“What should I have in my kit?” “What are the essential tools?” “Do I need to bring gear to set?”
If you are just starting out within the camera department, these are crucial questions. You know that part of your success in the industry depends on obtaining the right tools to do the job and you aren’t sure where to even begin.
And that’s why these questions get asked a lot.
But here’s the rub: every camera assistant will have different tools depending on how they work. That’s why it’s important to peak into what other camera assistants have to offer.
So after dozens of emails and questions about it, I’m going to show you what I have in my toolkit today and also give you advice on what I think you should have in yours.
Film Kit vs. Digital Kit
Just as a carpenter would use different saws for different types of wood, different cameras require different tools to maintain them. In the most basic sense, this comes down to digital versus film cameras. One has many moving parts on the inside, the other remains mostly static. One has a gate to check, one has a sensor to clean.
No matter how it is sliced, these two styles of shooting demand different styles of maintenance.
It is important when first building a kit to cater to a general base of tools, but it is also important to question what kind of productions you will be working on. Do you plan to mostly work on commercials with HD cameras? Do you plan to help local art students shoot on 16mm film? Or are you absolutely crazy about shooting with the RED camera?
While film vs. digital is an easy delineation for me to make, it goes even deeper with the types of digital or film cameras and even types of work like commercial or features.
For me, I started out working heavily with the RED One on feature films. As such, my initial toolbag purchase was catered towards that kind of work. Nowadays I have been working a lot on commercials that use DSLR’s. Many of the tools I had acquired to work with the RED don’t have functions while shooting with a DSLR. On the flipside, many of the basic tools I have work in both types of gigs.
So, before you make a windfall purchase on FilmTools that includes HDMI adapters for shooting on DSLR or RED, ask yourself it that is the kind of work you will be expecting.
There is no right answer and the answer you do come up with will largely depend on the job market you’re entering or within. Remember, this isn’t going to lock you in, you’re just trying to save money. If a film gig comes up, you can always purchase the tools necessary when it does, but your toolkit should be built around a certain assumption of what you’ll be doing to begin with.
1st Assistant Camera vs. 2nd Assistant Camera Kit
Depending on which position in the camera department you plan to take, you’ll build out your kit differently. If, for instance, your first job happens to be as a 1st assistant camera (AC) on a small student film, then you will prioritize 1st AC tools before you need 2nd AC tools. This might mean you buy a solid tape measure before you ever invest in a slate.
There is one caveat, however, to building out a 1st AC toolkit: you’re pretty much expected to have everything — even for the 2nd AC.
You will run into this problem quite a bit when training new 2nd ACs who have little to no experience. They won’t know what to bring to set let alone what they find useful and essential to buy. On my very first gig as a 2nd AC, I used all of the first AC’s tools and was lucky he had such a complete kit.
But there’s another reason you’re expected to have a full kit as well.
Oftentimes when you get hired on one-day jobs or small commercials, you will be the only AC. So your tools = the tools. And the last thing you want is to desperately need a certain tool to fix the camera when you’re under pressure from production.
So if you plan to build a kit for potential 1st AC jobs, make sure it is at least 90% complete with the essentials.
If, however, you think you’ll be working as a 2nd AC or lower within the camera department, you can build your kit more slowly. Part of the reason for that is because, like I said above, you’ll be able to piggy back on some of the first AC’s tools to supplement your own.
Taking Inventory of Your Tools
Tools are tools and a lot of the same instruments you use to fix a desk are used to fix a camera. Chances are you already have a significant portion of a toolkit built up lying around in your garage or closet. Not every tool used in home repair proves useful in filmmaking, but the most basic ones end up coming in handy.
The reason many of the same tools we use to repair toilets get used to repair cameras is their practicality. Pliers are used in many different applications and not always in the way they were intended. The most basic of tools are versatile and will adapt to whatever scenario you need them to. It is key to have some of these in your bag for situations when you need to improvise — they will get used a lot.
Some examples of common tools that I have in my kit are:
- Screwdrivers; Phillips & Flat Head
- Work gloves
- Zip Ties
- Tape Measures
These are just a few of the items you probably already have.
And the reason you want to take some inventory when you’re building out your kit is to save yourself from spending more money than you need to. Tools — even the small ones — add up after you fill an entire bag with them. The ones already lying around your house can be added into a set bag with no additional cost.
Of course, if they are your families, or a roommates, it is a good idea to invest in your own set.
Essential Tools for Your Kit
Not all tools are created equal. Some matter more than others.
Don’t believe me? When was the last time you really used that laser pointer for an entire shoot? Or the homemade hoodman you constructed during lunchtime last week?
The fact of the matter is, we don’t need every tool on every job at all times. There are some that are more important and used nearly 100% of the time. They are essential to AC work and you’d have a difficult time doing the job competently without them.
Here is the list of tools that I consider “Must-haves” before you step on a set:
- Screwdrivers (Phillips and Flat-head)
- Hex Keys/Allen Wrenches
- Dry Erase Marker
- Measuring Tape (Soft, Hard, or Laser)
- Grease Pencil or Marking Pen
- Camera Tape
- Compressed Air or Blower
- Lens Tissue
- Lens Cleaning Fluid
This list is not gospel, but it is a good starting point. Remember, it’s only a bare-bones kit at this point. If what I listed above are the only tools you own in your kit, you will be ill-prepared in certain situations, but you will be ready for most.
Make sure you vet your own list thoroughly and tweak it according to the type of work you plan on doing and the jobs you expect to get, as well as your budget. If you can afford to get more tools — such as a slate — then I encourage you to do so.
You will also need to get a toolbag to hold everything. For a professional grade kit bag, I highly suggest the Cinebag CB-01 Production Bag. I have had no problems with it at all. But if that’s out of your budget, just stop by a hardware store and look around.
I also wrote a post that you should read about why owning two toolbags is a good idea.
Customization and Do-It-Yourself Gear
Don’t let yourself be bound by the normal context in which tools get used. Some of the best tools are homemade or are re-purposed for another function.
If you find a way to use a wrench to hold camera tape, then put it to use. It’s worth trying to see if it helps you, and if it does, you’ll have a new trick up your sleeve.
You should also turn to other camera assistants and crew for ideas on customizing your gear, which is how I found out about the slate tagboard among other things.
It seems silly to me not to dive into your kit to try and find better ways to use your tools. If something is frustrating you, look for a workaround. They’re your tools so make them work for you.
Part of the reason DIY projects are so awesome is because you get to customize the tools to your own working preferences. That will ultimately make you faster and more efficient. For some ideas, check out these 12 DIY Projects for Camera Assistants.
Rounding Out Your Tool Selection
Once you make the initial purchase/investment into your toolkit, you can start to round it out with fancy gadgets like a laser distance measuring device or a smartphone loaded with apps.
This is where you start to use your money to buy tools that are not only needed, but will make you more efficient. Can you get a screwdriver with automatic torque? Or a tape measure that will last longer? Perhaps a USB lens light to make pulling focus in the dark easier.
There’s always something more to add to your toolbag (trust me) and you can prove that point by going to your local hardware store and walking up the aisles. Even after just 10 minutes, you’ll start noticing all the cool gadgets that would make life on set easier.
Some of these non-essential tools could include things like a Brother P-Touch for labeling the slate, a Leatherman, a high-quality slate, sandbag T-marks, and the list goes on…
While all of these provide very real use to you on set, none of them are do or die unless you’re stuck in your ways. Yell at me all you want in the comments for saying so, but you could get away without a leatherman or a super expensive slate for a couple months.
That doesn’t mean you should never buy these tools, but it does mean you can wait until you’re a little more solvent before doing so.
Rounding out your kit might also involve adding some tools that aren’t specifically in the camera assistant territory. For instance, I also bring with me on digital shoots my Macbook Pro, a card reader, and some cables to transfer footage. While not all productions require the use of this stuff, I like to bring them for backup.
Once you have a few jobs under your belt and you’ve been on set with your kit, you’ll start to notice the holes in it. Be aware of those moments and make a note — mentally, digitally, on paper — to add those missing items to your kit. It’s best to do right after a shoot when you can immediately reinvest the paycheck.
So, What’s in My Toolbag?
Everyone always wants to know what’s in my kit and I tend to avoid the question because it’s crammed with a bunch of stuff – so much stuff that I made the video at the top of this post. It’s almost twenty minutes long and I talk about every little thing in my kit and why it’s in there. I recommend you watch it if you truly want insight into what I have in my kit and why.
But if you’re still interested in a full inventory, I have pain-stakingly listed each tool below with a link where you can buy it.
- Camera Wedges (4)
- Window Shims (4)
- Zip Ties (Bundle)
- Velcro (2 in. Thickness)
- FatMax Hard Tape
- Keson Soft Tape
- Hilti PD-40
- Maglite Flashlight (2)
- Sharpies (Assorted Colors)
- Laser Pen
- Chalk Holder/Marker
- Extra Chalk
- Dust-Off Plus
- Dust-Off Nozzle
- Camel Hair Brush
- Batteries (Assorted)
- Cube Taps
- AV Adapters (Assorted)
- BNC Barrel Bridges
- BNC to RCA Adapter
- USB Lens Light
- Microfiber Cloth
- Radio Earpiece
- Dry Erase Markers
- Lens Pen
- Space Blanket
- Staedtler Lumocolor Markers
- Stablio Grease Pencils
- Slate / Clapperboard
- Ground Markers
- Hex Keys / Allen Keys (Imperial)
- Hex Keys / Allen Keys (Metric)
- Grip Clips
- Menu Maps
- Camera Reports
- Pocket Guides
- Hand Sanitizer
- Small Toiletries
- Work Gloves
- Super Glue
- Screwdrivers (4)
- Pencil Sharpener
- Assorted Office Supplies
- MacBook Pro (2006 Model)
- Sandisk Expresscard SD Card Reader
- Lexar Pro Expresscard Compact Flash Reader
- USB 2.0 Multi-Card Reader
- CyberPower 550VA Battery Backup
- Miscellaneous Computer Cables
Please note that this list also includes my basic data management kit not shown in the video. Also keep in mind that my kit is not necessarily a full kit — there are lots of things I don’t have that other camera assistants like to use.
The Toolbag Money Pit
Everytime I open my Cinebag, I notice something else I need. Even a few years after making my first of many huge purchases from FilmTools at $201.86, I feel my toolbag is incomplete.
It has become what I can only describe as a money pit: I throw money in and watch it disappear.
You can start with expendables, which more and more productions are starting to assume the AC brings on their own dime. Then there’s all the little things I buy that get misplaced or broken on set. Those add up. And let’s not forget the bigtime buys like laser tape measures.
Couple this with the fact that there’s always something else you need and suddenly all your money is getting sucked into the anonymous void of film production supplies.
The point is you will never have a complete kit.
There is always going to be something to exchange, to add, to rework. Tools get lost and damaged or used and worn. More likely is they get replaced by better versions of themselves.
But whether you decide to build a kit slowly, in one fell swoop, or with tools you already own, I wish you the best of luck. From here on out, it’s an endless journey as you constantly refine and rework your tools to work better and more efficiently for you.
Is there a tool you especially love to use? Please let me know what it is and how you use it in the comments!