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Starter Pro Cine Rig on a Budget

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Whereas it it true that gear matters much less than a good eye and a good set of camera skills, a decent rig can help that good eye translate into great output. People spend thousands of dollars on their starter rigs – but a great professional rig can be had for under $1500 if you have a few decent photography lenses laying around. It also includes a great audio capture solution.

Note to readers: This is meant to be a starter kit. It’s an entry-level solution to being able to get into filmmaking without spending thousands of dollars. Keeping that in mind, there are limitations to this setup, but it should scale well enough to allow you to shoot a feature film or television series that will stand up to professional scrutiny – assuming that you’ve learned to use the equipment properly. - JB

Video

The camera – the heart of everything you’re going to capture. There are a plethora of options out there, including low-to-no-light solutions like the Sony A series; however, if you’re looking to get into doing this professionally, you need to learn how to work with and control light. There are cheaper camera bodies which may work, but they aren’t going to produce the kind of image this can – and definitely not at this price range:

  • Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera - $995 - 13 stops of dynamic range and 10 bit ProRes or CinemaDNG output, gradeable with a free copy of Davinci Resolve Light.
  • LP-E6 to 12V plate - $20 - Allows the use of cheap Canon LP-E6 sized batteries (which are also used for certain EVFs and most mid-to-high-end Canon DSLR bodies) as auxiliary power for the camera body.
  • 2x LP-E6 Battery + Charger - $30 - Two batteries and a charger for your LP-E6 batteries. This should give at least a few hours of shooting time on top of the built-in 20-30 minutes of internal battery.
  • 12V to BMPCC adapter - $8 - This is needed to convert your 12V power tap from the plate to the BMPCC power adapter.
  • 64 GB SDXC card - 2 x $39 = $78 - I suggest two cards, so you can write to one and unload the other.
  • Pistol Grip Stabilizer + LANC - $30 - This is about as cheap as a ready-made stabilizer/controller comes. It can be swapped out for a cage or tripod quick-release plate at any point, but at least allows a bit of stabilization.
  • Total: $1161

Audio

Being able to capture pristine audio is important – possibly even more important than capturing great video. This is a very inexpensive rig which will allow a boom operator to capture perfect audio without breaking the bank for less than the cost of some high-end recorders or mics.

  • H4N Recorder - $199 - The Zoom H4N is a classic, and for a bit under $200 you’re not going to get much more bang for your buck. It even has a built-in limiter/compressor to deal with unexpected loud sounds without destroying your output.
  • 32GB Class 4 SD Card - $13 - One cheap class 4 SD card is more than enough space for a day’s worth of shooting, even at maximum recording quality. You could buy nicer cards, but this will work well enough to start.
  • 9’ Boom Pole - $39 - Even though painters’ poles, etc, can be used as makeshift boom poles, they tend to clack and shake. This produces unwanted noice which can destroy otherwise pristine audio. This pole is a nice hybrid of cheap and “good enough”, with its one perceptible drawback being that it does not have an embedded XLR signal cable. However …
  • XLR Cable, 20 ft - $6 - A long enough XLR cable to make it from the back of the microphone to the recorder.
  • Cable Velcro Ties, 50 ct - $5 - Don’t forget these. Using a few of these ties can save you a hundred dollars on an XLR-embedded boom pole or the heartache of having an XLR cable dip into frame. Use them to secure the XLR cable in two or three points to your boom pole.
  • EM-320E Microphone - $26 - The response curve isn’t the same as an NTG2, but it’s “good enough” to get started. The bass roll-off can be fixed in post, and other than the embedded AA battery, there are few downsides to this mic.
  • Shotgun Mount - $6 - This shock mount can be used for those times when the soon-to-be-mentioned blimp is overkill – like most indoor shots.
  • Homemade Blimp - $20 - There are a number of how-to tutorials on Youtube on building a blimp/zeppelin for a boom mic. This is of paramount importance for any outdoor shots when there’s any sort of moving air – and I include it because capturing good audio outside is very difficult without it. A little elbow grease, a few Youtube video tutorials, and you don’t have to plunk down a few hundred dollars for a brand-name blimp.
  • Total: $315

Lenses

The only serious concern left for a basic kit is lenses. If you already have photographic lenses, or can lay your hands on them at a decent price, you’ll be all set. It’s worth remembering that the BMPCC has a Super 16 sensor, so you have a 2.88x crop factor from full frame size (1.8x crop from APS-C). To figure how much “longer” your existing lenses are going to appear to be from your existing photographic camera body, multiply their focal lengths by those crop factors.

(If you have extra money, you can always buy focal reducers which make up for a good portion of this disparity – but they may be a little pricey.)

This is a list of adapters which will work for most lens types, and are around $20. If you already own a micro-4/3 camera (Olympus, Panasonic) your lenses will work without an additional adapter.

The “less than $1500” I had mentioned earlier figures one of these adapters into the equation – but you can always buy more if you have more than one type of lens. The only one to be very wary of are automatic Canon EF mount lenses (the ones without a manual aperture ring) because the cheap adapter does not have a built-in aperture control.

Additional (Optional) Purchases

There are a few items which might make your life a little easier, but which may be a little more money.

  • Tiffen 77VND - $125 - A variable ND filter is a cheap way to dial in light levels without having to close the aperture of your lens too much. ND filters of some sort are a good idea to try to keep a cinematic look going and (up to a certain point) this will allow you to deal with most light-dimming functions without having to buy a full ND filter set.
  • Manfrotto Tripod - $60 - A good tripod is an essential, since tripod shots can make up a good chunk of cinematic shots. Don’t cheap out, get a decent tripod. This is probably the best $60 tripod you can buy.
  • Davis and Sanford Fluid Head - $95 - Yes, you read that correctly – the head is more expensive than the tripod. With a hex key and a little time, you can replace the cheap head on the Manfrotto tripod with this fluid head and get smooth pan/tilt shots. It also can support enough weight for a full rig and supports standard QR plates.

Conclusion

Remember, no rig is going to make you a better cinematographer / camera operator – but it helps to have a decent set of tools. Good luck!

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