Cinematography is a highly complex field that relies just as much on sheer intuition as it does technical prowess, with many cinematographers spending years if not decades honing their eye for what constitutes as a great shot. As one of our graduates from cinematography school put it when asked about the best piece of work she’d done: “I don’t know. I haven’t filmed it yet.”
The quest for the best can also see a cinematographer having to invest in some pricey equipment along the way, though you’d be surprised at how much money can be saved with only a little makeshift ingenuity (resulting in everyone else on set gazing on in awe at your clever yet effective tricks).
With this in mind, scroll on to discover some of the toolbag essentials every cinematographer should carry with them…as well as a few insider secrets that many overlook!
Cinematography Hacks & Essential Tools
Tape. We’ll get the tape thing out of the way first, which is by far the most obvious entry on this list but one which cannot be overstated: you’ll need tape. A lot of tape. Pack as many rolls as you think you’ll need, then throw an extra couple in your kit bag…then add another for good measure.
Wheelchair Dolly. Want a quick and cheap way of getting steady shots without the use of extensive tracking? You need to get yourself an inexpensive, secondhand wheelchair.
Obviously, the shots aren’t going to be quite as steady as if it was on a track and you may require some stabilization, but there’s no denying that the resulting footage is pretty spectacular when compared against the cost (especially given that you can get lightweight, foldable wheelchairs for next to nothing on Craigslist sometimes). For reference, the above shot in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was achieved using a wheelchair dolly, assumedly without any stabilization whatsoever. Not bad, huh?
Ivar Side Unit. You’re probably wondering what the heck an ‘Ivar side unit’ is, and what has it got to do with cinematography? Not a lot, really – it’s a $13 side unit from Ikea:
What’s relevant about it is that with a little bit of modification, it makes for a superb makeshift dolly track for those occasions where a wheelchair doesn’t cut it—thanks to Romain for this one! You can see how he’s done it here.
A Bag of Rice. As a good director of photography, you’ll have stands and clamps and tape to secure just about every piece of equipment going…except for that one thing you forgot about that you just can’t stand up straight on the day. But don’t fear—a pound of rice loosely filling a bag can serve as a resting cushion for your camera or pretty much anything else you need to stabilize.
Vaseline. Need a soft focus filter? Simply smear a light amount of vaseline over otherwise clear glass, and you’re good to go.
Flexible PVC Piping. It’s a little bulky, but given the amount of times this stuff will save your bacon, you won’t regret throwing some in the back of the car (you’ll want to pre-split some of them for ease of inserting things into them).
Velcro Straps. Gaffer tape is one thing, but many DPs overlook the power of a simple velcro strap – a multipack of brightly colored straps is a quick alternative to tape, and is far easier and less messy to undo after you’ve finished a shoot. Particularly good for cabling!
Swiss Army Knife. Don’t just pack a box cutter and assume that’ll do. Invest in a decent Swiss army knife and you’ll truly be ready for any eventuality.
Knowledge. This may sound glib, but more important than having the best gear on the planet is knowing how to use the stuff. After all, a $500 camera in the hands of someone who is intimately familiar with it can usually achieve far better results than someone with a full RED camera rig and a thousand filters but no idea how to use them…
… but hey, that’s what cinematography school is for!