Gordon Willis, ASC claimed that it took him thirty years to learn how to be simple. That didn’t make sense when I first heard it as a young assistant cameraman, but now that I’ve been shooting for longer than that I understand exactly what he meant. Granted, he was referring to the inner process of how you mount and execute your work. But why is the technology we use to do that always so hell-bent on becoming more complex?
By now everyone knows that piling on people and equipment is not the path to continue on. It’s not just unhealthy, it doesn’t help anyone do their job more creatively or efficiently. Why have there been so few attempts to redirect that bend in the river? How is it that the community of cinematographers – especially the younger ones – aren’t burning down the establishment with demands for simpler, more ‘plug-and-play’ solutions to image making?
Our manufacturers seem to have lost their sense of clarity. During a recent interview I was asked what technological development would be most beneficial to cinematographers in the next decade. Half-jokingly, I answered film. That’s never going to happen – and that’s okay, since digital technology has opened up more creative opportunities than ever before. But there’s a strong lesson to be taken from the older medium’s best traits: its universal standard of interoperability, out-of-the-box consistency, archival qualities and yes…its simplicity.
A cinematographer succeeds only to the extent of their vision and its expression through the equipment they use. I’m not a Luddite and am well educated about and capable with our current tools. But when you peel away the pixel-pap and nano-nonsense and really get to the bottom line, are more convoluted workflows really helping us?
The late, great Conrad Hall, ASC once noted that it was irrelevant for him to know the chemical composition of the Eastman negative. This should be chiseled above the entrance to every one of our manufacturers’ headquarters. Their compulsion to complicate things is baffling. What’s even more disturbing are the cinematographers who sign on to the movement. It seems that their security lies not in what they put onscreen but in expounding upon the minutiae of the latest gadgets, which Hall would have agreed is meaningless. Maybe the loss of our magician-like status brought on by the demise of film has been replaced by the impenetrable recitation of the unfathomable.
So, I implore everyone to stop mistaking movement for progress. Embrace a philosophy of less is more. Our tools and workflows need to be made more compatible with a direct and uncluttered mind.
Another legend, William A. Fraker, used to speak about his early days as a member of the ASC. When a meeting would wander too far off track, thirteen-time Oscar nominee George Folsey would slam his hand on the table and restore common sense. “Enough with the horseshit! Let’s talk about the art of photography.”
And he was right. Wouldn’t it be fun to start engaging more about the why of what we do rather than the how?