Author Topic: A Camera Does Not a Filmmaker Make  (Read 908 times)


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A Camera Does Not a Filmmaker Make
« on: April 26, 2015, 08:58:26 AM »

Published by Kendal Miller    April 18th, 2011

Iím sick and tired. After a week of nonstop talking at NAB I have realized that there are some incredibly talented independent filmmakers out there, and they are by far in the minority. There are those people out there finding legitimate uses for the tools at hand and really using them to tell some incredible stories. However, there are far more posers than anything else. Iím fed up with Vimeo, shallow DOF, slider driven. montage sequences with credits on them masquerading as films. Iím sick of lazy, careless, pre-production, masquerading as cinema verite or so called art films. Iím completely over the pretentious arrogance put out by some co-called ďfilmmakersĒ in our industry. Now before you hang me from a tree as a warning to all who dare trespass this sacred ground, hear me out. Iím not saying these pieces donít have warrant. Iím saying they arenít films, get over yourself. Donít even get me started on music videos.

So Iím not David Mullen, Rodney Charters, Roger Deakins, Robert Primes, or any of the other cinematographers whom I admire and who have an incredible body of work to stand behind. It is always a dangerous position to decry something, while aspiring to achieve something yourself. I am on a journey, a journey to learn, and absorb everything I possibly can about cinematography, and filmmaking. I want to be the best I possibly can, and often find my own ineptitude to by my weakest link. I recognize that I have not arrived, nor do I really ever hope to. Personally, I feel that the minute you quite studying your craft and learning that you should just quit. One of the things I admire most about the aforementioned cinematographers, some of whom I have had the great honor of talking with personally, is that they all espouse the same sentiment at one level or another. There is a realization that their job is ever changing, and they themselves are always building new techniques, and skills to accommodate for it. So if you will allow me Iíd like to take off the facade and be brutally honest with you about myself and others I see in the field of independent filmmaking.

ÖASC Manual that states that cinematography is the art and craft of the authorship of visual images for the cinema. Any processes that may affect these images are the direct responsibility of the cinematographer. It goes beyond just photography; we are responsible for the overall photographic quality of the image and how itís used to tell the story. We work with the director and the other department heads to achieve that quality. From a production standpoint, we have three departments under our control: Camera, Electric, and Grip. Technically, ďcinematographyĒ means motion picture photography. Iím not one of those people who thinks that if you shoot digitally, it is not cinematography, itís videography. We use the word ďfilmĒ to describe movies in general regardless of their origination medium.


There is a sense that anyone with a DSLR or camera of any type is either a filmmaker, director, or director of photography. Now I donít take to task the cameras or technology for this. No, in fact each camera could in its own right be used very usefully, and to a proper end. It is the following formula that I take to task: Camera Gear+Pretty Images=Filmmaker. It is the idea of removing the thought, and creative process from the filmmaking experience and stripping it down to a rote exercise. Lets face it, a lot of the camera systems today do not necessarily require a high level of technical competence to crank out pretty images. I react to the thoughtlessness with which such so called ďartĒ is produced. While technology is important it is not the camera that makes the film, it is the filmmaker. The democratization of camera gear into the hands of the consumer has allowed anyone and everyone to wear the title of filmmaker. But what is it that truly makes a filmmaker? Is it simply the ability to create disparate compelling images? Is it being lauded by a crowd and having a following? Perhaps the answer is more multifaceted than we allow.

I have no doubt that Roger Deakins could light and produce a much more compelling project utilizing an HVX200, than I possibly could achieve with the new Arri Alexa. Why? He understands the true art of cinematography and the visual language of the screen. He understands the art of a specific lens choice made to compress or expand a space, subtly changing or enhancing the juxtaposition of characters in a frame. He understands how to utilize camera blocking to specifically underscore and support an emotional element of the script, or story. Lighting becomes yet another decision informed by the character, and tone of the scene, and in the hands of a master such as Deakins it speaks as loud as the dialog. All of these decisions require a deep and masterfully grasp of both story and visual language. Both of these are elements I find sadly lacking in most of the work showcased by a lot of the independent film world. I will also insert here that I personally find my grasp of these elements to be rudimentary at best, and am seeking to incorporate a much deeper understanding of this into my work. Filmmaking often becomes reduced down to making default decisions on the fly that will often result in pretty images that montage well together. While on some level this works as a study of composition and lighting, I propose that it does not make a filmmaker.

I believe the devil is in the details, as they say. A film has to start out with a strong story and it has to be supported by good acting. But if you have those elements, then how you direct it, shoot it, art direct it, cut it, compose the music, can enhance that story or tell it better. You know, ďHamletĒ is a great story, but that doesnít mean a two-year-old can direct ďHamletĒ just because itís a good story. You have to have the skill of a storyteller to make a good production of ďHamlet.Ē So I think cinematography is one element of the storytelling process that will enhance the experience for the audience. And the audience doesnít necessarily have to be aware of this stuff. An average person doesnít know how to build a house and doesnít know anything about architectureÖ but certainly he wants to live in a house that is well-built. He hires experts to deal with that stuff. I think the audience expects the filmmakers to be the experts in filmmaking, that the filmmakers are the ones that know about film stocks and lenses and formats so they donít have to. They just have to enjoy the movie.


While visually compelling to look at, especially from the viewpoint of another ďfilmmakerĒ, these montage pieces are often devoid of real heart, soul, and emotion. May I propose that real cinematography as an art form comes from making specific, and informed choices. These decisions can only be found as you develop a deep sense of visual language, that guides your style and direction. A strong technical proficiency then allows you to execute those decisions. Both pieces of the puzzle are needed. Know why you make every choice and begin to learn to defend your decisions. Why did you shoot a composition at a given focal length or stop? Why did you center punch or weight the subject to one side of the frame or the other? Its not that one choice is inherently right and one is wrong, but you should know why you made the decision.

Can you decide not to use the visual components in your production? No; If you ignore visual components they wonít go away. Color can be eliminated by shooting in black and white, but itís impossible to eliminate any other visual component because they exist in everything on the screen. Even a blank screen contains the visual components of space, line, shape, tone, and movement. So the screen is never empty. Even a still photograph uses the components of rhythm and movement. Since the visual components are always on screen understanding, controlling, and using them are critical to great picture making.

-BRUCE BLOCK, A Visual Story

As you begin to question yourself and your work you will begin to develop an internal sense of style as well. Informed specific decisions should be made from lighting, camera blocking, lens selection, color, and tone all the way through. It is the only way to begin to bring cohesive style to a piece. These are things that separate out the truly great cinematographers, they have a commanding grasp of the elements, and wield them like a true artist.

Really, a cinematographerís work is only as good as the director, really. Thatís why I love working with the Coens and with Norman Jewison. They really push you to do something and you feel like you can work from a position of strength and take chances and risks. Itís hard when youíre on a film if a director doesnít have the experience to understand the visual language involved, and there is a whole language involved. And if the director doesnít understand that or isnít confident enough with himself to let you, the cameraman, to take what the script requires and create the visuals it can be frustrating.


It is when I see true artist like Deakins, and Charters put such an insane level of thought and process into a shot that just comes to life on screen and breathes emotion, that I personally feel unworthy to wear the label filmmaker. I have no issue with people learning, and studying, stumbling, and fumbling along the way. Iím in the same boat, we are all learning together here. The issue I have is the level or pretentiousness and arrogance that seeks to assert this level of work as some presumed mastery of ďhigh artĒ. It is at this point that I cry ,ĒFoul!Ē To do so is to completely undermine the level of true art poured out by the masters. We reduce filmmaking back to an academic shooting exercise. Come on, we are better than that. Surround yourselves with people who are better than that. We all want to aspire to be truly great, to create art, and inspire others. Canít we let go of our egos for a moment and recognize with brutal honesty where we are in the journey? Push yourself to study your craft, dissect your decisions and choices, allow brutal feedback from those you trust, not just those will laud your incompetence as art. Learn from your mistakes, and push forward to make better informed decisions next time. Might I suggest the following exercises to improve your craft:

1. Get out and shoot a short scripted project with actors on a tight schedule. Repeat this process until you get it right. Trust me the first several times will produce nothing but crap. Doing it without a schedule doesnít count either.

2. Do a script breakdown by visual elements and learn to plan camera coverage. Your producers will thank you.

3. Have you ever even done an overhead or lighting plot? If not do one, now. Again, be ready to defend your choices.

4. Get people you trust to absolutely rip your project apart, rip it apart yourself. A couple guys that I work with and I do a complete postmortem on almost every project we shoot. What worked, what didnít work? Where do things need to be improved? If you donít have those people around you drop everything and go find them right now!

5. Cut the crap. Chances are you are less than half as good as you think you are. All of us are, and that is the brutal truth. The sooner you can be honest about your weakness the sooner you can throw yourself into honestly learning to be better.

6. Learn some humility, we could all use a dose from time to time. This is especially true at when people tend to pump up and overemphasize our achievements or lack there of.

What about instinct, is there ever a place for simply doing something because it feels like the right approach? Absolutely. I have heard many great DPs say they attempted a particular shot simply because it felt like the correct approach. There is a lot to be said about that. However, I think it should flow as the exception and not the norm. The following quote by Bruce Block reiterates this:

Something new pops into your head that solves a problem. That is when instincts are great. Use them. You may never understand why your instincts were correct, but when you see the final product you know you made the right decision. But donít let instincts fool you. Sometimes instincts are incomplete, unreliable, or wrong. Instinctual choices may only be old habits or underdeveloped ideas that sound good but are ultimately disappointing. ďif you had been there, it seemed to work,Ē is a lame excuse for poor instinctual choice.

-BRUCE BLOCK, The Visual Story

So where does the technology come in then? Filmmaking is after all a blend of technology, collaboration, and art is it not? Letís take a look at this quote by Deakins:

And, frankly, itís not the technology that makes the great movies. I mean, if you went back to see Citizen Kane and you looked at it on a big screen and you looked at the quality of the image, I mean, frankly, some of it is not veryÖwell, goodís not the right word, because technically itís not as sharp. Some of it is very grainy. The lens quality is not as good as modern lenses. ButÖ[Laughs] itís still a better film than ninety-nine percent of what are made today. So, you know, itís not just about technique and equipment.


Now donít get me wrong, DSLRs and these other compact, single sensor cameras, offer some wonderful advantages to filmmakers. Iím a tech guy and Iím personally very excited about some of the features these tools are bringing to the table. Higher dynamic range, cleaner ISO, and higher native sensitivity, are all going to benefit our images in the long run. But we canít allow that to be enough, we canít stop there. We canít allow ourselves to become lazy and make thoughtless default decisions, just because the technology allows it. Deakinís quote above speaks so strongly to that, to me its saying craft, and content will always win the day. Know the technical advantages that the current cameras offer, combine that with a strong sense of craft and you have a recipe for success. Just please donít get a big head about being a ďfilmmakerĒ, lose the attitude, really we are all sick of it. There are alot of people out there much more deserving who have earned it rightfully, and paid their dues. When you read a quote like the one above by Deakins, and realize he is arguably lumping his own work into that statement, it canít help but really humble you. I mean if anyone had a right to assert here it would be him. You wonít hear much from these guys lauding their art or their work, they donít need to talk much. They are too busy working in their field to take part in petty forum wars, or egotistical twitter arguments, they quietly hone their craft and develop their skills. Their art and stories say all that needs saying, it whispers, ďIím a filmmaker.Ē