Tools of the trade: Conversation pack for documentary filmmakers (2023)

VonCaty Borum ChattooESusan Q. Yin

Tools of the trade: Conversation pack for documentary filmmakers (1)

For as long as documentarians have had to tell stories, creators have used - and developed - technology to shape the art and business of reflecting reality. While hardly an art form and techno-deterministic thrust, there is no doubt that the evolution of filmmaking equipment - from the early analogue days to the evolving digital age - has expanded for new filmmakers at the same time as the way of filming. documentary made it possible to capture the intimacy of private moments. What is possible in documentary narrative – and by which storytellers – coexists with technological innovations.

As artists, documentarians are a rowdy bunch who have long since exhausted the artistic possibilities of technology. Decades after photography pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the film camera in the 1880s, cumbersome and expensive 35mm cameras dominated film - until documentarians and activists got their hands on less bulky 16mm field cameras than became popular after World War II by appearing in army actions. Pioneering documentary filmmaker in the 1950s and 1960sRobert Drew,DA Penbaker Mais, David youAlbert Maysle, ERichard Leak, notorious gadget makers, created a way to record audio and images simultaneously in the field. In 1967, Sony released its revolutionary Portapack - the first battery-powered video recorder that recorded sound and video simultaneously and could be operated by a single person. Filmmakers and activists were quick to embrace the intimate filmmaking style fueled by nimble gear, and the cinema vérité movement – ​​alternatively called direct cinema or observational film, freed from the journalistic construction and voice-of-God storytelling of the past – indelibly shaped documentary. narrative from the 1960s through the community media movements of the 1970s to the present.

Using affordable filming equipment and later videos, activists filmed stories within social movements, and voices from traditionally marginalized communities – people of color, women – demanded attention and outreach. 1971 pioneersJulia Reichert, Jim Klein, Amalie Rothschild e Liane BrandonFilms for the new dayTrain documentary filmmakers and nurture the growing women's movement with the help of women's documentaries on film and video. In 1994, Kartemquin Films, a leading provider of vérité documentaries, filmed their legendary classictire dreams, to video for later conversion to film for theatrical release. Along the way, Kartemquin has helped to expand public interest and the public and commercial market for documentaries, while presenting a cost-effective 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 tapes to tapeless cameras. A democratizing Gear climate and user-generated distribution on YouTube and Vimeo have opened the door for new storytellers and the stories they tell. Contemporary documentaries likethe square(2013),Citizenfour(2014) ebeware of the gap(2018) are testimonials of barrier-free video technology and editing in the fast-paced digital era.

Today, amidst the breakneck pace of the streaming media era, documentaries are in a moment of expansion and an expanded market that spans from old traditions like PBS and HBO to revolutionary newcomers like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV 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 that are often invisible in the media sphere. As in years past, it remains important to understand how technology supports documentarians.

Survey of Documentation Equipment 2019

In 2019, the International Documentary Association (IDA) met with lawyers fromMedia and Social Impact Center, launched a survey to examine the equipment preferred by contemporary documentarians in production and post-production processes, from cameras to audio and lighting to editing software, and why and how they make their technological choices.

The first part of the survey provided valuable qualitative information about why respondents preferred certain devices and programs. The next phase resulted in a deeper and more quantitative dive into the brands and models of equipment used by the documentary community and the variety of shooting scenarios in documentary practice. For Part II of the survey, all questions were asked regarding the filmmakers' "recently completed documentary project or post-production stage".

The results from both iterations of the survey provide a solid statement of the ideal tools of the trade for doing 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 documentarians participated in Part II of the survey - 62% male, 36% female, 1% gender non-conforming. 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 collect information on ethnicity or cultural identity, as there is no uniform standard for international census data.

The majority of directors are filmmakers who started out in the digital age - over 71% have between 1 and 20 years of documentary experience. The vast majority of respondents identify themselves as directors (71%), producers (47%), cinematographers (42%) and editors (35%) (respondents may choose more than one role, as documentarians take on a variety of roles). of roles when making your films).

Filmmakers have reported that they often spend at least $1,000 or more 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, although their films were funded primarily by personal finance (51% reported this).

Equipment information sources

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

Buy, rent or share?

Once the community decides on the gear mix and defines a line item for it, will they buy, rent, or share? When it comes to primary cameras, tripods, microphones and audio recording equipment, a clear majority buys new or used. With a fixed focal length and zoom lens, the difference between buying new or used and renting is a little smaller. About 37% of respondents are likely to rent prime lenses, while 37% would buy new zoom lenses. When it comes to lighting fixtures, respondents tend to buy new or rent. For specialty drones and cameras, renting is the preferred option.

Tools of the trade: Conversation pack for documentary filmmakers (2)


Documentarians shoot no-frills run-and-gun scenes – it's mostly verité footage with very few sit-down interviews and they prefer professional cameras over consumer cameras and phones. We asked respondents to rate the most important features of their flagship camera; The top 3 are sensor, resolution and ergonomics. Rounding out the preferred features are small size/light weight, great brands/easy to find parts, lens mount, frame rate image stabilization, and weather protection.

The top choice is a digital cinema camera, followed by professional 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 acceptance among colleagues and customers." Surprisingly, its successor, the FS7 II ($9,000 body), was not as widely accepted by documentarians. For the similarly priced Canon EOS C300 Mark II ($9,500 body), filmmakers appreciate its compatibility with existing systems and lenses, ease of use, weight (0.3 pounds lighter than the PXW-FS7), and high range dynamics (HDR). "This camera is most useful to me when I'm filming, recording sound and driving at the same time," said one respondent. Meanwhile, Sony's PXW-FS5 Super 35mm Super 35mm 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, which weighs just 1.76 pounds. Likewise, the Canon EOS C100 Mark II ($3,000 body) weighs half as much as the C300 Mark II at 2.2 pounds. .

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

To enable 4K recording, respondents are increasingly opting for higher capacity and faster memory cards: 128GB for CFast cards and a quarter of users are 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 with their footage, while less than 20% use Lexar memory cards.

This group of contemporary documentary filmmakers generally prefers to use a second camera along with the first. About 66% used a secondary camera on their most recent film. The camera chosen for the second camera is a mirrorless DSLM system camera (29%), followed by a DSLR (21%) and a digital cinema camera (20%). (69%) followed by vérité (56%).

Nearly 7 out of 10 documentary filmmakers didn't use drone cameras in their most recent films (67%), but 33% did - mostly for B-roll. Virtual reality cameras (360-degree cameras) are rarely used by this group of documentary filmmakers; only 1% included them in a primary or secondary camera list, with a similar percentage saying the same thing with underwater cameras.


Tools of the trade: Conversation pack for documentary filmmakers (6)These documentarians were divided over the prime lenses used in their most recent films; about 54% used fixed focal length lenses. Filmmakers tended to use zoom lenses in their newer films; 82% used a zoom lens on their primary camera.

We asked respondents to explain their reasons for choosing prime lenses over zoom and vice versa. Overall, prime lenses are better for verité shots (61%), b-roll (59%) and sit-down interviews (56%). They're fast, produce sharp images, especially in low light, and are more portable. Zoom lenses are the preferred choice for b-roll (81%) and run-and-gun/verité film (80%) and for their overall versatility and flexibility.

Among the comments respondents shared about prime lenses: "Fixed lenses take you out of your comfort zone." . "..."Movies shot with primes generally have a more elaborate visual quality." However, respondents noted that "zoom lenses give [you] more opportunities to perfectly create the series of shots needed for cinematic visual storytelling in editing without having to switch lenses and risk losing the magic." ..."They [also] are much easier to use on the go than primes due to the consolidation factor of needing fewer lenses to build a versatile kit."

Given what our respondents shared about prime lenses and zoom, and what works best for specific scenarios in document practice, the three most popular prime lens brands are Canon, Zeiss and Rokinon/Samyang. When it comes to lens systems, the Canon EF, ARRI PL and M4/3 and Sony E deserve good marks. Canon is praised for its light weight and affordable price; the ARRI for its speed and beauty; and Sony for its image stabilization. For focal lengths, respondents prefer 50mm, then 35mm and 85mm, preferring lower f-stops (F1.2 or F1.4) for their prime prime lenses to allow for low light settings and higher f-stops ( F2.8 or T2.8). ) for your secondary primary lenses.

In the zoom lens category, the Canon EF family dominates by a clear margin. When it comes to high-end zoom lenses, the EF 24-105mm f/4 is the top choice; Users note that it is a "great all-round lens for Vérité Doc shots". 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 preferred lens. The survey also found that filmmakers prefer manual focus over autofocus.

tripods and support systems

Over 90% of respondents used a tripod with the main camera for their most recent documentary. Manfrotto (39%) and Sachtler (25%) were preferred over Miler (7%) and Benro (6%). While we don't have enough data to place it in the top five, the Manfrotto 504HD ($350) fluid head with 475B ($350) or 546B aluminum tripod legs is a great entry-level option for developers 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 are considered dream upgrades. One recent user comments that its "speed, versatility, durability, quality and reliability are second to none".

Tools of the trade: Conversation pack for documentary filmmakers (11)

Because of the improved in-camera stabilization, these documentarians don't often use handheld stabilizers with the main camera while shooting, but when they do, it's usually for b-roll and verité footage with the Zhiyun CRANE 2 ($400). DJI Ronin-M ($900) or DJI Ronin-S ($630).

Likewise, shoulder rigs are not as commonly used on primary cameras. 64% do not use them, but when they do, documentary filmmakers make verité shots (85%). The Zacuto and Easyrig shoulder mounts reduce back pressure and "make long days of shooting more manageable".


When it comes to audio, these documentarians often use multiple systems at the same time. Given the strong dominance of vérité material, it is perhaps unsurprising that the vast majority of filmmakers – 82% – have used shotgun microphones in their most recent films. As with main cameras, creators use shotgun microphones primarily to capture audio in verité footage (75%), followed by b-roll (69%) and field interviews (65%).

Tools of the trade: Conversation pack for documentary filmmakers (12)

Sennheiser is the most cited shotgun microphone brand, 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) are also highly rated. While we haven't provided enough model-specific reviews, the Sennheiser brand is often cited for its insulating abilities, durability, sound quality and weather resistance.

In addition to shotguns, most documentary filmmakers (78%) have also used wireless microphones in their most recent films, using this particular system to record field interviews (76%) and vérité (69%); Ease of use and battery life are the main reasons why certain brands are preferred over others. The Lectrosonics L series, priced at $2,800, is the top-rated model, with the Sennheiser EW 112P G3 and Sennheiser EW 100 taking second and third spots, 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 primarily for vérité material. Zoom is our respondents' preferred brand. They are discreet and easy to carry. Both the H4n PRO ($200) and H5 ($280) are smaller and lighter than the H6. However, the more expensive H6 ($320) is cited for its "sound quality"; you can choose signal sensitivity from different sides of microphone.” It has four XLR/TRS inputs versus two on the H4n PRO and H5.

smartphone apps

A plethora of smartphone apps have emerged over the last decade to assist creators throughout the production process in this new era of digital cinema. Nearly 39% of respondents said they use filming apps, with Filmic Pro, Artemis and Sun Seeker being the top performers.

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

Winner of the 2018 Engineering Emmy, the Artemis ($29.99) was the first digital display for smartphones. It accurately simulates various camera and lens combinations, giving filmmakers the opportunity to test focal lengths, aperture, and shutter settings before investing in equipment. "I use Artemis as a finder app for recording interviews or when looking to see how long a lens takes from a certain distance," said one respondent. “It adapts to the camera and lens array and is very accurate in terms of the field of view. You can take pictures and create PDFs of the Scout Report for yourself or for customers to review.”

Finally, SunSeeker ($9.99) uses 3D AR to help filmmakers track the location of the sun on set. In addition, the solar compass displays the sun's hourly directional ranges and schedules notifications for desired solar events, such as "golden hour" sunrise or sunset times. As alternatives, both Sun Surveyor and Helios offer moon tracking for night shots.


As far as lighting is concerned, documentarians prefer existing and extremely elaborate light installations. About 8 out of 10 creators (79%) didn't use an external light with their main or secondary camera in their most recent films, but those who did - about half of respondents - used LED lights for on-set interviews.

Post production

Documentary filmmakers said they primarily use Mac computers to manage the post-production workflow for their latest films; Around three-quarters (75%) used a Mac, compared to 25% who used a Windows operating system to edit their movies. In general, documentarians mostly use human-operated transcribers for their films, or they don't use transcription at all.

Minimum configuration for post-production computers for editing documentaries:

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

  • 16 GB RAM

  • GPU up to 4 GB

Best setup for post-production computers for documentary editing:

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

  • 32 GB RAM

  • GPU up to 8GB

When it comes to post-production software, Adobe Premiere Pro is by far the preferred video editing program; Final Cut Pro X and Avid Media Composer are the second and third favorite programs. For color correction, DaVinci Resolve is the strong favorite, followed by Adobe's Lumetri and Final Cut Pro X. Avid Pro Tools is the best audio editor, closely followed by Adobe Audition, with Logic in third place.

there is more to come

If these responses are any indication of broader trends, it's clear that the documentary style is heavily focused on Verité's footage, and the filmmakers prefer to use state-of-the-art equipment that serves their story's purposes, even when featuring the latest gear. (the RED camera and drones for example) seems to be slow right now. Capturing the evolution of the craft – including the tools of the trade – will be important as the digital age of documentary advances and the era of streaming distribution creates new opportunities for non-fiction storytelling.

The process of developing, conducting and analyzing the results of both parts of the survey and providing them to you does not end here.DocumentaryThe magazine will continue to update you on the tools you've used for specific shooting scenarios in your work, the ideal kits you've put together, the details of equipment budget items, and a host of other tech-focused content that Simplify creative decision-making in your document practice.

Caty Borum Chattoo is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Social Impact at the American University's School of Communication. She is also the author of the forthcoming Oxford University Press book:History Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change(July 2020).

Susan Yin istDocumentaryCreative Director at IDA and leads 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 survey design: Susan Yin; Part II Data Analysis: Caty Borum Chattoo and Susan Yin

Tools of the trade: Conversation pack for documentary filmmakers (16)

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