Denver Director of Photography & Cinematographer
That’s the lowest price I could find for a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera on eBay. Add in a decent lens and for less than $2,000 you can be a filmmaker.
Or can you?
That was the question posed to a forum last month at the Breckenridge Film Festival. I attended the fest to accompany “Out of the Fire“, a documentary feature film for which I am director of photography and directed by my friend Courtenay Singer. After that film’s second screening, I walked across the street on beautiful Fall Saturday in the Rockies to the Breckenridge Auditorium to hear what the panel had to say about this provocative question.
Make no mistake about it, it is a question directly tied into the aforementioned camera, the “5D”. In 2008, Canon released the 5D Mark II, which included the capability to record 1080p video, a first for a DSLR. This thrown-in feature revolutionized the filmmaking world, taking both Canon and the filmmaking community by surprise. Why?
1080p HD video recording had been possible since at least eight years before via the Sony F900 HD video camcorder, a camera limited to all but the wealthiest of professional productions (i.e., “Star Wars Episode II”) since the price tag for that camera, after adding a lens and other accessories, ran to more than $100,000. And even then the sensor size (sensors are video cameras’ equivalent to film cameras’ film) was only 2/3″, considerably smaller than the frame size of 35mm film. The 5D changed all that. For the first time there was a camera capable of recording 1080p video with a sensor the same size as 35mm film and for a tiny fraction of the cost of an F900.
Filmmakers off all stripes — from hobbyists to the Hollywood production teams of “House”, “SNL” and several feature films — seized upon the 5D. They gobbled it up for the same reason: the ability to shoot cinematic quality video for a low cost (and, in the case of many professional productions, for the 5D’s unmatched capability of recording images in low-light situations). “Cinematic” is a subjective term with a host of definitions, but one that most often refers to particular characteristics of the visuals of film. For most of the history of film, one key characteristic has separated professional 35mm shot films from all the rest — depth of field.
2008. Canon releases the 5D with a sensor equivalent in size to 35mm film and existing lenses with wide apertures. All for less than $5,000. The playing field was now leveled. Or, you might say, “democratized”.
Depth of field is a photography concept that refers to the amount of space in the field of view of a lens, front to back, which is in focus. Two things control depth of field — the aperture of the lens, and the sensor, or film frame size, of the camera (length of lens also influences depth of field, as compressing distance via a lens compresses the depth of field). Wider apertures and 35mm frame sizes allow for shallower depths of fields. The widest aperture lenses and 35mm film cameras were also the most expensive. Which is why both had mostly been limited to professional productions that could afford them. With a 35mm film frame size— the largest possible up until the recent introduction of 4k (a whole other discussion) — and lenses providing the widest apertures available, professional productions were able to achieve a shallowness in the depth of field that was impossible to match for lesser-funded and amateur productions. This extreme shallow depth of field has become the single most important defining characteristic of a “cinematic” picture.
Now back to 2008. Canon releases the 5D with a sensor equivalent in size to 35mm film and existing lenses with wide apertures. All for less than $5,000. The playing field was now leveled. Or, you might say, “democratized”.
Democratized, at least, for the ability to create cinematic images. But are cinematic images what make a filmmaker a filmmaker? This is what the panel was poised to discuss.
On the panel were two cinematographers, a couple of CU-Boulder film school students, a CU-Boulder film school professor, and a short-film filmmaker. Not surprisingly, or perhaps, disappointingly, the cinematographers’ views were limited to their knowledge of their own craft. Each pontificated about the importance of light in filmmaking. I’m a cinematographer myself and am fully capable of going on for hours on the importance of light, but how you light something is very far down on the list of things that make a filmmaker a filmmaker. We can all think of many fine films where great lighting was not the defining attribute.
After the cinematographers finished talking about how they lit this and that, one of the film students spoke up and stressed the importance of story in filmmaking. Now we were on to something. It had occurred to me before the forum began that perhaps it was asking the wrong question — instead of asking “what makes a filmmaker in the age of accessible equipment?”, perhaps we really should be asking “what makes a storyteller in the age of accessible equipment?”. For what is a film without a good story? This makes me think of “Super Size Me”, the 2004 documentary in which Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonalds food for 30 days to see what affect it would have on his body. Horrible production value, great story. Huge hit.
Still, thinking about this more, I realized defining filmmaking as storytelling was as shortsighted and limiting as the cinematographer’s emphasis on good lighting. Stan Brakhage, an experimental filmmaker who made primarily non-narrative films from the 1960s until his death in 2003, quickly busts the attempts to define filmmaking as good storytelling or good lighting. Most of Brakhage’s films have no discernable story, and the only light many of them employ is that which comes from the film projector upon the film’s projection. Further, what is a good story and not a good story is highly subjective. Heck, what is a “story” is itself subjective. Attempting to define these terms puts us in highly murky territory.
Territory that the final panelist to speak, CU-Boulder film school professor Ernesto Acevedo-Munoz, didn’t so much as step into as the others had, but dive into.
So what is “cinema”? To that end, Acevedo-Munoz had a laughably narrow view. “‘Cinema’ is not YouTube,” he said. “It’s not ‘Jackass’. It’s when a man and woman go to the movies on a date.”
Acevedo-Munoz began by speaking about what he thought defined “cinema”, the first time the term had been uttered on the panel. The way he talked, it was apparent that in his mind some governing body some time in the distant past and unknown to the rest of us had agreeably defined filmmaking as “cinema”. Ok, fine. So what is “cinema”? To that end, Acevedo-Munoz had a laughably narrow view. “‘Cinema’ is not YouTube,” he said. “It’s not ‘Jackass’. It’s when a man and woman go to the movies on a date.”
Oooh boy, where to start? For this discussion, I will let go his prejudiced notion of what two singular parties constitute a date, or his ignorance of the plethora of portals that have increased in number over the last 60 years by which people view movies (home theaters, TVs, iPads, etc), because, really, I know what he meant.
What he meant is when, you know, you “go to the movies”. You go with a friend or a date or by yourself, buy popcorn, and sit in a dark theater with other strangers to watch pictures projected on a giant screen in front of you. We all know this experience and we have all done it. And it is a definition of what is a film that is even more limiting and subjective than those of his fellow panelists. Yet, I think he was on to something the others weren’t. That something is who is in those dark theaters — the audience.
I don’t really want to think of “Jackass” as cinema or filmmaking, either. But there are 253 million reasons why my opinion is irrelevant. That’s the number of dollars the three “Jackass” movies have collectively taken in by consumers who paid that money to view those films in exactly the fashion that Acevedo-Munoz defines as “cinema”. So while Acevedo-Munoz and me may not think of “Jackass” as filmmaking, $253 million says that it is.
What defines filmmaking is not up to any one person, or panel of people because no matter what they think, you think, or I think, at the end of the day, it’s audiences that decide what is “filmmaking”. It is a decision that is dependent upon what is acceptable and fashionable at the time in which the film was produced. What may not be accepted as filmmaking in one era may be in another and vice versa.
What about technology? Isn’t that where this discussion started? The “equipment” the question — “What makes a filmmaker in an age of accessible equipment?” — posed to the panel refers to is the 5D and the cadre of relatively affordable equipment that it spawned. As discussed, excitement over the 5D came about primarily for its capability of recording visuals in a long accepted, albeit subjective, fashion. It would seem, then, that the forum question itself is flawed. As filmmaking refuses to be defined by lighting or how we view it, so does it refuse to be defined by the equipment available. While the 5D has increased the number of filmmakers creating films along a long-tenured acceptable form, so is technology redefining that accepted form. Witness the countless YouTube videos created with Handycams and cell phones. “Humph! People’s cat videos hardly qualify as films!” Maybe, except I know a couple of cats who would disagree.
I introduce to you The Webby Awards, an accolade “honoring excellence on the Internet”, including outstanding online film and video. Recent award winners include much-lauded cinematic stars as Kevin Spacey and Lorne Michaels. Also included is one not-so cinematic star — “Grumpy Cat”, who won 2013 Meme of the Year. In case you’ve missed it, “Grumpy Cat” is one of the latest YouTube sensations, with the first video to feature the cat generating more than 13 million views. The videos’ popularity attracted the attention of Hollywood, and now “Grumpy Cat” is set to appear in its own feature film.
As popular as Grumpy is, he is on the verge in being upstaged by a Frenchman — er, Frenchcatman? Check out Henri, the feline star of the YouTube web series, “Henri, le Chat Noir“. The second video to feature Henri has nabbed nearly 8 million views, a number that is growing fast (if you are not yet one of those 8 million, I suggest you become one. The video is that good). Last year, Henri won the “Golden Kitty” award for best cat video on the Internet at the first ever Cat Video Film Festival. You read that correctly — a cat film festival. And it drew 10,000 people, twice as much as organizers were hoping for. Oh, and the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter covered it.
Clearly, audiences’ engagement with filmmaking content outside of the normal cinematic experience is blurring the definition of what defines “film” more than ever. I, for one, would willingly watch a Henri cat video 50 times over before watching a Transformers movie. You tell me which is more cinematic.
But one thing is clear — the democratization of film is more about accessibility than about what makes a filmmaker a filmmaker. Cheaper equipment doesn’t make people into filmmakers, it simply allows for more of them. This, naturally, threatens professionals or there wouldn’t be panels to discuss the topic. Witness the two cinematographers at the Breckenridge forum who touted their lighting chops in an effort to separate themselves from the YouTubers. It was nothing more than a desperate attempt to defend their value and, hence, their livelihood. Their skill and training is to be respected and because of it, I personally think they have nothing to worry about, as there will always be a distinction between professionals and amateurs. We have multiple examples that say as much. The tools of culinary arts, for example, have been readily accessible to just about anybody for as long as there has been culinary arts. Yet, people by the masses continue to demand food prepared not by themselves, but by professionals, defined as those who make their living from stated craft.
The accessibility of filmmaking tools is a relatively new phenomena, so jitters among the professional class is to be expected. But the evidence required to ease their worries is already out there. Among the many films I saw and filmmakers I met at the Breckenridge Film Festival, I was struck by how few, if any, made their living by filmmaking. I count myself among that group. My film, “Soldiers of Paint“, is available on the market, but it has yet to make its money back (it’s still early!) and I am hardly making my living off of it. But it was a film that was possible to make because of the cheaper cost of filmmaking equipment and editing software. Ten years ago the equipment cost would have been too much to afford and the film would never have been made.
Which underscores my point — cheaper filmmaking tools have merely enlarged the amateur class, giving hobbyists an entryway into a craft that had been previously closed off to them. And if one or more of those hobbyists should gain the attention of professionals, as the “Grumpy Cat” filmmaker has, then more power to them. We live in a democracy, after all, with equal opportunity to all and it is not only fitting that filmmaking should be unshackled from the professional class, but also healthy. Filmmaking is a creative pursuit that lives and breathes on the basis of ideas. New voices are a good thing — it’s both what brought us “Jackass” and what will keep us from having to endure a “Jackass 4”.
For additional reading on this topic, I recommend reading Jeff Steel’s post “Power to the People“. He suggests there are three traditional pillars that have served as a barrier to entry for budding filmmakers — technology, financing, and distribution. It’s a couple years old, but his discussions on the latter two pillars — financing and distribution — are still relevant and serve as important insight into the rapidly changing filmmaking business model.