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As you visit your local multiplex, you might notice a disturbing trend. Most of the movies being made are not very good. There’s a certain intangible quality that’s missing in today’s films as compared to movies in the twentieth century (that’s the years 1901-2000 for all you blondes out there).“They just don’t make them like they used to,” you say, thinking that movies now are more muddled and they don’t suck you into the story like the old ones did. And you’re right.

Part of the reason for this is the stories that are being made now. I mean, how many sequels and prequels and remakes and reimaginings and reboots can one take. But there’s another reason for this decline in filmmaking quality and it’s much less obvious. It’s the advent of video and digital filmmaking.

You see, before digital video was around, people learned to make movies by shooting on film. And shooting on film is both expensive and time consuming. Therefore, when directors were learning their craft, they had to plan what they wanted and pre-visualize everything before they shot it. It was too expensive and would take too long to do otherwise. Moving the camera meant changing the set up and could take hours.

 

Buster Keaton directing Buster Keaton looking through film

 

Every shot had to be planned out ahead of time and directors were forced to think “what am I saying with this shot” or”what is the meaning of this cut” or even “will this shot cut together with the previous one”. Directors working this way learned how to best tell a story with shots and cuts.

Pyscho shower scene storyboard - Alfred Hitchcock

This all changed with the ease and accessibility of video, especially digital video. Unlike film stock, tape is cheap. Shooting video is fast and relatively easy. You can see the way the shot will turn out ahead of time on a video monitor. Moving the camera is easy. All of sudden, pre-visualization is no longer as important. This must all sound like a filmmaker’s dream, but the reality is that this ease is what is killing the quality of movies today.

You see, video and digital filmmaking has become a kind of crutch. Directors no longer need to plan out their shots. They can see everything on a video monitor. If something doesn’t work on the monitor, they can just move the camera easily. As a result, many directors have gotten lazy and have stopped pre-planning their shots. New and aspiring filmmakes who learn their craft on video may never learn to pre-visualize.

Without this pre-planning and pre-visualization, the predominant question that directors ask themselves changes from “what am I saying this shot/cut” to “where can I place the camera to get a cool shot”. Video doesn’t just change the learning curve, it changes what is learned. Filmmakers no longer focus on how to tell a story with pictures. Instead, they learn how to make visual “eye candy” with their shot selection or by moving the camera. Now, it doesn’t matter what the meaning of the cut is as long as the images look good.

This is not to say that every director now has done away with pre-visualization, but the temptation to just move the camera around looking for pretty images and shoot on they fly is too great for many directors to ignore. For many new filmmakers, video has shifted the dynamic of movies from using images to tell a story to using a story to hang pretty images on.

While I believe that video and the digital filmmaking process can be a great tool, to learn on video makes it too easy for aspiring directors to rely on the technology instead of putting in the work to plan out their films. I think it is important for directors to learn how to shoot on film first before they are introduced to the ease and convenience of video. That is why I am saddened to see so many film schools switching over from film to video.

There has been a great debate in the film industry about the future of film. Prominent directors such as George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez have not only embraced digital filmmaking but have also trumpeted it as a replacement for film. Other filmmakers are much more reluctant about replacing film as a medium with digital video. They cite digital video’s lower resolution and dynamic range as well as other aesthetic qualities as reasons not to abandon film as a shooting format. The real importance of shooting on film, however, is not just about the aesthetic of film as many purists would argue, but about the limitations and discipline that film forces upon filmmakers. We can only hope that the next generation of filmmakers realizes the importance of telling stories through images and learns to use advances in digital filmmaking as a tool instead of a crutch as so many filmmakers are doing now.

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