I write about gear a lot on this blog, and truly believe that having a thorough understanding of gear (and the technical aspects of filmmaking as a whole) is paramount to the success of any filmmaker. That said, gear can sometimes get in the way of the creative development process, so finding an optimal balance between both sides of the craft is essential.
When I first started off in this business, I had virtually no equipment. No cinema cameras, no DSLRs, and no money to buy the latest toys with. As frustrating as this was at the time, in retrospect I’m grateful for the limitations that I did have, as they forced me to develop my creative skills far more intensely than I may have otherwise.
I learned over time that the saying is true – You don’t need resources, you just need to be resourceful.
Having a limited selection of equipment meant that I couldn’t rely on technology, and I had no choice but to develop my technique and learn the art of being resourceful. This mentality stuck with me throughout the years and is still very much a part of how I approach projects of all shapes and sizes.
So with that in mind, the purpose of this article is really two fold –
First off, I want to speak to those filmmakers just starting out who truly do lack resources, and may incorrectly believe that needs to prevent them from achieving their creative goals.
But on the flip-side, I also want to speak to the more seasoned pros that may have not come up through a DIY background, but who could benefit from stepping out of their comfort zone and finding new ways to evolve and grow as artists by harnessing the power of technical limitations.
Whenever I’m asked “when should I upgrade my camera kit” by filmmakers, my answer is always the same –
Maximize the technical capabilities of whatever you gear you currently have until there is absolutely no way it can serve you any more.
This notion applies no matter what your starting point may be.
Say for instance, all you have is an iPhone – that’s okay… You can work with that. Don’t assume you need another camera until you really do need one. Instead, figure out how to make your iPhone footage look better than most other people’s DSLR footage and how to squeeze every last bit of information out of every pixel.
Doing this will force you to understand what does and doesn’t matter (feature-wise) to you as a filmmaker, and where your true limitations are vs. where you’re self-imposed limitations exist. You’ll have no choice but to develop your lighting skills, sound techniques, blocking/framing style, and countless other elements that will have a far greater affect on the cinematic properties of your film than any camera ever will. You’ll be able to hone your technique and your original style without having to deal with some of the hurdles and costs of a more professional system.
Eventually, as your style develops you’ll find yourself outgrowing the iPhone. There will be some aesthetic property that you are seeking out – shallow depth of field, for instance – that you just won’t be able to achieve with such a small sensor. When you hit that point, and you absolutely NEED to move on to another piece of kit or else your creative vision won’t be fully realized, then you can go out and buy the camera you need.
But now, you’re probably a lot further ahead of where you may have been if you started out with the better camera. You’ve been forced to become resourceful and develop your own unique approach to the process, all while having a better appreciation for the features that you really do need to look for on your next camera.
You’ll likely be less tempted to buy the top of the line DSLR or cinema camera, as you simply may not need every bell and whistle under the hood. Maybe all you need at this point is a used Lumix GH2 or an old 5D MK II, and the money you save by not buying into the hype can go to more important things like actors, locations, or post-production.
Probably more importantly though, imagine how well you’ll be able to push the footage from whatever “new” camera you buy, after being liberated from the constraints of an iPhone…
Keep that mentality going all the way until you graduate to shooting on RED and Alexa, and I guarantee you that your creative abilities and toolset will be far stronger than someone who started out with a pile of cash and bought their way into cinematic looking images.
At the end of the day, your technique is going to be what gets you noticed. It will be what separates your work from everyone else’s and gives you a unique voice. And that voice is what audiences, festivals, and creative reps are looking for. They crave original stories told through authentic and original points of view.
But what if you’ve already graduated to the high end cinema cameras? Does that mean there’s no more room to develop technique? Of course not. Your technique will continue to develop for the rest of your career (whether you are actively trying to develop it or not). And if you want to shake things up and tap into the scrappy resourceful ideas that often only come out of working within extreme limitations, try experimenting –
For example, try downgrading your kit on your next personal project. If you own a RED, step out of your comfort zone and shoot something on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Force yourself to squeeze the most quality out of a more limited tool, and see what it does to you creatively. I’ll bet at the very least it will spark some fresh stylistic ideas, creative workarounds, and highlight efficiency issues in a way that you may not have experienced otherwise.
Filmmakers that have all the creative and financial freedom in the world often look for ways to intentionally manufacture limitations for themselves. They may choose to shoot their entire film on a single lens, or to never shoot more than 3 angles of coverage per scene. These choices don’t hinder their films, they strengthen them and make them more unique. We have the ability to create these positive limitations every time we pick up a camera, or consider which piece of kit to buy next, so let’s all take advantage of that!
So in closing…
Gear is not evil. Far from it. We are so lucky to have access to the tools that we have today, and the opportunities that exist as a result of them. It’s just important to never fall victim to relying on those tools and to always look for ways to keep challenging ourselves, no matter what new toys we may be playing with.