On Magpies and Cheap Cameras

Reading your old writing is a little surreal. It takes you back to a time and a place, but all while you’re critiquing your past thoughts.

I stumbled across a short post I wrote in 2009 for Be The Shoe, entitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cheap Cameras.

The RED is a $17,000 camera, plus another $1000 for the base set, plus no less than $5000 for the lens. It shoots a resolution four times that of HD, and is the nicest goddamn video camera on the market.

Of course, [the films shot with it] do have one more thing in common: nobody in the audience knew they were shot on such a nice camera, nor did they care.

And reading this again, it reminded me of a conversation I’d recently had with a developer friend. He’d been bemoaning how much of the web industry has moved its focus to tooling over making products.

He may not be wrong. And I can’t help but notice the parallel between the magpie developer, who seem to obsess over frameworks and methods but have no plans to use them for anything, and camera-crazed filmmakers who shoot mediocre scripts on perfect cameras.

There's an unspoken myth that great cameras make great movies, which will win awards at Sundance and find national distribution. They'll make the crew millions and the director will spend the rest of his life playing around in LA, Entourage-style.

So I guess it shouldn't've been surprised that people kept telling us to get the Canon GL-2. And if we didn't want to drop $3000 per camera? Well, we could rent one!

But another thing about that post: I was wrong.

2.

For what we were trying to accomplish, learning how the cameras work and finding the best bang for our extremely limited funds worked. We were making features for less than one-tenth of the cost that other filmmakers put to similar projects.

The audience was none the wiser. They loved it. They loved the writing and the performances and, yes, the cinematography.

But do you know what else happens when you make a movie on $800 cameras and cheap shotgun mics?

One night during production, you get a 3am call from Randy (my co-founder as well as the writer/director) and the lead actor who were staying up watching the day’s footage, swearing they heard demon voices on the tape.

It turned out, it was AM radio. Our unshielded audio cables, which were wrapped around a steel camera crane to keep them out of the way, had become an antenna, picking up distorted talk radio and passing it into the camera1.

These days we have access to real equipment. Nobody calls me about demon voices.

And come to think of it, I’ve done web development cheap-camera-style: without git, without an asset pipeline, without linters and with FTP for a deploy system. There’s a reason I adopted version control and a CSS preprocessor and automated ways to combine files etc. It’s useful to me.

But I’ve also spent days trying to get Node tooling — the new shiny — to play nice with Django, and I’m still not so sure it was better than the system it replaced.

3.

We shot I’m With Joy on a Canon 5D — an SLR that happened to shoot great video. The 5D isn’t perfect. Its form factor is designed for photography, not video, and it can only shoot up to 12 minutes continuously. It’d be nice to upgrade.

Production wise, I don’t think we’d get anything out of a BlackMagic or whatever the new hotness is that we couldn’t get over an entry-level professional Canon.

Randy corrects me. “You know that argument lost, right?”

I do. People in the film industry and running the festivals want to see fancy cameras, and will even claim that’s what audiences have come to expect.

Our experience is the opposite — story matters. Acting and writing and cinematography matters, but the quality of the picture itself, well, there may be a minimum, but past that, people would rave about something shot on an iPhone2 if the story was good.

I’ve also heard developers claim that their users expect Single Page Applications, despite the fact that they’re harder to build, tend to break the back button, and are more prone to instability. I agree that web apps need to be fast, but the layperson doesn’t actually know what a single page application is, and certainly doesn’t know what isomorphic rendering is.

4.

The counterargument is that while the layperson doesn’t know what your tooling looks like, the differences affect them subconsciously, and they expect the experience to measure up to other work done on a professional level.

That’s interesting, because film editing and sound are all about subtle manipulations. If you haven’t edited video before, you might not know that when two characters are talking in separate shots, their eyes need to line up. But you’ll definitely notice if it’s wrong.

You could make the same argument about apps. Virtually all of usability and visual communication is about presenting cues that the user understands, but isn’t necessarily cognizant of.

Then again, the big players we’re allegedly emulating cheat all the time. The new Star Wars movie broke visual continuity left and right. I’ve caught plenty of shots in big budget films where the characters say something but their mouths aren’t moving3.

On the tech side, the list of outfits following the new shiny that make lousy experiences starts with Facebook.

Personally, I’ve been making movies and web stuff for a long time. In film, we’ve done endless focus groups and screenings, and lay people will often catch something that felt wrong to them that they can’t quite pin down. In web apps, nondevelopers find bugs and quirks that don’t make sense. They’re far from oblivious and very vocal.

All the examples that come to mind are rough edges in the end result, where something is actively wrong. With the exception of tooling that helps control quality, increasingly fancy or complex tooling doesn't phase the layerson.

If anyone has evidence to the contrary, I’d love to see it.

5.

I don’t want to make the same kinds of sweeping claims I did in 2009 — they feel trite. Circumstances do matter. Shooting an indie film with an out of pocket budget and a zero percent chance of turning a profit is different than a funded HBO pilot. Building web apps on a 10-person team is different than having 100 engineers to throw at a problem.

But this I’m pretty sure of:

The tooling is for the creators. If it adds something concrete, makes the project easier, and helps you sleep at night by keeping the demon voices at bay, that’s good.

If you need the approval of insiders who use tooling as a metric for quality, well, of course you’re going to appease them.

But the idea that any of it trickles down to the audience or end users is dubious.


  1. Reasonable people may disagree as to whether talk radio hosts are in fact demons. I leave this analysis as an exercise to the reader. 

  2. Don’t. You’ll never be able to keep in stable. 

  3. You can replace dialogue in post. But if you’re going to get away with it, the actor’s mouth needs not be visible, or needs to be moving.