What Matters More, Story or Gear?
By Rachel Tenney | November 14, 2019
Typically, Will Freeman's, the creative director of Pro Look Media, morning routine has been grabbing a cup of coffee, walking into the office, and checking out the latest news about what tech companies like Sony, Canon, and Panasonic are developing. But over the last year, he has found himself straying from his typical morning routine. As he grows as a filmmaker, he was starting to question the assumption that many in the film world operate under, which is that your film quality is directly tied to the quality of your gear.
Most filmmaking “shop talk” on blogs and in conversations center around the tech and gear we use to do our job. And in many ways, this is a great thing. Our gear is an important part of the quality we bring to the job. Filmmaking is, after all, a technical endeavor, and it’s smart to consider what your needs are and purchase adequate gear. Depending on what kinds of film you’re trying to shoot, there are some industry standards that are pretty much requirements these days.
What is the goal of filmmaking?
But let me ask you a question: What was the last movie you watched? Do you know what kind of camera it was shot on? If you’re like most people, you probably don’t. Why? Because we don’t care about what kind of camera a film is shot on, as long as we enjoy the viewer experience.
Tech certainly plays into creating a great viewer experience, and in as much as it creates a medium for telling your story that is compelling and beautiful, it’s absolutely vital. But it’s helpful to take a step back and consider what the actual goal of filmmaking is. Is it merely to create something visually appealing? Many novice filmmakers get stuck there, worrying about constantly improving the technical quality of their films, instead of growing in their storytelling.
Consider these acclaimed films that were shot on low quality cameras:
Inland Empire (Sony DSR-PD150)
Once (Sony HVR-Z1)
The Idiots (Sony DCR-VX1000)
The Celebration (Sony DCR-PC3)
Rob Hardy at No Film School, a respected filmmaking blog, comments on this tech obsession among filmmakers, calling it, “Gear Acquisition Syndrome”. He notes that it is “a psychologically-crippling state of mind, in which someone becomes convinced that they can't produce something worthwhile or meaningful until they've acquired certain pieces of gear”.
There are some negative side effects to this way of thinking. Instead of being able to focus their energy on creativity, the filmmaker is expending energy on trying to decide which tech they should purchase in an ever changing, ever expanding tech world.
It also falls into the trap of thinking that greatness is tied to something “out there” instead of realizing that great skill comes with practice, and embracing limitations. Robert McKee, in his book STORY, points out the benefit of limitations...
“The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn’t inhibit creativity; it inspires it.”
― Robert McKee, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting
As humans, we dislike the feeling of limitations, but when we embrace them, they actually free us to be our most creative selves. In filmmaking, pressing yourself to learn to utilize more fully the skills, tech, and opportunities we have actually forces us to focus on skill, rather than thinking that greatness is dependent on another purchase, opportunity, or someday in the nebulous future.
A filmmaker’s creative choices should be motivated by the story
A great example of a filmmaker who embraced his limitations is George Lucas, who filmed the Star Wars movies 4, 5, & 6 before 1, 2, & 3. The tech didn’t yet exist to do justice to films 1, 2, & 3, but he pushed the boundaries on the gear available, so that when the new tech became available, his proficiency was matched. A filmmaker’s creative choices should be motivated by the story and should embrace the limitations of the tools.
Another example is Act of Valor’s DP, Shane Holbert. He understood that limitations can foster, rather than dampen creativity, and shot beautiful footage that had a wide theatrical release on a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR.
So maybe it’s not so much about the gear as we thought.
As Joe Marine, filmmaker and editor quips,
"This new gear is only as good as you are.”
Without a story, a film has no life.
What really makes a film great is it’s story. As humans, we connect on a deep level to stories, and we use them to communicate some of our deepest desires, emotions, and messages. This is why many people still watch old movies. Even though technology has advanced far beyond what was available when they were filmed, we enjoy the stories they tell.
So what’s more important, the gear you use, or the story? The answer is, both. Beautiful imagery and quality gear help us to do justice to the stories we tell. But without a story, a film has no life. Story and gear are dependent on each other. Allow your story to dictate the gear you use, and go make amazing films.