Recently, I was looking back through films to recut my demo reel and stumbled upon Drumline, a favorite from all of the films that I have lensed. It was an incredible experience for me as a young cinematographer being inspired by an amazing director, Charles Stone III, and an incredible group of talented musicians. I came across a scene in the film that sparked something in me that I have wanted to write about for a while. In this clip, you, the filmmaker, will play the drummer, the musician. Please assume the Role.
Devon Miles is moved out of his status on the drumline from a P1 drummer, which is the best, to a P4, which doesn’t even suit up, because he cannot read music. He came to college on a full ride scholarship to play drums and now has to go back to school while in college. He needs to be able to read music so that that he can understand the WHY and not just keep doing the HOW, drumming by ear. I will circle around back to this.
The Red One camera started a filmmaking revolution back in the mid-2000s. Anyone who could afford this camera was now all of a sudden a filmmaker. People who never had a voice before were energized, a creative revolution so to speak. Canon with its release of the 5D MK II in 2008 pushed it over the top. It all became possible to complete a movie in your garage. With big players like Apple and Adobe paving the way to edit it, CGI it, sound design it, you name it, they had an application to do it and at a low price point. The democratization of filmmaking began!
However, this Revolution comes with a huge responsibility. Just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean you have the right to use it. When film was the main medium to create and produce movies, the process to get to the point of making a film was a long road. There was no HOV lane; you could not circumnavigate the traffic (aka the education coupled with the experience) to get to your creation goal. The process of shooting a feature on film was so expensive and time consuming to complete, it had better be something you felt proud to put your name on.
When I went to Emerson College, I was banging the equipment room doors down to get my hands on those cameras, those lights, the tools, thirsting for the HOW and to get out there and make movies. My professors quickly snapped me out of this trance with one bit of advice and this is where I circle back to the Drumline scene. If you do not have the honor and discipline to learn your craft, then you have no business working in it. PERIOD! Creating without the education or understanding of the fundamentals is just NOISE. We have plenty of this noise. Transporting an audience to a place where they laugh, cry, are on the edge of their seat, evoking emotions, comes from the WHY, not the HOW. If you feel like I am beating a drum, I am.
My suggestion to all of you is to continue to educate yourself. Apply to a film school or film extension program or a high value course. State schools tend to be less expensive. If school is not an option, then turn to the groups or resources for education. It starts with studying, watching classics from the filmmakers who have paved the way for you and have given you this opportunity. They deserve your time and respect: Ingmar Bergman, John Ford, Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Wong Kar Wai, to name just a few.
Don’t play the young filmmaker card and say that your style is new, unconventional and the masters never will understand. Don’t be arrogant and believe that there is nothing from the classics that could help you. Don’t you think Stanley Kubrick had that same WILL when he was a budding young director who created A Clockwork Orange or The Shining? He chose to study the masters before him because it gave him the brick and mortar. To build your career and your house, you need a foundation. To say you are going to wing it means you are building your foundation out of sand. NOT so GOOD!
You have to dig to find the intention or the WHY. It is the Key to the Castle. The HOW you can find everywhere because it sells cameras, support, etc. Take the time to study and research the filmmakers that you respond to, who have your same aesthetic. Watch interviews because they tend to reveal the WHY. It is time consuming and you may have to surf through hours, but there are diamonds in there.
Find a burning desire inside you to have the honor and discipline to be a creator of content that you want to put your name on and be proud of the final product.
Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and more
If film schools, blogs, books and filmmaking courses do not see huge enrollments and sign ups after this post, then I will be disappointed. This huge responsibility that has been put on you has also been left to a very few educators who see all of this, recognize it and take the time out of their schedules to make it a priority. The members of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) are relentless with their dedication to this process. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a wonderful educational outreach program. The Directors Guild of America offers many as well. These are places to find out WHY. Remember, the HOW is 15% of the filmmaking process.
To be honest, I have been caught up with the HOW before. We are all human and I am not on a high horse here. Because I continue to push the trailblazing, pioneering bleeding edge of technology, part of the time has to be focused on the HOW to do it because no one has done it before. It takes courage as there is no roadmap.
With all of the technological advances now and in the future, do not lose your way. I keep reminding myself what former President Clinton’s lead strategist, James Carville, told Clinton when he was campaigning to ground him and not get distracted. “It’s the economy, stupid.” For me, I remind myself every day, “It’s the story, stupid.”
I look forward to helping you in your mission to become a responsible filmmaker who will take the time to understand WHY!!! Because this is what it is all about.
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