Why Camera Flame Wars Will Not Make You A Better Filmmaker

I’ve been involved with online camera and filmmaking discussions for nearly a decade now and in that time I have seen one of the most important shifts in the history of filmmaking for the beginning filmmaker and professional alike: The Digital Revolution. We’re coming to the completion of that digital shift – technology is maturing and these new tools are now widely available. But now what? What is the future?

Technology can only progress so far. It will get better but not at this astounding pace we’ve seen in the last 5 years. Now we are entering a perfect storm of social propaganda that threatens to enslave us in a never ending [camera] consumer cycle and it has nothing to do making films or making films better.

For 95% of video applications, what is currently available on the market and affordable to most people is “good enough”.  For the remainder 5% of projects there are a myriad of options available for rent. And yet I keep reading comments like “I’ve been asking for a camera that does x, y, z” or “This camera is crap because it can’t do 60p” or “Z Camera company is finally listening to their customers.”

Bullshit. No camera is holding you back.

You are holding yourself back.

The digital revolution has ushered in an era of artistic freedom. But freedom is scary. Freedom means we have to take responsibility for our success and our failure. This freedom also means your audience now has the same tools as you and you no longer belong to a special class with privileged access.  Freedom requires you to compete, which means you have to be good. You have to bring something unique to the table. That’s downright terrifying.

The reaction is to build up imaginary walls – Walls to separate you as a REAL Filmmaker from the hobbyist. Walls that reinforce your superiority over the riff raff.

And this is exactly what’s happening with camera discussions and flame wars. And the camera manufacturers love it.

They want your money.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. I have no moral issue with companies making money. They build the tools I use to tell my stories and without that exchange for profit I would not be able to do what I want to do. It’s not a zero-sum game where they win and we lose – it’s a win-win. Filmmakers and Manufacturers have different objectives and our relationship is mutually beneficial.

The problem emerges when we as filmmakers lose sight of our objective (to tell stories) and play into imaginary walls vanity and class. The camera manufacturers have product to sell and once everybody has a camera, they need to convince us to buy another one to keep the revenue coming in. That’s when they appeal to our need for vanity, helping us build up our imaginary walls. The result is a constant state of dissatisfaction for sole purpose of selling cameras to replace the perfectly functional cameras we already own.

“I want it now. Give it to me now, or I will scream and scream until I am sick!!!!”

That hissy-fit quote above came from Philip Bloom’s run down on the new Sony F5 and F55 cameras. In context of the article it is clear he is being facetious. The F5 and F55 are studio grade cameras made for professional productions and he’s playing on the juvenile attitude for comedic effect.

But the childish sentiment is not uncommon in the online arena where aspiring (and inexperienced) filmmakers are trying desperately to crawl up the social ladder.

If Hollywood is about the manufacturing of dreams, then the industry of filmmaking is the wide glossy-eyed pursuit of those dreams. As filmmakers, we’re all looking for the golden ticket in.

For some, the camera has become that golden ticket. The camera has become a symbol of filmmaker’s status than a tool of creation. Higher end cameras are perceived as a luxury item catering to the filmmaker who has a “refined taste” or “great eye”.

It is more than just brand loyalty. With the product life cycle of cameras getting shorter and shorter (about 2-3 years before the community deems them “obsolete” even though they’ll function much longer) maintaining the imaginary walls as a filmmaker means you must have access to the latest camera offerings. You can’t be seen with last year’s model. But the cost of cinema-level cameras keeps wanna-be-filmmakers from “buying-in” to the prestigious class.

And it’s here where the dangers of the camera flame wars rears their ugly head. Ownership and Experience are not prerequisites to discussion anymore, all you need to at least waft a scent of filmmaking authority is sound like you know something.

Fanboys and Speculation

It happens like clockwork. Every time a new camera is announced, even before official press releases are sent out, blogs get filled up with comments from people either in eager excitement or trashing the camera. These debates almost always devolve into flame wars – any discussion on the grey areas quickly posterized into black and white ironically by people who shout the loudest for 12-bit color space.

Almost all “camera news” prior to a release is pure speculation. In the fast paced socially connected online world, information is a valued commodity and being perceived as “first” with any sort of news is key, even if that news is wishful thinking and/or completely made up.

Speculation is so prominent that a cottage industry has sprung up around it. There are sites that contain the word “rumors” for almost every hotly anticipated brand.

Of course fanboys eat it up. Fanboys have identified themselves as lords of the brand and superior to the ignorant masses. Having information on any new camera (even if it’s not their preferred brand) gives them a sense of authority that they can lull over their fellow internet commenter. Being able to say, “This camera sucks, you should wait until my favorite company releases their new camera” makes them feel as though they are speaking with a voice of experience even though that experience does not come from actually making films or making anything useful to society.

But what value to REAL filmmaker does speculation have? – Absolutely nothing.

What serious filmmaker is going to base a hefty buying decision on what amounts to nothing more than gossip?

Why should an aspiring filmmakers put off producing a film in order to wait for a new camera to arrive that’s only talked about by people that have never seen it and never used it? Speculation may be “fun” but it’s taking your energy away from what really matters.

None of this Crap has to do with Filmmaking

Filmmaking begins with a camera, that fact cannot be skirted around. The Camera defines the art form, but the camera is not defining element of a film.

Having the same type of camera that was used on The Hobbit for example does not mean you have the same screenwriters, the same visionary director, celebrity actors, story rights, production designers, locations, lighting specialists, prop designers, stunt coordinators, editors, digital artists, location managers, producers, office staff, marketing representatives and distribution deals that are the REAL reason The Hobbit will be successful.

It’s belabored point and so tiresomely cliche: A camera will not make you a better filmmaker. It will not make a great movie.

Thanks to technology, the camera is starting to become the least important element on a set: trumped by things like a fantastic story and extraordinarily talented cast and crew.

And that’s the terrifying fact, especially to fan boys.

Confessions of an Addict

I have a lot of gear.

I have a garage full of grip stuff and shelves of cameras. I’ve reinvested most of my money working professionally back into my collection. Do I need it? Yes, it makes my job easier. But they also make my job harder. More gear, more choices, more problems – more space to store it all.

Running Filmmaker IQ, I’ve been exposed to a lot of the propaganda that camera manufacturers and camera fanboys throw my way. I’ve even been a participant of it. I get excited over new cameras just like everyone else and I admit that I have felt that my now two-and-a-half year old Canon 5D MkII is some how an inferior camera – the same camera that has make films that won awards and had RED users complementing me the image quality.

But occasionally, when I look at a well-lit piece of video I shot with my five-year-old Sony EX1 camera, I take pause and marvel at the clarity. This really does look good.  When I compared my 5D MkII with the MkIII last April at NAB, I saw no discernible difference between the two that jumped out at me despite what some on the Internet were telling me.

I know there are limitations of these cameras – they’re not perfect. But I can take out the credit card and order any camera I want. I sometimes make deals with myself – if I reach a certain income, I’ll reward myself with this lens or that light or that camera. But all that expensive gear – it’s nothing without a story to tell, great actors, a great story and a great soundtrack. What’s the point of credit card debt if there’s nothing to shoot?

And perhaps my eyes are starting to fail me as I get older. But as my age adds up, my heart gets wiser. I connect to films differently now. It’s not about the clarity of 4K projection or the pristine nature of the image, it’s about whether I care after the first 10 minutes.

Go out and make your stories. Gear is important, there’s no getting around that. But never lose perspective on the real reason why people watch films in the first place – for the story.