I had a big boring post about this topic, but I decided to be the economist.
Why aren’t MORE people using the camera as a pen? What happened to that wonderful digital aesthetic that Lars von Trier and Abbas Kiarostami were working with 10 years ago? Why have we used this amazing gift of dirt cheap digital cameras and tried to imitate big professional productions more and more?
I think DSLRs are quite amazing, but I think a lot of people simply use them to imitate 35mm cameras because of the lens choice and great resolution and image sensors. BUT- what about all those great digital cameras that used miniDV? DVX100, PD-170, etc. Hell, even cellphone cameras and Flip cams!
Digital used to have such a distinct, beautiful aesthetic. Remember Dancer in the Dark? I remember watching that and thinking “This is all shot on camcorders and I LOVE IT!” If that movie looked like it was shot on film, it would have been totally awful.
Again, I love DSLRs, but I think they need their own aesthetic. And I miss digital camcorder aesthetics. I don’t see why we need a tripod or lights or people to make movies. Beethoven didn’t need ears!
I don’t think it’s about why aren’t people doing so, it’s that are they able to. Personally I feel that people are so apt to take advantage of these cameras that have shoot amazing quality (I know, I personally shoot on the 7D), that they are willing to loose focus on the meat of the piece and pay more attention to the presentation.
I agree- everyone is tempted. It’s like being tempted by money.
But to me, the genius of these cameras is that you can shoot without anything, finally. You can shoot in low light, with a crappy tripod, and just have the actors. And if it looks a little rough, that’s fine! You can put the camera on top of a file cabinet and then just frame the scene and film it with natural light.
To me, the freeing thing about the camera is that you don’t really need all that extra stuff. But the impulse seems to be to tack on A LOT of these extra things until it costs nearly as much as shooting on 35mm. It’s confusing.
I’ve worked on productions where people think more is better. I need this fucking crane for a two second shot or a cam tram for 20 ft. To me, it’s a waste of time. If you need all that shit to make your uninteresting project look cool then that’s fine, it’s your money.
Haha, you know, some people, like Tarkovsky, could do more with those things.
But I think it was Bresson who said “Those who can do with little can do with more; those who can do with more, inevitably, cannot do more with little”. Or something like that.
Anyway, my point was all of those wonderful crane shots and tracking shots have already been done. I feel like the genius of digital cameras is that you capture shots that, from a technical standpoint, nearly anyone can do.
But of course, once the technical razzle-dazzle is out of the way, you actually have to say things or look at things in new ways….
(by the way, I have a lot of respect for talented cinematographers)
I’d rather look at a very well composed shot than listen to someone’s terribly written dialogue.
I feel like that is the entire meaning behind Pierrot le Fou. It all makes sense now.
@ “To me, it’s a waste of time. If you need all that shit to make your uninteresting project look cool then that’s fine, it’s your money.”
True. I’ve worked on a few projects doing storyboards and shooting still photos, and oftentimes noticed the camera crew go through all the pain of set-up and unnecessary lighting just because the gear is available and were obligated to use them. Of course, some projects require more than hand-held cameras. In the end, budget will dictate how much gear and time can be spent on a project.
The gear are just tools, it’s great if you can access them.
“The gear are just tools, it’s great if you can access them”
Yes, but what I’m saying is perhaps it’s better if the current generation of filmmakers couldn’t access them.
I am not speaking of professionals working for a living, I am referring to directors who receive too many tools for the job, and then, as you said, invent necessities for these tools. I am going by first hand accounts, but it just seems to breed cynicism and even contempt.
There was a time when it seemed like video camcorders were going to start a revolution, but then technology moved too fast.
It sounds better called “caméra-stylo”.
“But to me, the genius of these cameras is that you can shoot without anything, finally. You can shoot in low light, with a crappy tripod, and just have the actors.”
And since everyone can shoot whatever idea they have valuable or otherwise, in the end production value attracts the audience as the craft-based investment it is.
(Note: I’m all about the democracy of the medium and open ability for anybody to grab a camcorder and get working. It’s just that Hollywood has trended to heavy-workflow VFX and stereoscopic recording BECAUSE that’s what’s not accessible to the layman. In other words, once everyone has a pen, we start ignoring notes jotted on napkins and want laser printer non-stapled documents with SASEs.)
Really interesting post. I’m close to finishing an article on this whole mentality with DV that suggests that 35mm is a standard to meet (and to surpass). I think you’re right on in saying that the early DV has a real aesthetic and that we can see something special (and particular to DV) in these early videos.
On the other hand, press reports out of Jackson’s Hobbit previews seem to suggest that all cinema will sometime soon look like those crap TruMotion settings on LED televisions (report conflict as to whether 48fps is as bad as all that), so maybe the future of DV is in a more-real-than-real simulation of motion.
POLARIS, you are right, and that’s a grim way to look at an artform. And that’s what gets me down. He who has the most money makes the best movie. For a while, that was going to change….and now we’re going backwards again.
Now, I know you and I do not believe that. And most TECHNICIANS don’t even believe that! Yet, many young directors seem to fetishize this kind of stuff.
ToddJ, I’m very interested in reading the article.
And hey, did you guys know about Godard’s “glove box camera”? He essentially wanted a DSLR back in the 70s:
What about something like Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere (shot entirely with a 5D)?
People who tend to work with limitations tend to think limitations inspire creativity. Being able to do big fancy impressive shots is wonderful but if that’s all you do, none of your work with stand out from anything else that’s coming out.
Matt, I have not seen “Road to Nowhere” so I cannot comment. In any case, I am not discounting productions with a budget or nice lighting. Monte Hellman has paid his dues. Lars von Trier has paid his dues. Hell, even Kevin Smith has paid his dues. Know what I mean?
Going off that- that’s what I mean, Jirin. I have the same problems when I get my hands on some good equipment. My mind goes in too many directions and I want to make all of these “impressive” shots that turn out to be empty.
However, when it’s just me and a camera- then my brain starts turning. I start seeing the most mundane subjects in the most interesting ways, and I frame them that way. Suddenly, filmmaking becomes exciting, and I just shoot for the fun of it, the way a writer just writes or a painter paints.
Sometimes, when I am feeling really down, I take out my DVX100 and just film things from out of my window. It is incredibly calming and makes me feel the same feeling I used to have when I would play the piano to ease my mind. That’s the way I want to start a film, from that feeling. Not some crazy technical burden or the burden of impressing people.
Guys like stuff and obviously like talking about stuff. Yet, I always feel like these threads are posing a question in terms of stuff, unrelated to creation of the object. I think Jirin hit on the correct relationship of stuff-to-object.
My understanding of the way Tarkovsky worked, for example, was that he had an abstract concept in his head and everyone else had to work with the limitations of figuring out what he wanted and how to do it.
^ Yeah in a way it’s quite bizarre to look at recording/storage media as ‘aesthetics’ in and of themselves, however there is a clear and continuous support for this phenomenon in a variety of ways. Just as you have hipsters scrounging thrift stores for vinyl, you have the Pixelvision festival run by Gerry Fialko in California which actively keeps alive an out-of-production 80s children’s toy camera of 8bit hue and a resolution of something like 1000pixels total, by continually referring to its cheapness AS aesthetic, experimenters purposefully reappropriating something awful (and Fialko himself jokes about how bad the movies look).
When miniDV was The Thing, I called it on several forums that complained about how shitty it looked in comparison to film that within a decade we would have nostalgic discussions about the early days of good old noisy, lo-fi looking miniDV. I believe Hi8 right now as much a nostalgia medium as Polaroids, with the exception that Hi8 is still being made. This is going on at the same time film is losing its grip in production despite many aesthetic protests, because Hi8 is cheaper to make and use even though film is a better, cleaner, and even more professional medium.
So the thing about my film theory training and stuff like Tarkovsky’s philosophies on film and the ’Don’t Go to Film School’ attack meme is probably best summed up with the following two quotes:
“Don’t worry about what camera you have, use whatever you can get. Michelangelo didn’t worry about which brush he used.” —my professor for the class entitled Technical Introduction to Video Production.
“The best camera is the one that gets the shot.” —My coworker in the United Arab Emirates, who has worked in Hollywood on such movies as Drag Me to Hell and television series Battlestar Galactica.
What we do when we talk about ‘aesthetics of a medium’ is turn back (not ‘backward’ or ‘regress’, this is not meant to connotate something negative) toward process-oriented filmmaking and observation of the medium itself, which is a mostly experimental/avant-garde/alternative cinema concern rather than a narrative film concern. And that process itself is oriented in a sense as the equal and opposite reaction to real-time experimentation with new technologies that takes place both in the experimental/avant-garde/alternative cinema crowd and the research and development one (the professor who stated the first quote is a medium/process aesthetics or theory thinker, the coworker of the latter quote is a research and development thinker who does such things as send glitch information and coding issues to programmers of new post-production and graphics softwares on his free time).
So if concept comes first and artistic representation is in the communication of ideas, there is little you need to care about which medium you use as long as it presents your ideas most accurately. But if the concept is the medium itself or some structuralist piece recorded in that medium, then you introduce/question/reveal/compose/alter/engage/deconstruct/expand the aesthetics of the medium itself. It’s a circular reasoning fallacy but still valuable.
Polaris, I know exactly what you mean, but I hope that you understand that it is not where I’m coming from, exactly.
I am not trying to be nostalgic for merely “how something looks”. I do not mean we should go back and try to revisit the miniDV “look”. That would be false, if that was the only purpose.
What I am saying is, certain things came with those aesthetics- look at “The Idiots” and look at “Ten”. Not only did those films have a distinct “look”, but certain interesting techniques were born from the pros and cons of digital. It was distinctly different from shooting with film.
What I am saying is, because digital, at the time, could not QUITE rival film with its looks, you knew it was digital. And since that burden of looking “professional” was gone, filmmakers were freed up to try new, immediate things that digital allowed.
Now, there are still people doing this- but since digital has rapidly improved and it now can easily compete with the “film” look, it seems like more than ever directors are simply trying to conform to a “film” look- and that means tacking on lots and lots of technical bothers and expenses to overcompensate. So what you have is basically something that looks like everything else.
What I am saying is I think it would be good start from 0 or close to 0, since you can do that with digital and still retain a pretty clear image. I think that would lead to better images right now, ones we need. It is not merely picking the right tools for the job, it’s a fusing of the tools and the ideas, and modifying your ideas to the tools that will cost you the least amount of money and the least amount of time to set up.
Take a look at the article about the camera Godard commissioned- it’s basically what he had in mind in the 70s. A no frills 35mm camera that any laymen could use- and in this way a directly could grab images as he saw inspiration, and he would not need a big crew or long set up times. I feel like digital has accomplished this ten times over, and it would be nice if it was implemented more in narrative works, rather than just in “avant garde” or “Experimental” formalist works.
Maybe it is, and I am simply not talking to the right people.
“I know exactly what you mean, but I hope that you understand that it is not where I’m coming from, exactly.
I am not trying to be nostalgic for merely “how something looks”. I do not mean we should go back and try to revisit the miniDV “look”. That would be false, if that was the only purpose."
I don’t think you’re approaching the idea from nostalgia, I’m injecting nostalgia into the terminology because it’s an inextricable part of what informs these explorations of medium aesthetics.
“It is not merely picking the right tools for the job, it’s a fusing of the tools and the ideas, and modifying your ideas to the tools that will cost you the least amount of money and the least amount of time to set up.”
And this is my philosophy on life.
‘“Why have we used this amazing gift of dirt cheap digital cameras and tried to imitate big professional productions more and more?”’
Most people I know in the biz ape the way big movies are made because they know that is the normative/hegemonic way and they aspire to fit in into the industry more than anything. They know how the ball bounces. recently i saw a very small digital camera mounted on a big dolly. What a sick joke.
That is also the reason they write their movies the way they do , using those terrible Field/McKee books and why they create the mise en scene the way they do. They end up with a movie that does not work as either mainstream, (because they do not have the money to pay for the production value needed by mainstream films) or as a valid alternative way of filmmaking (because they lack the conceptal tools to achive that, or because they are grredy)
OK, I so I have been thinking a bit more about this topic.
I think there are several ways to approach the camera mechanism. Obviously the camera- specifically the motion picture camera- is its own, unique mechanism. But I want to use some analogies to look at the different ways artists use this mechanism. Please note, this is trying to go beyond the whole “montage vs. mise-en-scene” debate of old.
I have decided on 3 categories. There are certainly more, but let’s just stick with 3.
You can use the camera like a PEN or like a GUITAR. I am referring right now to how you APPROACH the camera mechanism, and not the final, edited film.
When you use it as a PEN, your main concern is recording an image. Movement within the frame, from a certain point of view. It’s similar to using a pen to write down a word. You don’t really care about the calligraphy, you care about capturing this one thing and contrasting it with other things. So, the focus, camera movement, framing, lighting and color are all secondary to you capturing this person or place at this specific time.
Good examples of directors who use the camera as a pen: John Cassavettes, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Abbas Kiarostami, Werner Herzog, Maya Deren.
You can also use the camera like a GUITAR, like a musical instrument. The camera needs tuning and preparation, and must capture light a certain way, make the right movements, play the correct notes at the correct times to really have the full effect.
Examples: Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Fedrico Fellini, Sergio Leone.
The third category is using the camera like a PAINTBRUSH. I’m not totally 100% on this, but I think it’d be directors who use the camera like a GUITAR but worry mostly about the framing and mise-en-scene and not so much about movement. Examples: Yasujiro Ozu, Wes Anderson, ??? (of course, where does Stan Brakhage fit in?)
Anyway, all of this would be silly and pointless if I did not use it to link to today’s current dilemma: how are we, as FILMMAKERS, using the camera? The most popular camera amongst indies nowadays are the DSLRs, so you could say we are using the camera as a….camera???
Because of the technical limitations of the DSLR and other digital video, I think it’s better if we take a more primitive approach to digital filmmaking. That is, the camera already does so much work on its own, so we must compensate.
So now, I think we need to approach the DSLR camera like a piece of charcoal and do our cinematic writing that way.
I might be wrong, but
“I’d like to apologize for my entire existence”
HA HA, I like this guy’s sense of humor too. I gotta see his films ASAP.
OK, I’m throwing out the paintbrush idea: you either approach the camera like a pen or a guitar.