Cameras don’t tell stories. They just take pictures.
I love cameras. I love the look, the feel, the “I’m making a movie” feeling I get when I have one decked out in cinema setup. I’ve loved them since I was a kid, which admittedly was one of the reasons I got into production – because I was obsessed with cameras. Sure, I loved to watch movies, and imagined myself making them one day just like my boyhood heroes George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but the truth is – I really just wanted to play with those cool Panavision cameras. Those were the real movie cameras that the big guys used.
My first serious production with a real crew and a real budget was a public service announcement for the Stop the Madness campaign. I wrote it, pitched it, and managed to get $6K from a local business owner to cover my costs. The very first thing I did was book a Panavision Gold camera package from Panavision Chicago and a 5 ton lighting and grip package from Indianapolis. After that, I hired my D.P., crew and cast. But, in my process, those really were secondary to having that 35mm camera package – just like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg used.
As well as that 2-day shoot went, in the end what I had was a PSA that was way too long for television, weak in execution and editing, and despite having been shot with the Red Weapon of its day (35mm film is still the standard for imaging) – it was also pretty amateur looking. Don’t get me wrong, my D.P. and crew did exactly what I asked them to do, and it technically looked and sounded as good as anything else on television. When you have a real D.P. and hand him a $250K camera package and Kodak film, it’s going to look good. When you have a real sound designer do a real mix with custom music and foley, it’s going to sound good. And when you have a professional lighting and grip company send one of their best with their 5 ton grip and lighting package, complete with Chapman-Leonard dolly, it’s going to look like you really know what you’re doing.
But, the problem wasn’t the camera or the lights or the dolly moves or even the sound design. The problem was the telling of the story – and for me at age 20 the story was an afterthought, a means to that end goal of getting that camera package that I just had to have. You see, I was convinced that all I needed was that camera, and those lights, and that dolly – that the big guys used. And I was convinced that if I only had those things, my end product would be just like theirs. What I quickly discovered was that grip trucks don’t make movie magic, they just carry equipment. Big lights don’t make things look cinematic, they just make light. Dollies on tracks don’t make a scene dynamic, they just move a camera on a track. And cameras don’t tell stories. They just take pictures.
The explosion of content production over the past decade has been driven in large part by some amazing advances in camera technology. What used to take a $100K film camera with 35mm film can now be done with a $3500 DSLR. For today’s upcoming filmmakers, never having dealt with the immense cost and technical requirements of exposing film, it’s a completely foreign concept. There is simply an expectation that pressing record will magically yield a movie, and unfortunately it has led many astray in their pursuit of a proper career in filmmaking. Obsession over the tools does not yield story. It only yields obsession over the tools.
When you really think about it, the notion that buying a piece of gear magically makes you a filmmaker is analogous to buying yourself an Indycar and declaring yourself to be Helio Castroneves. Everyone understands that, while the car crosses the finish line, it does not win the race – the driver does. And since every car in the race is held to the same exacting technical standards, why do some spin out, some crash, and some break down without ever finishing the race? It must have something to do with the artist guiding the machine. And so it is in filmmaking.
That old saying in cinematography that says the best camera is the one you have in your hands is true more often than not. While I love to study cameras and all of the latest technology, I don’t obsess over them. Neither do I obsess over lights, computers, drones or lenses. They are nothing but tools. Tools are useless without the craftsman, and the craftsman knows that a craft is honed over years and years of practicing with the tools they have available. It does not happen overnight. It happens over decades.
Learn the trade, learn the tools, learn the techniques, but never forget – Story is King.