Back To School Shopping: Documentary Filmmaker Edition

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Back-to-school film gear from the wishlist: Macbook Air, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Zoom H6.

Going back to school, whether revered or despised, is a yearly press of the refresh button. No matter what happened last year, you have another whole year to prove yourself worthy in academics, social scenes and, for those reading this post, filmmaking.

I always have found back-to-school shopping to be a tangible way to experience a “clean slate” — crisp notebooks replacing those falling apart, and sharp pencils superseding the dull ones. There’s no reason new film equipment can’t be the same, right? If you can afford it, of course… Here’s my wish list for back-to-school film gear.

The Camera: A Canon EOS 70D or a Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Now everyone and their grandmother has the capability to produce great documentaries! Camera-phone image quality is at a height previously thought to be impossible (there’s a 41-megapixel Nokia?!) and improvements shows no sign of slowing down.

And lost in the mess of #tbt’s and photos of “what I had for breakfast” — 45 million photos are uploaded each day to Instagram alone! — is the magic of the camera as a tool. Once a grand, and even mystical, device believed to capture souls, the camera has been diminished to a little dot on the back of my phone — No longer the main attraction, but the sideshow. To clarify: I am not talking about the demise of cinema, but the demise of the camera. Maybe I am just bound by a nostalgia for a time that I wasn’t even born to see (I have a collection of Kodak Brownie cameras on my shelf), but I want this magic to return to the device. Perhaps it was forever lost from the day the iPhone was introduced, but I am convinced that it can be brought back by ignoring these do-all devices.

More DSLRs are being designed with video production in mind. I’ve been using the Canon EOS 7D for the past few years and it is easy to see why Canon has become a major competitor in the digital cinema ring. Both of these newer models, the Canon EOS 70D and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III improve upon the technology found in the 7D.

Another option: The Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Now available in three models, the BMCC, designed exclusively to be a “digital film” camera, is great at shooting clear video.

The Computer: An Ultrabook or Macbook Air

With the decline of Final Cut Pro, filmmakers are no longer tied to Macs thanks to alternative editors such as Premiere and Avid. In addition, as with phone choice, so much of what we do is web-based that it matters less what operating system we’re running. If the hardware can handle the heavy burden of editing HD software, that is all that matters!

Your school might have a great editing lab that is stocked with the latest software. This frees you to choose a computer that is more portable, such as an Ultrabook or Macbook Air, that doesn’t have to run every app. This is what I chose when I was a freshman last year and it has worked out great for me.

The Sound: A Zoom H4n or H6

Sound is important and there is no way to get around it! No matter how perfect your image may be, bad sound will ruin a film (and the reverse is not necessarily true). Most DSLRs record passable sound at best, so it is necessary to have an external recorder.

The Zoom H4n or Zoom H6 record high-quality sound on their own and also have XLR inputs for different types of mics (such as for lavaliers during interviews). And it’s easy to sync to video footage with software like PluralEyes.

I hope that you have found these suggestions helpful and/or interesting and will take them into consideration during your next purchase. For more filmmaking tips and resources, check out POV’s For Filmmakers section. Good luck with the new school year and see you on the other side!

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Matthew Seife
Matthew Seife
Matthew Seife is a 2013 summer intern in the Digital Department at POV. A rising sophomore at Columbia University, Matthew studies computer science and film studies. He participated in POV's 2011 Project VoiceScape with his documentary Little Steps.