Tools, Not Toys

Recently, I was talking to a friend about a production company and the gear they own. I could tell my friend was making mental notes as I listed off the gear, associating the gear with the success of the production company. But I’ve watched this company over the years and realized that the gear is not what made them successful. Gear definitely helped, but how they used the gear is what brought them to the next level.

They have some great gear, but the gear doesn’t make them great.

Gear is simply a tool to get the job done. A lot of the time we overemphasize the gear and tend to think that's what makes beautiful imagery. But it doesn't. Better gear helps get the job done more efficiantly (most of the time), but it doesn’t guarantee a job well done. Knowing how to use the gear is the key component.

Just because someone has an amazing camera or great lights doesn’t mean they know what they are doing. With current technology and prices anyone can go out and buy a really good camera and have great results. But that doesn’t make them a cinematographer. That’s why I’ve spent the past few years focusing on lighting. Not how to use a specific light, or what to do in this situation, but learning how to light. When we understand the theory behind lighting or camera movement and study a multitude of films we learn how these tools can be used to tell a story.

I've been on so many sets that they have a MOVI or handheld gimbal. It's a great tool when used properly. But so many times I've seen it used in place of a dolly or SteadiCam because supposedly quicker or "it's cool" to use a gimbal. As cinematographers, our job is to choose the right tool for the job, not use what other people are using. Each piece of gear is different because it was created for a purpose. I'm not saying a specific piece of gear should only be used for one purpose, but rather gear should be used as a tool, not "just because."

Simple setup: using natural light from the window. 

A few weeks ago I was shooting a spot "run and gun" style. We didn't have the time or crew to do a lighting setup. As we started the next scene, we placed the talent so the action could take place in natural light. As you see in the screen shot to the right, we were capturing an intimate moment between brothers. We couldn't do a proper lighting setup, so instead I used the window light and compensated exposure in camera. When I moved in for the close up I quietly made the call for a small LED. This didn't disturb talent and made a world of difference in the image. It's the subtle lighting that makes all the difference. Without an eye light talent seems lifeless. The LED was dimmed all the way down and properly placed to create a ping in the eye to give it life. It still looks natural and the extra touch really brings life to the eye. It's moments like this that gear is important, to be used as a tool to get the job done. Cinematography is partly about the technical and gear, but mostly about aesthetic and feel. It's about instinct. 

For the close up I added an LED for an eye light.

Don’t get me wrong- gear is important. But gear doesn’t create compelling imagery. We tend to think if I get this camera I’ll really be stepping it up. But will we? Starting with a solid story and knowing how to use the gear creates a good story. We tend to think of gear as toys. If we keep treating it that way, then gear will be nothing more than a toy. Toys are played with, but tools are used to create art. And we are creating art.