Whether you’re madly in love with a documentary filmmaker or you’ve had the bad luck of picking one of us in a round of Secret Santa, we’re hard to shop for. And time is running out! And I’m sure every filmmaker can agree (whether doc or not) that it’s hard to explain to the uninitiated what you'd like to get that's related to filmmaking.
Serious purchases are something we pour over reviews and comparisons for days one end, so asking Uncle Morty to go through that is out of the question.
To make things easier, I’ve compiled my opinion of the best five gifts, for a variety of different budgets, that are not only simple to buy, but useful to nearly any non-fiction filmmaker.
IDA membership (and subscription to Documentary magazine)
For anywhere from $35 to $85, you can give an International Documentary Association membership that includes access to online Doc U seminars and an actual, physical magazine about documentary filmmaking. You can only get a subscription be becoming a member, but just think, your favorite documentary filmmaker can leaf through it on the bus, and bring on plane rides when sitting in the middle seat at the very rear of the plane as a doco budget allows. It screams ‘I’m a documentary filmmaker’ to people around you, and that’s about as much recognition as you can get in this line of work!
Not to mention, you’re basically giving two gifts as a membership supports the IDA, an organization that has been supporting non-fiction filmmakers for over 35 years.
A camera bag upgrade
Don’t know what kind of camera or accessories your non-fiction filmmaker might need? Well, why not get them a camera bag. Odds are doc filmmaker has at least one bag, but will always need more (and different sizes). Many doc filmmakers need to carry all their gear themselves at all times! Domke is the Cadillac of camera bags, and an over-the-shoulder model is useful for a filmmaker who needs to reach in and grab a lens or audio recorder without putting their camera down. For those who need to walk many miles following a story, a backpack model is a great option, and Lowepro, founded by legendary climbers Mike, Greg, and Jeff Lowe (of whom you can incidentally learn about in the documentary Jeff Lowe's Metanoia) is an industry stand out for some of the most rugged terrains. If you are on a tight budget, there are some really good options like this Amazon Basics DSLR backpack for around $40!
A better viewfinder
If you happen to know that the filmmaker on your list is shooting on DSLR, Blackmagic Pocket, A7s type cameras or any without a dedicated eyepiece, odds are they may still be squinting at the LCD screen under midday sun on their camera. Do them a major favor and upgrade to a multifinder that will help shield the screen from the sun as well as increase focus, framing, and positions to shoot from! Zacuto, Ikan, and Varavon have well-rated models under $300, or less if used from a reputable reseller. (Doc filmmakers don’t care!) If you’re looking for something on a smaller budget, you can still help cut out the glare with budget hoods from Neewer and eCostConenction that will only set you back $30 or so.
OK, this is a fairly complicated purchase. But for a doc filmmaker, it’s a luxury item – one of those things they might not consider buying themselves, but secretly want. In other words, the perfect gift! No documentary filmmaker needs this as essential to capture the story, but drones are rapidly becoming a great tool to have on hand for those shots that you just can’t get any other way. If the filmmaker you know has a camera that will fit in the [kind of drone you’ll likely be able to afford to give them] like a GoPro or BM Micro you’d want to get a drone that will house that camera. If they don’t have any action cams, get a drone with a camera built-in. But be warned, don't go too far down the line in price, because the quality/stabilization can go south pretty quick. DJI makes everyone’s favorite industry-standard drones in the $500-$3,000 range, but companies like 3DR and XIRO can also get you a very decent quadcopter under the $300 mark.
No, not those blue hats from Kentucker Audley’s ilk (unless he starts making one that says ‘Documentaries’), the easiest things you can get your doc jock is access to the best documentaries the world has to offer. While they may already have Netflix and Amazon Prime, a subscription to a platform like DOX focuses exclusively on documentary films for $2.99 a month. Now, not all documentary filmmakers like to watch only documentary films (or be rendered separate than other filmmakers at all) so another great option is SundanceNow which streams tons of indie film in addition to docs for around $4.99 a month.
Best of luck getting and giving what’s on your list for documentary filmmakers. Hopefully, this helps! If I missed a great gift you'd love to get in your stocking, let me know in the comments below.