Tools of the Trade: Talking Gear for Documentary Filmmakers (2023)

ByO gato de Katy BorumySusan Q Yin

Tools of the Trade: Talking Gear for Documentary Filmmakers (1)

Since stories call to documentarians to tell them, filmmakers have used and evolved technology to shape the art and business of reflecting reality. While not an art form and techno-deterministic thrust, there is no doubt that the evolution of filmmaking equipment, from the early days of analogue to the evolution of the digital age, has simultaneously expanded to include new filmmakers, allowing the form documentaries capture the intimacy of private life. human life. moments What is possible in documentary narrative, and by whom storytellers, coexists in parallel with technological innovations.

As artists, documentarians are a rudimentary group that have long made the most of the artistic possibilities of technology. Decades after photography pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the motion picture camera in the 1880s, cumbersome and expensive 35mm cameras dominated film, until documentarians and activists got their hands on less bulky 16mm field cameras that appeared in army surplus stores after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, pioneering documentariansRoberto Drew,DA Penbaker Maisdavid andalberto maysles, youRichard Leacock, notorious manipulators of equipment, innovated in the field a way to record audio and images at the same time. In 1967, Sony's revolutionary Portapack hit the market: the first battery-powered video equipment that recorded audio and video simultaneously and could be operated by a single person. Filmmakers and activists were quick to adopt the agile style of intimate, crew-directed filmmaking, and the cinema vérité movement, also called direct cinema or observational film, freed from the construction of news and voice-of-God narration of the past, shaped indelible to the documentary narrative. from the 1960s through the community media movements of the 1970s to the present.

With the help of affordable film equipment and, later, video, activists filmed stories within social movements and voices from traditionally marginalized communities (people of color, women) demanding attention and distribution. In 1971, pioneersrich julia, Jim Klein, Amalie Rothschild and Liane Brandon Lanzaronnew day moviesto train women documentary filmmakers and nurture the growing women's movement with the help of women-made documentaries on film and video. In 1994, Kartemquin Films, the leader in vérité documentary storytelling, filmed its legendary classic,hoop dreams, on video, later turning it into a film for its theatrical release. Along the way, Kartemquin helped to expand public interest and the public and commercial market for documentaries, while showing an inexpensive way to film years of intimate material. In the early 2000s, film technology evolved again with the advent of home editing in Final Cut Pro and the shift from mini-DV tape to tapeless cameras. A climate of democratization of teams and user-generated distribution on YouTube and Vimeo has opened the door to new storytellers and the stories they tell. contemporary documentaries likeThe square(2013),citizen four(2014) etaking care of the gap(2018) are testimonials of accessible video and editing technology in the rapidly evolving digital age.

Today, amidst the breakneck pace of the streaming media era, documentary resides in a boom time and an expanded market that ranges from legacy stalwarts like PBS and HBO to revolutionary upstarts like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, AppleTV and more. . New and emerging storytellers are more likely to be women and people of color than in the past, opening cultural portals to depths of human experience often invisible in the media sphere. As in years past, it remains important to understand how technology empowers documentarians.

2019 Team Research Documentary

In 2019, the International Documentary Association (IDA), with advice from theCenter for Media and Social Impact, launched a survey to investigate the equipment preferred by contemporary documentarians in production and post-production processes, from cameras to audio, lighting and editing software, and why and how they make their technological decisions.

The first part of the survey yielded valuable qualitative information about why respondents preferred specific hardware and software. The next phase took a deeper and more quantitative dive into the brands and models of equipment implemented by the documentary community, as well as the variety of shooting scenarios in documentary practice. For Part II of the survey, all questions were asked in terms of the filmmakers' "most recent documentary project completed or in post-production".

The results from both iterations of the survey provide a strong narrative about the ideal tools of the trade to do your best work. This brief report summarizes the findings from both parts of the Tools of the Trade: Equipment Desk Research.

Who are the respondents?

Part I of the survey yielded 367 respondents: 57% male, 35% female, 2% gender non-conforming and a total of 286 documentalists completed Part II of the survey: 62% male, 36% female, 1% gender non-conforming in accordance. Although we received responses from 27 countries, the overwhelming majority, 83%, came from the United States. Given the international scope of the survey, we did not ask for information about ethnicity or cultural identity, as there is no standard for international census data.

The majority of filmmakers are filmmakers just starting out in the digital age: over 71% have between one and 20 years of documentary experience. The vast majority of respondents identify themselves as directors (71%), producers (47%), cinematographers (42%) and editors (35%) (respondents could choose more than one role, given the multifaceted jobs they do in the creators documentary). make your movies).

Filmmakers indicated that they typically spend more than $1,000 to buy or rent new filming equipment for their latest films.

About 6 in 10 filmmakers spent between $1,000 and $9,999 on new equipment, even though their films were funded primarily with personal finance (51% said so).

Equipment information sources

Where do respondents say they get their staff information? Sources are evenly split between expert opinions and recommendations (43%) and word of mouth (42%), and online customer reviews (33%) are also a strong source.

Buy, Wash or Share?

Once the community decides on their team mix and sets a line item for them, do they buy, rent, or share? For primary cameras, tripods, microphones and audio recording equipment, the vast majority buy new or used. When it comes to prime and zoom lenses, the difference between buying new or used and renting is a bit smaller. About 37% of respondents are inclined to rent prime lenses, while 37% would buy new zoom lenses. As for the light kit, respondents are inclined to buy new or rent. For specialty drones and cameras, renting is the preferred option.

Tools of the Trade: Talking Gear for Documentary Filmmakers (2)


Documentarians are filming run-and-gun material without much frills: it's mostly verité footage with very few sit-down interviews, favoring professional-grade cameras over consumer cameras and phones. We asked respondents to rate the most important features of their flagship camera; the top three are sensor, resolution, and ergonomics. Rounding out the preferred features are small size/light weight, top brand/easy to find replacement parts, lens mount capability, frame rate image stabilization, and weather sealing.

The main camera of choice is a digital cinema camera, followed by professional grade camcorders. By far the top professional camera brands are Sony and Canon; only about 4% said they use the expensive RED camera.

The Sony PXW-FS7 ($7,000 body) is favored for its versatility, availability of accessories, 4K capability, ergonomics, and "most importantly, wide adoption among peers and customers." Surprisingly, its successor, the FS7 II ($9,000 body), was not as widely adopted by documentarians. For the similarly priced Canon EOS C300 Mark II ($9,500 body), filmmakers value its compatibility with existing systems and lenses, ease of use, weight (0.3 lbs. lighter than the PXW-FS7), and high dynamic range (HDR). “This camera is the most manageable for me if I'm filming, recording audio and driving at the same time,” said one respondent. Meanwhile, the entry-level Sony Super 35-mm PXW-FS5 camcorder ($4,300 body) still offers 4K recording for half the price. It's also a more compact and lighter camera than the PXW-FS7, weighing just 1.76 lbs. Likewise, the Canon EOS C100 Mark II ($3,000 body) weighs half as much as the C300 Mark II at 2.2 pounds. While it's "small, affordable, very forgiving and can feel unobtrusive", the C100 doesn't offer 4K image resolutions.

For creators on a budget, more and more compact system cameras offer 4K recording. By far the lightest camera in our top five at 1.59 pounds, the Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 ($1,400 body) was the first mirrorless DSLM camera capable of recording in 4K. Although a newer version was released in 2018 (the GH5S), many of the respondents were still using the GH5 in their latest documentary.

To accommodate 4K recording, respondents are increasingly opting for faster, higher capacity memory cards: 128GB for CFast cards, with a quarter of users opting for 256GB. For SD cards, around 40% of respondents prefer 64GB and around 30% prefer 128GB. They preferred video speed class V10 or V90 for CFast cards and C10 for SD cards. More than half of filmmakers trust SanDisk for their footage, while less than 20% use Lexar memory cards.

This group of contemporary documentary filmmakers generally favors the use of a secondary camera in conjunction with the first one. About 66% used a secondary camera on their most recent film. The camera chosen for the secondary camera is a DSLM mirrorless system camera (29%), followed by DSLR (21%) and digital cinema camera (20%). When using a secondary camera, filmmakers used it to shoot additional material (69%), followed by vérité (56%).

Nearly 7 out of 10 documentary filmmakers did not use drone cameras in their most recent films (67%), but 33% did, mostly for additional footage. Virtual reality cameras (360-degree cameras) are rarely used by this group of documentary filmmakers; only 1% included them in a list of primary or secondary cameras, and a similar percentage said the same for underwater cameras.


Tools of the Trade: Talking Gear for Documentary Filmmakers (6)These documentarians were divided over the prime lenses used in their most recent films; about 54% wore fixed lenses. Filmmakers were more likely to use zoom lenses in their newer films; 82% used a zoom lens on their primary camera.

We asked respondents to explain their rationale for choosing prime lenses over zoom and vice versa. In general, fixed lenses work best for verité footage (61%), filming (59%) and interviews (56%). They're fast, produce sharp images, especially in low-light environments, and are more portable. Zoom lenses are the preferred choice for b-roll (81%) and run-and-gun/verité (80%) shooting and for their overall versatility and flexibility.

Among the comments respondents shared about fixed lenses: “Fixed lenses take you out of your comfort zone”...“They force you to have some relationship with your subject.”...“It requires you to be decisive in the framework. "..."Movies shot with prime lenses generally have a more reflective visual quality." However, respondents noted that "zoom lenses give you more options to perfectly create the series of shots needed to tell stories." lenses and risk losing the magic." ... "[They are] also much easier to transport than fixed lenses, due to the consolidation factor of needing fewer lenses to build a versatile kit."

So, considering what our respondents shared about prime versus zoom lenses and what works best for specific scenarios in document practice, Canon, Zeiss and Rokinon/Samyang rank as the top three favorite prime lens brands. When it comes to lens systems, the Canon EF, ARRI PL and M4/3, and Sony E score high marks. Canon is praised for its lightness and affordability; the ARRI, for its speed and beauty; and Sony, for image stabilization. For focal lengths, respondents prefer 50mm, then 35mm and 85mm, and prefer smaller apertures (F1.2 or F1.4) for their prime lenses to accommodate low light settings and larger apertures (F2.8 or T2.8) . ) for your secondary primary lenses.

In the zoom lens category, the Canon EF family dominates by a significant margin. When it comes to leading zoom lenses, the EF 24-105mm f/4 is the prime lens of choice; Users note that it is a "great all-round lens for verité document photography". The EF 70-200mm f/2.8 is the preferred secondary lens; and the EF 16-35mm f/2.8, recommended for its "image sharpness," is the third favorite lens. The survey also revealed that filmmakers prefer manual focus over autofocus.

Tripods and support systems

Over 90% of respondents used a tripod with their main camera on their most recent documentary. Manfrotto (39%) and Sachtler (25%) were preferred over Miler (7%) and Benro (6%). While we don't have enough data for a top five, the Manfrotto 504HD Fluid Head ($350) with 475B aluminum tripod legs ($350) or 546B are great entry-level options for creators on a budget. They are "relatively portable if broken, but heavy enough to work in windy conditions". The Sachtler Flowtech 75 ($1,350) and 100 ($3,300) carbon fiber tripods stand out as dream upgrades. One current user comments that its "speed, versatility, durability, quality and reliability are unprecedented".

Tools of the Trade: Talking Gear for Documentary Filmmakers (11)

Due to the improved in-camera stabilization, these documentarians are not inclined to use handheld stabilizers with their main camera when filming, but when they do, it's usually for secondary shooting and vérité with the Zhiyun CRANE 2 ($400), DJI Ronin- M ($900) or DJI Ronin-S ($630).

Likewise, shoulder rigs aren't used much with main cameras; 64% do not use them, but when they do, documentary filmmakers film verité material (85%). The Zacuto and Easyrig shoulder mounts take the pressure off your back and "make long days of shooting more manageable."


When it comes to audio, these documentalists typically employ multiple systems simultaneously. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the strong dominance of vérité material, the vast majority of filmmakers (82%) used shotgun microphones in their most recent films. As with conventional cameras, creators use shotgun microphones primarily to capture sound in verité footage (75%), followed by archival footage (69%) and field interviews (65%).

Tools of the Trade: Talking Gear for Documentary Filmmakers (12)

Sennheiser is the most cited brand of shotgun microphones, with the MKH 416 ($1,000), MKE 600 ($600) and ME 66 ($210) occupying the top three spots among models. The Rode NTG3 ($700) and NTG2 ($200) also have a high rating. While we don't provide enough model-specific feedback, the Sennheiser brand is often cited for its insulation features, durability, sound quality and weather resistance.

In addition to shotguns, most documentarians (78%) have also been using wireless microphones in their most recent films, using this system to capture audio from field interviews (76%) and vérité (69%) in particular; ease of use and battery life are the top reasons cited for choosing certain brands over others. Lectrosonics' L-series, priced at $2,800, is the highest rated model, with the Sennheiser EW 112P G3 and Sennheiser EW 100 occupying number 2 and 3, both at a quarter of the $600 price.

Finally, portable recorders were used on newer films by the majority of filmmakers: 64% used them, again mostly for vérité material. Zoom is the benchmark for our respondents. They are discreet and easy to carry. Both the H4n PRO ($200) and H5 ($280) are smaller and lighter than the H6. However, the higher-priced H6 ($320) is cited for its “sound quality; you can select signal sensitivity from various sides of the microphone.” It is equipped with four XLR/TRS inputs compared to two inputs on the H4n PRO and H5.

smartphone apps

Over the past decade, a plethora of smartphone apps have emerged to help creators through the production process in this new era of digital cinema. Nearly 39% of respondents reported using filming apps, with Filmic Pro, Artemis and Sun Seeker as favorites.

Although available for Android and iOS, Filmic Pro is a favorite among iPhone users. Priced at $14.99, it allows creators to hijack their phone's cameras, adding more professional manual controls for focus, exposure, shutter speed, frame rate, white balance, audio metering, and waveform monitoring. , just to name a few.

Winner of the 2018 Engineering Emmy Awards, Artemis ($29.99) was the first digital viewer for smartphones. It accurately simulates various camera and lens combinations, giving filmmakers the ability to test focal lengths, aperture, and shutter settings before investing in equipment. “I use Artemis as a finder app for framing interview shots or when looking to see how long I need a lens at a certain distance,” said one respondent. “It can be customized with the camera and lens package and is very accurate in terms of the field of view. You can take pictures and generate PDF scan reports for you or your customers to review.”

Lastly, SunSeeker ($9.99) uses 3D AR to help filmmakers track the location of the sun on set. In addition, its solar compass displays hourly sun direction intervals and schedules notifications for desired solar events such as "golden hour" sunrises or sunsets. As alternatives, both Sun Surveyor and Helios offer moon tracking for night shooting needs.


In terms of lighting, documentarians prefer exaggerated existing light setups. About 8 out of 10 producers (79%) did not use an external light with their primary or secondary cameras on their most recent films, but those who did (approximately half of respondents) used LED lights for interviews.

post production

Documentary filmmakers said they primarily used Mac computers to host their post-production workflow on their most recent films; nearly three-quarters (75%) used Macs, compared to 25% who used a Windows operating system to edit their movies. In general, documentarians mostly employ human-operated transcribers for their films or do not use transcription at all.

Minimum post-production team setup for documentary editing:

  • CPU Lower End: 3.5 GHz quad-core Intel® Core™ i7-2700K processor

  • 16 GB of RAM

  • 4 GB graphics processor

Best Post Production Computer Setup for Documentary Editing:

  • High-end CPU: 3GHz 8-core Intel® Core™ i7-9700 processor

  • 32 GB of RAM

  • 8GB graphics processor

For post-production software programs, Adobe Premiere Pro is the preferred video editing program by a significant margin; Final Cut Pro X and Avid Media Composer are the second and third favorite programs. For color correction, DaVinci Resolve is the overwhelming favorite, followed by Adobe Lumetri and Final Cut Pro X. Avid Pro Tools is the best sound editing program, closely followed by Adobe Audition, with Logic a distant third. place.

more to come

If these responses are any indication of broader trends, it's clear that the documentary style is heavily focused on verité filming, with filmmakers preferring to use state-of-the-art equipment that serves their story's purposes, even if the adoption of newer equipment ( RED camera and drones, for example) seems slow at the moment. Capturing the evolution of the commerce, including the tools of the commerce, will be important as the digital age of documentary continues to evolve and the age of streaming distribution creates new opportunities for nonfiction storytelling.

The process of developing, running, and analyzing the results of both parts of the survey and sharing them with you doesn't end there.Documentaryhe'll continue to communicate with you about the tools he used for specific sets in his work, the ideal kits he put together, line-by-line budget details for equipment procurement, and a host of other technological aspects. content that will streamline your creative decision-making in your documental practice.

Caty Borum Chattoo is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Social Impact at the American University School of Communication. She is also the author of the forthcoming Oxford University Press book:Story Movements: how documentaries empower people and inspire social change(July 2020).

Susan Yin esDocumentaryHe is Creative Director and manages communication, design and digital projects at IDA.

Part I Research and Research Design: Sandra Ignagni; Part I Data Analysis: William L. Harder
Part II research and research design: Susan Yin; Part II Data Analysis: Caty Borum Chattoo and Susan Yin

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