24-Bit Dailies in a 16-Bit World

Advice for First Feature Indie


Canon 5DQuestion from a reader:

As I assume many of your readers/students are, I aspire to make my first feature-length indie film soon. I have a Canon 5D Mark II, which I'm very comfortable shooting video on and operating. Only problem -- and it's a big one -- is that I'm COMPLETELY lost when it comes to recording audio.

For the last several months, I've perused the internet for equipment suggestions and subsequently purchased a Zoom h4n recorder and, after plugging it directly into my camera via the standard 3.5mm audio input and still receiving awful quality, I also purchased an attenuator cable to connect the Zoom to the camera. The attenuator cable makes a significant sound difference, but the sound STILL isn't of acceptable quality; I'm not trying to make a youtube video, I'm trying to make a full-length movie that I can potentially submit to festivals and, with loads of luck, start a career from.

Anyway, I didn't intend to write a message of this length when I began, so forgive me.

The specific function of this message is to ask if you personally recommend investing in lav mics in addition to a quality shotgun mic.

Also, is there any sound equipment out there that you know of that could eliminate the need for post-audio?


I'm excited that you want to shoot your first feature film, but I strongly advise you to think twice about it! To make a feature worth getting noticed requires a crew, better gear, and more experience. Otherwise, what you end up with is just a very long student project.

Perhaps think about shooting a high quality SHORT film, until you get more experienced with your equipment & techniques. If you are going to attract good actors, and possible investors -- you want to be able to show them a top notch sample of what you are capable of. If you manage to coerce a decent cast/crew and are not proficient -- they will drop out before the project is completed and then you will really have nothing to show for it. Trust me on this one; been there and done that.

To begin, you should not even think about directing/shooting/sound recording by yourself. If you are going to direct, then get a crew to take care of the technical. Directing is a full time endeavor.

As the bit about not needing post production --- what, are you kidding? The lower the production, the more stuff that needs to be fixed in post. Even the crappy Blair Witch Project required $400,000 in post before they could get the picture & audio ready for theatrical release!

For audio, you will record the usable tracks on your Zoom. What goes to the Canon will just be a scratch track, for dailies & instant playback. Don't worry that the overall quality is not that good; welcome to the world of using a still photo camera as a cine camera. The advantage of the better lenses will be lost if you do not have better lighting, camera support, and feature grade audio. Don't forget to budget for external hard drives, monitors, and accessories. You will not be saving money over just getting your hands on a Red.

To sync your footage with the audio from the Zoom, you can use Plural Eyes software, which is available for most editing systems. They even make a generic version for the misc editing programs, although if you are talking feature -- you should be on Avid Media Composer or at least Final Cut.

The Plural Eyes will use the scratch track on the Canon to compare waveform images of the audio from the Zoom to match up the good sound with picture. It works similar in function to timecode.

Besides the Zoom, you will need a mixing board so that you can control audio levels and mix microphone feeds together. Behringer and Mackie offer some very good units for under $400. You can get a Behringer 1204 for around $125, which can handle up to 4 microphone inputs. The Mackie 1402 is less than $399. Features do not get shot with only one mic on the set. At the very least, you will be mixing a boom with a plant mic or lavalier.

Shotgun-wise, the cheapest that I would recommend would be the Audio Technica AT897 or the Senn ME66. But for a feature, you really should have full condenser mics, not the cheaper electret condenser battery operated "video" mics. My picks are the BP4073 short shotgun for general, the BP4051 wide angle cardioid for interiors/echo, and the BP4071 long shotgun for exteriors (or the Sennheiser MKH60, MKH40, MKH70). The better the mics, the better the results.

For lavs, you should have at least a couple of decent wireless with some good capsules on them. Audio Technica, Sennheiser, and Sony all offer some models in the $500 to $700 range. Of course, most people just rent. LectroSonics is the most popular higher end brand, if you can afford them. (Zaxcom is the ultimate, but they are out of your price range, even to rent).

Mount AT899's or Senn MKE2's on the wireless for a sound to match your booms. Or use the Countryman B3 if you need lavs to hold back background noise and only pick up the one actor wearing them. Sankens and Trams are good, too.

Best advice is to hire someone who is experienced somewhat in sound, and let them deal with the production audio. Get a gaffer to do the lighting, and a good cinematographer to shoot. Then you can concentrate on being the Director/Producer.

Feature films are no place to learn. They cost a lot of money; require a lot of people; and the only thing worse than watching a badly shot short film is to sit through a badly made LONG film.

Trying not to be negative; just realistic.

I am sure that you want your first feature to be a success! If your script is worth shooting, then it is worth shooting right!

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If you have any suggestions for this individual about embarking on their first feature film, please feel free to comment.

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