We all know what it feels like: A new piece of gear arrives in the mail and we are giddy with excitement. We tear into the box, mount the accessory hastily onto a growing Franken-Rig, and admire our newly capable film-making setup. But then something dissonant happens….
The rig goes into the bag, the bag goes into the car, and off we drive to the shoot. The trouble is, as the day progresses, something is just not flowing the way it used to. Justify it though we try, there was something about that simpler, less “capable” setup that, with all of it’s flaws, somehow just worked. It was like an extension of the body. And yes, it made the back sore and the hand a bit cramped, but at the end of the day, we knew how to get the shot we wanted.
Admittedly, this isn’t the whole story. Often, especially in the case of great ergonomic camera support, good accessories are worth their weight in gold, and they enable us to do better work. But on many occasions, just the opposite happens.
There is something unexpected at play that makes how we envision equipment a very different thing from how it actually gets used when the clock is ticking and the lights go on. Why does this happen? When we look at a new piece of gear, we try to imagine what it will be like to use, right? Why do we get this wrong?
Martin Heidegger on Set
The philosopher Martin Heidegger devoted much of his mental power to an analysis of how we exist in the world surrounded by things that we only fully encounter when we take them in hand and start using them. Unique among philosophers, he understood that things don’t just sit still and submit to our detached, unbiased analysis. On the contrary, we can only fully account for our experience if we also consider things as they exist while in use as equipment. This led him to theorize two “modes of encounter” with things.
Film Tools in Use
First, there is “readiness-to-hand.” Something exists as ready-to-hand when our attention is directed not at it, but rather upon some job we are doing. The equipment doesn’t occur as an object in our minds at all, but rather joins up with our body to get a job done. This is a mode of being in which the equipment quietly recedes into the background of our experience — we can almost forget that it is there — and exists alongside us as something actively in use.
In a way, this sounds like the tool in question hides from our gaze when in use. But in another way, the tool is actually revealing a part of itself that otherwise goes unseen. A tool in use simultaneously reveals and conceals itself. As Heidegger put it, only “the hammering itself uncovers the specific ‘manipulability’ of the hammer” (Being and Time, I. 3:69).
Film Tools on a Pedestal
Second, there is “presence-at-hand,” and here the object is like a specimen before the gaze of a scientist, or, in this industry, the product in many an online review. The present-at-hand object does not recede into a situation of use, but rather is the direct object of our attention, center stage.
Failing to understand the difference between present-at-hand and a ready-to-hand equipment accounts for many of the mistakes we make as cinematographers and filmmakers. It’s often what distinguishes green camera enthusiasts from seasoned pros. So here are a few pointers to help us plan for shoots in away that is based in real world know-how.
Pointers for the Real World
- As much as possible, design your kit around the simplest practical considerations, such as time-to-deploy, reliability, simplicity, and ergonomics, not theoretical things like camera specs. If you have some capital to spend, consider spending it on a hassle-free cart, a more organized case, or a battery setup that will make power needs never distract you again, rather than on upgrading your recording codec or resolution.
- Identify and solve hold-ups in your actual experience on shoots — not what you think is missing from your system based on something you read or how other people do things, but what actually caused a distraction, delay, or quality issue in your real experience.
- Never, ever, use something because you bought it, or because you brought it. If the natural light is looking better, let the cart full of lights sit unused in the corner. You are not wasting anything. Those lights are backing you up, ready-to-hand for when their use is actually in order. They are doing their job by being ready and out of the way. Now you do your job, which is to make great images, whatever that takes (or doesn’t take). Your clients and colleagues will be impressed with your professionalism and practical know-how because of your simple, confident decision making, not because of your snazzy new LEDs.
- Keep your gear longer than you would normally be inclined. A good craftsperson-tool relationship takes time to build, and your work will generally benefit more from your second-nature mastery of your equipment than it will from squeezing out a few more pixels or bits of color.
- Judiciously encourage diversity of methods among crew, focusing more on results than on traditional or homogenous techniques. I once worked with a photographer-turned-cinematographer who had kept a lot of his old methods from stills. At first I was inclined to “educate” him about “how things are done” on set. Then I realized that, if I set everything I thought I knew aside and just looked at his compositions, it was I who needed to learn from him. A few pointers were in order about stabilization, but the main thing was not to disturb what was obviously working. Everyone has to find their flow in a different way, and human beings are remarkably good at thinking up unexpected new ways to use tools.
- Lastly, be careful whom you listen to when it comes to reviews and recommendations. Choose sources grounded in real-world experience. Let the rest of the chatter distract someone else. Reviewers generally signal pretty obviously whether most of their time with a piece of camera equipment consists of pointing another camera at it. No matter how well they have the specs memorized, or how well their review is produced, don’t put too much stock in what such people say. Focus instead on reviewers who are taking a few minutes away from their busy shooting schedule to offer a sound recommendation.
Have you ever had this experience, when things don’t work out on set quite how you planned due to poorly chosen or designed tools? What are your strategies for achieving artistic flow in an industry full to the brim with complex equipment? Let us know in the comments!