to do, in my opinion, is watch a lot of documentaries and notice the things you like as well as the things you consider bad. The most challenging thing, technically, about making documentaries is trying to get good quality footage and sound under crappy conditions with little setup time. Since you're inexperienced, it would be a good idea to find some people in your area who are making no-budget films and volunteer to do some grunt work so you get a feel for what goes on. Try to work with a cameraman, a soundman, and a guy that seems to know how to light well.

Next, I would try to take a basic production or even a still photography course at your friendly neighborhood community college and learn something about composition. Also, I'd buy Russ Lowel's book about lighting, available on the Lowell web site.

For a camera, I agree with all the posts about the PD170. That is probably the most proven camera out there for quality of image, reliability and ruggedness (however, all video cameras are delicate beasts). The 170 is good enough quality so that several low budget indy features have been made with it (my favorite is "The King Is Alive," but also "Tadpole" looks pretty good).

If you can only have one mic, I'd suggest the Audio Technica that was recommended at the low end, or the Sennheiser ME66. Stay away from the Evolution series--it does not have XLR connectors, and your PD170 does. If you want to spend some more serious money on a mic, the Sennheiser MKH416 or the MKH60 are the best overall single mics to have, in my opinion. The 416 is around $1200, and the 60 a couple hundred more. However, I know a pro soundman in this area, and he uses the Audio Technica and does wonderful work with it.

You need a decent fishpole (boom) for the mic too, and shock mount, and probably a windscreen. This is assuming you will have a soundman to work with you. If you don't have a soundman working with you on shoots, you will most likely get fairly crappy audio, or you will limit yourself to very tight closeups of people talking right into the camera, should you use a camera mounted mic. You can always mount a mic on a C-stand and do audio yourself. Or, get a good wireless lav system. That will cost you $1500 - $3500 or so, depending on what you want to do. I almost always use a mixer too, a Shure FP33 in my case.

Cases for everything.

A wide angle adapter for the camera's lens. Century Optics makes several for a few hundred bucks. The lenses they put on the 1/3" chip cameras are never wide enough.

You can spend a lot of money. I personally would not want to do that until I learned more, however. You can end up buying stuff you won't like or won't use or find is not what you really need.

Lights, cords, diffusion gel, color control gel.
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Old July 7th, 2004, 04:59 PM   #10
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You're accumulating a collection of general ideas that have worked before in various contexts. Specifics are perhaps in order.

How many people do you foresee in your crew?

One? Two? Three? The assigning of all the critical production roles (camera, light, audio, interviewer) and thus the overall best and most balanced production design (equipment choices) can be better assessed if you/we know how many you are.

The fewer people in the crew, the more thought to put into the How, the When, and the Where of "run 'n' gun" shooting (making use of available light, microphone placement).
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