Transcend the technology

William B. Demeritt III
October 21st, 2013

Filmmakers have warned of the “death of film” for a long time, even before I got started in the business. Rather, I think back then, film wasn’t dead, or dying, but it was certainly a grim outlook. These days, I’d say film is in hospice care; hanging on, but everyone who works with it knows where it will end. Maybe not today, but soon.

I began my transition into the film industry with an epiphany: at Sundance 2002, I realized a career in film isn’t a fantasy. I was in the Eccles theater, surrounded by people who worked in or around the film industry, and I realized that industry wasn’t a dreamer’s dream. That industry was real: a place where many people in that crowd earned a paycheck. Suddenly, the future seemed less like a hallucination, and more like a real destination.

I later interned at Panavision Florida, and I quickly drank the Kool-Aid: film was amazing.

Quick aside: I’m a technology enthusiast and all around nerd. “Digital” was never a phrase that scared me. I live in a constant state of awe about the little miracles we’re surrounded by, because I remember them growing from infancy to teenagers. I remember dial-up, cable modems, ethernet, 802.11a wi-fi. I remember brick-shaped cell phones, clamshell Motorolas, PDA’s and the first smartphones. I remember the first time I saw a CPU was water-cooled and overclocked to reach 1Ghz (late 1999). Now, my wife’s PC has 8 cores, all operating above 3Ghz. People complain about how slow their smartphone is. Nobody even remembers the sound of a modem. That’s amazing to me, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

I love film, but probably for a simple, boring reason: it’s a tool. I love film in the same way a guitarist loves a guitar. Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, PRS, whatever… it’s the tool that artist uses to create what their passionate about. Reliability, history, experience/evolution, all play a part in what makes guitars awesome to that guitarist. Pickups have become refined, strings offer different feels and different strengths for the artist to select, etc.

Film, as a tool of filmmaking, has a number of edges still to this day:
1. Archival format – take the film out of the camera, properly download and can it, and assuming you get it developed properly, that film will store those images for the next few DECADES.
2. Still looks great – with modern film stocks, the grain is so tight you can scan it and still get amazing resolution.
3. Decades of established support – we know how film behaves, we know how the gear behaves, we can diagnose problems without the “PC LOAD LETTER ERROR” type problems that plague a lot of digital shoots.

What seems to be the sin of film? Cost. Of course, we can make spreadsheet after spreadsheet which shows how little, if any, the “savings” are that you get from shooting digitally. However, for the most part, digital appears cheaper at first glance since film stock is so expensive, and the costs of correcting disasters with digital are only possible afterwards… like a tornado.

Anyone who was alive when the first photographic technologies first emerged has expired years ago. Since the 1850′s, we’ve captured and developed (pun intended) how we photograph anything and everything. From glass plates to flexible celluloid, kinetoscopes to cinemascope, Al Jolson to Al Pacino, what emerged from filmmaking was an art form intrinsic to the human experience: to share a life, fiction or non-fiction, with an audience en masse, such that the audience can survive what kills the protagonist, can feel the triumph or loss as our hero feels, and can walk away with the smallest out of body experience, however meaningful.

I think we all need to remember that history, and that mission, when we consider film and digital, if only for one goal: we must not become so obsessed with the tools of our trade that we forget the greater meaning of the form which we serve.

I don’t hate digital. I actually think digital is incredibly cool. However, I see a crop of emerging storytellers that are so engrossed in the fetish of those tools that I fear they’re forgetting their task. IMAX or PixelVision, RED Dragon or Thompsson Grass-Valley Viper, 65mm or 5Dmk3, they all have one thing in common: they’re supposed to be the tool by which you convey an experience, whatever its purpose (comedy, tragedy or whatever).

The guitar is meaningless if you’re a bad guitarist.

The guitar is meaningless if you can’t keep tempo with your band, or can’t perform on stage.

The guitar is meaningless if it matters more than the audience.

I find myself overhearing many cinematographers, camera people and directors fetishizing, fantasizing over the various digital cameras, and I always give them the benefit of the doubt; after all, I am a nerd, and I know what it is to “nerd out.” However, I bite my tongue when I hear the conversation devolving into blanket statements about the death of old technologies, especially when they have clear edges over emerging technologies. The film gods giveth (digital gives immediate playback) and the film gods taketh away (hours of hard work distilled to a few minutes of recorded digital footage “disappear” from a hard drive or card with no death sigh, no last gasp… sometimes, just gone).

“Film is dead” is often the battle cry of the indie filmmaker, in all their forms, because they think they can make the movie entirely by themselves. However, much like our guitarist, a filmmaker is a part of a “band”, and band morale is contingent on everyone working cohesively as a team. Beyond that, the filmmaker is part of a band with a goal of giving an experience to an audience.

In the end, a guitarist must believe he will continue to perform his trade regardless of which guitar he decides to use. He must transcend the fetishism of the tools which may change, bit by bit, over the years, and decide if he’s a guitarist only with THIS Fender Strat… or he’s a guitarist, and that’s that.

I’ll go out and say it: 5-10 years from now, I don’t think RED cameras will hold ANY of mainstream filmmaking, be it theatrical features or TV or whatever. That’s not a comment on the technology; the technology is amazingly cool. That’s my opinion on how they’ve functioned as a business, and even their founder knows their “revolution” served one purpose: it pushed the necessity of 35mm size imaging sensors onto the other camera manufacturers, and set the grounds for digital cinema to overtake film acquisition as the common tool. THAT’S IT. Prior to RED, we were using abominations like the SGPro and Letus35 “film adapter” to create DOF. RED saved us from that, hallelujah! Now, you can buy a RED MX body for a few grand, and good luck getting anyone to rent it. The sad thing: the RED MX was stable and functional when the Epic trickled out, and that whole market downgraded for the promise of 5K.

Cameras come and go. Do you want to go with them?

If you want to survive, don’t be the disciple of any single camera, any single technology. Skilled, talented artists can make any tool make magic, so long as the tool doesn’t undermine the effort. Be the disciple of the art form that got you drunk and led you away to play make believe with other adults for ridiculous hours.

I sometimes tell people, if they absolutely feel compelled to go to film school, to enroll and take classes only until you realize filmmaking is a team effort. Once you realize that, and you look at your classmates and realize who you’d want included on your future passion project, 14 hours a day for 16 weeks… and who you’ll call to hang out when it’s done? Drop out.

Your life and career must mean more than a camera. Your coworkers and colleagues matter more than any camera.

William B. Demeritt III