By Ron Steinman
year ago, I went to a video film festival in New York at Lincoln
Center. It turned into one of the most disappointing days of my
viewing life. I left the theater wondering why I wasted my afternoon
watching so many poorly produced and directed so-called
documentaries. I know this is harsh, but I saw nothing redeeming in
any of the films, most of which were on digital. However small a
digital camera is, and how compact editing systems are, they do not
make a film.
For many, digital is about democracy and freedom. Democratization of
any medium is good. I applaud the new freedom we have to make films,
but not everyone has the talent or the ability to create something
that lasts. Look at the huge number of still cameras in the world
and then at all the poorly composed pictures and you will
understand. Despite the proliferation of computers today and before
that hammers and chisels to write on stone, quill pens, ink, pencils
and ballpoint pens, then typewriters, there were only a few able to
write a worthy novel. The number of good writers, or storytellers
probably changed only slightly as the population increased hugely.
Not everyone can convert an idea into a film. Having a great concept
does not by itself translate into a film worth seeing.
When entering the world of digital, remember you will not be
reinventing the most important part of filmmaking which is good
storytelling. Yes, digital provides newly accessible tools to make
it easier to create for television and independent films, perhaps
the 21st century’s two most important mediums. Much cheaper than
film, and cheaper than professional beta, good digital, meaning
three chip with sufficient lines to give you a good set of images,
has advantages because it is initially so affordable. Once you get
into editing, and all you need to complete your project, costs
always go up. Time suddenly seems to be your enemy because you are
rushing to show the world, or at perhaps your boss, the wonders you
visualized. Time, though, should be your friend. The care you take
with your final piece before you foist it onto the world will make
the difference between artistic success and failure.
Your digital equipment is not a magic bullet. With it, anyone can be
nearly technically perfect. Do not let that sway you into believing
success is yours. Most importantly, before you shoot a frame, know
your story. Use your digital gear only when you are sure you know
your vision. Be prepared to make that idea understood. Have a reason
for your film that supersedes your ego. Unless the material is
remarkably compelling, do not allow it alone to dictate the
direction of the film. If that happens you may find yourself no
longer in control. When you lose control over your material, the
work becomes slack, diffuse, without purpose. Learn to edit yourself
as you are composing your piece.
Be ruthless. You may feel each time you drop a shot or end a day’s
shooting, or make an edit, as if someone is tearing off a
fingernail. Get used to being your toughest critic early in the
process because it will hold you in good stead later, if you
survive. Digital is not a substitute for creativity. Yes, it allows
an individual to be artistic in ways never imagined. A person picks
up a camera, loads it, takes off the lens cap and starts shooting.
When done, there is all that material. But, unless you have a clear
vision, you will have no place to go. Once you have the material,
the work really begins.
As I said, know your story. Before you shoot a frame, know where you
are going. If you do not, you will never finish what you start.
Don’t waste a lot of time going around in circles, looking for a
theme, searching for an idea you are sure will come only after your
material is shot.
It does not work that way.
Shooting many hours of tape does not translate into something
superior, eloquent, or brilliant. Always observe proper technique.
Learn when to stop shooting. Yes. Learn when to stop, to say no. Not
every picture is worth a thousand words.
I know a filmmaker who has more than 1,000 hours of tape or 6,000
minutes of material he hopes to make into three hours worthy for
air. He is talking about PBS, meaning when completed he will have
If you produce for cable, your content comes to maybe forty-four
minutes for an hour program with commercials, promos, lead-ins, and
all the assorted business of cable broadcasting.
If you are thinking of an independent documentary or even a
Hollywood narrative, length is less important, though always keep
your audience in mind. Try to separate yourself from you as the
filmmaker. Think of the person who might eventually see your
At one time poets, writers, and painters, tried to create alone in a
garret. There they escaped, believing they were safe to imagine a
world outside the one in which they lived. They looked for silence.
They hoped to flee chaos. Each person was alone with his thoughts
and it helped him to compose whatever reality he was seeking,
because it had a truth he alone defined. It created the myth of the
starving artist. It was romantic.
Filmmaking is a different art form. One person never produces a film
alone, unless it is purely experimental. Filmmaking depends on a
community, whether it is two people or twenty. Someone has to run
the camera and sound. Someone has to direct, often but not always
the same person as the director of photography. I believe there
should be a separate editor. A filmmaker’s worst enemy may be a film
he edits himself. There is something to stepping back and observing
your work over another’s shoulders, rather than doing it all
yourself, without benefit of another set of eyes. All films benefit
from another viewpoint.
There have been times when I resented an extra pair of eyes over my
shoulders. Not every suggestion works, but some do, and more times
than not it will make the project better. Consider, too, music,
graphics for titles and lower thirds giving information often
necessary to help the viewer, and finally post production for
picture and sound.
I know this seems daunting. It is not if you have a vision and the
guts to carry it out. Mainly, though, it consumes time, something we
should realize is necessary when making a film.
On the subway recently I overheard two young women, both students in
their early twenties, talking about a film one of them just
completed. Their conversation, animated, touching, affecting, was
impossible for anyone in their vicinity to ignore. It went something
“They loved my film.”
“I’m so happy for you. What’s next?”
“Well, they want me to cut it down before they decide.”
“Cut it down? How could they ask that?”
“They can but I don’t want to cut it.”
“How long does it run?”
“An hour and a half. I think it’s beautiful.”
“How can they make you cut it? It’s your film, your work.”
“They can. I’m still a student. They’re the boss.”
“I feel for you. Your work should stand as it is. It’s yours. Not
“You are so right. It’s mine and I’m going to keep it that way no
matter what they say. Anyway, I’m not sure I know how to cut an hour
from the film without destroying my vision.”
I wanted to say something she would have found disturbing, and make
her understand that others in this business with more experience
might be able to help. I attributed her assumption of perfection to
her youth. Arrogance, if it ever works, may have validity when it is
part of uncontested genius, something few possess. It was not my
place or right, and I said nothing. She may be right about the
purity of her vision. Perhaps her film is perfect, but I doubt it.
Nothing ever is and the sooner she knows that, the better off she
will be if she expects to have a career as a filmmaker.
A final thought, for now. Be prepared to serve an apprenticeship by
working anywhere, and doing anything and everything asked of you. It
will broaden you. It will prepare you for any situation. If you can
do that and learn your way while making a living and having fun,
may be there for the asking.