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
- already know every step of the this bakers process
- already have listened to light to guide where they could shoot
- understand what motivates this baker and why he makes cakes
- the best ninjas know what the baker will do well before the baker even knows it
- understand the story they are telling so well that they could filter through what was actually important and what wasn’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
4. 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.
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.
6. 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.
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.
8. Westcott Scrim Jim (Buy)
Remember the number one rule when it comes to light?
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;
- diffusion to soften the light
- a net to cut the light
- solid black to block the light
- silver/white to bounce the light
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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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 .
Storytelling With Heart is a workshop that is so rich with storytelling process content, it’s like drinking from a fire hose.
There aren’t any other workshops like this.
-Gary, San Francisco