I am a little ashamed to be writing this. There are many reasons why writing about cameras makes little sense for me. Mostly because, as I state often, I am not a cinematographer nor do I wish to be one. That being said, I have spent (and continue to spend) a considerable amount of time and thought on understanding and utilizing digital cameras for filmmaking projects.
Of late I have been perturbed. The reason is simple – none of the options make me happy. The purpose of this post is not to gripe about something that makes me unhappy. What I aim to do is try and have a discussion, with myself and anyone who is willing to read, about a problem all of us deal with.
To begin: I like film. Celluloid. Honest-to-goodness you can touch it and smell it film. It could be because I was born in 1978. It could be because I have taken many photographs in my life and prior to 2002 they were all taken on film. The reasons are many and as is often the case with things we like or love I do not spend a lot of time dwelling on why I feel the way I do (to read about someone exploring the why go here).
So in 2002 (or thereabouts) I was given my first digital camera for photography and I thought it was pretty great. Why be limited to 24 or 36 exposures? My limit was 1,000. What is this nonsense about waiting to have the film developed in order to see if you got the shot? Instantly seeing the picture is amazing! It was pretty exciting, especially for someone with no training or professional interest in the craft of photography. I just wanted to take pictures of people, places and things, make sure they looked decent and then have those pictures forever.
Only there was a new, unexpected, component – a digital workflow. With film I picked up my packet of pictures and put them into a photo album. A simple process of camera, store, album. Now I needed a computer in order to download the pictures and some kind of software to organize and manage them. If I wanted to try and edit the photos (which was a pretty amazing and novel idea) I needed software, a computer powerful enough to run the software and I needed to learn how to use the program. If I wanted to have physical prints of the pictures I had to buy a portable storage device large enough to physically bring the files to the store to then transfer them and purchase prints. There are always difficulties that come with change and none of these seemed intolerable, just new.
Okay, what I am telling you is really not exciting and it is, in effect, what everyone old enough to drive to the photo store recalls from this time. So why bother? I want to say something about technology and I feel that starting with something many of us know about and experienced is a good way to begin.
The benefits were immediately obvious and the trade-offs were not terrible. Sure the first cameras had low megapixels and if you had a camera like mine you couldn’t adjust the shutter speed which meant taking pictures of children resulted in blurry images. I now knew that my images were terrible in the moment and tried to take better ones. There seemed only to be positives to this change.
So now, fifteen years later, film for taking pictures or making movies, is something of a novelty. Most of us need to either drive a fair distance or use the mail service in order to have film for photos developed. The price is not exorbitant but if you own a decent digital camera it is an unnecessary (and time consuming) expense. For those making movies, or wanting to see a movie screened on celluloid, things are challenging.
Very few theaters show movies projected on film anymore (although Kodak has recently released an app to help you find these theaters). There are good reasons for this and most people are happy about this change. Yet, there are plenty of filmmakers continuing to make their movies with film as their acquisition format. Which means they are taking great pains to use a format, for specific artistic reasons, only to then have their film converted and projected in digital format.
There is quite a bit of discussion about movies and their acquisition formats and people much more knowledgeable than I am have made excellent points for and against each. What I want to look at is this notion of making an effort to utilize a tool for artistic reasons (in this case film) and then, in a sense, be defeated by having your choices undermined by how the finished product is displayed.
Imagine a painter using oils to make their work and then having a picture taken of the finished painting. The picture is then uploaded to a digital frame and hung in galleries and is the only way to view the painting. Would anyone be pleased with this result?
If you read the liner notes of The White Stripes’ album, Elephant, there is the following statement “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering of this record,” and none of the recording equipment was more recent than 1963.”
You might think this is a pretty novel idea or you might think this approach is “hipster” or you might have no thoughts whatsoever on the matter. Take a moment and consider that nearly everyone who has listened to this album (released April 1st, 2003) has listened to it in a digital format. Even if you were listening to the songs played on the radio in 2003 the station was (most likely) playing a CD (or another digital format). Which is not to say that the efforts of The White Stripes and Jack White were defeated. The album was incredibly successful. Since that time he has made a concerted effort to revitalize vinyl – which makes it safe to assume he would have preferred everyone to experience this album as analog-only.
If you have not thought much about the differences between analog and digital formats for music I would suggest taking a look at https://youtu.be/mDZcz-V29_M which is a documentary the examines the benefits and shortcomings of both. While far from perfect is a good entry point into learning more about the matter.
Now again, with the pros and cons of certain technologies, there are situations and times where one technology makes more sense than another. If I want to go for a run and have music, I am going to use my iPod and not my Discman. Yet how many of us are using our computers or iPods in our homes to listen to music when we could have a turntable and be hearing our music in a fuller, richer manner (this pertains to the compression used in digital formats that removes some of the sounds in a recording to save space)? At the very least using a system with proper speakers?
The ease and convenience of a technology should not be the only factors we take into account when we want to have an experience. What troubles me is that many of us are not making a choice between digital and analog. We are not making an active choice regarding the quality of the experiences we are having. Many of us are buying or using what is at hand (or is popular) without putting much thought into the choices available to us.
When I began writing this post (two years ago) I was in a place where I understood that the process of doing anything should be as important, if not more, than the result. I was trying to write more with a pen or pencil since I prefer that to typing on the computer. I was trying to stop picking up my video cameras and shooting without a plan, trying to approach my projects as thought I were shooting on film and had to be careful and thoughtful. I was trying to reach for my (stills) film camera instead of my digital camera for the same reasons. I was making a more concerted effort to play a CD (since I do not own a turntable at present) rather than an mp3 from my phone. In all of these cases I have failed.
Life gets in the way. It’s a poor excuse but it is true, things come up, you want to do something with ease and simplicity and you choose the easiest path. Although it most certainly is an object of ridicule of nearly every serious film person now, the speech that Al Pacino gives at the end of Scent of A Woman (the point of the film, really) is about how his entire life he’s always known what the right thing to do was but he never did it. Because it was too damn hard.
I don’t usually delve into philosophy and existential matters on this site but this is the choice we are all making so often with how we experience our lives. This past weekend I took my digital camera to a family gathering and put on a lens that has autofocus because I just wanted to take pictures and have it be easy. I’ve spent at least three hours since attempting to correct the footage because my white balance was off. I took over four hundred pictures and about one hundred and fifty are decent. Maybe ten are great. If I hadn’t been lazy (because I brought my kids without my wife and had to be a child-wrangler and a picture-taker) I would have used my film camera. I wouldn’t have had as many pictures but I would have taken the ones I did with intention and purpose. I would have put thought and effort into them. Which is why so often with film pictures that are flawed, blurry, out of focus, having light leaks, still make wonderful pictures.
Making these choices, for whatever reasons – financial, artistic or practical needs to be more of a conscious effort. I am amazed at how badly I have failed at this in the past two years, despite having given it enough thought that I wrote the bulk of this essay.
My hope is to do better, to make the right choice more often despite it not being an easy choice. I know that the best method to ensure this is to make an effort, before the moment occurs, to allow this to happen. Whether this means having a pad of paper and pen sitting by my desk or my film camera ready to go and easily at hand, it’s about making an effort when I am able to in order to have a better experience.