Gear Guide - Hawaii Film School


Gear Guide

This is the gear we recommend to those just starting in digital filmmaking. We truly want to guide you in the right direction and don't make a recommendation we don't absolutely believe in. We hope to be expanding this guide as time allows, but for now, these are some of the bigger ticket items we suggest. We welcome any questions you might have. Please email us at

Canon Rebel T3i or Lumix FZ1000


The number one camera we recommend is the Canon T3i. We used to recommend the T2i, but the swivel monitor on the T3i gives you the ability to get high and low angle shots you can't get on the T2i without an external monitor. And while many people rightfully prefer the 60D and 7D over the T3i, we just don't see the value of spending that much more for cameras that have identical sensors in them. We are huge fans of the Canon 5D Mark II, but the extra cost isn't justified in our opinion. The 5D is an awesome camera that blows away the T3i in low light situations, but dollar-for-dollar, function-for-function, it is just too expensive in the face of what the T3i provides for the money.   Many skilled cinematographers with high-end cameras, including the Red One, will tell you it is not the camera that makes a great film, but rather a combination of many elements including shot design and lighting.  (Some cinematographers even say that you can't get good resolution on a RED ONE (4K) and must use film (8K), but as most of us already know, film is prohibitively expensive.) If you are just starting out, you cannot go wrong by getting this camera. It is a fantastic value, extremely versatile, and will serve you well, especially if you are a beginner.  You can always upgrade later after you have developed your skills with this camera first.  We also recommend getting the body only and getting a 24 mm prime lens (or other prime) instead of the kit lens that normally comes stock with the camera.  An affordable alternative to the T3i is the Lumix FZ1000, which we have previously described as the poor man's GH4. This camera has a fixed zoom lens (24-400mm) and creates a lovely, dynamically rich image.

Canon 24 mm prime lens


We recommend prime lenses over zoom or variable focal length lenses. And if you haven't heard this a million times already, the T2i, T3i, 60D, and 7D have a smaller sensor (APS-C) that crops your image and has the effect of increasing your focal length by a factor of 1.6. So, what this means is that if you have the T3i and buy a 50 mm lens, what you will actually end up with is an image that looks like it was shot with an 80 mm lens (50 x 1.6 = 80). In experimenting with a variety of prime lenses, we like the 24 mm, which translates on the T3i as 38 mm lens. This focal length gives a balanced perspective that works well for many types of shots. Your preference might vary, but you can also try getting a 28, 35, or 50 mm prime and that should cover most situations you will encounter. We like the 50 mm lens, but have found it is nearly like a telephoto lens on the T3i and have had difficulty framing up medium and wider shots in interior locations. We also like prime lenses because they tend to have wider apertures and require you to work for your shot. That latter point might sound funny to some people, but we find that when you have a fixed length prime, you really have to stop and think about what you are doing and why. It really makes you think twice about framing and composition when you have to physically move your camera to get the shot. With a zoom or variable length lens, you can just zoom in or out and don't really have to work as hard for the shot. You should also know that when you buy lenses you are really making an investment because they will last for many years and on many cameras. And if you buy EF lenses, they will also fit on the 5D if you should ever decide to take that plunge.  Beware that not all Canon lenses will fit on all Canon cameras, so be sure to future-proof your purchases by verifying the exact type of lens you are getting and which cameras it will fit on.  We are aware that other professional filmmakers have said that if you can only get one lens, it should be the Canon EF 24-70mm And while we completely understand the reasoning behind that recommendation, conceptually we cannot bring ourselves to recommending a lens that is nearly twice the cost of the camera itself.  We just can't make that jump.

Canon 85 mm prime lens


Once you have a wide angle lens, we also suggest getting a telephoto prime lens. The one we would recommend is the Canon 85 mm. This translates on the T3i as a 136 mm lens (85 x 1.6 = 136). You will not be able to capture close-ups of the moon, but you will be able to get more flattering close-ups on your actors and most anything else you see everyday. You can also go with a 100 mm lens, but we prefer the 85 mm. The 85 mm also has an F stop of 1.8, so it will work well in lower light situations.  The cost of a wide angle and telephoto lens are roughly the cost of the camera, so we can live with that. Plus if you treat your lenses well, they will hold their value and can be easily sold.

Story (audio book) by Robert Mc Kee


This isn't "gear" per se, but this book should be required for EVERY filmmaker. If we were living in ancient Greece, Robert Mc Kee would be hanging out with the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. His work, Story, will give you profound insights into how to craft your film story, so people will actually want to see it. He is one of the few modern-day scholars who actually explains the WHY behind why things are the way they are. For instance, he fully explains why the three-act formula is so embedded in our lives and why people are drawn to that type of story-telling structure. We highly recommend getting the audio book, so you can listen to it over and over again until you totally absorb it. We cannot overstate the amount of wisdom contained in this work. It is profound, amazing, and should have an influence on how you write and direct your film projects. You must always remember that even if you have the best equipment in the world, if you don't have a compelling story, you have nothing. This means you have to have an understanding of what makes a good story.

Roland R-26


The Canon Rebel T3i is an incredible camera, but it does have limitations. It cannot cook meals, vacuum floors, or record great audio. It can record audio, but it is not great. And if you haven't heard this a million times too, we will say it again. Audio is just as important, if not more important, than your video. It is absolutely true that bad audio will ruin even the best digital video. And sadly, the T3i was not really meant to record great audio. It just wasn't. But all is not lost. There is a workaround. And that is to record dual audio. This means you get the H4N recorder, a good shotgun microphone, a wind-screened onboard microphone, a blimp, a boom pole, XLR cable, and a warm body to be your sound person. You will also need a software program called Plural Eyes to synchronize the great audio from your Roland recorder to your not-so-great audio from your camera. In terms of cost, all these items will add up to $1,200 at a minimum, but there are no other options we know of. This is why every time you see a movie being made, there is that person standing there with a boom microphone! You should find some comfort in knowing that once you get this gear, it will hold its value and should last for many years.  A strong alternative to the Roland is the Tascam DR100, which sells for just under $300.  You should also  get a field mixer with a good pre-amp to cleanly boost the audio signal coming into the recorder. A good option for this is the Azden FMX-22. And don't get cheap cables! Get either Monster or Mogami. Poor cables create noise.

Nikon ME-1 External Microphone


It has been said that an independent film is an accident waiting to happen, and if that's true, it is also true that if something will go wrong, it will. In the case of sound, your greatest and most unpredictable enemy is wind. If you are taking our advice and recording dual sound, then you will need a microphone that is capable of recording in the wind and picking up the reference audio. And you have to have the mindset that the day you choose to film your movie will be the windiest day on record! With that said, we suggest getting the Nikon ME-1 Microphone to act as your on-camera microphone. If it is a windy day and you try to use the built-in microphone, then the wind will destroy your in-camera audio and you will not be able to synch it to the great audio on the Zoom recorder. If it is an exceptionally windy day, you might need to put an additional sock or dead cat over the microphone as well. All you really need is something to create some dead air space between the microphone and outside world.  A more expensive option if you want to record with an on-board microphone and forego everything else is the Shure VP83F . It is both a shotgun microphone and recorder. There is no other system quite like it. If you go this route, be sure to get the fur wind cover that is specifically made for it.

Azden Shotgun Microphone


This is by no means the best shotgun microphone, but it will get the job done and won't break the bank. The industry-standard microphone is actually the Sennheiser MKH-416 but it costs $1,000, which is almost as much as the total sound package we are suggesting here. The Azden microphone also comes with a shock mount and can be used for a variety of recording situations, indoors and out. In fact, we recommend you get used to using a shotgun microphone exclusively. A more expensive alternative is this Audio-Technica microphone.  We should also note that while a shotgun microphone is good for shooting outdoors, a smaller hypercardioid microphone produces a richer sound for interiors. These microphones are very expensive, but a good quality entry-level cardioid is the Oktava MK 012.  It sells for around $300. Be sure to buy it from an authorized dealer only. We have had disastrous experiences with Rode microphones. After only two months, our $700 Rode NTG-3 is in a repair shop. We'd rather have a microphone that just works versus a ten-year warranty. 

Rode Blimp


There are a few things that we are sure of and this is one of them---the wind will obliterate your audio. It will destroy your day faster than a crew mutiny. We guarantee it. And there is only one way to protect your audio from the wind. Seriously, there is only one! And that is to put your shotgun microphone in a blimp cage. The blimp works by creating dead air space around the microphone, so no matter how windy it is, the wind will not destroy your audio. It took us forever to get our minds around this concept, but after the wind ruins your first day of shooting, you realize there are no short cuts you can take here. We don't know why the blimps are so expensive, but this one from Rode is solidly built and is much better than some cheaper ones we have found.

Rode Boom Pole


We know that there are ways to get around this one, but from our experience, it just isn't worth the headache of trying to make your own boom pole. The boom pole needs to be portable, solid, quiet, and look professional. If you show up to a shoot with a mop handle, it will not instill confidence in your clients or crew. Bite the bullet and start with this reasonably priced pole. It meets all the criteria we mention above, and it doesn't rattle!

Lowel DV Creator Light Kit


The issue of lighting is huge, and with the advent of LED lights, we might look back in a few years and ask, "What were we thinking?" But for now, we still use hot lights for interior and exterior locations with ample available power but are switching to LED for remote exteriors. The only downside to hot lights (halogen/tungsten/quartz) is that, well, they're hot, use a lot of electricity, and can throw a circuit breaker pretty easily. But aside from that, the beauty of hot lights is you can sculpt them to any situation. In the middle of the day, you can make it look dark with dimmers and CTB gels, and at night, you can make it look like the middle of the day. We recommend Lowel lights because they are relatively affordable, and we like this kit because it truly is enough to get you started. With lights, the general rule of thumb is that it is better to have more lighting than you need. The last thing you want to do is get to a set or location and find out you don't have enough wattage to properly light the scene. If that happens, then you will have to make artistic compromises that might not match the story or result in discontinuity. There is one other light you might want to add to this kit and that is the Lowel DP Light. We recommend this light because it gives you another 1,000 watts of light if you need it. Just remember to be mindful of the power you are using when you use these lights. For instance, a 20 amp household circuit breaker can handle 2400 watts, but it should not be pushed to such an extreme and should only run at about 80% of its capacity or 1920 watts, so if you are using a Lowel DP light (1,000 watts) and a 750-watt Tota-light on the same breaker, that's probably about all you would want to put on there. You would then get an extension cord and plug into a different area of the house to pull from a different circuit in the house.  If you are looking at high-powered LED lights these LED Panels at Amazon are worth considering.

Fotodiox Pro LED Lights


Speaking of lights, you should never leave your house without two things---an LED bank of lights such as this one AND a set of reflectors. This is true even in the middle of the day! You always need light to fill shadows, and  the screaming yellow sun is notorious for casting hard shadows. And since you probably don't carry a generator around with you, you need a lighting source that is self-contained and very portable. Reflectors and LED banks meet these requirements quickly and easily. We recently acquired the Fotodiox LED lights and can't say enough about them. They color correct on the fly and are incredibly useful as key, fill, and back lights. And they are reasonably priced. In addition, you should always have a set of reflectors such as these with you to either bounce and soften a hard light or fill in shadows.  You should also know that something as simple as a white sheet can act as a bounce light source in a pinch.

Hoodman Loupe Kit With Crane


You will soon discover that although the Canon cameras are revolutionary and have brought high-definition production possibilities to the masses, they still have many limitations. We can warn you about some of them and others you might just have to experience for yourself. Nevertheless, one of the most frustrating limitations is the inability to see the lcd monitor in the sun! Yes, that's right. If you take your trusty camera out on a sunny day, the reflective glare off the back of the monitor will make it very difficult to see anything; therefore, you need something to cover up the viewfinder, so you can actually see what you are filming during the day. There are many monitors to choose from, but we have had no problems with the Hoodman Loupe Kit and feel comfortable recommending it. There is an advantage to the kit in that it offers you another point of contact for holding the camera steady. In fact, by serving as another point of contact, you might even want to use the kit just for that purpose alone. Even though the crane attachment is a little bulky and gets in the way sometimes, we prefer it over the rubber band for holding the eye piece to the lcd monitor. We also like that the crane flips up if and when we need to access the monitor screen more directly.

Westcott Fast Flag Kit


When discussing lights, we mentioned the ability to sculpt it. How do you actually do that? Well, the barn doors help a bit but can't do everything. To be a sculptor of light, you will aso need scrims, flags, and diffusion materials. Scrims lower the intensity of the light, flags cut or block it completely, and diffusion materials spread it around and soften it. This flag kit from Westcott is very basic, but it is enough to get you started. Once you get this kit, then you need to invest in a couple of C-Stands and dimmers.

The stands usually rent for $5 per day, but if you are in this to win it, you might as well get a couple of stands for your personal and everyday practice and use. They are essential and versatile. As for dimmers, they come in very handy because you will want complete control over the wattage going in and coming out of your lights. Having a dimmer in your hands means your 1,000 watt or 1k light can be of any wattage up to 1,000 versus it being a persistent 1,000-watt monster that has to be bounced, flagged, scrimmed, or moved away.  We recommend the dimmer switches Walter Graff makes.

HD-1000 Glidecam With Merlin Arm and Vest


We wish we could travel back in time with what we know now because we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and money.  We will be the first ones to probably say this, but if you could only get one system to move your camera around, it would be a hybrid system using the Glidecam HD-1000, the Merlin Arm and Vest, and the adaptor from Berkey systems.  Now we are very aware this is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but if you count how much equipment you do not have to purchase if you get this configuration, it is a smart way to go. Let's talk about this system a little more.

First, we recommend the Glidecam HD-1000 because it is the lightest and least expensive of the Glidecams. It has manual fine-tuning adjustments now that make balancing it a lot easier. Plus it can hold up to 3.5 pounds, which is the weight of the T3i with a wide angle lens, batteries, and a small HD monitor attached.  Whatever you do, do not get the Glidecam XR-Series or anything other than the HD series. Why? Because anything other than the HD series is an absolute nightmare to balance. The thing about the Glidecams or any other stabilizer is that their balance point is a hard-to-find, unforgiving sweet spot, and just the slightest weight (for example, a few feathers or a lens cap) can throw the whole unit out of balance; therefore, the precise controls on the new HD series are a true innovation and advancement for Glidecam. Since we are not recommending remotely controlled follow-focus systems, you will need a wide angle lens (which is lighter) to maintain a wide depth of field to keep everything in focus. Despite what Steadicam might say, the Glidecam HD-1000 is a professional unit that gives you much greater flexibility than the Merlin stabilizer provides. Stabilizers, even at 3.5 pounds, get heavy quickly, so no matter which one you get, you are going to need an arm and vest to hold it. An arm and vest will take you to the next level but is the most expensive piece of gear on this whole page.

For the arm and vest, we recommend the Merlin Arm and Vest because it is such a better deal than the  Glidecam X-10, which retails for nearly $2,400. That price is more than the entire system we are suggesting here. The Merlin Arm and Vest has the boom range of the X-10, but is $900 less. Go figure!

So what we have here is a really strange situation where Glidecam makes a better stabilizer than Steadicam, and Steadicam makes a better arm and vest than Glidecam. The only thing you need to cross breed them than is an adaptor post, and there is one custom made by Berkey systems for about $50.

Now all totaled this system will cost just under $2,000, but with it, you will not need a tripod, dollies, sliders, or practically any other piece of gear. You can get amazing tracking shots, shoot run-and-gun, boom up, boom down, side-to-side, and keep everything looking very smooth and cinematic. You can even strap on a harness and get incredibly smooth shots off the back of a truck! You will be able to get shots others just can't get it, and you can get them faster and smoother too. Now there are some downsides. You can't generally shoot in the wind unless you have someone blocking it, and it does take a lot of patience and practice to master. But once you have this rig about the only shot you can't get is a crane shot. 

If you want to start slow and see for yourself, then just get with the hand-held Glidecam to start. It will give you a good introduction to how this system can work for you. At one point in our careers, we had a choice between getting this rig and a 5D Mark II camera.  Right now, both cost about the same. We went with the Steadicam because we figured motion was more important than the picture. Think of it this way. What do you remember about the movie Blair Witch?  The motion or the pictures? Our point exactly! And if you've read this far, here is a bonus tip: The trick to getting professional camera moves is to move the camera in at least two directions at once; for example, while doing a tracking shot you pan the camera to keep a subject in frame. And the Steadicam, once mastered, will allow you the ability to not only easily and quickly move on two directions, but three! The Steadicam is the way to work efficiently, professionally, and get great results.