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8 Great Filmmaking Tools for Indie Filmmakers from NAB

Indiewire By Valentina Valentini | Indiewire April 11, 2014 at 10:58AM

Here's Indiewire's picks for the best filmmaking tools for indie filmmakers from NAB, which just wrapped in Las Vegas.
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Photo by Dyana Carmela Cion at NAB

If you’ve ever been to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas, you’ll know that there are thousands of square feet to cover and a new vendor is hawking their techy goods at every step of the way. It is quite impossible to see all of them in the four days here, and even more impossible to write about all of the cool/cheap/fun toys to play with. So here are just a select few that we geeked out over during NAB, which recently wrapped, and that you might be able to use to enhance your filmmaking careers and help you stay within your budget parameters.

1. CION versus Blackmagic Design's URSA

It sounds like an Ancient Greek battle story, but it’s a much less bloody event on the show floor full of tech nerds at NAB. Blackmagic Design got into the camera manufacturing business only recently, debuting their Cinema Camera at NAB 2012. They followed with their Pocket Cinema and 4K Production cameras last year, and this year, they unveiled their studio production camera, the URSA. Now AJA, a company better known for their disk recorders, boldly steps into the camera space releasing their own cinema camera, the CION. So which is better?

Photo by Beth Dubber NAB Show Floor

The URSA is a more robust camera than its predecessors, designed for people with more workflow needs and built to handle the ergonomics of large film crews as well as single person use. It has accessories built in, including a 10-inch fold-out monitor (perhaps a cumbersome addition, but we’ll let you decide), XLR-in and SDI-out, Genlock, a Super 35 global shutter 4K image sensor and internal dual RAW and Apple ProRes recorders.

The CION can record 4K directly to an internal ProRes 444 and shoots at frame rates up to 120, (the URSA goes up to 60fps) but sits at $9000, whereas the URSA is $6000 (EF mount, $6500 for PL mount). The CION also seems to be catering to a younger aesthetically conscious crowd with a wooden handle on top of the camera and a suede shoulder pad.

2. Buzzworthy Lights

Jonathan Miller, Chief Product Officer of Hive Lighting Jonathan Miller was a cinematographer. Actually, he was a PA, then a Loader, Camera Assistant, 1st AC and Operator before that. Now, he designs lights with a friend and co-founder Robert Rutherford from undergrad who happened to be working with new plasma technology for streetlights a couple years back when their paths crossed.

Only three years old, and with products on the market since September 2012, Hive has been exclusively making plasma spot lights. Brand new at this year’s NAB, they’ve introduced the BEE – a full-spectrum, 100-degree field flood light with tunable daylight ranging from 4800K to 6800K. With in-product tuning, a gaffer no longer needs gels, and because it’s full spectrum you won’t see any green/magenta shifts.

"Our motivation for making the BEE came from our customers," said Miller. "We got a lot of praise for our technology and ability to plug into the wall, but our users wanted to have the option of buying, and up until now, the least expensive light we had was almost $3000."

As a flood it still has quite a bit of output, but its Hive’s smallest and least expensive light – 11x11 square weighing 11 lbs. and is five-times brighter than an LED panel. The head retails for $1995 and the power supply for $495 or $995. So for $2500 you can have a robust kit that travels well, good for ENG, interviews or to add to a larger TV or film set.

Hive has quickly become known as a friend to the smaller filmmaker, but their lights are also on TV and film sets including "Divergent," "The Mentalist" and "True Blood." And as a low-heat, high-output option that’s completely flicker-free, they’re finding themselves on high-speed imagery shoots as well as SXSW red carpets.

3. Cute and cheap iPhone lenses

As most of us have ditched our point-and-shoots opting to use a smart phone for photo opps instead, Schneider Optics thought it was a good idea last summer to bring out some snazzy lenses to improve and expand upon iPhone's already amazing picture-taking capabilities. Unfortunately, it is limited to one focal length at about a 30mm, and even smaller in video mode at about 42mm. Schneider’s iPro Lens line was designed with the same concepts and engineering as their century optics professional grade lens technology, just shrunken down to fit on an iPhone (also the Samsung Galaxy and an accessory clip added at this NAB for the iPad).

There are five lenses to choose from – a macro, a fish eye, super wide at a 55 percent increase, a standard wide at a 35 percent increase and a 2x telephoto lens. They designed a case that has a bayonet mount over the device lens, which ensures that the lens is properly centered and has correct spacing between the two lens elements, and there are two entry points on the case for the handle. Maintaining a sleek style and practical functionality, when not in use the lenses are stored inside the handle. Sold à la carte, the prices range from $39 to $99. There’s a Trio Kit that includes the macro, super wide and tele for $229. Point-and-shoot cameras are disappearing since so many opt to use their smart phones instead. 

"Our customers are cinematographers, still photographers, operators and even expanding to location scouts," said the company's sales rep Niki Mustain. "Listening to our customer base requests, the super wide was created to accompany the Director’s Viewfinder app [from Artemis, $30]. It’s a pretty sophisticated app, but is limited by the lens on the phone." Artemis is now in bed with Schneider and implemented the iPro lens system within the app for lens choices.

4. Smoke Fire sale

In these competitive times, software accessibility and flexibility become ever more important, especially to start-ups, freelancers and small businesses, which make up the majority of new Smoke customers, according to Autodesk.

They polled a sample across the professional video market and 68 percent responded that term-based software licensing is an option they’d like to see become available. Smoke used to be $3,495 for a license, but now it's $195 SRP/month, $545 SRP/quarter and $1,750 SRP/year. Committing for a year saves you more than $500.

5. Stock up on the fly

Shutterstock is a global marketplace for royalty-free stock video and images. They provide the assets for filmmakers in order to save money and also ensure that they’re within legal boundaries of reproducing images. 

Indie filmmakers are on a tight budget, but maybe they have an aerial shot written into the script or an establishing exterior shot of a marketplace in Tanzania. Shutterstock can get you that scene for $79, rather than having to compromise on the narrative because hiring an aerial photographer or flying to Tanzania is just not in your budget.

"When you get to the cutting room floor you sometimes find out you’re missing key transitions in a film," said VP of New Business Ben Pfeifer. Shutterstock is so fast and easy to browse and purchase a clip, that you can get back on track in the edit within minutes. And their pricing is simple and fairly low – A single HD clip is $79 or there are packages at different levels up to $1699. Shutterstock provides high-end and well-produced content, attempting to stay away from typically stale stock footage imagery and they employ 55,000 contributors worldwide. They’ve been used in "Dallas Buyers Club," "House of Cards," and "Captain America," and it’s the same content those big guns are using that the low-budget filmmakers are using too.

"We’re actively going after content in the parts of the world that aren’t well-represented in the industry," said Derrick Rhodes, Content Producer. "Documentary work and indie filmmakers are a big part of our base users and we’re proud to offer a broad reach and diverse range of content."

Note to filmmakers trying to make money on the side: go to www.submit.shutterstock.com to license your own footage for a 30 percent kickback. Shutterstock doesn’t own it and you’re able to generate passive income without giving up your creative rights. "We’re really interested in cool images, different stuff that you wouldn’t think right away is a 'stock image.' If you think your footage is cool, there’s a good chance someone else out there will think it’s cool too."

6. A little stabilization goes a long way

When your production is not quite Steadicam ready or you don’t have the money to hire an owner/operator, Freefly’s Movi M5 might be just the solution. Introduced to the market last summer – at $5,000 to own (although renting is only around $200/day) – it’s a three-axis stabilization system that can carry up to 5 lbs. It is comparable to the Steadicam, but the setup is much easier, it’s much smaller and it only requires a static balance on roll, pan and tilt, and no dynamic balancing, which is the most time-consuming and challenging with the Steadicam. 

They also offer the M10 that carries up to 12 lbs. and costs $15,000. For indie filmmakers that are shooting on DSLRs but still want to get professional grade and high-production grade shots, you can easily put a 5D Mark III on the M5 with Atomos Ninja Blade, which will record footage directly off the sensor of the camera. That allows you to get 422 color space directly to ProRes so you’re able to get cinematic shots on a relatively inexpensive rig. 

Even higher up is the M15, which debuted here and can carry 15 lbs. Pricing hasn't yet been introduced yet on that one.

7. Get ahead of the curve by going DOWNSTREAM

Invented by Brian Drewes, founder of Boston-based boutique VFX house ZeroFX, Downstream is a software plug-in for Adobe After Effects, and will be rolling it out for Final Cut, Premiere and Avid soon after the first version comes out in June. It allows people to see the eventual compression of a project, and since so much content is made for the web or portable devices now, Drewes is "kind of surprised no one’s ever done it before."

Debuting here at NAB, it’s only $24.99. That’s a sweet price when it’s something that will make you look better in front of your client and can potentially save you hours of corrections because what they’re seeing is not what you were seeing while working in full resolution. In order to quality control for the eventual final product, Downstream is a no-brainer. It allows you to do it in real time so you can make artistic decisions based on compression as you’re working.

"There are a bunch of steps in order to see something you’re working on at full res in its compressed form," said Drewes, "but Downstream gives you the ability to see it right there in the host application."

8. Professional grade lighting at prosumer prices

For $2200 you can have a professional lighting kit that packs up and ships out easier than your own suitcase and, at 26 lbs., probably weighs less. Litepanels’ Croma Flight Kit is a lightweight and compact kit that comes with a wealth of power options, mounting options and can even expand with the addition of extra fixtures down the road.

It comes with three compact light stands that extend from 19.3 inches to 6.2 inches, as well as a Manfrotto Justin Spring Clamp that can be mounted in almost any tough-to-place location. Also included are three ball head shoe mounts that can be combined with the stand mount adapters for maximum flexibility in positioning.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Technology, Tech