Motion pictures vs stills

Like most people, I enjoy motion pictures (or movies.) Although I took a few classes in college on film history and film theory, I do not really know much about the media, other than what I like. Having said that, I have long had one eye on the movie business for a few reasons. First, there is a lot more money and acclaim for filmmakers as compared to still photographers. Secondly, I knew the explosion in digital imaging was going to inevitably change the movie industry, just like it changed the still image business. Recent events set me to thinking about all of this change and prompted me to try to hammer out a blog entry about movies vs. stills, from my purely personal perspective.

By way of background, I came of age in Los Angeles and early in my career I worked as a photographer there. At the time the biggest “business” in L.A., when it came to media, was the film industry. While I love films, I had NO interest in photographing the celebrities at the core of that industry, which is one of many reasons I left California to build my career on the East Coast.

Over the last decade, as every one (and their mother) bought advanced cameras and proclaimed themselves photographers, I have obviously worried (as noted in previous blogs.) One of the few things that consoled me was pondering when that same wave of change was going to smother the motion picture trade. Such change was inevitable, since the technology behind digital imaging was bound to similarly lower the barriers to entry to filmmaking.

One main difference, to me at least, is that being a filmmaker is perceived as being more glamorous than being a photographer. My secret hope, for a long time, was that all of the wanna-be photographers would move on, devastate the film industry and leave photography to the “serious” practitioners, like me. I consoled myself by thinking about how mass attention to various pursuits is often very fleeting. That idea was best summarized long ago by Alfred Stieglitz who wrote way back in 1897, “Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze.” I must confess to having become a part of the onslaught of pseudo-filmmakers that the “real” filmmakers look at with a mix of disdain and horror. I envision them with their hands in front of their faces, leaning back, trying to protect them selves from the onslaught.

A recent Olympus sponsored film making competition prompted me to look at how filmmaking was being democratized by digital imaging technology. The “Olympus PEN Your Short 48 Hour Film Contest” was run at the recent Vail (Colorado) film festival. The idea was to make a film, start to finish, in 48 hours using Olympus PEN cameras. Since that is the same camera that I use, I was very curious to see what the results were. You can read more about the competition and see the finished films starting at: http://www.youtube.com/getolympus#p/c/D7036D380777D759

Having watched over a dozen of the entries, a couple of things struck me about the particulars of the PEN camera technology. I can see how that technology (and that of other HD video capable D-SLRs) has put a great deal fear in the hearts of long-time filmmakers, as I suspected it might. These are just my opinions about that same technology, but here they are:

• Good strong visuals, which are ever easier to make with the newest cameras, can hook a viewer in, but that that is not enough to keep their attention.

• The “art filter” options on the PEN cameras look like a great way to add some visual style and drama, very simply, to a short film, assuming they are not overused, as they were in some of the films.

• Shooting a series of still images to create a time-lapse animation piece (which is something I often do) both added to some of the films and was over used in others.

My favorite films were, in my preferred order:

“The Getaway” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioR6Xe6ACuI

“Running Colors” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPI_iPSLvf4

“Ancient Rituals of the Odaroloc Tribe” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNY-RRjeb5o

If you look carefully you’ll note that the competition “winner “ is not my first choice.

The story line behind “The Getaway” references many existing films, as did quite a few of the entries. Film is a medium with a long history so referencing that is very common (and widely accepted.) On one level “The Getaway” is almost a cliché, but on the other hand, the great use of sound made it my favorite.

The winner “Running Colors” certainly was the best mix of visuals and technology, but I found the storyline a bit simplistic, but that is just my taste.

I enjoyed “The Ancient Rituals of the Odaroloc Tribe,” which was built on a very simple idea that was very well executed, using some of the more interesting filmmaking tools that are proliferating among the newer HD video capable D-SLRs and the PEN cameras.

A couple other things struck me looking at the entries, especially among the “losers.”

• Some were great ideas but they were badly executed. Whether that was a function of the filmmaker’s skill or lack of time (or both) is hard to say.

• A couple of the entries were filmed during bad, mid-day light, which really jumped out at me as I watched them. A non-photographer may not be able to enunciate why the films looked so bad, but anyone looking at those films would know how harsh, unflattering light distracted from the film’s message.

• Bad sound is something that I really noticed as compared to good (or non-distracting) sound (the kind that did not call attention to itself.)

Looking at all the entries in the competition and especially the winners, I realize now that my dream is not that likely to come true, where the next wave of creative personalities in search of a medium of expression leave the still business to “serious” photographers like me. I say that because:

• Filmmaking is much more of a communal or committee driven endeavor than most still photography. Photographers are often solo practitioners so I am not so sure how well the average photographer will do in such a consensus-driven creative pursuit.

• Other variables raise the complexity of filmmaking, including the entire issue of on-camera acting talent. Yes, models can harm or help a still shoot, but actors have an even more pronounced impact on the success or failure of a motion picture.

• The role of sound is so important in moving pictures. That draws on a sense that photographers generally have, but rarely utilize in the same way they use their eyes.

• Films almost always have some kind of narrative structure with a beginning, middle and end. Abstract photographs are common in the world of stills but abstract movies are few and far between. (My favorite along that line is Koyaanisqatsi, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koyaanisqatsi Part of which can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PirH8PADDgQ

• Filmmakers may improvise individual scenes and actors may ad-lib their lines but from what I can tell, improvisation is not as common a process in the world of film making where most productions are larger scale, more costly endeavors than the average still “shoot.”

I will continue experimenting with movies and may even make a more “serious” film some day. Having said that, I am less likely than ever to believe that many photographers will bail on stills and attack movies. At least not in the numbers I am hoping for in order to leave the still business to the “serious” photographers, like me.

2 responses to “Motion pictures vs stills”

  1. Is there a way to “search” your podcast archive? I’d like to read a blog or watch a podcast on time lapse photography. I understand that you teach the subject for Calumet but I live in California and you don’t teach here.

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