I recently conducted a workshop titled “The Hatchback Production Kit” at the Camera Company Pro Video Show in Dedham, Massachusetts. During the workshop I promised to post an inventory of the items I discussed in the workshop. I described the kit I’ve assembled for shooting formal interviews. I prefer shooting hand-held and travelling with a single camera bag, however, sometimes I need more gear to achieve specific results. This kit, suitable for both documentary and bare bones narrative, is designed to fit in the hatchback of a compact car and is also designed for air travel. In a pinch I can lug it all by myself, though I usually work with a collaborator. Rather than purchase a specific kit, I think the best approach is to put together a custom kit that meets your own unique needs based on your own shooting style and production value priorities. This kit is an attempt to balance capability, cost, weight, and size and I am always adding and subtracting items from it as my shooting needs change. The kit is divided into four separate components: 1. Camera bag, 2. Tripod bag, 3. Sound case, and 4. Lighting case.
1. Camera bag
I currently shoot with a Panasonic AG-HPX170 camcorder (3-1/3″ CCD chip). I prefer a camcorder for hand-held shooting, however, I sometimes will borrow a D-SLR when I want the “35mm look” in terms of shallow focus. I love the ergonomics of the HPX170, the Panasonic look, the excellent microphone pre-amps, and the fact that it records four channels of audio. When using XLR inputs 1 and 2, the sound from the on-camera stereo mic is routed to channels 3 and 4, providing stereo ambience that often helps to fill out “dry” lavaliere audio. This camera captures video in the DVCPRO HD format and records to P2 cards. I like the reliability of the P2 cards and the low amount of image compression of the DVCPRO HD format compared to AVCHD. Although the HPX170 is only a 720p camera, I often inter-cut HPX170 footage with other footage shot with 1080p cameras with excellent results. Sharpness is more than a single technical factor, lighting, exposure, and the subject/background relationship also contribute to our sense of image sharpness.
If I was to purchase a camera today, I would most likely buy the Panasonic AG-HPX250 camcorder. It improves upon the HPX170 with a true 1080p imager and several other features, but essentially it is pretty much the same camera. I use an old Steadicam JR camera bag to carry the camera because it’s just the right size for the camera and accessories. Finding just the right camera bag is tough, because a lot of cases don’t fit “under the seat in front of you” and for air travel this is a key requirement. A good case currently on the market you might consider is the Portabrace CS-DV4R/PAN camera case specifically designed for the Panasonic HPX170/HPX250 cameras, but it’s larger than what I like using, though it does provide better protection for your camera than the hand-me-down case I currently use.
There are a lot of other great cameras out there, but this post is about what’s in my kit. The Sony EX1 and EX3 cameras a strong contenders and have the advantage of being 1/2″ chip cameras, offering shallower depth of field for a given angle of view. They also have better, brighter LCD panels, however, the cameras are physically larger than the HPX170 and HPX250 cameras, and I prefer the smaller cameras (but not too small). Here’s the inventory of my camera bag:
Panasonic AG-HPX170 camcorder
Two Panasonic 64GB P2 memory cards
Three Panasonic CGA-D54 Li-Ion batteries (I recommend sticking with the genuine Panasonic batteries, knock-offs are not as high in capacity and do not last as long).
Panasonic battery charger/AC adapter w/camera power cable (came with the camera)
Dolgin Engineering TC200 two position battery charger for Panasonic batteries (along with the stock charger this allows me to charge three batteries at the same time overnight)
Sony MDR-7506 headphones (I’ve replaced the Sony ear pads—that degrade ungracefully over time—with Beyerdynamic EDT 250 Velour Padded Ear cushions that are more comfortable, I suggest avoiding knock-offs and purchasing quality Beyerdynamic pads)
Tiffen 72mm UV-haze filter (protects lens)
Tiffen 72mm polarizing filter (essential for richer colors on a sunny day and reducing glare and reflections as well)
Lens cleaning kit (Brush, Microfiber Cloth, Fluid, Tissue, Blower, Lens Pen)
Quarter (for tightening and removing the camera plate)
Gaffer tape on small a spool (handy stuff with hundreds of uses, don’t ever substitute duct tape for gaffer tape, gaffer tape, when applied and removed properly, does not leave disgusting residue like duct tape).
Camera case (see discussion above)
Sunpak Pro 724M carbon fiber monopod (I attach the monopod to the outside of my camera bag with velcro ties. I like shooting hand-held using the monopod to lower the center-of-gravity of the camera, making it easier to keep the camera stable, effectively using the combination of my arm, hand, and tripod as a makeshift Steadicam).
Depending on where and how I’m shooting, I will move the chargers and extra batteries into the sound case and keep whatever sound gear I’m currently using with me in the camera bag. When it’s time to pack up and go home then everything goes back to it’s original position. For this reason it’s important to find a camera bag that’s large enough to add the extras you need while shooting (wireless microphone and/or shotgun, extra battery, headphones, etc.).
2. Tripod bag
I do a lot of my work hand-hend, however, for formal interviews and scenic establishing shots I like to use a tripod. Here’s my camera support kit (it all fits in the rugged nylon case that comes with the tripod):
Manfrotto 503HDV head with Manfrotto 351MVB2K legs combination (The 503HDV head provides smooth, fluid movement and the legs are very stable. These models are no longer made, however, the closest equivalent in their product line is the Manfrotto 504HD head and the Manfrotto 546B legs. These tripods are heavy enough to be stable, while light enough to carry on your shoulder.
Davis & Sanford Steady Stick Compact (I prefer this lightweight and small camera support system over more complex, heavier, and expensive stabilizer systems. A belt-mounted support arm supports most of the camera weight and leaves your hands free to control camera movement. This does not replace a standard Steadicam by any means, however, with practice it can be a much smoother alternative to hand-held. The build quality and design leaves a little to be desired, but given the price, especially when purchased at a discount, it’s a good value.
Padded bag (I travel with the Manfrotto bag that came with my 503HDV and 351MVB2K combo, this nylon bag, although rugged, is not designed to be checked as baggage, however, by loosening the pan and tilt controls as well as the 75mm ball joint, and removing the pan handle, I’ve managed to check the head and legs as baggage many times without damage. If you leave these tight, however, you are asking for trouble when the case takes a hard tumble).
3. Sound case
Good sound gear is essential, and as a rule of thumb, you should spend as much on your sound kit as you do on your camera kit, since sound is half of the picture. Here’s the inventory of my sound kit, I sometimes I only use a single wired lavaliere or a pair of wireless lavalieres, but I also like to be ready for anything, so I bring the whole kit along. Sound is very important and critical in documentary work. My goal has been to fashion an effective all around solution that can serve me in many different situations. Sound gear is a good investment you’ll get a lot out of for many years to come. Cameras come and go, but sound gear will provide you with many years of service. Here’s my current sound kit:
HPRC 2550W hard rolling case (I’ve checked this as baggage many times without any equipment damage, it’s the same size as a carry-on with smooth rolling wheels and a retractable handle. Pelican also makes great hard cases, I own four of them, but in this form-factor I liked the design of the HPRC case better).
Sound Devices 302 mixer (quiet pre-amps, excellent limiter, range of configuration options, tough as nails)
Sony MDR-7506 headphones (a second pair, the first one lives in the camera bag, see notes on these headphones in the camera section)
Rycote Softie windshield (essential when shooting on a windy day, standard foam windscreens don’t cut it on a windy day)
Rycote Softie pistol grip (good for hand-holding the shotgun mic, can also be used for mounting it on a boom pole)
Rode Boom Pole (I use this hand-me-down aluminum boom pole rarely, however, if I found myself using a boom more often, I’d definitely get a nice K-Tek carbon-fibre boom pole with the cable inside. The boom pole, of course, does not fit in the sound case, so I never travel with it. When travelling, there are a few situations in which I have used my monopod as a short boom since it has both sized treads on it so I can attach the Rycote pistol grip to it. Not ideal, but it worked in a pinch.)
Rycote Softie mount (for placing shotgun on the camera, unlike the build-in mic holder, allows me to point mic to left or right directly at the subject to keep speaker right on axis with the microphone. Unless you always center your subject, the built-in mic holder will always hold the shotgun in the wrong place. Though on-camera is not the best place for the mic, in a pinch when shooting vérité I mount my shotgun on the camera. This mount can also be placed on a boom pole.
Tram TR50 lavalier microphone, hardwired w/ power supply unit with XLR connector (this is a sweet sounding microphone, my first audio purchase that has become my favorite audio component, the flat design and wide range of “jewelry,” a.k.a. attachment accessories, makes it an easy to hide and/or place microphone)
Electro-Voice RE50/B handheld omnidirectional microphone (low handling noise, good sound quality)
Audio-Technica BP4029 MS stereo shotgun microphone (I use this microphone three different ways: 1. as an on-camera documentary microphone, using the M and S channels to capture what’s to the side (S) and in front of the camera (M) separately; 2. as a stereo microphone for recording stereo ambient sound; and 3. as a standard mono shotgun microphone by using only the mid-channel (M) with a stereo-to mono adapter cable. In a future post that’s part of my on-going sound series, I’ll be writing more about this microphone and the ways I use it.
Three Sennheiser Evolution 100 G3 wireless lavaliere microphone kits (these wireless systems are a really good value and I wrote about them in a blog post a while ago).
Rycote 10cm Hot Shoe Extension Bar (this allows you to attach two Sennheiser Evolution 100 G3 wireless receivers to the single hot shoe on the camcorder.
Two TRAM-50 lavaler microphones wired for use with the Sennheiser Evolution 100 series transmitters (I’m not crazy about the form factor of the stock microphones that come with the G3 100 series transmitters, I find it easier to work with the TRAMs and the sound is also better, so I added two TRAMs to my wireless kit)
Rycote lavalier windjammers (for use on lavaliere microphones when mounted on the outside of clothing on windy days, I have both grey and black ones, using whichever looks better on my subjects, also available in white)
Rycote Undercovers (disposable lavalier microphone mount and windshield for mounting lavaliers under clothing, an alternative to using moleskin and tape, available in black, grey, and white)
Rycote Overcovers (disposable lavalier microphone mount for use outside of clothing in windy outdoor conditions, available in black, grey, and white)
Gaffer tape (hundreds of uses)
Surgical tape (handy for when wires need to be attached to skin, rarely used, but priceless when needed)
Sennheiser Evolution 100 G3 plug-on transmitter (for use with the RE50 hand-held microphone, whatever mic this is used with must have a metal body since it is used as the antenna).
Roland R-09HR digital audio recorder (The R-09HR is no longer sold but the newer Roland R-05 is an improvement and recommended if you want a small, compact stereo recorder. I keep my recorder in my backpack or in the sound kit along with some ear buds and a pair of Giant Squid Audio Lab omni-directional electret condenser microphones which are powered using the plug-in power provided by the Roland. This is the set up I use for casual audio-only interviews. I also use the Roland for capturing ambient sound on location. If I want to use the Roland with XLR microphones, I’ll run the microphones into the Sound Devices 302 mixer and then run the line out of the mixer into the line in of the Roland.
Canare Star Quad microphone cables (Star Quad makes a slight difference in terms of superior rejection of interference from power lines and other sources of EM, I have mostly XLR-3 (mono) cables but also have a XLR-4 (stereo) cable for use when I’m recording in stereo with the BP4029 short shotgun)
ENG snake cable (for connecting the Sound Devices 302 mixer line out and monitor return in to camcorders)
Adapter cable (for connecting mix out of Sound Devices 302 mixer to 1/8″line input of R-09HR recorder when I use it attached to the mixer with Velcro)
XLR-4 to XLR-3 adapter cable (for using the BP4029 as a mono shotgun)
XLR-4 to Dual XLR-3 adapter cable (for using the BP4029 on the camera, connecting the mic to XLR inputs 1 and 2 on the camcorder)
Duracell NiMH rechargeable AA batteries (These are used to power my mixer, transmitters, receivers, and the Roland R-09HR recorder. I also have some eneloop rechargeable batteries which claim to be better performing, but I’ve not noticed a day and night difference)
Powerex MH-C801D eight cell AA/AAA battery charger (this battery charger is more expensive than any other I’ve used, however, after having two of the cheap Pearstone eight cell AA/AAA battery chargers die on me, it was time to try something more professional and reliable and this puppy has yet to let me down. My only disappointment is that the LCD display does not have a backlight. On the other hand, it does not over-heat the batteries like other chargers I’ve used, so all in all I’m happy with it.)
Energizer Ultimate lithium batteries (when I need extra long life shooting for long periods of time with the wireless transmitters, in order to avoid battery changes I’ll use these instead of the NiMH rechargeable batteries.)
Small box of accessories and adapters, especially important is the little adapter for attaching the Rycote Softie pistol grip to a standard mic stand, a.k.a. Female 5/8″-27 to 3/8″-16 Male thread adapter.4. Lighting case
4. Lighting case
I often leave this behind, but when production values call for lighting, I make the extra effort to lug this along and pay the excess baggage charges, and it always pays off to have lighting gear when you need it. Keeping everything in one case keeps things as straightforward as possible and increases the likelihood of using the kit, which consists of:
Kata OC-88 GDC lighting case with Insertrolley (both Kata and Portabrace are among thebest case makers, both offer rugged, well-designed cases, for the lighting kit this particular Kata case was perfect and has survived many plane flights.)
Lowel LC-55 Rifa-EX soft light (lightweight and compact, most often used as a key light, sometimes used as fill with 1/2 CTB or CTB when using window light as key)
Lowel 40 degree Egg Crate for Rifa (a grid will reduce spill and it’s the only practical way to control a soft light)
Lowel Rifa Balance Bar (helps to center the weight of the Rifa light on the stand, increasing stability, essential accessory)
Arri 300W Fresnel with barn doors and scrim set (Fresnels offer crisp, easy to control light with the quality of sunlight, used as a back light or kicker)
Two Lowel Tota-Lights with umbrella (often used as a background light, for overall fill, or as a fill light if needed). If I had to do it all over again, I’d get the Lowel V-Lights instead of the Totas, but I purchased the Totas long before the V-Light existed. I’m also thinking of adding one or two 150 W Arri Fresnels to the kit as accent lights along with replacing the cords on all the Arri’s with smaller cords that will fit better in the case.
Lowel Blender (a wonderful, small, bright LED light with two arrays of LEDs, one daylight balanced and the other tungsten. The unit allows you to dial in how much cool or warm light you need, the perfect fill or accent light and it can be powered with an AC adapter or a camera battery sled)
Flexfill 38″ silver/white reflector (often used as a fill light bounce attached to a microphone stand)
Three or four Avenger A625B light stands (these extend to 7.8′ but are a compact 26″ when closed (depending on the number of Totas in tow). The Avenger A625B Light Stands are no longer available, a reasonable replacement with a new stacking feature would be the Manfrotto 1051BAC Light Stand, Black – 6.75′ extended and 26″ when closed, not quite as tall as the older stands but for a portable kit, the stacking feature means they will nest more snugly in the case.
Transparent micro-bubble finish powder and make-up pads (essential to reduce shine, especially with interviewees with an oily complexion. I purchased mine at Ricky’s NYC, but you can use any professional-quality transparent cornstarch-based finishing powder on all complexions to reduce shine, there are several brands on the market, look for something that claims to be completely clear).
Spare lamps in plastic foam-lined case for all quartz-halogen units
Two or three extension cords and cube taps
Electric circuit tester
Small tool kit (for doing minor repairs on lights among other things)
Mini-Maglite LED flashlight (along with a headband for the light so I can work hands-free in the dark)
Leatherman Sidekick (I actually have an older predecessor to this model, today there’s a wide variety of models to choose from depending on your preferences)
Half CTB gel sized with holes to fit the Rifa light (a full blue would reduce the light output too much, but using a half blue and setting white balance to that yields a nice look when mixing with exterior daylight that will appearing blue but not too blue when balancing the white balance to the Rifa with a half blue gel).
Additional expendables (gaffer tape, C-47s, black wrap, trick line, and assorted gels and diffusion
This lighting kit has worked out well over the course of many interviews. The Rifa LC-55 (500W) produces just enough light for most situations, and it’s the right choice for a lightweight and compact kit, however, if I could spare the space and weight, I’d rather be using a Kino Flo Diva-Lite or better yet the Zylight IS3. Over time I plan on replacing the quartz-halogen units with LED units as price/performance ratios improve, the Blender was a good first foray into LED lights, and a Zylight Z90, which I have used and really like a lot is on the horizon (due to its solid design and amazing color changing characteristics).
Notes: Special thanks to the students who attended The Hatchback Production Kit workshop, they inspired this blog post. Some of the material is based on a previous post, A one-case lighting kit ready for travel.