At this very moment, there are an almost inconceivable amount of technological breakthroughs that are changing the face of cinema and digital production forever. These innovations range from new cameras to post software, camera hacks, stabilization tools and much more. But while these new technologies are extremely exciting and are pushing the limits of what is possible on indie sized budgets, they can in some ways be detrimental to new film makers, distracting them from what is really important – the story.
With all of the new camera releases and software breakthroughs of the past few years, have we seen an abundance of great content getting created and released? Nope. Far from it. If anything, I would argue the general quality level of indie productions has gone down in many respects over recent years. And this is largely due to the fact that more attention is being paid on equipment than storytelling.
Like many other film makers, in the past I have been guilty of falling into the trap of getting wrapped in gear and technology. And let’s face it, It’s hard not to when there are so many cool toys coming out. If you’re like me you might have those moments where you wonder… What’s the next best camera? The best piece of software to edit with? The fastest lens I can find on eBay? The best rig for my new camera? etc.
But then you step back and ask… Does it really matter? Is any of this going to make my film better? Not necessarily. And certainly not if you don’t have a good story to begin with. These tools should be used to enhance a great idea and a well crafted screenplay, not to take away focus that should be given to the story, the heart of any cinematic project. Film, like anything is all about balance. When all is said and done, I’ll take a poorly shot film with lots of heart and a strong identity over an eye candy piece with no substance any day. Look what Danny Boyle did with a Canon XL1 on 28 Days later. Nobody cares that was shot on Mini DV tapes. It’s a cool story and well directed film. It’s timeless.
As much as I appreciate the digital format and what it can do for us indie film makers, I often find myself wishing we still lived in the days of film. There is something about knowing you only have a few more feet of film left that creates a sense of urgency, a sense that you have to get it right. You have to tell the right story, the right way. No deleting files if you didn’t like that last take – just focusing on a strong idea and committing to it.
Before writing this post, I had considered blogging about the new firmware hack for the Canon 5D MK III. A very exciting achievement, and for those of you that don’t know – Magic Lantern has unlocked the potential to shoot raw video (to some extent) on the 5D. Very cool and very impressive. But at the same time… I found myself not caring as much as I normally would. It seems like almost every day a new breakthrough occurs in this industry. Whether it’s a crazy new camera from Blackmagic, or a firmware hack or new software. This should be a good thing. And in many ways it is a VERY good thing. But I look around and have to wonder… Where is the work? With all the technology right at our finger tips, what are people doing with it? In many cases… Nothing. More often than not I see aspiring film makers (with loads of potential and talent) spending most of their time pixel peeping and trying to squeeze an extra couple of lines of resolution out of their camera, when they should be focusing on the lines on their screenplay. I myself have been guilty of this in the past and will be the first to admit it. But after all, no matter how good you think your camera is today – tomorrow it will be second best. And next year it will be worthless. But a good story will stand the test of time.
The importance of a good story doesn’t only apply if your goal is to direct a feature film or even a short. It is of course, important across the board. It transcends all forms of the medium. Your commercials will be more impactful, documentaries more satisfying and narratives more touching. It seems so simple… But it’s not. Like anything, the more you learn about it, the more you realize you don’t know.
After several years of studying the complex art of screenwriting, the one thing I’ve learned is that I’ll never stop learning. There are an infinite amount of films you can watch, books you can read, screenplays to dissect and lectures to attend. And there are just as many sects within the art form that are paramount in getting your story told well: structure, pacing, dialogue, subtext, format, etc. The point is, being the best film maker you can be is all about having a strong skill set in many areas. Not just perfecting your knowledge you have of your camera today, but your insight into story telling as a whole. Because after all, that’s why we’re in this business. To tell stories. This applies not only to Directors but also Cinematographers, Editors, Producers and anyone else involved in the process. Fundamental understanding of story can only enhance your ability to create powerful art.
Look at “Upstream Color” as an example. This feature film was shot on a GH2 and distributed world wide theatrically. And this by a director who could have easily afforded to shoot on any number of different formats. I can’t count how many films shot on RED/Alexa never see the light of day, but at the end of the day it is the story and the message that will get your film seen. Not the gear. If you can have both, go for it. But always choose story first.
Learning cinematography, editing and gear is essential to being a successful film maker. There are no two ways about it. But my point is that these skills are there to support your idea. Not the other way around. If you’re new to film making or screen writing, start with the basics. Read some books and do some homework. A personal favorite of mine and an all time cornerstone for many is “Story” by Robert McKee.
I’ll leave you with a trailer from one of the films referenced in this blog; Upstream Color
For you gear heads out there, if that trailer inspired you to take a second look at using DSLR for video, be sure to check out my recent list of my top 5 DSLRs for video.