It’s Not the Camera: Insights Into Directing

Over and over and over again, I see aspiring filmmakers focusing on the wrong thing. On the one hand, I am delighted when I see someone skip film school, grab their own camera, and just start shooting. But then, people get really obsessed with something that has absolutely no bearing on your success as a Director: the camera.

One of my favorite websites is “NoFilmSchool.Com”. It provides great resources on indie filmmaking and the technical side of the craft. Whenever I see a blog post about the latest firmware update for Magic Lantern or an argument about which camera’s image quality is best, there are literally hundreds of comments. People write long paragraphs vigorously expressing their opinions on pixels and low light sensitivity. And that’s great.

But when there is a blog post about the craft of visual storytelling… there aren’t many comments. And that’s a shame.

The Audience Doesn’t Care About the Image

It’s kind of like a nervous teenage girl on her first date. She may spend hours fussing over her makeup, but the guy doesn’t care about that. Same thing with movies. You may spend hours trying to get the lighting just right in a certain shot, or stressing over the perfect camera to shoot your movie, but that isn’t why people go to the movies.

People go to the movies to get lost in a story. Always have always will. They did this in the 1920s when the images were in black and white with no sound and looked pretty awful.

It’s one of the reasons why Directors like Kevin Smith, Christopher Nolan, and Darren Aronofsky made their first feature breakthroughs with films that were shot in black and white and looked pretty awful.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a decent camera and good lighting. You should. But for heaven’s sake, it’s the era of HD. Cameras at Best Buy get great images. It’s not what makes for a great Director.

In LA, so many people bought RED cameras a few years ago that the market is saturated. My colleague placed a crew call the other day and was hit with over 200 resumes (TWO HUNDREDS) from local Cinematographers… even though he was working on a nearly no budget project for the web.

There are still great DPs worth their weight in gold. The point is that the skill set of getting a high quality visual image is no longer as valuable or as rare as it used to be. Therefore, focusing too much on the camera is a bad idea for a director. It’s like thinking that an expensive pair of basketball shoes will make you Michael Jordan.

How to Build a Valuable Skill Set

What is extremely rare, and always has been, is the skill of telling a compelling visual story and getting it to an audience. 

In film schools, students do a handful of rudimentary film exercises that teach them the basic technical aspects of filmmaking. At NYFA, “Continuity” is one of the first exercises. That simply means showing a sequence of shots in order. At NYU, students do a “Chase Scene”. At USC and Chapman, students shoot a “music video”.

What’s wrong with these exercises? Nothing… if they were part of a one semester course called “Filmmaking Kindergarten”. The problem is that students spend years of their time and tens of thousands of dollars on exercises that don’t teach them how to engage an audience, and often leaves them with a belief that technical expertise is the basis of good Directing.

If you want to be a good Director, you need to focus 99% of your energy on developing your style, and creating content that is going to hold people’s interest. It’s that simple. Movies should hold people’s interest. Basically, if you can practice keeping people interested in your stories, you will be a good Director. Learning to get a quality visual image is definitely a component of that, but it isn’t the main thing. And you should learn how to get your movie to an audience directly.

These are the Skill Sets we focus on in our new course, Film School Solution. The 3 aspects of training a Director that gives them the most powerful position when they build their career.

3_Film_Skills_Chart (1)

You Do Want Good Images, But Get Them Inexpensively

Okay, just to clarify, I’m not saying your movie should look terrible. I just want to help save you blowing your budget on a fancy camera when you could get amazing images with some very affordable equipment. Part of what I teach in Film School Solution are the subtle differences between Hollywood lighting and most student film lighting, little techniques that make a $600 camera look compete with ones hundred times more expensive. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these images:

The $600 Camera shouldn't even come close, but it does

The $600 Camera shouldn’t even come close, but it does

I’m not saying that a Canon DSLR is as good as a RED or Film – but to the average viewer watching a movie on their TV or Computer screen, a few pixels isn’t the reason why the will or won’t watch your movie. Once you get the image to this level of quality, it looks professional and the audience couldn’t care if you got the world’s greatest DP if the story sucks. Just to illustrate the kind of images you’ll learn to get in Film School Solution, here’s my reel from last year, shot and lit by a one or two man crew, a couple hundred dollars worth of equipment, and a $600 camera:

So don’t let lack of funds or a fancy camera hold you back. If you haven’t already watched our webinar on how to launch your directing career, click here to do so now!

And if you have, then what are you waiting for, click here to learn about our Curriculum.

 


4 Responses to “It’s Not the Camera: Insights Into Directing”

  1. Michael Spencer says:

    Hi, Seth. I enjoy reading your blogs on film and film method. But I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree when you say that silent black and white films “looked pretty awful.” The ’20s were an age of beautiful cinematography. I’ll offer just a few examples.

    “Flesh and the Devil” starring Greta Garbo is beautifully shot. Check out this clip on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKu1McJz5wY

    And don’t forget “Sunrise” by F. W. Murnaue. There’s a YouTube clip at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_BBf_bP16A Take a look at the deep, deep blacks and shimmering whites.

    Or how about Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”? There’s a nice trailer on YouTube that shows a few scenes of the amazing cinematography: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSExdX0tds4

    D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JzhhUCo1xY

    Stroheim and Sternberg films are also well known for their magnificent cinematography.

    I particularly fond of black and white silents. I have a book coming out this fall called “Hollywood of the Rockies” about the migration of the film industry from the east coast to the west between 1895 and 1915. Films (some great, some not so much) shot long before the ’20s.

  2. Charlie Bury says:

    Really enjoyed reading this insightful blog post. I have to admit, I’m stressing way too much over trying to get an Alexa to shoot my short when I should be focusing more on my vision and the story. Thanks.

    • says:

      You’re welcome Charlie, thank you for reading and glad you enjoyed. Yes for a short I do not recommend using more than a t2i. I explain why in the Film School Solution webinar. Have you had a chance to watch it? – S

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