It’s Not About the Camera, or Our Workflow, Pt. 2

28 05 2010

In the last post I detailed the technical basics of our workflow. As I mentioned, a lot of people – friends and strangers alike — email me to ask about the camera and the look we use.  The questions spiral out: is the camera is easy? What kind of mic-rig do we employ? How big is our crew?  How much lighting does Michael do?

I answer all of these questions because I appreciate the interest in the project and in our techniques, but the actual truth is: none of this matters.   While the camera we use (the Mark 5d) has gotten a lot of attention in a lot of circles, it’s no more important than what type of pistol grip we use for the microphone.

We’re in a period when the technology to produce moving images is changing drastically every six-months.  Six-months ago it was the Red One, now it’s these HDSLRs and six month’s from now it’ll be the Epic or some other oddly named tapeless camera.

Unfortunately – and I saw this a lot at film school – there’s often an inordinate amount of faith put into the technology being used, and by this I mean there’s a sense that if you somehow use the cutting-edge camera your work will simply be better.  That’s not the case, and I don’t think it ever has been.

A couple of years ago there were literally thousands of people using Panasonic’s HVX200 to shoot narrative films, but there was only one person who could make it look like this. And while James Laxton’s work on that film is flat-out great, none of it would’ve really mattered if Barry Jenkins wasn’t able to illicit intimate and lived-in performances that matched the film’s palette.   Without having spoken to them about it my guess is that their choices – in terms of camera, crew and workflow – came about organically and by necessity.

And that’s the way our workflow has emerged.  We shoot the way we do because most of the time we’re a crew of two people – Michael and myself (with the very capable Jon Schwarz helping shoot at times).  To do this we need both a camera and a sound rig that are mobile, don’t attract attention and can record high volumes of footage without having to offload the data all the time.  That’s how we came to this camera and that has in turn influenced the aesthetic.  (Read more here).

This strikes me as being just what I’m driving at: through this project I’ve learned to relax and go where it takes us in a number of ways but one of the crucial ones is learning that your necessity drives your aesthetics and the work gets a lot better when you accept that.

With that I want to offer a quick thought and a little praise to the visual steward of these films, Michael Totten:

What strikes me – pretty much every month – about Michael’s cinematography is that what he chooses to focus on is always reflective of the larger themes at work in the piece.  He’s there with me listening to the interviews and feeling the energy of the people and the space and then somehow intuits the right image to reflect what’s being touched on — or better yet — what’s going unspoken.

He does it month in and month out, and with an eye like that, it doesn’t really matter what camera he’s using.


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