On improvising hardware, probably the most insane thing I ever did involved a tripod taped to the side of a very tall A-frame ladder (maybe 15–20 feet) to get the side camera shot to roughly match the perspective of the back camera, which was atop a light booth. Cost: About a buck worth of gaff tape, ostensibly, but in reality, about ten cents worth of duct tape.
I've also improvised mic booms by attaching a mic clip thread piece to a tent pole with a 90 degree bend at the end. A tent pole just happens to slip perfectly over many oversized mic boom stands, making the boom stand tall enough to easily hold a lightweight mic up above most shots while indoors. And because the tent pole is aluminum, it doesn't weigh anything, so for outdoor stuff, you can hand-hold it easily. Cost: Free if you have an old tent.
On the subject of audio, my biggest tip is always rewire your XLR cables. Most mic cables have the chassis ground lifted, which is intended to reduce hum when you're connecting it between two pieces of noisy powered equipment, one of whose chassis ground sucks. But when you use them for microphones, particularly if you're outdoors near big power lines, or in theaters near light dimmers, those floating metal jackets at the connector turn into antennas, and you get hum from hell. I've even tuned in nearby AM radio stations that way. To fix it, on both ends of every XLR cable, solder an extra jumper wire from the ground lug to the ground pin. Cost: A little bit of wire and a whole lot of time.
And if you're using a 1/4" plug or 1/8" mini plug anywhere with a microphone-level signal going through it, make sure the plug has a metal back. If not, you're going to want to wrap it in aluminum foil, then use a jumper wire between that and part of your camera's metal frame to ground it. Otherwise, you're almost guaranteed to pick up unacceptable levels of noise in some environments. Wrap any stacks of impedance-matching transformers, too. They're often incredibly sensitive to interference. Cost: A bit of dignity when a member of the cast asks you if you also make hats.
Here are a few other helpful tips:
- Always test your gear in the actual shooting environment a day or two ahead of the shoot. That way, *when* you get a horrible 60 Hz hum, you have time to track down the source and fix it.
- Wireless mic receivers—particularly the cheap variety—often cause harmful interference with one another in close proximity. I ended up having to have folks hand a mic back and forth on one outdoor shoot because as soon as I stuck the two receivers in the same backpack, one of the receivers went nuts.
- You can do amazing things with a car battery with its leads wired to a 12V lighter socket and a voltage inverter, but an emergency starter battery is a heck of a lot more portable if you don't need the extra capacity.
- If you need cheap but usably bright portable lighting for night photography, mount a pair of halogen driving lights (the white kind, not the yellow kind) on each end of a three-foot stick, and attach the middle of the stick to your tripod. Build a wooden frame around each light, and clip one or two layers of frosted diffusion paper in front of each one. It gives you the most important two points of that three-point lighting setup for about thirty bucks. :)