Category: Indie Filmmaking Basics

What Video Equipment Do I Need?

Indie Filmmaking Basics | By: indie

Beyond the obvious fact that you need a video camera to create a video (which some of my less astute readers might not be aware of to begin with), there are a multitude of optional video equipment components that can be used to flesh out your production and bring it to the next level. The great thing about most of these components is that they are renewable resources – you buy them once and you can use them over and over again.

None of the items described on this page below this point are necessary to make a video. See How To Make A Video if you have absolutely no way of purchasing or acquiring anything besides a camera. These are simply additional tools that will make things easier for you and help you achieve better results.

Digital Editing Workstation

This sounds like the name of some fancy technological device. A Digital Editing Workstation, however, is nothing more than a normal desktop or laptop computer. All editing workstations are computers, but not all computers are editing workstations.

If you’re looking at this website right now… ahem… which you are… you have a computer, or at least access to one. Actually, if you don’t have a computer by now, I need to talk with you about some changes that need to take place in your life.

Even the most rudimentary, basic computer models they make now can be had for a couple hundred bucks, and will be sufficient to be used as your workstation. Failing that, you can obtain a computer that’s a couple of years old for a pittance, and that should suit you just fine.

What makes an average, run-of-the-mill computer into an editing workstation is the inclusion of the necessary hardware and software to perform multimedia editing.

The good news about this is that it used to cost an arm and a leg to get the right hardware onto your machine so you could edit video. In college I put my first video capture card into my computer at the time, and it cost nearly $200. Before long, you could get a firewire card that fit into one of your computer’s PCI slots for around $20-30. These days, most cameras record to memory cards or onboard hard drives, and all you need is a USB cable (which comes with the camera, typically) to transfer your files.

A note on consistency: with that old video capture card I put into my computer way back when, the interface was analog. It used a cable that connected to the computer through RCA jacks, and had separate inputs for audio and video. The video card itself had to be connected to my computer’s audio card, which meant that the two cards needed to be sync’d up exactly.

This was not often the case, so I’d find that whenever I captured long segments of footage the audio and the video lost sync with one another. Sounds would start happening several seconds after the matching video, and editing became an absolute nightmare.

With today’s technology, both video and audio signals are held within the same file, so you never have to worry about syncing issues like that. Plug your camera into your computer’s USB port, and you’ve got yourself the beginnings of a Digital Editing Workstation. The other component of a DEW is the software used for editing.

Editing Software

Both digital audio and digital video will benefit from manipulation after you transfer them from their original source. There are tons of options for software, many of which I provide reviews and commentary for on my audio and video software pages.

Portable Audio Recorder

You can always use the onboard microphone on your camera to record all your sound. That is, if you want your videos to have tunnel-itis. I’m sure you’ve heard that distant, echoey effect on YouTube videos before. It happens when a person sets up a camera, hits record and stands against a wall or sits at a desk across the room.

Tunnel-itis is a dead giveaway that a novice has been playing with cameras, and you don’t want that happening to your videos. Rather than the sound being captured by a directed microphone, it bounces off every wall in the room before it hits the on-camera mic. The farther away the sound (ie., the person talking) gets, the greater the effect and thus the more hollow and ringy the sound becomes.

A portable audio recorder is anything from a device made specifically for that purpose (decent ones cost a few hundred dollars) to a microphone hooked up to your laptop, or even a high-end shotgun mic connected to a mobile recording rig.


Since actual movie film is a series of photographs taken at high speeds, film cameras don’t usually have the capability to record audio. So the way major filmmakers record sounds during filming is by using a shotgun microphone on a boom pole.

A shotgun is a long, slender, highly sensitive directional microphone. It looks like this. It records sounds in stereo and tends to pick up the greatest volume of sound from the direction it is pointing. While filming a scene in which two people are talking, for example, the shotgun mic is suspended above and between them, pointing downward so that it picks up their dialogue.

Muffs / Windscreens

Shotgun mics are sometimes fitted with a muff or windscreen. The windscreen/muff covers the mic entirely and keeps breezes from blowing directly into the filaments (this tends to cause an annoying, scratchy sound and muffles other audio before it reaches the mic).

Boom Pole

A boom pole is an extendable rod that holds the shotgun mic at the far end and allows it to be hung over the action in a scene, close to where the bulk of the sound is taking place. In this way a louder, more clear sound signal can be recorded from afar without any interference, even if the shot is framed widely.

Boom poles tend to be expensive, but there are a few ways you can make a cheap one yourself. I made my own for half the price of the cheapest boom pole using a lightbulb changing kit and an inexpensive shock mount.


Another expensive piece of filming equipment, a professional steadicam can cost tens of thousands of dollars. It is made up of a padded metal harness that fits snugly around the cameraperson’s shoulders and abdomen, and a balancing arm that holds the camera.

Without going into depth to explain how the actual physics work, the steadicam holds the camera up so that every motion it makes is smooth and fluid. The camera operator can literally jump up and down while wearing the harness and the arm that supports the camera will hold it almost completely still.

In simpler terms, and to provide a more basic description that will benefit you in your endeavors, a steadicam is any apparatus that adds weight to the bottom of the camera. Think about a grandfather or pendulum clock. The weight at the bottom causes a smooth, fluid movement of the pendulum that keeps time so precisely that it can measure exact seconds for months at a time.

Now imagine trying to crank a grandfather clock by hand, moving it back and forth in rhythm. It would be a little bit more difficult to keep it smooth and fluid, wouldn’t it?

Likewise, if you grab a small consumer video camera and slip your hand through the strap, you now have a compact, light-weight object in your grasp. How simple would it be to fling your arm about wildly in any direction? How difficult is it for you to keep your hand completely still and level while you hold onto it?

The answer to both of those questions is very. So the only way to get a still, level picture is to use a tripod and mount the camera on the ground, right? But what if you need to move the camera as you shoot? Panning, tracking, and dollying all become easier by adding a pendulum-like device beneath the camera.

Quick Tip: In a pinch you can just draw up the legs on your tripod, group them together, and hold your camera by the legs themselves. This makes it more difficult to turn the camera off-kilter and adds some weight to your setup.

You can use some piping and a free weight below the camera to provide this extra stability very cheaply. As a matter of fact, I’m going to do something rare and link to the website that shows you how to do it.


While your sound design and camera work set the tone of your video, lighting sets the mood. Setting up to shoot a person is a relatively simple process, which I talk about on my lighting page.

Lighting a scene with multiple subjects and/or people requires a little bit more creativity if you don’t have several three-point lighting setups available to you. You may find that while the normal amount of light in one of the rooms in your house appears sufficient to the naked eye, it only barely does the job when you start dealing with cameras and you have other miscellaneous video equipment to contend with.

Professional light kits can cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars, so a good cheap option for lighting equipment is to purchase some metal shop lights like these from your local hardware store or website.

Three of these lights with bulbs will cost you hardly anything, and they’ll give you a huge increase in the amount of control you have while you film. You can bounce lights off of walls, mirrors, or any other flat, lightly colored surface to provide more ambient “fill” light.

Other Equipment

There are tons of other small items and accessories you could buy to make your films more appealing, such as video and audio plug-ins for your software, light covers, reflector panels, and color filters. Figure out what works best for you and use the guides throughout the rest of this site to help you on your way.

How To Make A Video – A Crash Course

Indie Filmmaking Basics | By: indie

Ok, so you have an old camera from a parent or friend, or you’ve just purchased a new or used one. Now you want to learn how to create your own video – a funny skit, a short film, a school project, or a documentary on a subject you care about. But after your big purchase, that savings account might be a little on the slim side – or maybe you just don’t have the budget to afford all the big-ticket items you think you need.

Never fear. There’s lots you can do, even if an old camcorder is your only piece of equipment! For the purposes of this quick overview, I’m going to assume that you have no money, no experience, and no knowledge whatsoever about how to handle a camera properly. I’ve written plenty of tips, advice, and information about more advanced techniques and procedures throughout the rest of this site, so be sure to take a look at the other pages that interest you once you’ve got the basics down.

Your Camera

It probably won’t be super difficult for you to find a consumer-grade camcorder, judging by how popular and common they are. The trick is knowing how to use it.

Take a second to make sure you understand the basic functions it can perform and how to activate them. If you have experience with this stuff already and have used your camera and figured out how to make a video before with success, you can skip to the next section. If not, there are a few things we need to go over first.

The Media – How It Records

Every camcorder has to grab the visual and auditory information it captures and store it somewhere. What recording medium does yours use? Does it record onto tapes, an internal hard drive, mini-DVDs, or something else? In any situation but the internal hard drive camera, make sure you have the proper blank media to store your footage on.

It sucks to run out of tape or hard disk space just as you’re about to capture that perfect cinematic moment. So clear some space on the internal hard drive, buy some tapes, or pick up some blank video discs. Just make sure you have more than enough space to record what you need to.

Starting Up

Call me Captain Obvious, but do you know where the power button is and how to operate it so that you can turn it on and find out how to make a video in the first place? There may be several power modes or settings to choose from – these might include record mode, playback mode, picture/photography mode, and of course, off.

How about the record button? I can’t believe how many times I’ve let someone use my camera and they inadvertently left the thing on and recording and didn’t even realize it. Know when you are live and when you’re on standby and you’ll avoid ending up with twelve minutes of epic footage of your right leg.

Often there is an indicator on the viewfinder or LCD screen. A red dot, REC, or RECORD symbol means you’re live, while a green dot, PAUSE, or STANDBY indicates that the camera is on but not taping.

Is This Thing On?

Some cameras have auto shut-off or power saving modes that will cause them to automatically power down after a certain period of inactivity, usually around five to ten minutes. If your camera was on before and it isn’t now, and you haven’t pressed anything, check the battery first and then check whether the device has a power save function.

Why Can’t I See Anything?

For as long as mortal man has used image recording devices, the lens cap has been the cause of many missed shots and lost opportunities. For cryin’ out loud, look through your viewfinder or pull out your LCD screen and take a glance at your framing before you start recording.

Point and Shoot

I’m going to move forward and hope that if you needed to, you actually read and followed the guidelines in the previous section to familiarize yourself with how your most important tool works. If you aren’t already familiar with cerebral concepts like how to turn a camera on, remove the lens cap and press record, I’d highly recommend reading through the text above.

So what now, just point and shoot? Well, sort of.

A film is composed of a series of shots that, when placed one after the other, create a cohesive scene. A shot can be described as one segment of uninterrupted video that shows a particular subject from a certain angle. During some shots the camera moves, and therefore the angle can change within one shot. But a shot is still a single segment of continuous footage.

Think of it as if you were to stand still in a room. Imagine that your eyes are the camera, and even if you start to walk around and maintain your gaze, you could even leave the room while continuing that gaze. Now if there were a table in the center of the room and you circled around it while looking at it the whole time, the table would look different from any given point at which you stood. As long as you never blink, you are creating a continuous “shot” with your eyes.

If you were to close your eyes, move to a different point, and then open them, you’d be starting a new shot. Maybe you start at the front of the table and walk toward it. You shut your eyes and take three steps to the side. Your second shot begins the instant you open your eyes again, and continues until you close them. Taking shots with a camera from multiple angles not only provides your audience with a greater understanding of the spatial relationships between objects in your scene; it’s also more interesting to watch!

Shooting Styles

Let’s get into some specifics and look at a couple of shooting styles that should help to illustrate how to make a video, and their characteristics. First think about the filming you’d see on a reality television show; the typical footage on these programs is taken from hand or shoulder-mounted TV cameras. Shots tend to be slightly longer than average and make use of quick pans between subjects: two people are talking in a room and the camera moves back and forth between them to capture their conversation.

Now think about an epic cinematic masterpiece like Lord of the Rings. You might see an extreme wide ‘helicopter’ shot from a distance that shows the Fellowship traveling over a long distance, followed by a close-up of Gandalf’s face that shows the old wizard looking out across the horizon with some expression of relief, horror, or bewilderment at the next obstacle the party will be faced with.

When you combine and organize two or more shots together like this to depict a particular moment or sequence in time, you’ve got a scene. Several scenes together (or sometimes just one long scene) will compose your entire piece – your finished video or movie.

How you go about putting these segments in order depends on the resources you have available to you. Typically you’d tape or film your shots and then bring them to an editing or post-production station. But since this page is about making videos on the cheap, I’m going off the assumption that you may not have a digital workstation on which to edit your footage. If not, you may wish to read about In-Camera Editing.

Basic Shot Framing 101

I have an entire page dedicated to framing your shots, but for now I’ll go over the most basic of basics.

The three basic distance shots are called the close-up, the medium shot, and the wide shot. There are variations of each; the extreme close-up, for example. As a general rule, closer shots are used to show emotion.

In other words, don’t film close-ups of random passersby and wide shots of your main character. You want to make your audience feel close to the main character by showing facial expressions, so use close-ups to convey the thoughts and facial expressions of your principal characters.

Amateur Alert: if you’re framing a shot of a single person, don’t put your subject dead-center. This is a surefire tactic for how to make a video look home-movie-tacular. I like to use the Lord of the Rings movies as examples quite often, because the cinematography in these films is top-notch; watch them if you haven’t seen them, and watch them again if you have.

No one is ever framed in the middle in any of the LOTR films, unless it’s something like the moment when Aragorn bursts through the doors to the halls of Rohan, where the shot is used for effect. These films closely follow the rule of thirds, which is a basic tenet of photography and film composition.

Frame your subject slightly off-center, and at an angle, giving them some look room, which means if they’re on the left, provide more room to the right because it’s the direction in which they’re looking.

Use Light To Your Advantage

I also have a page on how to light a scene, but again – the page you’re reading right now is just a quick overview, so you can take a look at the lighting page for more detailed tips and techniques on lighting.

Natural light can be a great source for making sure your shots are illuminated well, but if you don’t have the suns rays you can bounce light from a small lamp off of a white or light-colored wall or panel to create a soft glow in your shot.

If you don’t have room for light bouncing, aim your light directly at your subject and use some kind of filter to diffuse it, softening the beam and spreading it out over a larger area. Some household filters you could use include white bedsheets or plastic semi-transparent shower curtains.

Common Sense Tip: Don’t rest your diffuser material on your hot lamps (or even too close) unless you really enjoy breathing toxic fumes and/or starting fires inside your house. Try building a basic frame out of some scrap lumber or a craft hoop and clamp it into place in front of your light instead.

Diffusers are very important; you should always try to avoid aiming unfiltered light toward your subject’s face unless it is your goal to cause temporary blindness and/or eye damage. That will make them angry and they may punch you in the throat and not want to be in your film anymore.

Also, unfiltered or unsoftened light from a short distance away creates sharp lines and shadows – the shorter the distance, the sharper the shadows – so again, use bouncing, filters, and indirect light whenever you can to cause your lighting to appear more like a glow than a direct beam.

The Earthquake Effect

The final point I’ll bring up in this overview is that above anything else, the single thing you can do to make your videos and films look like they were made by a complete novice is to shoot them as if you were a dad cracking open his first camcorder on Christmas morning. Nothing screams “I’ve never done this before!” like filming with an unsteady hand.

Tripods are your friend. If you don’t have a tripod, a flat surface where you can rest the camera is a good fair-weather friend too, but get a cheap tripod if you can manage it.

Making your still shots still and your action shots action-packed takes practice, but it’s such a key exercise that it’s worth doing over and over while you learn, until you get it right. The pacing, framing, and motion of your shots will set the tone for your videos and films, and will become your most important tool for creating the atmosphere you’ve always imagined letting your audiences experience.

The Filmmaking Process

Indie Filmmaking Basics | By: indie

Principles of Filmmaking

The filmmaking process is generally divided into three specific segments: pre-production, production, and post-production. The guides below contain a plethora of information on the principles of each.

“You told me I have a plethora, and I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is.” – Guapo, from The Three Amigos

Pre-production Guide

Pre-production includes everything required to plan the film and any arrangements that need to be made prior to firing up the camera(s). From visiting locations and getting permission from the owners to use the facility or land if necessary, to script-writing, to storyboarding, planning is an essential part of the filmmaking process.

The following pages will help you with everything you need to consider in the pre-production phase of your project.

Writing A Script
How to write a good script, find your characters’ voices, and format it correctly.

Planning and Storyboarding
It can be very helpful to your crew if you have solid technical plans for them to work from.

Filming Locations
All about finding the right location and securing permission to use it.

Production Guide

On location, production includes setup, teardown, and everything that happens in between. From the moment the cameras start rolling, your set should be well-lit, your mics placed properly, and your camera handled expertly.

Basic Camera Technique
Learn how to hold, operate, and move your camera with fluidity and grace.

Scene Lighting
Simple ways to effectively light your set or location.

Audio Recording
How to record sound in the field.

5 Tips For Framing Your Shots
Guidelines for making sure your framing is the best it can be.

Post-Production Guide

After principal filming has been completed, you need to take the raw footage and turn it into a film. This can be the most time-consuming part of the filmmaking process outside of film schools, but there’s lots of knowledge here that will make it easier on you.

Turning your computer into an editing bay.

Capturing Video Footage
Transferring video from camera to computer.

Digital Video Editing
An overview of the process of using computers to edit footage.

Non-Linear Editing Tutorial
Common editing interfaces and how to find your way around in them.

Making Video Look Like Film
How you can get that magical film look from plain old video.