The Camera as Instrument

In traditional American mainstream filmmaking, the camera and all of its accessories fall into the category of equipment – expensive technology, hauled around and operated by specialists. On a professional film crew, literally no-one is allowed to touch the camera, or anything associated with the camera (even the cases in which its components are stored) except members of the camera department.

These days, most of us also have video cameras in our various devices – our phones and our computers. Our interactions with these are often carefully managed by a sophisticated user interface – software which makes decisions about things like focus, exposure and white balance, usually with minimal consultation with the human user.

Additionally, there’s a distinctly blue-collar realm of the moving image – the union camerapeople who shoot the news, sports, concerts, and other live events. I haven’t discussed the topic with members of this constituency in depth, but I would imagine that for them cameras could be described and defined as complex tools.

I would say that these three categories cover most of the terrain in which we talk about and understand cameras today, professionally, socially, and even artistically – I regularly find myself lapsing into discussions of my camera equipment and tools, even though when I stop and think about it, none of these descriptions feels adequate to me.

So, it has been tremendously helpful for me to start to think about the motion-picture camera as an instrument, like a musical instrument, which is performed rather than operated or utilized.

A guitar, for instance, has an essentially simple set of controls – six strings and a dozen-ish frets – with which an infinite variety of music can be made. You don’t hear anyone talking about a guitar as a tool or a piece of equipment – maybe an amp is equipment, but there is a special designation for the instrument itself – it is a conduit for creative expression, capable of deep subtlety and nuance, played differently by every pair of human hands, heard differently by every pair of ears.

Likewise, most any camera has an exceedingly simple set of manual controls – focus, exposure, zoom (maybe), ISO (light sensitivity), white balance (specific to video) – but every pair of hands (and eyes) will relate to it differently.

To me, the choice of analogy is critical. There’s nothing wrong with using a camera as a tool or a piece of equipment, but it’s very curious to me that we lack even the basic terminology to talk about film and video cameras as a conduit for creative expression. I suppose this is a historical dynamic that can be traced back to the early years of cinema – motion picture cameras were invented and developed by enthusiastic craftsmen and entertainers as vaudevillian amusements, but the equipment was quickly professionalized and industrialized, mainly by Hollywood, early in the 20th Century.

This is related but not identical to the debate about film versus digital that has been going on for about the past 20 years. There are self-identified “film purists” who object to even the use of the word “film” to describe something created digitally – but I find that for the most part, this discussion usually lacks even a mention of the critical element of the artist’s relationship to their instruments and materials.

In other words, Martin Scorcese can talk till he’s blue in the face about how film is superior to digital: when is the last time he loaded a camera himself? To me it’s an utterly moot point if you have specialists lugging your equipment, assembling and operating your cameras, pressing all of the buttons, and even transferring that footage to high-res digital scans for editing and effects, before (maybe) transferring it back to celluloid. If Scorcese is only ever looking at the images his crew captures on a digital screen, his connoisseurship is… valid, but not unlike preferring, say, manual transmission to automatic on your Jaguar. You can certainly argue that it makes your driving experience more authentic, but it doesn’t mean you know how to change the oil.

(Note: of course Scorcese has a lifetime supply of street cred from his “Raging Bull” days – but seriously, that was 1980.)

If we were to talk about cameras as instruments rather than tools, equipment, or devices, I think it would profoundly affect the discussion of filmmakers as artists. Eric Clapton is just as old as Martin Scorcese, but he still plays the guitar with his own two hands.

I get it that these things are delegated – the director on a big film is the leader of a whole team, musicians work with music producers who write arrangements for them, big-deal artists like Damien Hirst have legions of assistants who do most (or all) of the actual applying-paint-to-canvas work for them.

But: it’s interesting that it even seems necessary (to me) to make the case for camera as instrument – that the choice of instrument actually matters, in addition to the medium itself (film vs. digital). Nobody would argue that the choice between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar doesn’t matter, or that choosing to make a painting in oil or in watercolor is an arbitrary decision.

When I make a black and white film with a spring-wound, 16mm Bolex camera, I find myself constantly explaining that it isn’t merely an aesthetic choice, it’s an entirely different process, because of my relationship to the camera, how I handle it, the choices it gives me, the constraints it places upon me. I find that relationship itself incredibly meaningful and pleasurable, as an artist working with an instrument.

The fact that the footage looks really cool is merely an added bonus.

(cross-posted at The Slow Film Movement)

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