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