Over time, you are going to acquire a variety of specialty tools and gear to help you accomplish your shoots and to make your production life easier. However, for those of you who are just starting out, or even if you’ve already assembled a bag, what follows are a few items which, over the years, I’ve found to be invaluable. However, before I start, I’d like to suggest a few things that are essential for productions in general, even if they aren’t part of your on-set bag. A spare set of car keys, when driving to a shoot, a spare pair of socks—after a long day of work or if your feet get wet, a nice clean pair of socks can make your feet feel much better and make working a whole lot more comfortable. Rain can fall without warning, so having some kind of rain gear, even just a disposable poncho for emergencies, can go a long way to keeping you comfortable in wet exterior locations.
Camera or Grip/Electric
I’ve worked in both the camera department and the grip/electric department, so I’ll focus on those two areas. One item common to both, if not all departments, is a flashlight, and I will often bring several, including a battery-powered fluorescent light. However, a small one- or two-AA flashlight is pretty much a necessity.
The most advantageous on-set bag is as light and compact as possible, but make sure it’s large enough to hold essentials. Most people travel with several bags and cases and just bring whatever meets their everyday needs on the set. If you are looking for suggestions for an on-set bag itself, you may consider one of these bags to start, although I recently came across this Sony bag, which is designed for camcorders but has many pockets and compartments, suitable for carrying what you need to bring on the set.
Camera Department On-Set Tools
Essential items that you are going to need range from small to large, and here is a list to get you going.
Lens cloths: There was a time when lens tissue was the only way to clean lenses and filters, and it is still a fairly popular choice. Disposable sheets—use once, throw away, and grab a fresh one. As an added bonus, if you need to clean delicate camera areas with moving parts, you could always wrap a cotton swab in a piece of lens tissue to clean without risking fibers becoming stuck in the mechanism, which—back in the day—was also good for cleaning the heads of audio recorders. However, it is safe to say that the microfiber lens cloth, which can be thrown in the wash and laundered, has superseded lens tissue in terms of popularity, which is easy to see if you check out this list of cleaning cloths. While we are on the topic of lens tissue and cloths, I highly recommend a supply of resealable plastic bags; the sandwich size is pretty utilitarian—great for keeping dust and dirt away and fairly water resistant in a pinch. The bags are also great for holding a supply of pre-moistened wipes, which—trust me on this—come in very handy when working on exteriors.
Indispensible to an on-set kit bag is a French Flag. To be clear, I am not suggesting carrying around the national flag of France—what I am discussing is a black metal or plastic cutter attached to an articulating arm. This is significantly different than a top or side flag that attaches to a matte box, as you can attach a French Flag to almost any place, camera, matte box, rods, or even a light stand next to the camera, and position it using the articulating arm.
Pressurized canned air blowers are great for blowing dust off of gear, filters, and weather-sealed camera bodies, but avoid blowing on the glass elements of lenses in case any of the propellant comes out with the air (don’t shake or hold the can upside down while cleaning equipment), and never blow into the open lens port of a camera—the pressure is too great, and may damage or misalign delicate components.
Bulb Blowers are small, lightweight, they fit in your hand, are easy to carry, and provide a gentle puff of air. Don’t get a regular bulb or baby syringe, because the photographic blowers have a one-way valve so you aren’t sucking in any dirt from what you are trying to clean, and one you get from a drugstore most likely will not; plus, you will look peculiar for bringing the wrong piece of gear to a shoot.
Slates are more than just a good idea. If you are a camera assistant, you have to be able to identify the shot, and this makes a huge difference in post production, especially in the Digital Age. There are a variety of slates available, but for the most part, you will want to have a slate with clap sticks, and also carry an insert slate. If you are looking to brush up on your technique, I suggest reading this article: Slating Technique. You are also going to want to carry around some erasable markers. Nowadays, almost all slates are translucent, allowing you to back-light them, which is quite useful in dim light. More complex slates, such as those that display timecode, are specialty items and you won’t be expected to bring one, although you will most likely end up carrying it around in your set bag.
Sharpie permanent markers are indispensible on a shoot, mostly; I found that I used to carry both regular and fine tip with me. As far as erasable markers go, there are kinds that require either a damp cloth for erasure, or those that erase with a dry cloth. The damp-erase markers are very popular for marking focus discs, as the marks won’t rub off accidentally, and are sometimes referred to as “spit erase,” as many camera operators will just lick a finger to clean away the mark. Not so sanitary, but the epitome of quick and dirty and now, perhaps, you see the value of carrying a small bag of moist wipes with you.
At some point you are going to be handed a piece of gear: a lens, an onboard monitor, a filter, something that needs to be protected, but you won’t be given the time to put it away. It is at moments like these that you will be happy that you have a lens wrap with you. Although not as hardy as a foam-lined case, the lens wrap can help protect your gear, when you’ve got to just grab and go. It isn’t a bad idea to wrap extra batteries in one of these, to prevent them knocking into delicate items.
For an assistant, you will want to carry both a flexible cloth tape measure and a steel tape measure like you find at a hardware store. Over time, the cloth tape measures may stretch, so they are worth checking every year, and although the steel tape won’t stretch, when you are checking the distance to an actor’s face, you really want to avoid any chance of cutting them, hence the cloth tape measure.
Turning to grip electric work, although you can happily use a bag, most of the electricians that I worked with tended to use a pallet case of some kind. Happily, B&H stocks a large variety of cases, which you can check out. I have always been fond of cases that allow you to add a shoulder strap, and some of these Ape Cases have that provision, but I can also see the advantage of having a case with wheels.
A voltmeter is your friend, and there is a wide variety of voltmeters to choose from, but you can be safe starting out with a digital multi-meter, which are pretty standard. You may find something known as a clamp meter—it can be useful, but tends to be more for big shoots because it can be used to read the electrical load on individual cables, so unless you are on a really big feature with generators and big lighting units, you are probably safe with just a digital multi-meter. Another extremely useful item in your kit will be an outlet tester. There are two basic kinds, GFCI and non-GFCI, but they both work essentially the same way. Please refer to the sidebar for an explanation of GFCI. The outlet tester is a small plastic device with a standard three-prong plug on one end, and three LEDs on the other. Plug it into an outlet and the LEDs light up, indicating if the outlet is wired correctly or not. I’d recommend getting the GFCI version, since this allows you to test the circuit’s GFCI protection, if it has it. These are especially useful when shooting in apartment buildings. Outlet testers can usually be found at your local hardware store, and B&H offers several multi-meters.
Another very important item is going to be a number of 3-prong to 2-prong adapters, often referred to as “ground lifters” by audio mixers. They can be invaluable when working in locations that have the old-style, two-prong, ungrounded outlets. There are two styles of 3- to 2-prong adapters, one with a short metal tab and one with a wire lead. Here is what it is important to know: the 3- to 2-prong adapter is not just a simple item that lets you plug a three-prong plug into a two-prong outlet; it also—and most importantly—allows you to maintain the ground protection, which is all too often overlooked.
Clothespins, also known as CP-47s, are an essential element of an on-set kit. Exceedingly inexpensive, these are great for a variety of purposes, but primarily used for attaching gels to lights. To be clear, you want the spring-loaded wooden clothespins, don’t get the peg style—or the plastic, as those will melt on hot lights. If you are working with tungsten lights, which can get pretty hot, and using scrims, there is a trick we’ll illustrate here, where you rearrange the assembly of the clothespin to create a more needle-nose-pliers-like device, which is useful for pulling hot scrims from lights without burning your hand (see photos).
|Here's a simple method for turning regular clothespins into useful tools for removing scrims from hot lights without burning your fingers, and you can still use them for attaching gels to lights.|
A couple of items that are used on virtually every set are tri-taps and spring clamps. There is an inevitable cycle of acquiring these items, bringing them to set, using some and losing them on one shoot, just to suddenly end up with extras on the next. Tri-taps usually come in orange, green, or black – with the black being great for hiding them in shot if necessary, but I find the orange most easy to find at the end of the day when I’m gathering all my gear (also I can write my name on the orange ones in sharpie and easily read my name, not so easy with the black or green). Follow the rating on the tap and don’t overload it, because they will melt if you overload them. Spring clamps come in a variety of sizes, and are great for anything from hanging sound blankets, to clipping backgrounds to a stand, to temporarily stringing cables. I like to bring several 1" and 2" spring clamps to each shoot, small enough to fit a few in a bag, but big enough to make a difference on set.
Multi-tools are incredibly useful space- and weight-saving items. You may already have one but, if not, you can choose from Swiss Army knives to multi-function pliers. Ratchet straps are quite a handy item to keep in your kit. They’re great for securing equipment, wrapping gear, and bringing order to chaos. I’d also highly suggest leather-palmed gloves for handling hot lights and carrying gear. Your hands will thank you.
Another part of your kit is a good pair of sunglasses, even when shooting interiors, as you are going to be looking at light fixtures all day long, and no doubt at some point you will get a retinal blast, so protecting your eyes is a must. When shooting outside, even on cloudy days, sunglasses come in handy, and here is a little trick that you can use to help you determine when the sun will break through the clouds. Take your sunglasses off, and look at the reflection of the sky in the glasses. With a little practice you will be able to amaze your friends at parties but, more importantly, help keep the shoot on schedule. A “Gaffer’s Glass” doesn’t replace your sunglasses, which provide general protection to your eyes; however, the gaffer’s glass is an excellent tool for looking into a light source, and finding the center of the beam. Just remember that it protects your eyes during quick looks into light sources, it is not for staring constantly into a light or at the sun.
We hope you’ve found this information useful and, no doubt, over time you will come up with your own selection of on-set essentials. Please feel free to comment with suggestions, and thanks for reading.