Creating a professional documentary by the numbers – cost, flexibility, time

Compact and portable, the Panasonic GH4 shoots 4K video and fits in the palm of your hand. This was my go-to camera for the documentary, and it survived months of abuse.  

How do I produce a documentary video shot over five months on a very small budget?

That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer solve since October 2014, when I began planning my first documentary film, The Hokkaido Backcountry Project.

I knew there would be three major factors to consider: buying a camera, building my editing computer, and purchasing editing software.

Likewise, I knew three distinct variables that would play into my equipment choice.

1. Cost (under $10,000 USD)
2. Flexibility (able to handle basic and professional video formats)
3. Time (would this equipment be user friendly in the field?)

At bare minimum, I needed to capture 1080p video and quality audio using a small, portable camera that could travel to Japan and back. I also wanted a camera that would shoot in 4K, survive months of constant abuse in the mountains, and work in cold temperatures and during snowstorms. That’s a lot to ask.

By October, I had narrowed my camera selection down to the $1,600 Canon 7D MK2, the $2,400 Sony A7s, and the $1,600 Panasonic GH4. The GH4 stood out for me due to its small size and 4k video capabilities right out of the box.

What other factors steered my research?

While the Sony A7s is an outstanding full-frame camera with amazing low-light sensitivity, (at the time) it required an expensive external recorder for 4K shooting. The lenses were also more expensive than other brands and harder to find used. Couple that with a higher initial cost, and I eliminated this camera.

Likewise, the Canon 7D MK2 had a similar cost to the GH4, but offered only 1080p resolution. While the camera does feature Wifi and a touchscreen, it lacks variable frame rates, focus peaking, and the excellent electronic viewfinder present on the GH4.

Because I needed professional results with a budget camera, I selected the Panasonic GH4 and paired it with the Lumix 12-35 f/2.8 lens. The total cost was about $2,400. Click on the YouTube playlist at the bottom of this page to see footage created with my custom editing setup.

After purchasing my GH4, I outfitted the camera with a Rode Videomic Pro, Sennheiser Wireless Lavalier Kit, and Kamerar FHugen Honu Cage. With the addition of a Metabones Speed Booster S and several Canon EF lenses, I was ready to shoot Ultra-High Definition video (3840 x 2160 at 30fps) for about $5,000.

Shooting UHD video with my Pansonic GH4 during an Arc'teryx photo shoot in Niseko, Japan. Photo courtesy Pia Nic Gunderson

Shooting video with my GH4, Metabones Speed Booster, and Canon 70-200 F4 lens during an Arc’teryx photo shoot in Niseko, Japan – Photo: Pia Nic Gunderson

My portable editing studio has traveled to Japan and back.

My portable editing studio has traveled to Japan and back, Photo: Matt Standal

Here’s the guts of my custom editor, designed by me, built by Computer Specialists Unlimited of Alexandria, MN. Note that when shipping a large editing machine, it’s advisable to remove the graphics card due to the potential for damage. 

Next, I turned my attention to building a custom editing computer

I used a variety of online tutorials to design and purchase components for my machine. My recommendations for anyone attempting to go this route is to visit the VideoGuys DIY tutorial and use Newegg.com to purchase parts.

I designed my computer to edit 4K video at half the cost of something built in a factory. I settled on an Intel Core i7 Haswell Quad-Core processor, AMD Z-97 motherboard, including 32 gb of RAM, MSI GeForce GTX 770 2gb graphics card, Samsung 250gb SSD, HGST Ultrastart 1tb 7200 rpm hardrive – all packaged in a nice, Antec case.

The total for parts and labor was about $1,800 – hundreds less when compared to pre-built editors capable of handling the kind of video processing ability I needed.

Since I had less than a month to build the machine, I worked with Computer Specialists in Alexandria, MN to assemble the parts. This provided much less headache in the long run.

Can you tell the difference between footage shot with a $10,000 RED Scarlett vs. the $1,600 Panasonic GH4? Click on this YouTube video for a side-by-side comparison. My goal was to get the best possible video product with the least amount of cash input.

Finally, I researched and chose my editing software, turning to the Adobe Creative Cloud for all my creative needs.

I believe Adobe is among the most user-friendly and robust video editors on the market today. However, at $49.94 per month, it’s not the cheapest when compared to Sony Vegas, Final Cut Pro, or Avid. However, what the Creative Cloud loses in affordability, it makes up in usability. That’s because this program seamlessly integrates Premiere, Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, and Adobe Speed Grade in one big package. You can find a good discussion of the positives and negatives of each product here. I was able to score a low-cost subscription and am very pleased with the results from my photo and editing experiences.