If I Had a Million Dollars…

Imagine that someone (a broadcaster, benevolent stranger, sugar daddy...) gave you a lump sum to spend on film equipment. What would you choose? Would an HD camera package top your list, or perhaps a broadcast-quality editing setup?...
December 1, 1999

Imagine that someone (a broadcaster, benevolent stranger, sugar daddy…) gave you a lump sum to spend on film equipment. What would you choose? Would an HD camera package top your list, or perhaps a broadcast-quality editing setup?

That’s the basic premise we put to a handful of doc-makers from different walks of life – Dave Harding, of reality prodco Termite Art in Studio City, U.S.; Oliver Machin of London-based Pilot Productions (of Lonely Planet fame); underwater specialist Hardy Jones of Petaluma, U.S.-based Hardy Jones/Julia Whitty Productions; and Bo Landin* of Scandinature in Karlstad, Sweden. The goal was to determine their bare necessities, guilty indulgences and only-to-be-dreamed-of luxuries.

We presented our participating producers with three distinct scenarios. First, they were asked to imagine they are starting from scratch (without so much as a videotape) and are given US$50,000 to spend on equipment. Next, we upped the spending to $250,000; and in the final scenario, $1 million. We left the door wide open, in terms of choosing to buy, lease or rent, and they were welcome to choose equipment for use in pre-production through post.

In the case of large-format filmmaking, Chris Blum**, of Laguna Beach, U.S.-based MacGillivray Freeman Films, shares his dreams for equipment that doesn’t yet exist.

The tech equipment shopping lists on the following pages offer some insight into the range of doc-makers’ needs and wants.

Dave Harding, supervising producer

Termite Art Productions (Studio City, u.s.)


* 6 Motorola walkabout walkie-talkies ($600)

* Chimera lighting kit ($2,500)

* iMac laptop computer ($2,500 to $3,000)

* Canon XL1 DV camera ($6,000)

* refurbished Betacam BVW75 ($35,000 to $38,000)


* Avid Xpress ($50,000)

* Sony HD camera ($200,000)

US$1 million

* digiBetacam recorder ($50,000)

* extra storage arrays for the Avid ($60,000)

* multiple computers for the office ($75,000 to $90,000)

* high-end dub rack ($100,000)

* a used 35mm camera package, with lenses ($150,000)

* Avid Symphony ($250,000)

* a complete Sony HD camera package, including audio ($300,000)

Note: Amounts listed are estimates of how much the producer would expect to spend, not the actual prices of the items – all amounts are in U.S. dollars.

Reality producer Dave Harding had no problems coming up with his shopping list of tech items. ‘I know all the things that I want,’ he says, particularly when working with upwards of US$250,000. Given those resources, Harding would plunge into HD without hesitation. ‘It’s clear that our business is moving in the direction of hd. We need to be prepared for that, and currently I’m not.’

Along with the HD camera package, practical reasoning guided Harding’s decision to add the Avid Symphony – ‘an uncompressed video editing format that does broadcast quality ouput’ – to his million-dollar list. ‘It’s been my experience that you want to own your editing,’ he says. ‘Creatively, you want the ability to fiddle as often and whenever you want to. If you’re paying [to rent edit equipment] by the hour, there are constraints on being able to do that.’

Aside from post technology, though, Harding considers renting to be a good option. Audio equipment, for example, never appeared on any of his lists. ‘I don’t necessarily need to own that to take advantage of [the technology],’ he says, explaining that he prefers to hire a soundman who will bring audio gear with him.

Computers feature as essential items on Harding’s wish lists, specifically Macs, because ‘everything you do nowadays involves a computer, from writing treatments, to scripts, to pitches.’ He would drop up to one-tenth of a million-dollar windfall into outfitting his office with multiple computers, to ‘really network the production and post-production together.’

According to Harding, the Canon XL1 DV camera is the reality producer’s top choice in the $50,000 scenario, primarily for its portability and high-end lens adapters. ‘You can actually use much more expensive lensing with that particular camera, so it’s much more versatile. Yet it looks somewhat like a consumer camera, so it’s not really as noticeable as a big broadcast package.’

In the real world (where unexpected cash windfalls exist only as the figment of a magazine editor’s imagination), leasing cameras and other equipment helps him stay afloat day to day. ‘Typically I would lease [because] of cash flow, just to minimize your cash out.’

If he had the funds, Harding would buy a 35mm camera package (ever practical, he’d buy used), ‘just because I’ve always wanted one. The image is just so beautiful. It’s the prettiest pictures you’ll ever make.’

Harding helped start up Termite Art five years ago. In that time, the company has produced a wide range of reality programs, including such clip specials as Busted on the Job: Caught on Tape (for Fox) and The World’s Most Dangerous Animals (for CBS), as well as the 26 x 30-minute series Wild Rescue (for Animal Planet).

Oliver Machin, technical coordinator

Pilot Productions (London, U.K.)


* used Bolex 16mm camera and lenses ($3,250)

* Sony D100 DV camera ($4,050)

* VHS dubbing facility ($6,500)

* Canon XL1 camera kit ($6,500)

* maintenance and rental costs ($25,000 to $30,000)


* 2 x DAT machine ($13,000 total)

* used Betacam SP, plus lenses and tripod ($32,300)

* DV camera kit, such as DVcam or DVCpro VTR ($80,000 to $90,000)

* 2 x Avid off-line edit suite ($113,000 total)

US$1 million

* digital storage archiving device ($1 million)

Note: Amounts listed are estimates of how much the producer would expect to spend, not the actual prices of the items – all amounts are in U.S. dollars.

Storage wins out over camera equipment on the high end of the wish list for technical coordinator Oliver Machin. ‘We’ve done 78 Lonely Planet episodes, and on every shoot they film 20-25 hours worth of material, so we have a library full of thousands of tapes,’ he says. ‘Archiving all of that onto something accessible – some kind of server – so we could pull off shots to put into other programs that we make, would be an absolute dream.’

After logging more than 6,000 tapes in Pilot’s library, Machin knows first-hand about the limitations of the medium. ‘Tapes, at the end of the day, degrade. They’re susceptible to damp and fire,’ he says. ‘If I had $1 million, I would probably want to invest it into archiving all that material onto a hard disk-based system.’

The prodco is in the process of moving their video library out of the office, ‘to an underground, fireproof, bomb-proofed bunker,’ which will ensure the longevity of the tapes but also make them more difficult to access.

However, the glory days of the videotape, even for filming, may be numbered. In Machin’s opinion, ‘we’re going to move away from shooting on tape, as well. Ikegami has already developed, in association with Avid, a camera that shoots straight to hard disk [the Ikegami EditCam].’ The EditCam replaces a conventional tape transport.

According to info from Avid, the EditCam feels like a typical camcorder, but has a built-in editing and playback system. It also has a preview output feature, which allows the filmmaker to watch what is being ‘captured’ as it’s happening, as well as the status of the recording.

Hardy Jones, producer

Hardy Jones/Julia Whittys Productions (Petaluma, U.S.)


* Sony VX1000 DV camera ($3,000)

* accompanying underwater housing ($3,000)

* a used Arriflex SR2 camera ($12,000)

* Avid or Media 100 off-line editing system ($32,000)


* digiBeta camera ($40,000)

* accompanying underwater housing ($25,000)

* 8:64 zoom lens ($20,000)

* Arriflex high-speed 16mm camera ($30,000)

* accompanying underwater housing ($25,000)

* Canon zoom lens approx. 150:600 ($15,000)

* 5.9 lens ($2,000)

* 10:100 zoom lens ($5,000)

* Avid or Media 100 off-line editing system ($80,000-$100,000)

US$1 million

* HD camera ($90,000)

* accompanying underwater housing ($30,000)

* HDcam lenses ($20,000)

* simultaneous internet webcasting ($800,000 to ??)

Note: Amounts listed are estimates of how much the producer would expect to spend, not the actual prices of the items – all amounts are in U.S. dollars.

For underwater specialist Hardy Jones, the $1 million scenario was almost unfathomable. ‘That would quite honestly take it out of my category. I don’t make films where you could possibly buy $1 million worth of equipment.’ (His last project was a US$40,000 one-hour one-off called Shark Central: The Secrets of Rangiroa Atoll for the Discovery Channel.)

However, it didn’t take much prodding for Jones to reveal his dream of linking his films to the internet. ‘The ideal project for me would involve simultaneous webcasting from location. If I had the money I wouldn’t be putting it so much into cameras, I’d be putting it into ways of getting us onto the internet.’

Clearly, Jones has given this idea some thought. ‘You’d have to be able to acquire the images from a remote location [Shark Central was shot in French Polynesia] and send them to a satellite,’ he explains. ‘The costs on that involve a large number of parameters, such as how many viewers you want to be able to see it simultaneously.’

If he had only $250,000 or $50,000 to spend, Jones would devote a significant portion to video cams, which have a distinct advantage over film cameras for underwater filmmakers. Jones explains: ‘Videotape gives much more contrast at low light levels. A gray shark against blue background is flat on film but pops out on video. The other issue is running time. A 400′ film mag runs just over ten minutes at 24fps. While it’s easy to change magazines on a film camera topside, it cannot be done underwater so you have to surface and lose precious diving time or maybe a great shot. With video you can run an hour before reloading.’

Jones says the biggest tech issue for doc-makers shooting in the deep blue is keeping the camera dry – hence the need to purchase housing to fit each camera. Because camera housing isn’t easy to come by (‘there’s very, very few of them made,’ he says), Jones has his custom-made by Vince Pace of Pace Technologies in Burbank, California.

For the Bo Landin article, click here

For the Chris Blum article, click here

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.