11 things every freelance filmmaker should keep in their toolbox
Being a freelance filmmaker means you have to be prepared at all times in order to maintain your professional image. Getting hired as a film or video maker can be tough, but you can impress your clients by the way you handle yourself and your team on set.
I’m guessing you work with a small, perhaps rather inexperienced crew, if any. You probably hold more than one position on set and keeping everything from falling apart is a real struggle. Keeping your client happy can be challenging, but having certain tools handy at all times will help.
I’m sure you know the feeling when you’re about to hit record, but you notice that something is wrong on screen and you have to stop once again and find a way to fix it. Your crew and actors get exasperated. You’re losing focus and precious time. You need to be able to make up for every department’s shortcomings.
Films and videos require teamwork, so if someone else can’t do their job, neither can you. Your team is important, but so are your tools. Here is an extensive list of things you must always have with you on set that will put you a step ahead of everyone else and save you a lot of heartache.
Things every set and every crew member will need
You have to make sure you have everything you may need to create the best possible video for your client. Here are some things I always have with me. These items range from the contents of a usual toolbox to film specific needs.
One pair of work gloves for various tasks that might come up where you will need to protect your hands. Also needed is one pair of heat resistant gloves because those lights on set will get pretty damn hot.
You may be using equipment that requires a special tool, like a power drill. If so, have it handy. In most cases, though, the basics should keep you covered. Even if you have to wing it sometimes with a replacement.
The basics include: a hammer, a few different screwdrivers (go for a couple of phillips and a couple of flatheads in small and large, or one with many heads). A wrench, a good retractable utility knife, measuring tape (if you’re going to buy a new one, do your future self a favor and don’t get one below 32 ft), scissors and pliers (ideally ones that cut wire as well, otherwise add wire cutters to your list).
A level can also come in handy but many tripods have a leveling bubble and many cameras an internal level. However, I find it necessary when laying down tracks. Tweezers can be super helpful when working with tiny parts, I once used them to fix a broken turntable on set. Add a few nails and an assortment of screws to your toolbox as well. When you need ’em, you really need ’em.
Every kind. Literally. Scotch, duct, packing, electrical, double sided (careful where you stick this one though, it’s a pain to remove) and -of course- masking. Oh, masking tape. You’ll go through a roll a day on set. Get a few colors and widths. It’s so good for marking spots for your lights, camera, actors, objects, crew members, etc.
You can use it to tape down your cables so no one trips, put up a makeshift sign, use it as a post-it, tape a lav mic onto an actor, categorize your equipment, mark your focus points on a lens, consolidate cables, and so so so much more. It’s easy to rip off and won’t leave a mark once you remove it. Probably the best thing in your toolbox. Don’t leave home without.
What about gaffer tape? Isn’t that the filmmaking tape? It is more expensive and harder to find than everything else mentioned, and I have found that I can always get by with the above substitutions instead. It’s all about personal preference though. It’s not really as needed in the digital era, but feel free to check out all it’s various uses, by those who love it.
It’s always good to keep a stick or some liquid glue around, but make sure you have super glue. It’s great for a quick fix if (or inevitably when) things go south and something breaks.
Pro tip: don’t spill super glue on your client. They most likely won’t like it.
Rope, string, wire, rubber bands
Connect things, consolidate things, suspend things, tighten things. Velcro strips and bungee cords have a place here too if you have the space for them.
Extra pro tip: Rubber bands and sometimes bungee cords can help you achieve smoother pans and tilts on your tripod when you use them to pull the handle, as they cancel out abrupt movement.
Use it to restore smooth movement to those pieces of equipment that lost it. A wheel that gets stuck won’t get you that moving shot you need. Plus, it can silence squeaky hinges so your sound isn’t interfered with.
Notepad, post-its, pens, pencils, thin and thick markers
Obvious reasons. Don’t skip anything. (Okay, maybe you can skip the post-its since you have the magical masking tape, but why?).
You should always try your best to know where your power supply will come from ahead of the shoot. How distant is your power source and how many things will you need to plug in? Don’t just count lights, but various chargers and potential sound equipment as well. Bring every extension cord you can get your hands on. And be safe when handling electricity. Look at this guide for proper cable management.
It’s always wise to have some extra batteries on set, even if you don’t think you will need them. You might want to keep some tin foil in your toolbox as well since you can use it to convert AAA batteries to AA in a pinch.
You may need to smooth the edges of some string you cut or melt the rubber or plastic part of something. Be careful, especially when on set.
An abundance of adapters
One of my all-time favorite Ebay and Amazon discoveries. Super cheap and you will gain the life-changing ability to connect every piece of equipment to another. You will be the master of all gear.
Turn tripods into light stands, attach anything to your camera, put your camera on anything you fancy, and simply never have an issue with camera screw size again.
My favorites are: 1/4” female to 3/8” male conversion screws and the opposite, 1/4” and 3/8” female to light mount and the bundle featured in the photo below that contains all three. Cold shoe mounts to either 1/4” or 3/8” camera screws are available as well, great for putting a mic on your camera (if you don’t have the appropriate mount) or attaching a small LED.
Cold shoe brackets that you can screw on to anything exist too. Absolutely everything is there, just order anything you may need in advance. I even bought a tripod splitter that was a life saver during a run ‘n gun shoot around the city last week.
Always take into account the specific shoot you’ll be taking part in and your clients’ needs. You will most likely add things to this list as time goes by and you develop your own methods and style of handling a set. A lot of things you might find useful may be in your home already. Figure out what works for you and makes you the most efficient! It’s good to be as prepared as possible.
As a filmmaker, you have a department or two you primarily focus on, but as a freelancer, you should be able to cover all posts to a certain extent. Check in next week for part 2, where I’ll list additional items needed on set to further help each specific department get the job done.