Gearing Up: An Indie Moviemaker’s First-Hand Account of Assembling the Ideal Camera Package

The gist of feedback for my first film, critically or otherwise, could mostly be summarized as, “This dude can write dialogue and characters alright, and he gets good performances, sure. But he sure as hell has no idea what to do with that camera. It’s not a play, idiot.”

OK, so the actual reviews were, for the most part, much nicer. But a lot of them did hit on those familiar points. If I’m being honest with myself, I can’t fault anyone for thinking that, because they’re kind of right. With what I’ve placed emphasis on in my workwriting and actingand how I’ve gone about developing a process to militantly accommodate those things, I wasn’t quite sure how to incorporate a visual set of ideas into the filmmaking without also falling prey to the slickness I was trying to distance myself from. It’s completely on me. What I did on MAD was spray and pray in a sense: make the writing and acting great, and people will mostly overlook the fact that you have no money and have yet to develop any kind of visual language… hopefully. And they did… mostly. But since I’m trying to hit home runs every time out, I knew I needed to be better. I needed to grow.

I felt that would be something I’d be able to throw money at for my follow-up project. I thought, “We’ll just rent a couple of Alexas, get some bangin’ lenses and bingo: cinema.” Well, the people who were excited about what I was going to do nextpeople who thought I should be making a leap into six or seven figure filmmakingfaded faster than Marty McFly’s family photo for one reason or another (or no real discernible reason whatsoever, which tends to happen all too much). I got sick of waiting for my phone to ring, so I decided I was going to make a movie, and that was that. So, with the support of friend and actor, Hugo de Sousa, Room One Films, and The Film Exchange, among others, I wrote a low-budget script and pulled together a tiny amount of moneyfar less than I had on my first film (whose budget was already small)and resolved to do it my way, without kissing anyone’s kiester, and without compromising, with one exception: That Alexa pipe dream had to go. But I’d come to realize it’s probably for the best.

Director Robert G. Putka scouting the outer limits of Las Vegas. Photograph courtesy of Robert G. Putka

A lot of filmmakers take a similarly haphazard approach to building the type of camera package that I outlined above. Independent filmmakers are in constant need of validationthat they are for realso they saddle themselves with a camera that “looks the part” despite it yielding no real benefit or personality to their projects beyond an impressive 4k talking point. I’m not sure what the numbers are, but I’d gamble my 2007 Toyota Yaris (best $2,500 I’ve ever spent) away on the belief that most independent films, for various reasons, will never find a life beyond a private screener link on Vimeo. And the ones that do find distribution, odds are VOD will be the sole outlet. In that sense, it’s a fairly egregious expenditure. You’re an independent filmmaker, you need to go against the grain if you really want to stand out and stand a chance of getting your work seen. (Or have a TV star or two in your film… but even that is starting to become played out.) You shot your film on a RED? Cool, you must be the real deal, just like these 8,000 other filmmakers over here. (Sundance got somewhere between 12,000 and what might as well have been a million submissions last year.)

Because of how I shoot, with two cameras rolling concurrently, there just would be no way I’d be able to upgrade my camera package. Functionality was to be paramount, especially dealing with a super-tight schedule of 12 days, a camera/G&E combo team of exactly two, and a plan to light almost exclusively with practicals. Something had always excited me about the possibilities afforded by the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera. For my process, the BMPCC is a perfect fit; it’s unobtrusive and out of the actors’ way, it’s light, allowing for long handheld takes, and it has really good lowlight capabilities. With the budget being what it is, and the financial risk being low, I felt like it could be a great project to try and maximize the potential I see in pairing BMPCCs with my shooting style. One big question I had to contend with: Could these cameras lend themselves to what I was trying to do visually?

Since I knew I was going to be making a film with such a limited amount of financial risk, I figured that I’d be able to experiment with the style and tone in which I work. For the first time, I began to think hard on ways to marry thematic ideas of character, influence and setting with a visual set of representative ideas. Three things immediately struck a chord with me that I wanted to try and execute: I wanted to incorporate more camera movement in a visceral way, while still being able to utilize two cameras concurrently. Since the film is a darkly comic take on the type of relationship drama John Cassavetes used to make back in the ’70s, I wanted to mirror and evoke that in the visual texture of the film. And finally, I wanted to take advantage of our chosen setting of Las Vegas at night by shooting both lengthy exterior dialogue scenes, as well as landscape cutaways.

The size of a BMPCC could basically equate to the really thick wallet of a middle-aged man, stuffed with crumpled bills, Sacajaweas and expired Great Clips coupons. All of our locations are to be shot as-is, meaning we have to work with what we have, layout-wise. Since I wanted to be able to incorporate more movement, having a portable, minimal camera setup allows us more space to move around inwalk-ins, pans, and tracking shots would be next to impossible with two lumbering behemoths to account for. Paired with a speedbooster, we would then be able to make the space feel a bit less cramped as needed, without compromising the framing. It also makes improvising camerawork around the performance much easierI want the camera to feel as alive as the performances, and with less bulk to worry about, the operators can more freely navigate and instinctively react to what is happening in front of them.

As a bonus, the low-profile of the camera also allows for guerilla shooting if needed… and on a schedule as tight as ours, with a budget as spare, we don’t have the flexibility for permits if a reshoot is needed. In thinking of a worst-case scenario, the BMPCCs could prove an invaluable lifeline to getting the film in the can. Yeah, you’ll look like a tourist… but tourists can snap away on their DSLRs all day with no one bothering them for pesky paperwork.

The optic profile and texture, I believe, is probably the most important choice I could make for the film. With the overall inventiveness my planned camerawork still being, at best, subdued, the texture of the image would play a big role in making the film feel more cinematic than it actually may be. I wanted a distinctive image that would at once feel like a throwback, and distinguish itself from the current trend in digital cinematography. Which is to say a bit cold, slick, and as if it were calculated by a computer for maximum commercial-style eye candy. The only way to really do it in a way that feels both organic and interesting, would be to shoot on Super-16 film. Since that is prohibitive to the way I like to work (with especially long takes and fast setups), the next best thing would be to take a S-16 lens and attach it to a digital camera. I actually wanted to do that with my first feature, but as we were shooting with a larger format camera, I was told it would be more trouble than it was worth.

I had read that the BMPCCs could accommodate my preference of lens, and that excited me to no end. We settled on a varied set of vintage primes, mostly Nikon AIs, with some other matching lenses to round out our kit. We ultimately decided to opt for primes instead of zooms because, working with old glass, we felt it would be best to get the highest quality image possible looking ahead to what I had planned for the post grading process (where we’d push the image even further toward the texture and color palette of Super-16 film).

Main title card of Robert G. Putka’s MAD

I felt I missed an opportunity with my first film to really establish the setting, and my hometown of Cleveland, as a character. One of my favorite filmmakers, Alexander Payne, is the zen master of that. I hadn’t recognized it until recently, but that conscious choice adds another layer to his work, and brings them from talky character studies, and into something more cinematic without the gimmicky pretense that I loathe. My intention is to present Las Vegas in a way that we haven’t seen beforesomething a bit mundane, domestic, but wholly beautiful in its own way. A lot of the script consists of people talking indoors about their emotions (like my first film), so I’m trying to take advantage of cutaways as a way to build the setting into the narrative on both practical and symbolic levels.

Some of this involves grabbing night time landscape imagery, from distant shots of the strip dwarfed at the bottom of the massive valley it sits in, to lonely windmills on the outskirts of the city limits. While the BMPCC does have good lowlight capabilities, we actually decided to rent a third camera for one night onlythe Sony A7s, which I’m told has “just an unnecessarily stupid amount of stops.” It also fits the profile for the type of camera we’re looking for; small, innocuous, and (with an adapter I’m told) able to accommodate our lens kit. The paltry price of staying humble and going with BMPCCs for our main camera made it possible to find the money in our budget to bring in a specialty ringer camera, and my hope is that it pays off by giving us some alluring (and not just passable) night time photography.

For the three cameras, all necessary adapters, accessories, and lenses, our total camera budget will fall pretty far below $2,500 (or rather, the price of Phoebe, my Yaris). Of course, some equipment we own or are borrowing, but the bulk is coming straight out of our pockets. And we have tiny pockets, so make of that what you will. MM

2 Comments

  1. Evoke

    July 6, 2017 at 4:17 am

    Nice blog you have shared…
    thanks for this

  2. Anthony Pedone

    June 30, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for the shout out to Film Exchange Bobby’! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *