Greg Pak: FilmHelp: Production

Equipment Specifics: The Sony VX-1000

By Greg Pak

The Sony VX-1000 is a great three chip MiniDV camcorder which I’ve used to shoot “Asian Pride Porn,” “The Informed Consent Zone,” and Keiko Ibi’s Oscar-winning documentary, “The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years.”
    I recommend the VX-1000 highly for low-budget productions. But no piece of equipment is perfect. Read on for a few of the VX-1000’s features and foibles.


Great image quality
The VX-1000 is a three chip MiniDV camcorder. Many cheaper MiniDV camcorders are one chip — resulting in less-vibrant images, particularly in lower light situations.
    Compared to Hi8, which used to be the standard for no-budget documentary filmmakers, the VX-1000 is incredible. When footage is viewed side by side, BetaSP looks better than MiniDV. But when material is well-lit and well-shot, most people can’t distinguish MiniDV footage shot with the VX-1000 from BetaSP footage.
    However, it’s worth noting that although it’s much better than Hi8 cameras, the VX-1000 by no means can handle high contrast images and blown-out backgrounds as well as DVCAM or BetaSP cameras. Careful lighting, as always, is the key to success here.

Color viewfinder
Some video pros hate color viewfinders, but I like ’em a lot, particularly when shooting documentary. First, I know immediately if my color balance is off. Second, color affects framing — for example, if I’m looking through a black and white viewfinder, I might not notice a flourescent yellow sticker in the background of a shot. That sticker might end up being extremely distracting. With a color viewfinder, I notice distracting things immediately and frame accordingly.
    In addition, I prefer the VX-1000’s color monitor to that of its chief competitor, the Canon XL-1. The Canon monitor has a slight orange or rose tinge to it, which is distracting to me.

Manual control of focus, sound and exposure
The VX-1000 has fairly easy-to-manipulate manual controls for focus, exposure and sound. This is critical for quality shooting. But see below for the foibles of the VX-1000’s controls…

Easy to find filters
The lens of the VX-1000 accomodates 52mm filters, which are easily found at photographic stores. For “Asian Pride Porn,” I used a ProMist 3 filter to give that cheesy soft glow to the fake porn scenes. Cheap and effective. Other camcorders with smaller lens rings are more difficult to equip with cheap filters.


Fragile mini audio input socket
Like most consumer camcorders, the VX-1000 has a much-too-fragile mini socket for audio input. With frequent use, this socket can get damaged, resulting in sound cutting in and out. Two solutions:
1. Buy a little black box with two XLR inputs to screw into the bottom of the VX-1000. The box has a little mini audio plug which fits into the input socket of the camera. Any tugging on cords thus pulls on the box itself, not the mini plug on the camera. The box isn’t cheap — around $200. It’s available at B&H Photo.
2. Use a piece of tape or hair tie to attach your mini-to-XLR cord to the handle on the top of the camera. Then any tugging on the cords pulls at the handle to the camera, not the fragile mini plug.

Dropout problems as camera ages
After three years or so, the VX-1000 seems subsceptible to misalignment of the recording head which results in discontinuity of timecode and possible digital distortion of images. This happened a few months ago to the camera we used to shoot “The Personals.” When I played footage shot with the camera back on a different deck, the image would break into scattered squares along the right hand side of the screen. When played back with the VX-1000 itself, the images looked fine. Different technicians had different explanations — the most plausible was that the record head was out of alignment. The solution was to dub all of the affected material from the camera to a MiniDV deck.
    I’ve seen the problem in one other VX-1000 of a similar age and seen postings on message boards from people with the same problem. My advice? Don’t buy an old camera. And test any camera you rent or borrow before you do any serious shooting.

You have to keep your eye pressed to the viewfinder to see the whole frame
Many cameras have a switch which shifts the optics of the viewfinder so that the operator can hold his or her head a few feet back but still see the whole frame in the viewfinder. The VX-1000, alas, does not have this feature. Most of the time, it’s not an issue. But if you’re stuck shooting a long speech or lecture, for example, it’s nice to be able to sit back from time to time.

Problems with exposure controls
It’s fairly easy to adjust exposure while shooting with the VX-1000, which is good. But the dial works in clicks, which is bad. The result is that instead of an imperceptible, smooth transition from F2 to F5.6, for example, you click through a half dozen levels of brightness. Most viewers don’t notice, but it’s ugly.

Problems with sound controls
The VX-1000 has a button which allows you to set a sound recording level. But it’s not an easy thing to manipulate when you’re actually shooting. So when shooting documentary, I usually use the auto-level setting, which works fairly well. When shooting fiction, I usually preset the audio level and don’t mess with it during takes. The more expensive and effective solution would be to rent a mixer which the sound recordist would use to control sound levels more precisely. But thus far I’ve managed to get away with using the strategies above.
    One warning — if you’re using the auto-level setting for sound recording, you’ll notice annoying increases in room tone sound when your subject fall silent. This is because the machine is doing its job, raising the level of its recording to record whatever sound is in the room. The solution is to preset the audio level before the take.


Bare Bones Production Equipment

By Greg Pak
Much of the writing about the digital filmmaking revolution would imply that all you need to do is buy a $1000 camera and you’re in business.
Not entirely accurate.
To produce decent video, a certain minimal package of equipment and supplies must be assembled.
Here’s my take on the absolute minimum:
The Camera
You’ll find examples of successful films shot on formats as primitive as Hi8, Super VHS, even Pixelvision. But I’d recommend MiniDV, if you can afford it.
I shot Keiko Ibi’s Oscar winning doc “The Personals” with a Sony VX-1000, a three chip MiniDV camera that costs around $4000 (three chip refers to the number of computer chips in the camera, which affects its sensitivity, particularly in lowlight situations. You’ll typically read about one chip or three chip cameras — three chip is usually preferred). If $4000 is steep (and of course it is), there are a whole range of cheaper cameras in the $1000 to $3000 range.
In buying the camera, you want to make sure of a few things. First, make sure there’s a plug for an external microphone. This is vital — more on this later. Second, make sure there are easily-manipulated dials for manual focus and exposure. Auto focus and exposure may be all right in some circumstances, but you really need to have total control when you want it.
The Sound Equipment
To make decent films, you  must have a good professional sound kit, including microphone, cables, and boom.
People will forgive almost anything with picture these days — grain, jerkiness, fuzziness, etcetera. But if your sound is murky, no one will want to watch your movie. And the onboard microphone won’t cut it — you’ll end up with hollow sound and lots of incidental bumps and pops from your hands operating the camera. No, what you need is a professional mic like the Sennheiser K-6 series (something like $160 for the base and $100 to 200 for the microphone heads than screw onto it). Get a little wind screen ($25). Get a 25 foot XLR cable and a mini-to-XLR adapter. The XLR cable plugs into the mic; the mini-to-XLR adapter connects the cable to the camera.
Many people shooting mini-DV features these days record sound onto a time code DAT player rather than plugging the mikes directly into the camera. But for simpler projects, using the camera to record sound is fine. There are issues to contend with here — about whether to set the record level on the camera or let the camera automatically set the levels — but that’s for another discussion.
Regarding the boom… An actual professional boom will cost hundreds. But you can go to the Home Depot and buy one of those telescoping Alumiglass lightbulb changing things. Mine’s made by Mr. Longarm, P.O. Box 377, Greenwood MO 64034. I detached the knob & screw at the top, sawed off the screw, drilled a hole in the thing and inserted a bolt from the hardware store which was the right size to screw on the microphone shock mount.
Speaking of which, you need a shock mount. This may be hard to find cheaply… I’ve seen them for sale for around $50. Basically a shock mount is a metal frame which holds rubber bands which in turn hold your microphone. The shock mount screws onto the end of the boom and protects the mic from noise from shakes and jolts.
In an emergency, it’s possible to rig an acceptable shock mount with some rubber bands and a wire coat hanger — check out the FilmHelp DIY Shockmount article for the full scoop.
The Tripod
Sure, some projects look great when shot entirely handheld. But most films require the seamless, solid look achievable only through tripod use.
I recommend a mid range Bogen tripod with smooth, easy action. The cheap tripods used for 35mm SLR cameras are no good — not stable enough for pans & tilts. I spent about $120 for my li’l Bogen.
Lighting Equipment
You don’t necessarily need to run out and buy an Omni light kit. To get started, you can buy some $5 Photoflood light bulbs and some decent sockets or clamp lights (from your local hardware store) which will handle up to 500 watt lights. Photofloods are color balanced light bulbs which come in 250 and 500 watts. The 3200K Photofloods are white and are color balanced for tungsten film — close in color temperature to the tungsten bulbs in your home. The 5500K Photofloods are blue and are color balanced for daylight film — the light from these bulbs matches daylight, which is great if you’re shooting indoors but there’s ambient or direct sunlight coming in from windows.
Work Gloves
So you don’t burn your fingers when changing bulbs. An essential, really.
Black Wrap
Black wrap is basically black foil which film people use to wrap around the edges of lights, controlling how the light spills, etc.
Bounce Boards
Bounce boards are just white cards you can use to bounce light to fill in shadows on people’s faces. Certain art supply stores sell card that’s silver or gold on one side — can be interesting.
Gaffer Tape
Or duct tape. Be safe — tape down those cords.
All right. That’s the totally minimal production kit. Some of that you’ll need to buy; other things you could rent or borrow. In fact, most cities these days have filmmakers’ co-ops which rent cameras and equipment fairly cheaply.
Where to Shop
In New York City, I recommend the following places:
Film & Video Arts, 817 Broadway (at 12th), 212-673-9361
HandHeld Films, 118 W. 22nd, 212-691-4898
B&H, 420 9th Ave. (bet. 33rd and 34th), 1-800-947-9970,
Rafik, 814 Broadway, 212-475-7884
B&H, 420 9th Ave. (bet. 33rd and 34th), 1-800-947-9970,
Film, Video & Sound Stock
B&H, 420 9th Ave. (bet. 33rd and 34th), 1-800-947-9970,
Steadisystems, 30 W. 21st, 212-647-0900
Raw Stock (for 16mm recans and shortends), 212-255-0445
Film Emporium (for 16mm recans and shortends), 212-681-6922

How to Feed Your Crew

By Greg Pak
Most people working on your micro-budgeted film or video are volunteers, paid nothing for their long hours of difficult work. You must feed these folks well and regularly — otherwise everyone will justifiably hate you and you may find it difficult to recruit volunteers for your next project.
Industry standards require a full meal every six hours of shooting. In addition, you should provide a craft services table where folks can find drinks and snacks throughout the day.
A few pointers on food:

  • Get someone else to deal with food
    On tiny shoots, director/producers sometimes handle Craft Services themselves. But it’s far better to recruit someone else to do the job. Fortunately, Craft Services is something that can be done by a competent friend who has zero experience in film & video production — your brother who works for a bank can do this job.

  • Get decent food
    Low-budget producers often cut corners and feed people cheap pizza five days in a row. Ugh. I worked on one memorably lame shoot during which the producers set out loaves of Wonder Bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly.
    I try to feed people a little better, budgeting around $8 to $10 a person for food. In New York City, it’s usually pretty easy to find a decent take-out joint in the vicinity of the shoot. In any town, with a little research, you can find good places with affordable lunch specials. On larger shoots, it may be worth your while to hire a catering service which will bring hot meals to your set.
    For the craft services table, bagels seem to be the standard in New York. Let local tastes dictate. I usually try to have some cut vegetables and something sweet as well — cookies or donuts. Most sets provide a few kinds of soft drinks. I like to have some juice and water on set as well. And a few times a day, a production assistant gets sent on a coffee run.

  • Serve meals onset
    If you traipse everyone offset to a restaurant for a sit down meal, you’ll waste time getting people from place to place, waiting for people to order, and waiting for the meal to be served. It’s much better to have food brought directly to the set so everyone stays in the same place and eats at the same time.

  • Don’t give people too many options
    Sometimes producers let sets grind to a halt while everyone mulls over a take out menu, picking their lunches. Instead, pick three meals ahead of time — a chicken, a beef, and a vegetarian option. Then play flight attendant, asking each crew member “Chicken, beef, or vegetarian?” Saves much time.

  • Don’t feed people breakfast
    I always ask crew members to come to the set already having eaten breakfast. When we meet at 8 a.m., I want to start working at eight, not at nine or whenever people finish eating their food. I always have bagels, orange juice, and coffee on the set which crew can munch on as they work. But I don’t blow an hour with a sit down meal for everybody.

Shoot shorter days

By Greg Pak
Like college kids bragging about how many all-nighters they’ve pulled to finish their thesis papers, low-budget filmmakers sometimes get into stupid games of one-upsmanship about the ridiculous length of their shooting days.
Don’t go there, friends! The longer you let each shooting days become, the more mistakes your crew will make, the crankier everyone will get, and the less well you will perform as a director.
Industry standards require a minimum of ten hours “turn around time.” This means that there should be at least ten hours between the time everyone leaves the set and the minute everyone arrives onset.
I’d recommend planning for shooting days of no longer than 12 hours. Yes, you’ll save a little money on equipment rentals if you shoot three sixteen hour days rather than four twelve hour days. But the savings are deceptive — with a sixteen hour day, you’ll need to feed people dinner as well as lunch. And the cost of extra mistakes and poor performance due to exhaustion may be incalculable.
From time to time, unforseeable circumstances may force you into a sixteen hour day. So be it. But don’t let it become a habit.