Getting the Most From a Video Drop Kit

8 minute read

by Jon

April 29, 2020

Shooting video with crew off-set is possible, but it comes with some limitations and caveats.

Update – Because this post has been quite popular, I’ve also created a Drop Kit FAQ.

Drop kits are a zero-touch way to record high quality video interviews remotely. If you’re using a drop kit to record the A-roll for your video, it’s important to know what you can (and can’t) expect from your rig. A drop kit in the right hands can give amazing results, so much so that your audience doesn’t ever need to know that your talent was alone in the room.

It’s possible for a drop kit to use a high end cinema camera like the ARRI Alexa Mini LF, but hybrid cinema/ENG cameras are easier to use.

Here are some ways to get the most from your drop kit, while keeping your video production budget on target.

  • Shoot with reasonable data rates. Shooting RAW is probably a bad idea for most cameras in most situations. I suggest you double the time you expect your interview to last, and then choose your quality settings based on that number. Your drop kit tech should be able to help you choose a quality setting. While it’s possible to trigger recording remotely, I advise just letting the system run when the drop kit tech exits. You’ll have a few extra minutes of work for the editor, but you’re less likely to miss an important moment.
  • Work somewhere with electrical outlets. Batteries have made location work easy, but since it’s not possible for a tech to come in and replace them, they are a liability for a drop kit. You’ll need to power lights, camera, laptop, audio, and possibly other items as well.
  • Shoot with just one camera. While it’s possible to get two cameras going at once, they will require twice as much internet bandwith, and you’re more than twice as likely to have problems. If you really need two cameras, you’ve probably reached the point where you should have a camera operator in full PPE.
  • Plan ahead! Producing video pre-COVID-19 was often a series of last minute emails and phone calls. That’s not possible anymore. Equipment needs to be sterilized, crew needs to be tested, and most rental shops are closed (or barely open). Plan on having everything locked in at least three days in advance, ideally longer.
  • The days of figuring it out when we get to set are behind us. You absolutely, completely, totally MUST have a virtual scout in advance. If filming in your talent’s home or office, ask for a guided tour over video call. In particular, you want to confirm that the location is
    • quiet
    • safe to leave equipment unattended
    • free from distractions (like family members and pets)
    • large enough for the equipment and subject, plus some space behind them
    • uniform in lighting (windows need window coverings)
    • near working electrical outlets
    • within range of WiFi or a wired computer network (using cellular data connections is less reliable or more expensive)
  • Allow more time for set up and take down. An interview crew is usually at least 3-4 people. Having a single person do all the jobs is great for minimizing risk, but it’s going to take some time. At a minimum, you should allow two hours for setup and two hours for cleaning and take down. Rushing causes mistakes, and there’s no room for mistakes when dealing with our health.
  • Be prepared for technical issues. Minimizing the complexity of your drop kit will help, but ultimately, there’s a whole lot that can go wrong, and not everything is in your control. Do not set your talent or clients up for a completely smooth experience on a tight deadline. If there is a problem with the kit, it may take a re-shoot. Internet connectivity can be spotty in any home. If the drop kit tech gets sick, your shoot will need to be rescheduled. If FedEx misses a delivery, your equipment might not be available. Leave room in the schedule for some speed bumps.
  • Be as flexible as possible in framing, lens choice, and camera choice. Since you won’t have a crew on set, you’ll probably want to shoot using a lens on the wider side, with a reasonable aperture. Getting that extreme closeup at f/1.4 isn’t a good idea with a drop kit. Drop kit video shooting with cinema cameras is exponentially harder than ENG cameras. Cinema cameras were designed to be run by two or more people, so it makes sense that when the crew is zero, they’re not very adaptable or easy to set up.
  • You’re going to need a little more post production. Since things like exposure, framing, and audio levels need to be decided in advance, the editor won’t be able to just cut and print drop kit footage. The tech should choose conservative settings, and plan on post production making tweaks. Makeup is limited to blotting papers plus whatever your talent is able to do themselves. With bigger budgets, it’s possible to sweeten the image in post production. For most drop kit shoots, it’s probably better to manage expectations.
  • Not every camera operator or director of photography is qualified to set up a drop kit. This is a complex system that requires knowledge of lighting, camera, sound, and computer networking. Having a decade of experience on set, working as a “one-man band” and producing webcasts and live events gave me the skills to be confident setting up a drop kit. It’s something that most people will need significant training on before they can get great results.

As I’ve been perfecting my drop kit rig, I’ve learned that there isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Start a conversation with your drop kit tech about what’s most important to your production team, and the best ways to make it happen.

Have you used a drop kit to get A-roll for your video project? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!