Thursday, December 8, 2011

Light Without Power

I see an awful lot of posts in online forums from people wanting to know how to shoot in remote areas at night without electrical power. This always sets my daydream motor in motion because I've had more than my fair share of experimentation with various kinds of explosive substances many of which are powdered metals like magnesium.

I usually think of flares which burn very brightly, some of which are based on flammable metals, but also produce smoke and can be noisy. The other trick is to find something that will be bright and steady enough and not be excessively red like fire.

Since we're now using cameras with amazing light sensitivity, I'm starting to wonder if a simple gas or propane powered camping lantern could provide usable amounts of remote non-powered lighting.

The Coleman Two-Mantle Dual Fuel Powerhouse Lantern and Coleman PerfectFlow InstaStart Lantern supposedly provides 250-300 candlepower of light which I'd think could be usable in certain setups and more so if ganging up multiple lanterns.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What makes a film a film?

I often wonder what it is that really validates a film into the pantheon of cinematic achievement.

I tend to feel that a certain level of film festival acceptance at the very least makes a film a film. Certainly the ultimate gold star is distribution even if it's only DVD sales/rentals or sales of streams.

Films are made for audiences, and if a film ultimately finds an audience of maybe a few hundred people or so, I'd tend to label it a failure, or more appropriately - an experiment.

That said, I think it's the responsibility of a filmmaker to make films for audiences, and without constant consideration for the audience throughout the filmmaking process, films (in my experience) tend to fall apart.

Filmmaking with a purpose
should be the approach taken by all filmmakers, otherwise, much time, effort, and possibly money is wasted, and then you have to ask - what's the point?

©2011 Chris Santucci

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cheap film gear

If just starting out, on a low or non existent budget, or just a cheapskate, there are ALL kinds of readily available and usable items that can be had at a fraction of the cost of regular and generally expensive film/video gear.

I have a tendency to suggest that people wanting to make films try and get real film gear because there's a greater inherent degree of safety and functionality with real film gear as opposed to re-purposed stuff, but it IS possible to get away with lesser gear.

Work Lights

This is a popular tool with no budget filmmakers and these 300, 500, 1,000, and 1,500 watt work lights are actually fine for producing high quality quartz halogen light. The trick with these fixtures is being able to stand mount them and finding a way to control the light. The stands these lights come with are too short and too rickety to be of any use.

These kinds of fixtures can easily be bounced off of walls, ceilings, or bounce board, as well as being aimed through diffusion material for a more soft quality of light.

A cheap work light with the addition of a TVMP, for stand mounting can become a very usable source of light on a film set:

Adding the ability to mount to a stand with use of some inexpensive "black wrap" (as a light modifier) gives you a safe and cheap source of very good light.

China balls (paper lanterns)

This is something that IS actually used quite frequently in the film world as a great soft light source that you can put virtually anywhere which costs about the same as a decent lunch for two at Subway. With a cheap socket/cord, and a tungsten light bulb, you've got a great soft source for key lights or to create pools of light further into an interior set.

If needed, you can go for a slightly more expensive CFL instead of tungsten.

If you poke around online, you can find some dealers selling various sized china balls for very cheap.

Older TV & film lighting

Tungsten film style fixtures are almost as simple as a table lamp in your home. They either work or they don't, and they're easy to repair. I see little sense in buying a brand new fresnel fixture for 5 times what you could pay for a used fixture of identical design and quality.

Don't overlook the quality of an open face fixture. Lowel has specialized in open face focusable fixtures for years and these fixtures are essentially identical in function and quality of light they output as some older used units that can be had for a fraction of the cost.

A company called Berkey-Colortran manufactured lighting at one time which was used in TV studios all over the world. There's almost always older used Berkey-Colortran stuff on eBay (generally open face style fixtures) that are completely usable and definitely a step up from Home Depot work lights. These fixtures use readily available lamps and can be repaired and serviced fairly easily.

Companies like Mole-Richardson have been in business for long enough so that there are generally always older used fresnel and broad style fixtures for sale. Parts can be ordered directly from Mole for any units that may need servicing and lamps are readily available.

Light Stands

Light stands are pretty simple devices. They either work or they don't, so I would suggest seeking out used stands when in the market. I've purchased a lot of used stands over the years for half or less than half of what new would cost and have had little to no issues with their usability.

Some people use lower cost stands like a musicians microphone stand or still photography lighting stands. Beyond that, I've seen people make stands out of a bucket, a pipe, and some mortar mix by mixing the mortar, dumping it into the bucket and then positioning the pipe (or paint roller pole) in the bucket until the mix cures.

This provides a very solid foundation for lightweight lighting, but transportability would be a bit of a chore so these would work best in a studio setting.

Other options include some very handy items made by Lowel, which allow the ability to clamp or mount onto things, thereby negating the need for a stand. In any instance where you clamp onto something overhead like a light fixture, plumbing, wall - make sure you safety tie the rig to something solid nearby so it doesn't land on someone in the event it comes lose.


There are slews of used Manfrotto and Bogen tripods and fluid heads floating around that can be bought for a fraction of what the newer stuff costs. I've used a number of older Manfrotto fluid heads and although some have had very minor issues, while still being functional, you have to be realistic about your skill level, the type of shooting you want to do, and how much you have to spend.

One thing I would say to definitely not do is try to use a still camera tripod with a video camera. You might be tempted to do this with the thought that you might only shoot locked shots, but the moment you try to shoot a pan or tilt shot with merely a 3 axis head, you'll be sorry.


There are plenty of older used microphones that in many cases out perform some of the latest microphones that can cost the same as new.

Sennheiser and Rode are currently offering some very nice inexpensive shotgun mics aimed at DSLR users.

The older Sennheiser ew100 Wireless transmitter/receiver models can be found used for less than half the newer versions and while being slightly larger, they perform just as well with the addition of a trim pot which the newer models do not have.


Again, used gear is the best way to go as long as you know how to shop and can weed out the garbage. There are a LOT of used Shure mixers floating around in the used market which are acceptably quiet and offer enough features and quality for just about any low budget filmmaker. A used 4 channel Shure FP42 can be had for 250 bucks, and it's loaded with features:

In new gear, Rolls is currently offering some very inexpensive portable mixers that seem to be fairly highly regarded and also don't rule out a live music style Mackie mixer either like the older 1202 series units which I've seen in use on a few feature film sets:

Equipment Cases

Everything manufactured for use in film/video production comes with a high price tag whether the materials and manufacturing warrant it or not. As far as cases go, I see little sense in shelling it out for Pelican cases unless you rent your gear out on a regular basis or ship or travel with your gear on a regular basis.

As an alternative to the venerable Pelican case, I've found the Seahorse brand to be
extremely close in design, materials, and craftsmanship while costing in some cases 1/2 as much as Pelican (while also being American made and with a lifetime warranty like Pelican).

Other favorites of mine as alternatives to costly cases include:

Golf bag hard case -
For $100/$150 you can have a nice shippable hard case for stands and/or tripod:

The "universal photo/video hard case"-
With a little glue here and there, you can improve and extend the life of this type of case which can be found just about everywhere for around 25 to 50 bucks. And, these come with foam and/or dividers:

Musical instrument cases-
I use a bass guitar hard case for 4' fluorescent tubes and it works great. Economy cases meant for musical instruments or sound gear come in usable dimensions and sizes and can be had for less than film/video cases.

I've found large size hard luggage with wheels in thrift stores that I use for gear when traveling by plane, most of which I find for around 5 bucks or so. You won't look very pro showing up on set with a bunch of suitcases, but then you can also enjoy the anonymity that comes from not having your expensive gear in expensive cases.

©2011 Chris Santucci

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Recording Location Sound

I'm not a sound mixer, but I've done a lot of it, which is somewhat of a normal aspect of operating camera on low budget projects. As such, I've learned a few things about recording clean, usable sound on location.

Micing: The pro approach

Normally, location sound mixers like to employ a wireless lav mic and a shotgun mic simultaneously for each actor. Reasons for this have to do with safety and have to do with conditions on location.

Sometimes a wireless lav mic will be subjected to occasional radio interference which can create short bursts of static over dialog. Having a recorded channel from the shotgun mic can alleviate having to shoot another take if you have a clean recording with it.

Also, a lav mic's battery might start going dead during a take and having the redundancy of the shotgun mic can save you, especially if the take is a keeper. The last thing you want to do after a perfect take is shoot it again, even though you will anyway ;-)

Having two usable audio channels to employ in post each with their own different sets of characteristics is favorable. As an editor, I have repeatedly switched from one channel to the other as needed.

Using a single shotgun mic

I've shot multiple feature length films with only a single shotgun mic and this can work fine if you're careful and always record "wild lines" whenever needed to use in the edit. For example, when shooting a very wide shot where you can't get close enough with a shotgun mic, or when the actors action makes it too difficult to record and their face is not visible.

Issues with only using a shotgun mic are room acoustics (echo/reverb), picking up ambient noise, and too much distance from actor depending on the shot.

Using lavalier mics

The key thing with placement of a lav mic is to eliminate ALL clothing movement near the mic by taping the clothing to the actors skin, and taping all layers of clothing together where the mic is places. This can be done with tape loops made from paper tape (black usually, unless it's visible through light colored cloth) or moleskin (available at drug stores).

As for where to place a lav mic, it's not always the same on every actor as it really depends on what they're wearing more than anything. Sometimes it can be placed under a collar just out of sight of the camera. Sometimes it can be taped under the garment (facing forward and as close to the mouth as you can get it).

Try not to place a lav mic under too many or too thick layers of cloth or the sound will become muffled.

Generally, placement of a lav mic is most problematic with women because they tend to wear low cut tops which sometimes leaves almost no place to hide a mic. One trick in this instance is to cut a makeup sponge wedge part way (to run cable through), place the mic so it's just sticking out the top (larger end of the wedge), and place sponge/mic in the actresses breast cleavage.

The cable can then be run around to her back and out of sight.


ADR ("Automatic Dialog Replacement") is generally a regular practice with studio level motion pictures. Certainly location dialog is ALWAYS recorded, but large budget films go for spectacular audio quality, so they will re-record the dialog with the actor in a recording studio as they watch the looped scene on a large screen so as to match their new dialog sound take with their mouth in the scenes.

Scenes or parts of scenes are looped for the actor so they can repeat their lines until getting it perfect.

This process is actually quite simple to achieve even on a low budget, but of course it's always desirable to get clean location dialog recordings in almost all cases. Sometimes it's just not possible, as in the case of shooting a scene in a noisy environment (office with loud air circulation, bar/restaurant with loud coolers, exterior location with loud traffic, etc.)

Room Tone

This is generally forgotten about, but oh so important during the post process, especially if ADR is required. Generally it's adequate to record 30 seconds of room tone while still on your set with everyone still in place and not making a sound.

Having this ambient sound recording makes it possible to create acoustically matching dialog by mixing the room tone with your ADR recording. Also, it can come in handy for filling in gaps in an audio channel if a noise is removed (because you lose the ambient tone by doing so).

Of course, sometimes the location is noisy and if so and you intend to loop dialog later, you'll have to get quiet room tone from somewhere else (that matches the location to some reasonable degree.)

A word on noisy locations

With low budget films, you generally are at the mercy of whomever's property you're working on (or neighbors). That said, it generally means, NO you cannot shut off the walk in freezer, or NO you cannot make those people be quiet (because they're open for business), or NO the lawn crew will not stop cutting grass, etc. In cases where you either secretly or openly shut off machinery that hums in order to record clean location dialog, MAKE SURE you turn the machines back on.

Write a note to yourself, tell at least one other person, AND somehow make it impossible to leave without turning the machine(s) back on. I worked on a feature film once in a restaurant where certain coolers were never turned back on after shooting scenes, which resulted in $1,400. damage (that production had to reimburse for).

The most important thing

No matter what, keep in mind with any mic use, you want to place the mic as close as possible to the actors mouth while making sure they are not breathing on it. Take notice of where they will turn their head predominately during a take and place the mic(s) accordingly.

The closer the mic is to the actors mouth, the quieter the background noise (ambience) will be, which is exactly what you want.

©2011 Chris Santucci

Friday, July 29, 2011

Your Name Here

It might seem like a minor thing, but a film's title, even more than a song's title can, I believe can have a significant effect on the success of a film.

At the very least, I think real thought needs to be given to film titles because in some cases, all a potential viewer knows of the film IS the title.

Consider how our first and sometimes only exposure to a film is in just hearing or reading the title:

While in conversation with someone, the name of a film is mentioned.

A list of film names are viewed in movie listings on a smart phone.

What you want is a title that conjures up imagery in the mind well before someone even sees the film. You want it to intrigue people and make them curious about the film. You want a title that gets a positive response from people.

Certainly if a film gets good word of mouth or reviews, then really, the title isn't nearly as important because frequency forces a title into the public's memory. But with a film of limited release, if one is lucky enough to get a theatrical release or even an online or DVD release, having a memorable title can translate into interest when little is known of the film itself.

Consider a title when searching online. What if your title is identical to films made in the past, present, or future? What if someone who has an interest in renting or buying or streaming your film looks the up the title online and finds there are 30 or 40 films all with the same name?

Like this:

The Key

How long do you think someone will spend trying to find the actual title they're looking for? Especially if all they have to go by is the title and a vague recommendation from someone?

Titles can be ambiguous or they can elicit a feeling or they can very succinctly sum up the essence of a film, but in my opinion, what they should be whenever possible is memorable, because really, the film's title is the first step in marketing the film.

A confusing title, a overused title, a title made up of very common words, a silly title that makes people reluctant to utter, or a completely forgettable title will handicap the potential success of a film when you're an unknown filmmaker trying to get the attention of film festival programmers and an audience.

Nothing is better than having a great title that's wholly unique and memorable because it also means online searches will deliver less garbage and more of your film in search results and it will stick in people's heads.

And besides, do you really want to give your baby a dumb name that it'll have to live with all its life?

©2011 Chris Santucci

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Previsualization on a budget

I shot a short recently entitled "A Five Minute Warning" which took place entirely in one apartment set which I designed and built. In an effort to make some judgments about the set configuration and lighting, I first built a small scale model of the set out of cardboard to test with:

Once I felt like my set design was going to work and my thoughts about lighting were doable, I then fabricated a larger scale model of the set to work out set design, lighting, blocking, and composition:

By combining this scale model set with a mini-cast of 12" actors, I then spent a few weeks playing around with lighting, etc.

What I learned with my ultra low budget scale model set and action figure cast enabled me to save significant amounts of time later as it allowed me (in my free time) to determine blocking, shot ideas, composition, lighting, and make judgments about the curtains seen in many of the shots.

I spent many hours laying on the floor with my still camera moving lighting around and moving my action figures around until I felt I had most if not all of my shots worked out and of course then I had a complete set of storyboard images to use on the shoot days.

© 2011 Chris Santucci

Monday, February 7, 2011

Short or Feature?

In any filmmaker's career (or impending career), the question of which to produce - a short or a feature, almost always rears its ugly and pragmatic head.

Do you step up the the challenge of pulling off a completed feature length film and possibly become the darling of the Sundance Film Festival? Or, do you create a much more modest and less glamorous short film, which is generally looked at sideways by most except those in the filmmaking world?

What's the purpose of the film? - you have to ask.


Do you want or need a vehicle with which to demonstrate your brilliance to the world? Then the answer is easy - produce a short. You can maximize your budget and retain far more production value with a shorter film. That's just some simple math there. Stretching a budget to accommodate 90 minutes of screen time is crazy unless you're an experienced filmmaker and you have a decent budget.

A smartly prepped short produced for $20K can look and feel like a studio film if you're careful.


Are you on fire to write, direct, produce, and (possibly) star (umkaaayyy) in your own film? Then you definitely need to produce a feature length film, and preferably one of at least 2 hours in duration, but don't hesitate to go for 3 hours, because nothing says "I am God's gift to cinema" - like a 2+ hour film (especially a first film). Good luck!


Is there a story you just HAVE TO tell through cinematic means? If so, you have to consider how much of a budget you have and whether or not this story can be told in a short. I'd say, let the story dictate the film length if it's about passion and find a way to finance the film, even if it takes 5 years to produce a little at a time.


Nobody has any business producing a feature (or features) until they've produced a "successful" short film. Anyone serious about filmmaking will produce shorts, and I mean *many shorts* before embarking upon the monumental task of feature length film production.

Capturing and keeping a mass audiences attention for 90 minutes is best left to professionals and YOU are not a "professional" if you've never produced a film before, let alone a film that had any significant degree of success.

©2011 Chris Santucci

Friday, February 4, 2011

Set Etiquette

Getting a film done, as in - shot, is greatly dependent upon a crew functioning efficiently as a cohesive unit. Otherwise, time is wasted, confusion ensues, feelings become hurt, and films become compromised or worse - unfinished.

Some of us who work in film, liken film production to a military operation during war time (not to in any way diminish that activity). When you're prepping every day for a month and then shooting every day for a month, all the while working long hours, putting fires out every day, eating-maybe, going to the bathroom-maybe, all the while maintaining a narrow focus on one thing - getting the film made, that's when it feels like you're fighting a war.

When producing a low budget Indie, it becomes even more crucial to be as efficient as possible because both time AND money are limited. When a large budget exists, money can be thrown at problems and that almost always solves problems quickly.

However, whether producing a large budget studio film OR a micro budget Indie film - efficiency is key and part of being efficient means operating on set on shoot days in a reasonable and sensible manner.

Observe and follow the chain of command

The director is at the top, most often along with the producer(s). The director, depending upon the project, (but ideally) should deal with department heads only (key crew), not those of the crew working under the keys.

Department heads delegate to and oversee what crew in their department are doing and they work directly with other department heads as well as the director and producer(s).

When I'm on a set as a DP, I almost always try to go through the AD when I need something to happen, unless what I'm doing is directly related to grip/electric or has to do with what's in the frame I'm shooting. As a producer, I tend to deal with department heads and let them interface with their 2nds and 3rds.

Avoid chit-chat

This is a pet peeve of mine, so I'll try not to rant about it. While on set, there are moments of pause that take place at which point friendly crew tend to get carried away with small talk, banter, or comparing iPhone apps with each other. Socializing on a set during a shoot day should be curtailed. If caught in conversation with a crew member, keep your eyes on the ball at the very least and don't be afraid to just walk away if you feel like you're not doing your job.

I've been on sets where the conversation level in the room became deafening while I struggled to deal with lighting problems which is an indicator of too many people not paying attention because for one - the noise level makes it hard to communicate and two - the crew should be aware.

Pay attention

Always, always, always, keep your eyes and ears open and stick to the task at hand. Wandering off to smoke a butt, staring at the monitor while the camera rolls (unless that's your job), screwing around on your smart phone, or just plain NOT paying attention is not good.

An ideal situation would be that you're watching and/or listening to the degree that you can anticipate what needs to happen so that you're already thinking about ways to make that thing happen when it's called for.

"That's not my job"

There are very good reasons for crew on a film to have titles. A title defines what your job is. It creates boundaries and indicates to everyone what you do and what you don't do. When these definitions exist, then it becomes much easier to cover all the bases on a film production and ensure that the business at hand will be dealt with.

Also, I've been on sets where we'd have a crew member who also worked and was experienced in - other things, and have seen people overstep their boundaries. It's not uncommon for people in film production to work professionally as (for example) a camera operator/sound mixer/script supervisor (believe it or not). The key thing in these cases is - who is hired to do what?

I was DP on a film once with a script supervisor who kept interjecting opinion about lighting, camera staging, and shot setups. Needless to say, I had to point out to the script supervisor that I was the DP. I had to point out to the director that I was the DP. I ended up quitting because - when you hire a DP, you let the DP do the job of a DP.

Use "production speech"

Use short phrases, and speak briefly without interjecting too much in the way of superfluous verbiage. You can always spot a seasoned production crew person on a set because they speak in short, concise sentences. "Production speech" is about using the least amount of words possible to get the idea across. There are times to elaborate or pontificate, but when in shoot mode - keep it short and to the point.

Be like The Borg

All those in a given department, ideally, should know where each other are at all times and what they're doing. If leaving the set to use the bathroom, or for any reason - tell whoever is nearest to you (in your department), or (better) call it out over the radio. When someone on the crew asks for something that your department is in control of (a prop from off set, wardrobe item, set piece, piece of gear, etc.) the person who is closest to it usually responds first on the radio (or verbally sans radio if that works) that they're on it, OR the department head might dictate who does what ("No, Jimmy, you stay there and keep painting. We need to shoot on that set soon. I'll have Jane bring that thing to the set even though she's further away.")

In other words - function as a single unit.

Own up to your mistakes

It's important to just own up to mistakes right away because it cuts down on guesswork while trying to alleviate a potential recurring problem. And it also helps people determine potential issues regarding the integrity of the set, gear, and the crew.

Stay in your department

If someone outside your department asks you to do something, even as a favor, beware. As mentioned, unless it's been established that certain people on the crew can swing and/or pitch in whenever necessary, stay on your mission IN your department ("Sorry, I can't help you. I'm on a mission right now.")

One very crucial aspect of having people stick to certain tasks is, they then have intimate knowledge of the status of those tasks. Things can become very confused on a set and time can be wasted if someone either tries to "help out" or someone thinks they still need to see to something that was already taken care of.

Be nice

Film production is hard enough without having to deal with drama and petty bullshit. Generally, in my experience, film crew all tend to get along for the most part because they all share a common goal while working on a project. Personality conflicts, stress, or just general tension can be hard to avoid during production hours especially when the crew aren't sleeping enough.

Try to keep a general vibe of "nice" while on a project. Please, thank you, and you're welcome, are ALL great policies and if you sense a major issue with another personality that you might have to work closely with, think about avoiding the project completely.


©2011 Chris Santucci