QuickNickel Video

Shoot to Suit

PART II: Pre-production

You stopped waiting for someone else's script, and wrote one of your own, and you have a co-star. The next steps are to find a place to film your scene, and become familiar with and rent the necessary equipment.

Location. Location. Location.

The first requirement of any location should be that it's quiet enough to film in. A "perfect" spot is worthless if with every cut of your scene there's a different dog/child/TV/stereo/alarm/siren making itself heard. Bear in mind that a good shotgun microphone can pick up a growling stomach in next room, so don't be put out if you can't get studio-level quiet (make sure you unplug the refrigerator and turn off any computers so the equipment hum won't be picked up). Personally, I think a little street noise isn't a deal killer if it's fairly consistent. If you can't help capturing some unwanted sounds a lot can be done by a sound editor. Remember: the goal here is to make a scene that is at least as good as a low-budget or student film. I've been in plenty of both that had consistent traffic noise.

The second requirement is that it's big enough to accommodate the actors, crew, and equipment. The stands holding your lights and camera take up a lot of room so think hard before staging a scene in a broom closet. Also, if you're shooting someplace that isn't a dedicated movie set, you're probably going to have to move things like desks and CD cases, etc. out of the way.

The third requirement is that the light is controllable. Natural light (sunlight) is great if it's indirect and unchanging (say on an overcast day), but worthless if you're on a location and everyone is shifting around every five minutes to keep the lighting the same. Indoor light (tungsten and fluorescent) is too weak for filmmaking purposes. Indoor studio lights "burn" at one temperature (3200K), and outdoor light "burns" at a different temperature (5600K), so be sure you specify at the rental house which ones you'll need–likely indoor–because you can't mix them without bringing in things like gels.


The great tip for renting equipment is: do it on a Friday morning. Rental houses will only charge you for one day, but you don't have to return the equipment until Monday afternoon. Almost three days (four if it's a holiday weekend) for the price of one.

This is what I rented for three days of shooting:

  1. 3 650 watt Fresnel (pronounced, "Freh-nell") lights–included in the rental are 3 bulbs, or "globes," stands for the lights, 3 20-lb. sandbags, 3 barndoors (devices that shape the light), and 5 scrims (devices that lessen, and can also shape, the light output) for each light
  2. 3 extension cords (you can skip these if you're in a small-ish room)
  3. Panasonic DVX-100A miniDV camera
  4. Shotgun mic
  5. Boom pole for the mic
  6. Shock mount for the mic (to isolate it from any noise the pole might make)
  7. Mic cord (minimum 25 feet)
  8. Tripod

Items 1 and 2 ran $55, from Wooden Nickel. This is one of the best and most economical resources for all things lighting. I don't think I've been on a low-budget set in two years that didn't have Wooden Nickel equipment.

Items 3 through 8 can be rented at places such as EVS Online for a little under $250. The guys at EVS have decades of experience between them, and they were happy to answer all of my dumb questions without making me feel dumb.

In addition to renting equipment, I also bought the following:

  1. Box of 20 garbage bags to tape over the windows to eliminate sunlight from mixing with studio light. ($4)
  2. 20-minute video, "Light Like a Pro" which gave me a crash course in setting up lights. ($22)
  3. Camera tape (which is like gaffers tape only half as wide and half as expensive). ($7)
  4. Sheet of white diffusion gel to help soften the light from one of the lamps ($7).
  5. 2 60-minute miniDV tapes for the shoot (one more than you'll need, but it's good to have a spare). ($10)

With one "project" in the can, this is what I wish I had bought 1) 3-sheet combo pack of foam core from Staples for "bouncing," and softening the lights ($18) 2) Second sheet of diffusion get ($7)

And this is what I wish I had also rented

  1. 2 C-stands for positioning the bounce cards ($5)
  2. A "softbank" or "chimera" (pronounced "ka-MEHRA" or "shi-MEHRA")–a device that goes over the light and greatly softens it($10)

For my next shoot, I'll also look into renting a 1,000 watt light with a chimera to give me more options lighting-wise.


The ideal set for a demo reel shoot would have one person who knows about lighting, one person who knows about sound, and one person who knows about the camera. What you'll likely end up with is one person who knows a little bit about one of the three, so you'll have to take up the slack.

The sad truth is that even if you have three people lined up, at least one of them will be a no-show. We've all heard the excuses, so the best thing to do is have a couple of backup plans ready to go, and as a last resort, be mentally prepared to be a one-man band. An excellent resource for becoming all-around proficient is The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video by Tom Schroeppel. It's a very well regarded, self-published, 89-page book that sells for $10.95 (with shipping), and has been continually updated for over 25 years.

Note: The information that follows attempts to point out quick and easy ways to become familiar with the tools of filmmaking. I am in no way implying that it is simply a matter of a couple of hours of reading and, presto, you're a filmmaker. Putting anything of quality on film or video is a lot of work, and nothing will bring an appreciation for the amazing talents of a crew faster than trying make your own scene or short. The following information is meant to introduce you to the tools and concepts so you can create a level of production that will help you present yourself as a professional actor.

Painting with Shadows and Light

Learning the basics of lighting can be accomplished in or or more of four ways:

  1. Videos such as, "Light Like a Pro" will give you a crash course in setting up lights and what effect different layouts have.
  2. Books, magazines and Web sites. Arri, puts out an easily understood, free booklet on lighting setups that you can pick up at places like Wooden Nickel. Photoflex Lighting School offers free online lighting classes at http://www.photoflexlightingschool.com/. There are dozens of current books on cinematography at your local bookstore. Stick with the ones that focus on video for beginners.
  3. Other movies. After reading a couple of articles on how to do it, rent a movie and make extensive use of the pause button. You'll be amazed at how quickly you'll begin to decode the lighting setups.
  4. Working on an actual set. With so many shorts being made literally everyday, real-world, practical experience is available just a Craigslist-ad reply away. Opt for a small production over a big one to ensure that you'll be on the set, and not a mile away in a parking lot herding extras.

My "lesson learned" over the weekend was, "the softer the light the better." "Soft" light is what you get when the lamps don't point directly at someone, but instead are bounced, or filtered, through a softbank/chimera/diffusion gel–off pretty much anything white, and then onto the subject. Direct light is really unflattering, and makes shadows that draw everyone's attention away from the actor.

"Lights! That Other Thing! Action!"

Learning about a camera such as the Panasonic DVX100a is relatively easy as there are many, many books, magazine, and Web articles that talk about setting it up and using it. Also, the camera itself is well laid out with most of what you need to adjust in plain sight and clearly labeled. Stick with a basic setup, and save the fancy settings and effects for your next shoot. One easy option is to have the rental house set it to its basic settings for you, and then leave it alone.

The same is true for nearly any camera you might be able to rent or borrow. In addition to the DVX100 series, I would also recommend the Canon XL2, Canon GL2, Sony PD150, and Sony VX2000. If you opt for one of the new HD cameras, be sure to set it to record Standard Definition (SD) as the editing requirements for HD are ten times greater than editing SD, and there's currently no way for anyone to view an HD demo reel.

Sound Is More Than Half Your Picture

You can't really go wrong with any newer miniDV camera these days as long as it has XLR inputs, the industry standard for professional microphones. A camera without XLR inputs will make it almost impossible to shoot a scene that will sound anywhere close to professional. If you just can't score a camera with XLR inputs, you can opt to capture your sound directly into a mixer that records it separately from the camera (which is what big-budget sets do), but this will add cost and complexity to your shoot, and to your editing.

Learning about sound is a little tricky. On the one hand, the person holding the mic should simply point it somewhere between the subject's upper lip and chest (I say "somewhere" because blood feuds have started over the supposed "perfect" position), and make sure that there isn't any other sound that can be picked up. On the other hand, sound is the black art of filmmaking, and sound people don't get nearly the respect that they deserve. The weird truth is that sound is more than half your picture, and, except for bad acting, nothing will leave you with a scene that screams amateur hour faster than bad sound.

This is the stage where you ask questions left, right, and center. If there's anything at all that you don't understand, ask someone. Yes, you may feel stupid asking it, but ask anyway, because inevitably what you don't ask about will be the problem you have to fix during your shoot when no one will be available.

The next installment will be a "shooting diary" that will hopefully shed some light on what you can expect when you're behind the camera.

Go to Shoot to Suit, Part 3.

Back to Getting Started.