What Are the Filmmaker’s Most Important Tools?

Filmmaker cartoonBy Norman C. Berns

What’s a filmmaker’s most important tool? That essential thing we must have, no matter what?

I asked that question in various groups and online forums, and several hundred answers came in. Of course, the best tool depends on the work at hand, so even while many were job-specific, most seemed to be basic and surprisingly universal.

  • No doubt smart phones would have topped the list if they hadn’t been excluded. They’re still so pervasive that a few slipped through as the tool of choice, either stated or implied.

It replaced my laptop, my camera, my video camera, my Avid, my GPS, my LA411, my Thomas Guide and my bottle opener. Can’t use it as a Leatherman or Gaffer’s tape yet…. Oh well, nothing is perfect.

So… Other than my phone, my best tool is….

  • Software was mentioned most often. Whether on a computer or in the cloud, it included programs for production (budgeting, scheduling, writing, presenting, organizing) and instant messaging (Skype and others) and social networking (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn). (12.9%)

Nothing worse in a strange town than having no idea where to get a decent meal.

I moved online and freed my company from the IT burden.

  • A close second was the computer itself. I suspect that it’s not really the machines we love, but all the software tools they hold. Those two categories – computers and software – we’re far and away the top choices. (11.2%)

The knowledge of the universe is no further away than a mouse click.

I can even live without my phone. Yes I said it; I can. But my laptop is my life – can’t leave home without it.

Our addiction to technology aside, some of the best picks were surprisingly practical, everyday hand tools.

  • The Multi-tool, whether it was a Gerber, Leatherman or Swiss Army knife. (6.9%)

In terms of hardcore survival, this is the one thing I can’t be without.

  • Pencil, paper, pens, and Sharpies were all emotional favorites, though often dismissed as “old school.” (6.0%)

Nothing beats a pen and some paper to jot down a lead, a breakthrough, a to-do item.

DPs always get the coolest toys in their kit. I stopped trying to compete. So I beat them with low tech. A pencil and paper never break down.

  • Sound quality was a major issue for many, whether it was software, a home recording studio, the ideal microphone, or just careful planning for the session. (5.5%)

A great sound track will often blow a client away, more then visual effects.

I’ve won awards because my product sounded as good as it looked.

  • A brain and/or creativity (4.3%)

It’s what enables me to make do with what I have when what I have is not enough.

By far, I use creativity more than any other object or attribute.

Its battery never runs down.

  • Cameras were popular. Some suggested “the camera in my phone,” but others focused on stand-alone SLRs. (3.5%)

It goes wherever I go and I never leave home without it.

  • Many (including me) picked their GPS, for location survival. (2.5%)

My other tools aren’t of much value if I can’t find the location….

  • Gaffers tape (or duct tape) was a frequent (and well-loved)  nominee. (2.5%)

The world in general runs on gaffers tape….

It even fixed a leak in my car’s radiator….

  • Coffee was selected only once, but remained an unspoken essential. At least in my life. So it’s included.

…When the brain needs a morning jumpstart.

  • Patience, too, only made the list once, but it was implied frequently

My best tool, though l can’t always remember where I put it.

About 50% of the tools were one-offs, and those were often the most interesting. Some were really surprising, too, good ideas I hadn’t thought of but should have. The job at hand can be clearly seen in many of them. Most could be put to use by almost everyone.

  • 3-Hole Punch

Without it how would I organize all the POs & backup?

  • 5-Button Mouse

You wouldn’t believe how much more productive I get, how much better I stay on task when I can keep one hand on the mouse.

  • Airbrush

I’m a big fan of airbrush cosmetics for the HD market.

  • Aluminum Clip Board
  • Business Cards

I’ve never met a business card I didn’t like!

  • Baby Wipes
  • Batteries

For all those mics….

  • Binder Clips 

I use them for binding paper together (duh), holding call sheets, holding a hand mic or earwig, making a larger zipper tab that’s easier to grab with heavy gloves, keeping gloves, mittens, socks paired together, clipping the ends of rolled tubes of paper, a great cable tie, an impressive money clip, holding the skin on a stuffed turkey while roasting, temporary hem holder (while looking for duct tape), closing the end of a tube when it has a blow out, holding fine wires while soldering, pinching off tubing to stop the flow of whatever, temporary curtain hold back….

  • Bolt Cutters

When an employee who is supposed to open the parking lot has slept in, I simply cut the lock and get to my shoot on time.

  • Broadband Card
  • Call Sheet/Script Wallet
  • Car keys (spare set)
  • Canon i80 Printer

Love it. And it fits in my backpack.

  • Clothes Pins
  • Compass
  • Cooler

It holds water, sandwiches and snacks. It fits in the front seat of the car for easy access. There are side pockets where I can store an external hard drive without worrying about it getting hot in the car.

  • Day Timer

Keep it handy for notes and sketches. I guess my age is showing!

  • Ears

I listen to exactly what a person is saying, because behind that language is pain, confidence, fear, love, or a need for love. We are in the business of communication yet…the silence says everything.

  • Ear buds
  • First Aid Kit
  • iPad (and other tablet computers)

Actually, I increasingly find that the IPad has become an almost indispensable utility. Now, with the advent of the Movie Magic and Final Draft apps for the IPad it’s going to be almost impossible to go on recces and attend meetings without the blessed thing.

  • Keffiyah 

Not just for wrapping around my neck or head, but to wrap delicate equipment in unforeseen circumstances; as a towel, a small camera bean bag, a pillow, a sun screen; great for diffusing strong light coming through unavoidable windows…. I thought the most obvious answer would be a roll of gaffer tape but my keffiyah has even been used to tie things together.

  • LA411

I wish every production city had its own 411. [LA411.com is a Web site filled with film production resources.]

  • Laser Range Finder

It’s saved my ass more than a few times. It’s nice to know when the trucks will really fit under that bridge with the missing clearance markings.

  • LED Camera Light

Runs on standard v-mount batteries and packs a lot of light in a small package. I take it everywhere.

  • Light Meters
  • Lists – Crew, Cast & Vendors, Call Sheets and To-Do Lists

Especially my old ones. With notes and numbers of hundreds of contacts.

  • McCallan’s 14
  • Mini Maglight

Always on my Belt Rig. Monitor Hood

  • Penny

Cheapest screwdriver EVER. Flat-head only, but that’s what tripod screws are anyway.

  • Peter

The only person mentioned by name was “my coordinator and friend extraordinaire.” It seemed worth including as a reminder of how dependent we are on our colleagues.

  • Power Converter

To run a teleprompter or light from a car’s cigarette lighter.

  • Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups  
  • Road Cones
  • Rolling Measure
  • Scanner

Almost all production paperwork gets scanned into an Acrobat file. Makes storage & organization a breeze… Makes everything easily transportable, especially via e-mail.

  • Sketchbook

There is no better way to communicate a visual concept than visually. Even chicken-scratch drawings, the kind that emerge from my untrained hand, convey ideas quickly.

  • Socks

A nice clean pair of thick socks. All these electronic gadgets make our jobs easier, faster and more productive, but I can still do my job without them. After 12 hours on my feet with more to go, however, it’s fresh socks!

  • Stopwatch
  • Tilley Hat
  • Turnpike Express Pass
  • Velcro
  • Whiteout

Tombo makes the best whiteout.

  • Wireless Headset
  • Work Gloves

All-leather are (sometimes) best, but at least they should have leather palms. Keeps your hands from getting chewed up/burned/etc.

  • Zip Ties / Cable Ties

And in our endlessly insane world, it all boils down to my single favorite. Okay, one of my favorites. Alright, it’s on my list. And yes, yes, it’s a very, very long list…. It is:

  • A Cup of Chamomile Tea and the Pocket Pema Chodron

Good for reminding me that oftentimes, what I need most is simply to be present in the moment.

All of this is perhaps summed up by an endlessly repeated chorus to almost every listing.

Good Lord. We (I) do carry a heap of equipment just to make things right.

You’ll find more comments (along with some of my personal favorites) in reelgrok’s reviews. When you need to add Production Knowhow to your kit, you’ll find the tools (and great discounts) in The GrokShop.


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Norman C. Berns

Norma C. Berns is a filmmaker,  film teacher, writer and consultant. His three-part documentary series, The Writing Code, recently aired on PBS. Norman blogs at ReelGrok.com, and the NY-Times-owned Pavaline Studios and has written for The Directors Guild. When not in production, he can usually be found teaching film fundamentals, from script breakdown to successful pitching.  He is a member of The Internet Press Guild, the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and Actors Equity.

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One response to “What Are the Filmmaker’s Most Important Tools?

  1. blackwatertown

    That’s a fascinating, interesting and useful list. Thanks for gathering it.

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