The cinematographer’s tool kit is an important part of the job. When it comes to shooting documentaries, it is a necessity. We rarely have the luxury of renting a full grip package or have the necessary hands to set it up, or tend to find ourselves in places where having the crew to run out and make a purchase a luxury, or the ability to find what we are looking for mostly non-existent. This means we need to travel with everything we would ever need. Seem difficult? Well, it is. But there are a few things I’ve learned that are indispensable additions to anyone’s kit. With this list (and a MacGyver-like mentality) you can make do in almost any shooting situation.
This “necessity kit” is what I will travel with all the time, regardless of the project. Of course, every film is different and every project has its own set of challenges, but this should get you off on the right foot, and hopefully spark your imagination / creativity to come up with even better solutions!
All of the equipment listed below fits into a Pelican 1610 case, weighing 50 pounds (important for checked luggage allowances), and a carry-on backpack with room for a nice hardback. I lock all of my checked equipment cases with TSA-approved locks. I also travel with a portable hand scale (in my carry-on luggage) to check the weight of everything before getting to the airport. Please remember to check all your tools and not try to carry them on. The items on the list are necessities, so they won’t do you any good living with the TSA!
This list excludes any lighting needs the project may require. Sometimes, you can get by with only the items on this list, relying on natural and practical lighting. Other times, you will need to bring in a lighting package. Regardless, this list represents items that are a must in any situation.
• 5-in-1 Flexfill is probably the most important piece of grip equipment to travel with for documentaries. The 5-in-1 refers to a silk/diffusion disc with a reversible cover of White / Black / Silver / Gold. This can act as an overhead silk diffusion, white/silver/gold fill, black negative fill, and everything in between. It can used in more situations than I care to think of. In fact, if push comes to shove, it can basically replace the next 2 items on the list! Even the cover itself can be used as a loose fabric without the rigidity of the disc.
• Diffusion fabric will help soften and shape the light illuminating your scene. This includes: bleached / unbleached muslin, white bed sheets, curtains, shower curtains, etc. They can be taped over a window used as the key light, hung in front of a light, draped in tree to diffuse a toppy midday sun, or hung for a pleasing fill light. These items may also be found on location, but depending on where you are traveling to, they’re good to keep in the kit.
• Duvetyne / black out fabric is a great way to block out light from a window or add some negative fill to add contrast to an interview. It also works wonders when thrown on the dashboard of a car to reduce reflections when shooting out the front windshield at midday. Generally a couple pieces in the 4’x6’ range are good, with a couple smaller scraps thrown in for good measure.
• Spring clips & clothespins are absolutely necessary for hanging above diffusion and black out fabric. They are also a great way to hold back curtains or drapes for those important lighting tweaks.
• Black wrap is a simple way to control practical lighting units in any location, from reducing spill to eliminating specific lights in track / recessed lighting grids. Instead of packing an entire roll of black wrap, I cut off 12”x12” squares, fold them up, and pack them all in a Ziploc bag. This way they take up almost no space or weight.
• Small pieces of diffusion are great for softening that bare light bulb or overhead light in a location. Just tape it up and you’re set to go. Some lights need more diffusion, some need less, so I suggest carrying a variety of options. Hampshire Frost, Opal Frost, 250, 216, or Tough Spun.
• Low-wattage lamp dimmers are a great way to control background exposure with practical lights. It’s also much more compact with traveling with reduced wattage light bulbs. Although I would also recommend picking up some 40W bulbs at the local Home Depot while you’re at it. You never know…
• Grounding adapters (or 3-to-2 prong adapters) come in real handy when you find yourself in a location with older wiring. Without these, there’s no way to plug in that light…
• Cube taps and a power strip for connecting multiple items into one outlet. Because sometimes that’s all you get!
• Extension cords are a must on any project, but don’t go crazy with how many you include in this kit. I only keep one 10’ 3-outlet extension on me at all times. Of course, this number all depends on the number of lights you have, but for the “necessities kit”, only bring what you will need as if you had no lighting at all.
• Gloves for not burning yourself when replacing light bulbs on location.
• An Inverter will save the day if you happen to find yourself without power. (Which seems to happen to me a lot…) They are especially useful to charge camera batteries from one location to another or charge up the laptop for downloading media. I travel with a 375W inverter by Tripp-Lite. It will provide enough power for all your basic needs and not slow down the charge time too much.
• A grab bag of goodies is always important. Rope for tying things down; carabineers for attaching things to other things, or as I most recently found, to raise the height of a chandelier in a dining room; ratchet straps and bungee cords for when the job gets tougher. You never know when you’ll need this stuff, but when you do you’ll be thankful you brought it along.
If you’re lucky enough to have the space / travel capacity / crew to help set it all up, here are a couple more things I love to have with me.
• Matthews Road Rags are a wonderful travel kit consisting of 2 nets (1 single and 1 double), 1 silk and 1 flag. They come in both 18”x24” and 24”x36” sizes. The frames are a collapsible tent-pole design that make setup super easy. I recommend picking up 2 additional frames for the kit that will allow you to build all 4 flags at once. Since these fold up into a very compact case, I generally can fit them into my tripod case.
• Westcott Scrim Jim frames are a great compact, collapsible system for diffusion and solid material. They come in a wide variety of sizes, from 42”x42” up to 96”x96,” and since the frames are modular in design, you are not restricted to one size. You can make irregular rectangle frames or small squares to match your needs. Westcott makes a huge range of fabrics for the system, but you can also use the frames to hang your own diffusion material. Clip on that diffusion fabric or duvetyne you packed, or source something practical from your location to use as a bounce or diffusion.
It’s amazing how much you can get away with by working with what you have. Hopefully this list will inspire you to better creatively control your scene. Be sure to check out my next post, PART 2: Camera, which rounds out the “necessity kit.”