Filmmaking Equipment 101
Posted by: San Francisco Film Society
Using the Equipment You Have
One of the most important things to remember when making films in the classroom is to use what you have! There are so many affordable (and flexible) options that can be used in the classroom now. Your basic needs will be camera, sound, light, and post-production resources.
There are so many kinds of motion-picture cameras on the market and in the world today, that it’s almost impossible to provide a comprehensive overview. Ultimately, your choice of camera system will be a function of a) what is available, b) what is easiest to use, and c) what renders the highest quality. For more information on the technical specifications of common camera systems, visit the Camera Tech page. If you want to use a system that isn’t covered in our overviews, you can search online for usage instructions.
When choosing cameras for your classroom film project, keep a few things in mind:
- What cameras are readily available for your class to use? If multiple recording formats are available, you might make a lesson that compares the different formats and examines the changes that the film and video recording industries have undergone in recent years. For your main production assignment, encourage students to work with a camera system that they can master technically.
- What format does your camera record to, and do you have the necessary tools to record and edit student projects? (eg. mini DV tapes, transcoding software, digital memory cards, editing software, card readers, cables). For example, don’t plan to shoot on a Bolex if you don’t have the resources to develop film! For a full list of camera formats and production accessories, visit the Camera Tech page.
- Will you be using a tripod? If so, make sure that the tripod is sturdy enough to hold the camera (otherwise it might fall over and break) and that the camera fits onto the tripod head. If your camera and your tripod don’t match, you can buy a small metal piece at your local camera store which will connect them.
- Do students have enough time to learn to operate the camera before entering the production phase of the program? If you are planning to use a camera with complex manual settings, make sure to allow time for a technical lesson before students begin shooting their final projects.
- How will you display your final projects, and what steps are necessary to move the video from the camera to your final display format? If you are planning to edit, to burn DVDs, or to project, what additional resources do you need? Are these resources available for your class?
- Once you have chosen your camera, make sure that you have all the necessary accessories, including charged batteries, tapes, or memory cards with enough space for your project, cables, and any other accessories that are specific to your camera system.
For more information about camera operation and best practices for filming, check out the Cinematography Tutorials.
Sound is one of the most important components of any filmmaking project. No matter how lovely the footage your students capture is, without being able to hear it clearly, the effect will be lost. You should think about sound recording in the same way you think about image recording—your audio equipment is as important as your video equipment. Just like choosing a camera, you will choose your sound gear based on a) availability, b) ease of operation, and c) quality.
To a certain extent, your camera system will determine your starting point for audio recording. You may follow these brief guidelines for choosing an audio system that works for your project. For more information about microphone types and best practices for professional sound recording, visit the Sound Tech page.
- Your camera probably has an internal microphone. Depending on the camera, the quality of the sound recording will vary. In general, when using a built in or “on-board” mic, it is difficult to filter ambient noise and to record clear dialogue, especially as you move the camera (and the mic) farther away from your subject. For all but the most basic video recording, you should consider using an external microphone or a workaround strategy to improve the quality of your sound. Keep reading for ideas.
- Working with an external mic can be as simple or as technical as you want it to be (or as available resources allow). You might connect an external mic directly to your camera. Your camera will likely have a microphone input jack which allows you to connect an external mic (this might be a headphone sized input, or an XLR input; see the Sound Tech page for more detailed instructions). Check with your school’s music department, media arts department, or the person who manages AV needs for your school’s auditorium to see what kind of microphones are available to borrow.
- If your camera doesn’t have the right ports for your microphone, or if your cables are too short to bring the mic away from the camera, you can easily record sound into a separate audio recorder. You can make an external audio recording on a field recorder, a computer, or even a smart phone duct-taped to a broom stick (our favorite boom pole substitute). Bring your microphone as close as possible to the sound that you want to capture, without letting it show on the camera. Remember that when you’re recording audio separately, you will need to sync the sound. Use a clapboard before each shot, or, if you don’t have one, have a student clap his or her hands in front of the camera—it’s the exact same thing. In the post-production process, you will link the image to the sound by matching the clap.
- One creative way to get around the problem of sound recording is to use a voiceover that you can record in a quiet room during the post-production process. A voiceover can be a great way to get students thinking about the play between image and story in a film. You can combine the voiceover with ambient noise recorded through your onboard mic.
- Another creative way to enhance the sound quality of your film is to make your own sound effects. This is a fun exercise to do with the class—watch your students become Foley artists. Visit the Classroom Guide to Foley Art for more info and ideas.
- Finally, you can browse the Internet for already created sound effects and music that you can use in your film project. Visit the Mixing and Editing Audio page for guidelines for downloading open source sounds and music, and for mastering them in freeware editing software.
Lighting is an important part of the filmmaking process, but professional lighting equipment can be unweidly, highly technical, and expensive. We recommend introducing students to the basic principles of lighting for film and photography, but minimizing the role of artificial light in their final projects. When they have a good understanding of how light works in the camera, students will be able to choose natural lighting situations that yield good results.
For an overview of the basic principles of lighting as they might be taught in the classroom, visit our Classroom Gaffer 101 page.
Depending on time and equipment constraints, and the age and development levels of your students, you may or may not want to engage in a full post-production unit as part of your media making program. We do recommend exposing students to the post-production process either through a lecture or through a participatory post-production lesson. Editing is one of the fundamental pieces of media literacy, and you’ll be amazed to see how the hands-on process of constructing a finished video piece helps students to understand the way that all media is constructed.
If resources, time, or attention spans are limited, you might consider using a projector to make a classroom demo of the editing process so that students gain a sense of the process that goes into constructing media without having to learn the software themselves.
If you decide to guide your class through a post-production unit, here is a basic overview of the equipment you’ll need:
- Computers: These will be easier to find than you might think—either Mac or PC is fine, and laptops and desktops work equally well. If you have computers in your classroom, those can almost certainly be used to edit video. If not, talk to the operator of your school’s computer lab to see if you can organize a visit. If there are no computers available in your school, you might consider holding a drive for your classroom (see our Guide for Gear Drives), or coordinating with the media department at your public library.
- Software: There are a variety of free software programs for Mac and PC that you can download and install to edit video. Visit our Video Editing Freeware page to assess the programs and determine which is right for your class. Make sure that you know the program well before you try to teach it—make a few home movies to experiment with the software and its features. There will inevitably be glitches once the students start editing, and your life will be easier if you are familiar with the technicals.
- External Hard Drives: Depending on the amount of space available on your computer’s internal hard drive, and the format and length of the video that you are recording, you may want to use external hard drives for file storage. For more information about whether an external hard drive is necessary for your project, visit the Video File Formats page.
- Final Exhibition: If you go through the editing process with your class, chances are good that you’ll want to sit down and watch your films together. You might even invite parents, or showcase them in the auditorium. Whatever your plan, make sure that you have the technical resources to create a DVD or connect your computer to speakers and a projector. For more information, visit the Finishing and Exhibition Tech page.