Seperating the art of storytelling from the tools we use to tell them

I just watched this fascinating video by Stephen Fry on the use of the English Language and how there are a lot of pedants who will criticise people for tiny grammatical errors. Luckily so far I haven’t had these people on my blog, I’m sure they’d have a field day.

I think a simple rule of thumb is if the language you’re using is distracting or confusing to the point where the story you’re trying to tell gets lost than your grammar and punctuation needs to be addressed.

What resonated with me the most was how I feel we have a very similar problem on the film making forums.
The amount of “film makers” I see spending all their time writing posts on the forums on how they’re waiting for this or that piece of technology to come out before committing to purchasing a camera.  
The pages and pages of arguments between these people on why one camera is better than another. On why the dynamic range of the Sony trounces the Panasonic.  You get them posting up comparison stills blown up by 300% so that they can highlight how the grain one camera is far more significant then that of the competing camera. Or the highlights on the woman’s forehead are clipping slightly more.

Now I totally understand there is a place for this, especially among Directors of Photography and lighting technicians. But what I found was that the majority of people having these arguments were indie filmmakers looking at buying a camera.

It’s an easy trap to fall into and I’ve found myself also spending far too long on forums reading more and more about what’s the next best thing coming onto the market.  It reminded me very much of the days at school where they’d be arguments about which computer was better, the Atari ST or the Amiga. Silly and pedantic but we’d spend hours arguing to the point where some people would actually have a fight. Of course the Amiga was far superior : )

This is where you have to stop and think, are these new tools really going to make me a better storyteller? For me the two bits of technology that have arrived in the last few years that I believe really have made a difference to my storytelling capabilities as an independent film maker are wide screen and large sensor (shallow depth of field).  These two really have helped us poor indie filmmakers get closer to the “film look”
Again it’s not actually about the “film look” it’s about storytelling. It just so happens that this is also the “film look” simply because film has spent over 100 years finding great techniques to tell stories better.

Wide screen is simply an aspect ratio.  The great thing about aspect ratios is it allows us the film makers to change how we want our film to be perceived to the audience. You’ll sometimes hear how a film was shot at a certain aspect ratio as they really wanted to get across a certain feel.  Generally the wider the aspect the more grand and epic the feel.

So although we don’t have the luxury yet of setting any aspect ration other than 16:9 it’s still nice to have that cinematic feel. And if you really do want to change the aspect you can always add black bars.

Shallow depth of field  is also the other great advancement in recent years.  It’s only been in the last five years that this technology has really become available to video.  Before that you either had to use a 35mm lens adapter or shoot on film.  The reason why I feel shallow depth of field is such a key part of storytelling is because it allows us as storytellers to direct our audience to where we want them to look.  This is huge and something that I used to find really frustrating when using video cameras with small sensors and large depth of field.

But other than these two piece of advancements, I can say that for me there hasn’t been any other technologies that are really going to make a massive difference to how you tell your story.

Put it this way,  if the audience have noticed that they can see slightly more detail in the shadows, under the sofa, that’s in the background of your shot, then your film is suffering serious issues on the entertainment front.

So to all those people that have fallen into the trap of the technology war and read so much that they’ve become afraid of doing anything at all.  I say think about the story you’re telling. Does it really need HDR, 10 bit compression, 3D,  4k resolution (that’s another rant that I’ll leave for another time).  If it does then wait. But I have a hunch that for 99% of people telling a story it really isn’t needed.

Are the films being told really any more engaging than those from 50 years ago? I’d actually argue that the majority of them these days are far less so.  Transformers is always a good example, just think about the amount of technology that went into that and yet I feel far more engaged watching the 53 year old b/w film Psycho than I ever have for most of these modern blockbusters.

In conclusion I guess what I’m saying is just get out there and shoot movies.  Learn from your mistakes and become a better storyteller. Having these skills are far more important than having the latest technology. Master storytelling and the rest will follow. You won’t need to worry about buying the latest equipment because the studio that’s hired you will be dealing with those problems.

Having said all this I will say that it’s worth keeping on top of what’s going on in the world of technology and if you’re an indie film maker with a small crew then it’s likely that you will not only be the Director but also the DOP and Editor.  Knowing what tool is best for the job really does help, just don’t get too caught up in it all because you’ll find yourself procrastinating.

And if you’re like me you’re actually begin to fear your ability to make a film, worried that you don’t have the best equipment and that your film is going to be terrible. And so it becomes easier to start making excuses, to wade more and more  through the thousands of posts that give your reassurance to wait before buying your next camera, thus allowing you to believe this is the real reason why you haven’t made a film yet.

Everyday you wait you’re missing out on the fantastic thrill and experience you’d be getting from making a film.

Doing nothing isn’t going to make you better, going out there and learning from your mistakes is what will make you a better filmmaker/storyteller, not a 20k camera.

Get shooting!

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2 thoughts on “Seperating the art of storytelling from the tools we use to tell them

  1. Wow, this is a great primer for aspiring filmmakers! I’ve heard a filmmaker once say that it didn’t matter what kind of equipment he used, as long as it told his story his way. I found that an interesting quote. Certain photographers are like that too. One in particular, Ken Rockwell, says, “he can make the shots of a $20 camera look like shots from a $5,000 camera. I guess it has a lot to do with perspective. Anyway, if you like to study the English language, George Carlin’s material is incredible. Have a listen if you ever get a chance!

    • Thanks Jack.

      Technology is getting so good now that it’s hard to really distinguish the difference between a £1000 camera and a £40,000 one.

      Haven’t seen this myself but apparently they did a test using a variety of cameras, from a £40,000 Arri right down to an Iphone 5. They shot a simple scene with them and then showed them on a cinema screen to an audience.

      Apparently most of the audience members didn’t pick the most expensive one. And a lot of them actually liked the look of the Iphone.

      I’ll have a look at George Carlin. The English language has never been my strong point, which always hard when I was at school as I loved telling stories.

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