Cameras and the Stories They Tell
I love cameras. Love love love love love. I’ve played with them since childhood. I asked for them for birthdays. Collected them when i was older. Learned analog and digital photography as well as digital cinematography. One of my first arguments with my wife once we were married was about the fact that i seemed to constantly talk about cameras. I used all of my birthday & Christmas money to buy a digital camera, a medium format film camera, specialized 35mm film, and medium format film. I’ve also spent the last 2-3 years of my life researching, reviewing, understanding, and practicing with cameras.
SO, it’s safe to say i hold cameras in great esteem. Heck, for that matter, i hold the whole cinematographic process in great esteem, from lenses right down to playback media and everything inbetween. But the question (or, perhaps, criticism) i receive most often deals with the idea that perhaps my emphasis on filmmaking tech takes away from the art of filmmaking itself. Of course I disagree with the implication but i fully understand the source of the conflict.
For decades there has been creative warfare between those who design hardware and those who use it; this is why product reviews even exist. If everyone was on the same page, you’d just have forums discussing personal preference rather than things like “Consumer Reports” which gauges individual products based on “standardized” user-preferenced ratings.
And the funny thing is that the “arts” are really no different. Writers criticize pencil and paper makers. Musicians criticize certain companies for making “cheap” instruments. And filmmakers tend to criticize the “equipment” which cannot acheive the breadth of vision which they first dreamed up.
Ahhh, but here comes my first point: Though plenty of directors tend to divorce the ideas of “story” and “technology,” it is upon any given incident that the hardware is blamed. But why? If the story is suffering in a particular shot or scene, is not just a bad DP, or maybe the script needs some work, or maybe the acting is just shoddy? Sometimes, sure, but not always…not nearly always. This can only mean the hardware DOES have some bit of influence over the director, even if indirectly.
You see for me it’s never been about getting the coolest camera; it’s always been about getting a camera system that can achieve a vision I have in my head for a story. And, though I’m not a perfectionist, i’d certainly say i’m a pseudo-micro-manager. The only thing that keeps me from going full-tilt-boogie is that I am typically the one I’m micro-managing; not someone else. HOWEVER, i wish i could say this was due to some sense of creative obligation, but it’s merely and obessession I have with having a story told the way i want it to (you know, kind of like, i don’t know, a director?)
For me, this idea has always been married to what kind of tech will be used on set. If i need to shoot a very dark scene but have specfic points of bright, mid, and low lighting, I need a camera with a wide-daynamic range. So at first I pick up a RED Epic. Why? Because it has HDRx which gives me 18 stops of dynamic range which should, in theory, accomplish this very hard to shoot scene. But what if i didnt’ know this as an auteur filmmaker? Could i have a DP do it? sure, but they tend to color their fact-spewing with indiscernable backwashes of opinion. Great…if they are the director; not so great if not.
Perhaps I’m judging based solely on the independent platform of filmmaking where you get your money selling plasma, your body (to science you weirdos), and your possessions, you get your crew from people that owe you things, and you get your cast from friends. But this is the type of filmmaking I know and this is the type of filmmaking that most big-time auteur filmmakers take with them to their big-budget productions: tarantino, nolan, scorcese, anderson, the coens, fincher, aronofsky, etc… These guys know their equipment so they know what they want to shoot this story with. If I wanted to shoot a film that had an 80′s horror vibe, i’d either get 16mm film stock or use Red’s Raw footage and grade it to look like 16mm film (as best i could). But, had i not known my cameras or discounted them as being “unimportant,” this creative decision would be left to my DP whou i would assume at this point would take full responsibility of the sucess or failure of my film.
Why so harsh?
Because movies are a sensatory mode of communication; one in which the user sees and hears a story. They aren’t (primarily) using their imagination, or if they are, it’s because something seen implies something unseen which the viewer fills in for his/herself. Either way, the mode is visual and aural. And since it is a visual and aural art, its photography and sound-design must tell the story in the best and most articulated way way possible in order to communicate in the best and most articulated way possible.
I’m not saying that story is to be thrown under the bus of DSLRs and the democritazation of the filmmaking industry, I’m simply saying it’s time to tie these two loose ends together into this paradoxical twist we call good filmmaking….or perhaps we should just call it, good storytelling.