Cameras Don't Make Movies, People Do

Cameras Don’t Make Movies, People Do

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.

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.

Passion misplaced

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.

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  • FB

    Disclaimer: English is not my first language, so I apologize for any typos and if my comment sounds confused..I can assure you things are clearer in my head than they are here :-)

    I agree 100% with everything you wrote, Evan.

    I suspect a lot of this “talk” is online, while out there, in the real world, there’s a lot of people, the majority of professionals who actually use these tools, who are very aware of these issues and act accordingly. In other words, the talk about this or that camera begins with very smart internet marketing, and it’s unbelievable how much of that is about “the future”, primarily targeted at people who would love to buy cameras and dream about becoming the next Spielberg, and sometimes that talk “drifts” in the real world. If we went by Internet talk, for instance, 35mm film has been dead and buried for at least 10-15 years.

    Nothing wrong with that at all, except for what you’re so clearly writing about, i.e. misplacing passion. There are a lot of people who know everything about digital cameras even though they’ve never touched one or stepped on even a small set in their lives, because that kind of information is so readily available online. However, knowing “where” to put the camera, and even more important “why”, is a totally different thing.

    The proof, so to speak, is that there are way more cameras out there now than they
    ever were before, not even counting dsrls (and thanks to the Internet, even more ways to reach an audience), but the quantity and even more importantly the quality of storytelling, from big studios movies to small independent features, from television series to commercials, from music videos to shorts, etc, has not changed dramatically. Actually, this year we will probably see a dramatic increase in huge budget movies shot digitally, all in 3D, but 99% of them are sequels, prequels, reboots, etc. If you want originality, you better look somewhere else.

    The good thing is that today we have more tools to choose from, and hopefully it will be so for the longest time possible, and someone who wants to learn about filmmaking and cinematography can do that using tools that can, in theory, deliver amazing images. The bad thing is that sometimes it all starts with the tools and it then stops dead right there.
    It’s not unusual on the Internet to hear the question “great movie. What camera was that shot on?”. I found this on a very popular cinematography forum and I think it fits here, (I slightly modified it):

    Conversation at a dinner party:
    The cook tells the cinematographer ‘My, your movies are quite beautiful, you must use a really great camera’
    The cinematographer responds, ‘Well, your meal is delicious, you must use really great pans.’

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      FB/Francesco/1stAC (RIP twitter handle),

      It is always great to hear from you on this site and I think you had a lot of good things to say especially since this topic has been with you for as long as it has been with me.

      NOTE: For those who are unaware, the idea for this post came about when FB, @NathanRodger, and @humangobo and I all had an in-depth discussion on Twitter about cameras as tools

      The internet definitely has the propensity to inflate and exaggerate claims to such hyperbolic proportions. Again, we can talk about the people who waste their time on the Internet (except on this site :P) igniting camera flame wars and how they should instead be making films.

      The democratization of cinema is a huge movement in this era of filmmaking and I suspect we won’t know its true effect until years from now when we can look back in hindsight. I love the fact that there are dirt cheap (by cinema standards) cameras that allow amateurs to shoot like professionals. In fact, some amateurs might be more pros than the pros!

      But, yes, cameras are the tools to which tell stories. A pro camera doesn’t equal a pro filmmaker. Nor does it work the other way around — an amateur camera doesn’t mean an amateur filmmaker. Famous French New Wave director Adnes Varda once made a very compelling documentary on a simple mini DV camcorder. It was interlaced, it wasn’t lit, it was ugly, but it was great!

      I think that is something to keep in mind for those who think they need a pro camera to hang with the big boys. A great story should transcend the visuals. As much as cinematographers don’t want to admit it, a poorly lit movie with a great story is a better film than a beautifully lit movie with no story.

      BTW, I love the joke at the end… seems like something that might end up on Comment Corner ;)

  • Anonymous

    I am glad to be reminded of this. I often fall into the trap of only looking at gear and thinking “If I had that piece of gear I could make something so cool…” It is so true, a good filmmaker could shoot on miniDV and create something moving, while a hundred people can shoot on DSLR and create a montage of images with shallow DoF and move no-one.

    Gear does not mean good. Gear is a tool to put your ideas and emotions into someone else’s head and allow them to feel what you feel.

    I think the democratization of tools for creating films is great, but it creates a lot of noise that the stories that are actually good have to wade through. The fact is: if you create something good, it will rise to the top and reach the audience you want, no matter what camera you are using.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Eric,

      I have definitely fallen into the same trap as well thinking that a story I have can only be told with pro cameras or that it will suffer majorly if I don’t shoot it with the best. I think we’ve all been hyped into it, really.

      You are absolutely right about the democratization of tools: it does make a lot of noise. I think too often a great film that doesn’t look so good will suffer between many mediocre films that look beautiful. But the best of the best do usually rise to the top.

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  • Anonymous

    Have decided that when I post any video in the future not to put what camera the piece was shot on. The last 3 years (especially) has become about tech and not technique.

    Let’s hear it for the art of filmmaking.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hear hear! It’s nice to know, interesting to know, cool to learn about, but it doesn’t always matter. And when it does, it’s usually about the logistics or practicalities of a camera. Feel free to prefer a look or the type of footage, but don’t make that the most important decision you make because it isn’t.

      Thanks for the comment MrRocking!

  • Xavier Burgin

    This was an awesome article. It really make sense. 

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thanks Xavier! I’m not sure why more people don’t realize the camera only takes you so far

  • http://twitter.com/sam_longoria Sam Longoria

    Evan, it’s good you’ve written this, it needs to be said.

    I teach filmmaking, between making my own films, and I’ve used cameras, and built cameras and been a union cameraman, and I take a break sometimes, from how “camera-centric” our biz is.

    If the film is to be a comedy, its point is the jokes. If a Drama, then it’s the characters and what they go through. It is always about the story. It is not about the camera, or the camera features, or how cool this camera, or that camera, is.

    The camera is a visual tool, for helping to tell the story. I’m glad you know that.

    Best to you,

    Sam Longoria
    Producer
    Hollywood CA USA
    http://samlongoria.blogspot.com

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hi Sam — Thanks for the comment. You’re especially right when it comes down to the different genres. Unfortunately, grasping the concepts of a good story (or joke) is hard, but learning the technical in’s and out’s isn’t. That’s why I think people become so obsessed with it is because there is a lower barrier of entry. Any schmuck can pick up a camera and make something to put on YouTube, but few can pick up a camera and use it to move an audience.

      I hope this is something you teach your students!

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  • W T

    I’m going to be a bit of a contrarian here. While your basic point is certainly valid, I think you (like the camera-hype-obsessed fan-boys) tend to take it too far. Good movies are not just “stories”. They are a mixture of a dozen crafts that come together in a way that imparts and evokes meaning and emotion in their audience. Sometimes the details of the visuals don’t matter a whole lot to that process, but sometimes they do. Could you image Lawrence of Arabia shot on 16mm in 4×3 format? Or 2001 A Space Odyssey shot on Betacam? Of course not. Did the visuals support those stories, or did the stories support those visuals? Or both?!

    The “look” of a film depends on lots of things – not the least of which is the budget for lighting and sets. But those things can all be for naught if the camera and lenses used aren’t up to (or down to) the style of image that needs to be captured. When using film, this often comes down to the film format and film stock used — do you shoot 16mm, 35mm, academy or anamorphic? Do you use a film with wide latitude, or go for a higher-speed emulsion with pronounced grain? Vivid or muted color? Do you need deep or shallow depth of field? In the digital era, the equivalent conversation is “Which camera do I use?” So if you’re passionate about the look a certain film gives you, the way it handles highlights and shadows, color, grain, etc. then of course you should also be passionate about the way that a certain camera renders those exact same things.

    John Schwartzman, ASC commented recently that he used to use cheap film cameras as “crash cams”. But the film in those cameras was the same as in the A camera, and the image quality was just as good from both cameras. Now, using DSLRs as cheap “crash cams”, when you get to post, you discover a big difference in image quality and “look” between that footage and your high-end A and B cameras, and it can take lots of extra work in post to try to get a match close enough that it isn’t distracting or obnoxious. You can get beautiful stuff out of DSLRs, but you have to go about it in a different way than if using an Alexa or an F65, and it will still just look “different”.

    My point is that movies are a visual medium, and in the digital age, which sensor you use and how it outputs its data (and therefore which camera you use) matters a lot. A high-end camera isn’t sufficient by itself for producing a great movie, or even a beautiful movie. But having a sufficiently capable camera can be necessary. Where “sufficient” means being able to produce the “look” you want.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey WT, thanks for the awesome comment! I really enjoyed your nuanced approach to it. It was refreshing to read, no joke.

      In many ways, I think our two arguments could be combined to say that camera can be part of the story and contribute significantly to it when placed in the hands of a capable filmmaker. That when paired with a story, the two become even stronger.

      But my main point in writing this article is that a high-end camera, on its own, does not make a good movie. However, a talented filmmaker armed with a strong story could make a provocative piece with many different types of camera.

      Is there a “right” camera for that story? Probably — at least one to make the story stronger — but the talent of the filmmaker wouldn’t depend on it.

      Cameras and people have to work together to make great films, however, there’s no arguing that.

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  • http://www.Spidvid.com/ Jeremy Campbell

    Cheers to your article Evan, so true! A camera won’t make or break your film’s success, your story and actors and passion for your project will!