• 11 Tools Every Ninja Needs

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The story will always be driving force of the emotional impact in your films. Here’s the thing most of us miss – the story exists beyond the first and last frame. Our approach, how we go about telling the story, is intimately related to what the audience will see and feel on the screen.

A ninja approaches filmmaking like no other.

A ninja is stealth, strategic, and always a step ahead. Over the next several posts we’ll discuss how to embrace your inner ninja to tell more authentic stories. Let’s start with the tools that every Ninja needs.

At it’s core, ninja filmmaking is about being proactive versus reactive.

What exactly does that mean? Say you show up to shoot the story of a local baker who, you’ve heard, makes the most delicious and extravagant cakes out there. Think Willy Wonka, layered, with frosting.

When I first got into filmmaking, I’d spend the day with our baker following whatever they did, getting b-roll as they went through their process of making the batter, baking, and building the cake.

That works. It gets you coverage. It can get you beautiful shots too, but it’s far from telling a story.

The ninja, on the other hand, would approach this in a completely different way. The ninja would

Here’s the difference. Rather than following along and covering everything that happens, the ninja covers the 20% of what happens that contains 80% of the story. They’d be ready for every shot well before it happened.

And because they are so in tune with the story they are telling, and because they have so much less to try and cover, every time they roll the camera there will be so much more thought into the lens choice, composition, camera settings, use of light, and camera movement.

I don’t know about you, but I’d want the ninja on my team any day of the week.

There are three main things we want to learn from the ninja; how to be strategic, how to be stealth-like, and how to stay a step ahead. We’ll cover each core concept in it’s own post.

Let’s start with how to stay a step ahead – that’s the tools that allow you to be quick and nimble. When choosing our gear we often get so wrapped up in the shiny object and epic shots that we undervalue the importance of how the tool enables us to stay in front of the story.

To be a true ninja filmmaker, you need to choose tools that allow you to always be a step ahead of the action. 

That Red Epic may have more dynamic range and a wider color space than our brains can process, but if it’s always trying to catch up with the story, I’ll take the Canon C100.

With that, 11 tools every ninja needs. 

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1. The Manfrotto MVH500A Monopod (Rent / Buy)

Why it’s perfect for a ninja?

The ball joint at the bottom paired with the adjustable height of the monopod allow you to move quickly, wether you need to get closer, lower, or higher.

With practice, and becoming a ninja surely takes practice, you can get some awesome slider and crane like shots with nothing more than a monopod.

This new model replaces our long-time favorite BDHV-561-1. With a slightly larger head, this redesign allows for more weight and a top loading plate. That means you can clip your camera in from the top instead of needing to slide the plate in. An awesome addition to be just a little quicker.

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2. The Canon C100  (Rent / Buy)

When a ninja dreams, this is pretty close to the camera that comes to mind. It’s small, robust, and has a wide range of features to help you make snap decisions to push your image and story.

Features like peaking and magnification help to make sure you always have focus. Zebra bars and waveforms are huge to always keep your exposure in check. Built in ND filters allow you to shoot in a wide range of lighting conditions and still get the settings your story calls for (rather than needing to stop down, shutter up, or add a filter because it’s too bright outside).

On top of that, literally, you can throw on the top handle for XLR inputs and advanced audio options – perfect if you need to run an interview by yourself and want to run a boom straight into your camera.

All of this in a small body that can handle 13+ stops of dynamic range to shoot in some harsh situations.

Pair the C100 with some uber affordable 32gb SD cards (it holds two cards at once) and a long life battery and you’re set for a day long shoot.

thumbnail-7 3. Rode Video Mic Pro  (Rent / Buy)

When Rode set out to design a small, camera top shotgun mic, they must have been thinking of the ninja.

This mic takes a beating, sets up in a second, and gets great ambient sound. We rarely use this for critical dialogue – but for ambient or environmental sounds that are so important to story, this mic is perfect for the ninja.

We use this mic with auto levels on the C100 so we can concentrate on being present. In several situations you could get cleaner sound running on manual and dialing the levels in, but we want our focus in front of our camera, not on our camera.

Always remember to bring along your fuzzy windscreen just in case you find yourself in a windy environment. Pops on in seconds and make a huge difference in moderate to high wind.

thumbnail-94. Canon 24-70mm F2.8 v2  (Rent / Buy)

When a ninja trains, they use prime lenses. When a ninja gets into the heat of a shoot, a trusty zoom is a must have.

Primes will push you to always think ahead about your lens choice, composition, and what you’r trying to say. Primes push you to zoom with your feet and make the right lens choice or miss the shot.

The 24-70, on the other hand, is a sharp lens with a bright 2.8 max aperture that can give you a variety of looks without needing to take the time to swap lenses. If you’re trekking in the desert in Namibia, sometimes switching lenses just isn’t practical. If you find yourself on the sidelines of an NFL game, you often don’t have time to constantly swap lenses.

The trick here is that we often take the path of least resistance. Rather than moving our feet, we just zoom in on our lens. But of course zooming and moving our body say completely different things. The ninja must learn restraint when using zooms and push themselves to use a zoom just as effectively as a set of primes.

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5. Zacuto Z-Finder  (Rent / Buy)

Vision is critical for the ninja.

While Jean-Claude Van Damme might be able to finish a fight after losing his vision in the final rounds of a kickboxing championship (Bloodsport 1), a ninja relies much more on strategy than brute force.

The Z-Finder does the obvious – it helps you see the image in any environment.

But it offers much more than that. When you put your eye up to a Z-Finder, it offers the same experience as if you were at a cinema – your entire focus is on the picture on the screen. We use the Z-finder both outside and inside because it helps you to stay present and connected to your image.

thumbnail-56. Kino Flo Celeb 200  (Buy)

When it comes to light, the number one rule for the ninja is ‘listen’.

When we take the time to listen to the light we can gain insight into how to easily improve the light  by simple things like opening the blinds or turning a light off.

When we listen, we can see how to make the most of the natural light by doing the small things, such as taking a couple steps left to avoid shooting into a blown out window. And we can see if we need to add light, and the best way to do so

If you do need to bring in lights, the Kino Flo Celeb is the ninja’s go-to first choice. It is the pinnacle of flexibility. As an LED light, it is fully dimmable, you can dial in the exact kelvin temperature you’d like, and it takes both 110-220 volts. That means this one light can work in a variety of situations across the world.

Turn it on full blast, set it to 5500 kelvin, and bounce it off a white ceiling for a great boost in the ambient light in a room. Or, bring it in close for an interview, add a sheet of diffusion, and get a gorgeous key light.

Plus, it requires a low amount of power, and ninja’s love green filmmaking too.

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7. Westcott Ice Light  (Rent / Buy)

While most may picture a ninja with a samurai sword (technically they use a katana), the filmmaking ninja travels with an Ice Light.

A daylight balanced LED light with built in diffusion and battery. On most shoots, this light is the utility fielder – the one that can fill many positions and is a huge help in a pinch. Versatility is key for the ninja and this light can be used as a key, fill, hair, or background light.

If things get hairy, you can always quickly go handheld and get light right when and where you need it.

thumbnail-68. Westcott Scrim Jim  (Buy)

Remember the number one rule when it comes to light?

Listen.

If you’re shooting outside, whether it’s cloudy or mid-day sun, if you take a moment to listen to the light, you nearly always find that the most potential comes from working with what’s there.

The ninja must embrace the elements around them and learn how to channel them into their image and story. Don’t try and overpower your surrounding, let them flow through you.

The scrim jim is a set of collapsable frames that you can configure in different sizes with various fabrics (notice the theme of versatility again).

Here are some of the options;

If you find yourself in super harsh mid-day sun, listen for the light, find the right angle, and then throw on the diffusion for an amazing interview in minutes. If it’s overcast and you have no shape at all, throw on the black fabric, bring it in close, and use it as negative fill.

The list goes on and on, but the versatility of this kit with how small it travels and how quick it goes up makes it an incredible resource for every ninja.

thumbnail-119. Shootsac  (Buy)

Staying one step ahead means not having to go back for gear.

By day, the Shootsac is a lens bag that can hold several of your lenses, a Z-Finder, Rode Video Mic, extra cards, batteries, your wallet, a protein bar, and more.

By night, you can use it as a grip bag for gaff tape, grip heads, spring clamps, and more. Need a sandbag for your crane? The Shootsac has you covered.

Throw your accessories in the back of the Shootsac and put your top three lenses in the front (plus one on your camera). Sort them by focal length with the lowest on the left (35mm f1.4) and the highest on the right (135mm f2.0) and you’ll be able to stay fully present in the moment while changing lenses and not evening needing to look at your lens bag or camera.

thumbnail-410. Kessler Kwik Release Receiver  (Buy)

A ninja will look at their process, analyze it, and find ways to be more strategic, stealth, and quicker next time out.

One of the main mantra’s of the ninja – create efficiencies.

The Kessler Kwik release system allows you to standardize your plates across all of your tools – monopods, tripods, Movi, sliders, and jibs. It’s setup for top loading so you can snap your camera in without needing to slide the plate on. As you use a variety of tools in different situations, being able to quickly clip in and out can add up to a real time savings.

thumbnail-1011. Freefly MoVi M10  (Rent / Buy)

Challenge yourself to see what nobody else does. If 10 other filmmakers stood in the same spot, with the same camera, what will only I see?

The ninja asks themself this question before every shot.

As you embrace your unique perspective, you’ll start to challenge yourself to find new angles, unique places to put the camera, and powerful ways to move the camera.

The Movi is a key. It’s a key that unlocks unlimited creativity for the ninja, allowing them to move swiftly through an environment with an incredible precision and grace. It certainly may appear daunting if you’ve seen pictures of three operators to one rig – one for focus, one to control the head, and one to operate the Movi.

This is not how the ninja unlocks the Movi magic. The trick is to operate in majestic mode.

In majestic mode, you can operate it quickly and easily all be yourself. With the right lens choice, you can keep everything in focus, or stop down and try and keep a consistent distance between you and the camera. You can also control the responsiveness of the rig, so whether you are on the back of an ATV or walking through a crowded restaurant, you can tweak the Movi to respond how you’d like it to.

A ninja is stealth, strategic, and always a step ahead. 

Together, these are a collection of tools that are near and dear to the heart of any filmmaking ninja. These tools allow you to be versatile, adapt to your environment, all while staying one step ahead.

Remember the key to ninja filmmaking, be proactive instead of reactive. Coming up next we’ll tackle how the ninja is stealth in any environment, minimizing their impact to maximize the authenticity in the story. Then we’ll discuss how the ninja develops a strategy to predict the precise spot the story will be well before it comes to life.

What one piece of gear helps you to stay one step ahead? We’d love to hear from you?

If you’ve enjoyed this, join us for Storytelling With Heart as we tour the country sharing an approach on how to take any idea and turn into a powerful story. We’ve been through 5 stops thus far and here are some of the comments we’ve received;

Learned half a career’s worth of filmmaking knowledge in one day with Storytelling With Heart .

-Ryan, Denver

Storytelling With Heart is a workshop that is so rich with storytelling process content, it’s like drinking from a fire hose.

-Bob, Phoenix

There aren’t any other workshops like this.

-Gary, San Francisco

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35 Thoughts on “11 Tools Every Ninja Needs

  1. I love my Epic but it is heavy for run and gun situations. A monopod would help out alot, especially on an event shoot I did with a few other cinema guys a week ago. Thanks for the information. It really helps

  2. I love this post! It’s exactly what I’m looking for these past few months. Just want to ask what you think of the Canon XF200 vs. the Canon C100. Is the C100 worth the extra cost? Or do you think the XF200 is fine as is. It’s a brand new camera just coming out!

  3. Hey, thanks for the great info.

    I’m just about to jump into the brushless gimbal stabilizer (probably the Movi or Ronin) and wondered what setup you guys use with the 14mm 2.8L lens? Guess I’ve never quite understood hyperfocal distances and exactly how to setup a 7D with this lens to get the best depth of focus when running at night (so at f2.8). Any tips on where to focus/distances etc? It’s easy during day at f8 but not so good for dances at a wedding at f2.8.

    Thanks again guys!

  4. I’m curious to find out what blog platform you’re utilizing? I’m experiencing some minor security issues with my latest blog and I’d like to find something more safe. Do you have any suggestions?

  5. Hey guys! Great post as usual. I wanted to see if you had any problems with the monopod squeaking and what kind of lubricant you use. I’ve tried many but haven’t come up with something that lasts very long.

    Thanks!

  6. Hey guys, great insight as usual. I’ve been working with a couple manfrotto mvh500a’s since it’s release which I love but both of them have started to squeak and rattle pretty severely at the ball joint. Have tried some lubricants but it keeps coming back. Do you have this problem? What do you use? Thanks!

    • Jared – If you take an allen key and slightly loosen up the ball joint at the bottom, it’ll help with the squeaking. WD-40 will help clean up the joint but a silicone based lubricant will keep it smooth over time.

  7. Hey stillmotion guys and gals – I caught up with your road show on the weekend in Vancouver, BC. So much information, I feel a little overwhelmed. I’m heading to Havana, Cuba for a family vacation in July. No team, just me, wife, and one kid (the other one has to go to Brazil to see the World Cup, poor her). I’m not planning on shooting a documentary, but I’d like to tell a story about this trip and about Cuba using what I learned in the Storytelling with Heart workshop.

    Here’s my dilemma – I don’t want to bring a bunch of expensive equipment that might get lost/stolen/damaged, but I’d still like to get reasonable quality, and use the same gear for stills. So I’m thinking of getting a Canon T3i, Manfrotto compact monopod, two lenses: EF-S 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Type II Lens and EF-S 55-250 mm f/4-5.6 IS Type II Lens. The camera comes with an external mic jack (stereo, 3.5 mm) so I’ll be bring microphones as well. The whole package is under $800, and I figure I can give it to my daughter (who’s interested in making film) after the vacation.

    Sorry to spring the “cheap challenge” on you, but just wondering if you think this is something that might get me some reasonable video (provided I do everything else adequately) and also provide my daughter with some equipment to get started.

    Loved the workshop by the way!
    Bob

    • Hey Bob,

      We’ve shot a national TV spot using the T2i so you can absolutely tell a great story with your set of gear. You might struggle a bit in lowlight situations but cameras now handle high ISOs really well so just bump it up to where you’d feel comfortable with the noise tradeoff. You’d be surprised at how much you can do with very little :)

      Enjoy your trip!

  8. I love many of your suggestion for the need to have (which I own) such has the Zacuto z-finder for the C100 which I feel is a must to achieve critical focus during event, wedding and documentary work.
    The monopod is a great tool, the ice light is a fantastic portable lightweight light, the C100 is a formidable camera in the field (on paper it’s so so) and the Scrim jim is the basic tool of any lighting situation to either reflect, diffuse or cut light.

    I am disappointed with your microphone suggestion. Sound is so important and the C100 allows for better microphones and control. I feel this is something that needs to be leaned, control and used.

    My one piece of equipment that I love and that you didn’t suggest is my Sigma 18-35mm f1.8. This wide to standard big aperture zoom lens is sharp, great at rendering colours and flexible enough.

    • We definitely agree that sound is important in storytelling. If capturing critical dialogue, then using a proper shotgun/boom setup or wireless lav mic is a necessity. But when you’re moving fast and dialogue isn’t a priority, then we usually prefer to run with the Rode VideoMic Pro on auto gain. Over 60% of the field audio in A Game of Honor was captured using the Rode mic and it wouldn’t have been possible if our shooters were concerned with dialing in audio levels during highly unpredictable events.

  9. Hi Guys – I love this list!

    I was wondering whether you could offer any advice… I’m weighing up getting some form of rig for my camera (5D MK3) … I am doing more documentary style work and some storytelling through weddings and small corporate clients, however I am also looking to do some short films soon too.

    I have had a shoulder rig before, and I found that I rarely used it and found it a pain to use… so I was thinking I should get some kind of small “shotgun” style rig like the Zacuto Marauder, but this seems to be very basic and my monopod seems to be just as good (would you agree?)..

    I’m also thinking that I would like to attach my audio recorder (tascam DR-60) and perhaps an Atomos device (although not sure how necessary this is) to my rig as they help to get better footage and audio and I think I’d like to have them with me or at least have the Tascam, since the audio on the 5D is woeful, but to have this alone when shooting alone is quite a pain and would thus necessitate a rig of some kind, but then attaching things like this would make the small “shotgun” style rig unusable and remove it’s only advantages which are its lightweight and it’s speed.

    Any advice you have on this matter would be greatly appreciated… if only to help organise the multitude of thoughts in my head, I keep rolling the options around in my head and it could be a situation of “gear blindness” where “want” has over taken “need” haha… But if there is any opinion I can trust.. I know it’s yours!

    Thanks

    • The shoulder rig and monopod both have their own strengths and it really comes down to how you want your story to feel. We like the monopod because it allows us to move fast, stay ahead of the story, and provide incredible stability when we need it.

      For attaching accessories to your camera, we’d suggest using a a Cinevate Simplis quick-release plate and joint. That way you can quickly separate the camera from the attachments to stay small and free up your hot/cold shoe slot.

  10. Curious if you’ve ever considered Micro Four Thirds gear. In the hands of a professional crew with a ninja mindset the MFT gear seems like it has incredible storytelling potential.

    The Panasonic GM3 has great codecs that produce solid, gradable footage and shoots 60fps. The GH4 will shoot 96p and 4k with external 10bit 4:2:2. Both include the ability use the unique Extended Teleconverter mode that provides 2.4x magnification with no image degradation. You can pair these with the Panasonic equivalent of the Canon 24-70mm 2.8 the 12-35mm 2.8 image stabilized zoom. The IS on the Panasonic zoom is great. I’ve shot both and for video the Panasonic has the same image quality and is much more versatile with the IS and ETC modes. And I can’t wait to try the new image stabilized Panasonic 42.5mm 1.2 lens. That will be a high IQ, low light, image stabilized ninja dream.

    The Olympus EM1 has a solid codec and 5 axis stabilization that’s like alien technology. You can shoot with the super sharp Olympus 75mm 1.8 like you’re on a steadicam.

    You can even shoot RAW or ProRes with the same lenses using the tiny MFT Black Magic Packet Cinema Camera.

    Anyway, I love what you guys do and admire your storytelling skills. It would be great to see what you could do with these powerful, nimble MFT video tools.

    • Technology is amazing, isn’t it? There are so many tools you can choose from to tell your stories and we have no doubt that MFT cameras are really pushing that.

      Thank you for pushing us to try new things and we’re excited to continue to share our experiences with you on the blog :)

  11. Great list!
    Really like your website and work but I can’t visit workshops because I live in Germany.
    Just wonder why you use the Z-Finder and not the C100 Z-finder pro?
    And why do you use a Video mic Pro for ambient sound and not a stereo mic?

    Carry on ninjas and maybe come to Europe
    Christopher

    • Thanks! We’d love to bring our workshop to Europe one day.

      I believe you can use any of the Z-Finders on the C100; just need the C100 bracket attachment.

      The VideoMic Pro allows us to capture sound coming from a specific direction while isolating it from noise you may not necessarily want to use. In some cases, we can even capture usable dialogue when the subject is close to the mic.

  12. As usual, a great post and thank-you!

    Was wondering what tripod and head you are using for the C100? I am thinking of purchasing, and am thinking about the additional requirements for support. I noticed you upgraded your monopod.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • Hey Molly,

      We run with the carbon fibre line of tripods from Manfrotto. I don’t remember the exact model number for the legs but we use both the 504 and 509 HD heads and they both work very well for the C100. The new monopods are awesome with that top-loading feature but the good ol’ 561 bhdv-1 still works just as well if that’s what you have :)

      Joyce

  13. My best Ninja technique is research; my second is writing the script for the story. I use some of the equipment on the list, but I work on attitude and story. My equipment works because I take care of it.

    I use a 7″ monitor which attaches to my custom rig. All of my stuff attaches to it including my pre amp and shotgun mic. It has feet so I can set it on a table, put it in my tri or monopod. I can also hang it from my neck…..with all attached to it. I do not have to look for or attach anything during the shoot. It is my studio in a stick. I also put a 4 track audio recorder on it – it’s only 16″ wide.

    I attended KNOW in Toronto, and am trying to get to the new lecture.

    Keep up the good work.

    Regards,
    Brian

    • You bet. Being a ninja isn’t about being fast (well, maybe 10% of the time it is :P) but rather it’s about knowing what you want to say and having the ability to be ahead of the game.

      And thanks so much for coming to KNOW. If you can make it out to join us we’d love to see you again in Toronto next month for StorytellingWithHeart and pick up some more ninja filmmaking skills :)

      Joyce

  14. The Kessler P.Bloom pocket dolly mini – I never leave home without it. It is light weight and easy to carry – not only can you use it add movement on shots but it can be used used as a crude shoulder rig – you can lock it off and use to get cool ground level shots

  15. I love this! great job guy’s! If you could add 9 more things to make it 20 tools every ninja should have what would the other 9 pieces of gear be?

    • The c100 is reportedly 30% smaller but if feels like more than that. It has an update in ergonomics as well, which is great for staying as quick as possible. The C300 is an strong camera, but we often use that in more produced or slower cases where we have the time to be slower and perhaps we also need some slow-motion or less compression in the image.

      The Epic, on the other hand, is a very strong camera in image quality. In speed though, it is severely lacking. Start up times, glitches here and there, and general mobility are all very un-ninja-like. The Epic is a great fit for a produced shoot, but certainly a tough challenge for anything that moves quicker.

      P.

  16. A few things from the list are, indeed, the must-haves but others – not so much. MoVi and 10. Kessler Kwik Release Receiver are not the first things that come to mind when you think of “ninja” approach, imo.

    • Alex – i think that’s the beauty of collaboration – we’ll all have a different perspective. It’s when we come together and celebrate that that we can build something bigger.

      For us, the Movi allows you to be incredibly swift – and that is so central to the ninja.

      The kwik release is small, but if you hard mount a camera to a crane or other tool, or you have different plates – it is a huge time suck

      P.

  17. Great article! The Canon C100 has been crucial for me. It’s light and makes for a nimble shoot with beautiful results. I don’t have a budget or a MoVi so I like to use it with the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens because of the vibration control.

    • Absolutely agree about the C100.

      And yes image stabilization certainly helps but if your story calls for more than that consider building it in your budget to rent the tools you don’t own – we do it all the time. This helps keeps overhead down while still resourcing the project with the tools needed.

      The MoVi in and of itself isn’t going to make a better film but with it being so easy to use it provides opportunities for us to all push our storytelling through camera movement, in ways that may not be possible without a larger crew, or more gear or years of steadicam training.

      Joyce

  18. What a wonderful, comprehensive list.

    After attending the Still Motion KNOW tour, the first thing I purchased was the monopod and I haven’t looked back since. I would never have believed the versatility and results from this piece of equipment. By far and away one of the biggest “bang for the buck” recommendations you could get. Thanks!

    I also purchased the Zacuto Z-finder. I don’t how you can effectively focus a DSLR in video mode without it. I just wish Canon and Nikon would build in a high quality display right into the view finder where it belongs. I am really uncomfortable with the extra weight and bulk this adds to the DSLR. With a properly designed camera, this seems unnecessary.

    I would humbly suggest some black foil to add to the list. Although not needed for most shoots, it comes in very handy to block or shape light.

    Thanks again for the great information!

    Elliot

    • Gotta love that monopod. We sure do :)

      And thanks for the black foil suggestion. It’s certainly a great tool and something that is always part of our lighting kit. In fact we find it so useful that we gave it the first spot on our 10 Things That Could Save Your Life tutorial. Couple that with some gaff tape, a utility tool and several other things and you’re set.

      That being said though we need to be mindful of how much we carry and still be able to stay ahead like a ninja so blackfoil didn’t make this list. A ninja would listen to the light first and be creative in how we work with it while putting story first.

      Great to hear you were able to join us at KNOW! Will we be seeing you on any of the StorytellingWithHeart stops these next several weeks? :)

      Joyce

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