There’s no doubt that the landscape of cinema is shifting thanks to technological innovation. As film history proves, cinema is always being pushed by the technologies that make the art.
But why do we spend so much time these days discussing RED vs. Alexa or DSLR vs. 4/3, when the real discussion piece should be about evoking emotion, capturing the soul of audiences, and ultimately, injecting a film with heart.
It’s not about the camera or the lens, it’s about the idea, the story, and the passion that drives the filmmaking process.
The artistic tool
Cameras, while coming in all sizes with a multitude of capabilities, are ultimately the tool through which a filmmakers’ story weaves itself through. A film can’t exist without the camera, like a Fresco can’t without paint, but the vision lives on, present in a filmmakers soul waiting to burst from the seams.
This is why cameras are less important than the stories which they seek to tell. Where cameras come and go, as technology supplants its newest innovations year after year, a story plants itself firmly inside the head of a creative.
Surely an artist would never claim that a painting is better because of the type of brush used, so why do people claim certain cameras are the only choice, or by far the best choice?
Wouldn’t it make sense for an artist to keep an arsenal of brushes? A thin one for eyebrows or leaves on a tree, and a thick one for puffy clouds in the sky. So, too, should the filmmaker — choosing to use digital cinema in instances that they find it more capable and choosing film where that “brush” complements the paint well.
I understand that the painter and filmmaking metaphor is overdone, but the root of the comparison reigns true.
A good film isn’t a function of its medium, but of its story. As Nathan Rodger said in a conversation about this online, “Story is the soul. Without it, tools are just toys.”
There is nothing wrong with playing with toys, but as soon as a narrative or an artistic claim is made to be as a result of them and not the person behind them, it seems to loose all merit with me.
Take some of the most powerful images in history: They get stuck to the emotional core of the viewer and stay there, unrelenting, until we finally let it go after finding meaning within it. It is only after that process and catharsis that the tool becomes important.
A camera should function to service the story
Sometimes this is a no-brainer choice and there are no other options. For Black Swan, the grainy nature of 16mm exuded a kinetic and vibrant motion to the frame that Aronofsky found contributed to the chaos of Nina’s mind.
In many instances, various cameras could serve a story well and the choice will be made by preference much like other technical choices — Avid vs. Final Cut; Superspeeds vs. Master Primes.
In the low-budget world, filmmakers often have to wedge a story into the gear they have. As my film professor Paul Harill would say, “creativity is problem solving.”
The important thing to realize is that no film is going to win Sundance because it was shot on RED or Alexa or a 7D. For years Sundance has selected films that show exemplary skill in crafting a beautiful story regardless of the camera that framed it.
It is OK to be excited about technology and the opportunities it affords, but at the heart of it, we are all storytellers.
Whether you are the grip holding a flag, or the director shouting “action,” we all found ourselves attracted to this industry because of the wonder and the awe of the filmmaking medium. To abandon that particular passion and in its place supplant the passion for a tool is ludicrous.
Imagine if all the passion towards certain cameras was poured into the script, the direction, the cinematography. There’d be a creative explosion unlike anything before.
But instead, the passion behind these cameras is misplaced to the point where the camera transcends its position as a tool into something more mythical. But a camera won’t breathe life into a film — it is as cold and calculated as the computer chips inside it.
The images it shoots have no effect on the camera. It will retain their exposure, their framing, their composition to whatever a person puts it at. The camera cares no more about how creative a shot is than how long its battery is going to last.
That isn’t to say that the tools can’t make a film better. Certainly special effects, color grading, and other technological triumphs have made films better, but the films that they are the most effective are the ones that the tech comes as a result of the story.
Innovation for story
Any film historian will tell you that more than most artistic mediums, film is uniquely bound by the artistic and the technological. The best example is sound, a technology that shaped the way films were made once it was presented but also its lack of existence before heavily influenced how films were shot.
Innovation has always been an important part of film whether it was George Melies using basic camera tricks to make whimsical films — much like Michel Gondry these days — or Fritz Lang exploiting the Shuftan process to bring an epic scale to Metropolis.
Every major advancement in filmmaking technology has presented new challenges to its generation of filmmakers. The big ones being sound, color, and more recently, digital cinema.
Yet, we all know that films will rarely survive as one trick ponies. An effect for the sake of it isn’t enough to impress audiences. And the reason even those early silent films live on is not simply their history and their ingenuousness, but the fact that the innovations brought about were to serve the story.
Digital cinema filmmaking is not an effect, more of a movement, but a film is not going to be good because it was shot digitally or presented in 3D or has 28K’s of resolution.
Cameras don’t make movies, people do.
What this all boils down to is that a camera will not make a movie great — the people will.
The actors in front of it will draw our emotions. The director will command a films presence. The cinematographer will create depth. A camera does none of these.
Don’t think that I am railing against the digital filmmakers, I think film compatriots are just as guilty in this realm. They used to shoot pornography on film too, but most of those aren’t artistic achievements.
There is no mythical Golden calf in the realm of filmmaking, pick a camera that suits the story and the budget.
If the content living inside the frame is compelling enough, nobody should notice shallow depth-of-field or a tinge of red cause they’ll be lost. And that is what filmmaking is about, losing people and giving them an escape.
You should be taking the audience on a journey. In this sense, a good camera is like a good car, it will be strong, dependable and take you anywhere you want it to go.