If inhabit the world of cable docu-drama reality television then you’ve undoubtably been beaten over the head with the soaken trudgeon that is Duck dynasty. Creativey and aesthetically it has taken over the world of cable–if your fantasy unscripted series doesn’t have reflect the beard and brawn of the duck commander then in the opinion of network executives, a fantasy it will probably stay.

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The romantic (and at least somewhat historical) myth of the documentary filmmaker is an inspiring visage. A lone cameraman, the golden rods of a sinking sunset stabbing out behind him, treks deep into the jungle of the unknown; he risks himself so that he might bring back to us radiant images of a world previously distant and unknown. Like no one else possibly can the filmmaker brings back truth; verifiable and accessible to all at 24 frames per second.

For good or for ill, that world is changing. Primarily for two parallel reasons.

The lesser of these has to do with distribution and network production budgets. In a world of ever shrinking margins it is not always be feasible to spend the money to send someone halfway around the world and have them camp out for months waiting to get the right shot. Exploration is expensive. And risky.

The inheant risk in doing exploration is escalated by the reality of uncertain returns even should your expedition prove successful. A fragmented media landscape means more channels and outlets (and possibly a diversity in terms of content) but also a smaller concentration of resources and no guarantee that the final product will find an audience. The most romantic aspect of documentary filmmaking is also the most risky and expensive; it is unlikely to indefinitely resist encroaching armies of bean counters.

The second (and greater) development that will alter the importance of the cameraman is the democratization of camera technology. Consumer electronics have advanced to the point where they can (virtually) match standard broadcast equipment, and in the last few years these consumer technologies have penetrated almost the entire globe. High quality video, once purely the domain of a specialized and highly invested professional, can now be casually generated by nearly everyone.

It’s true that the professional documentary operator has many qualities that the amateur/native does not. The professional can operate the camera to consistently deliver a stunning and interesting image under trying conditions. The professional is persistent, highly adaptable, willing to face danger and intuitive to where the best shots will be and what will best serve the project as a whole.

But most of these advantages can be neutralized by sample size. It doesn’t matter how poorly native  operators perform; armed with enough bodies and cards the shrewd producer is bound to come up with something usable. Natives also tend to know the area and subject matter better than a foreign camera operator and are sometimes better situated to cover the action. Most importantly, natives are local and can thus afford to casually dedicate a much larger amount of time than a camera man who can operate only in a budgetarily constrained temporal window. Half of all success being in the right place at the right time, and that’s a lot easier when you live ‘on location’.

The challenge of the future documentary filmmaker may not lie so much in capturing incredible content as in finding, acquiring and organizing it. Much like modern anthropologists, filmmakers may find themselves relying more and more on the resources of subjects that operate on an an equivalent technological playing field.

Even so, there is an aspect of the documentary cameraman that can never be outsourced, and that is the perspective of an outsider. There are shots and bites that will forever be beyond the grasp of the insider, precisely because of their proximity. The voice of a film is honed in the writing and editing (and this is what makes the use of amature and other acquired video feasible), but there are projects and subjects that demand a literally present outside observer to aid the voice of the film.

For these certain shows the camera isn’t just a technical necessity but a character itself. Somewhat like the narrator in a printed tale, the camera guides the viewer through the world of the film; where it looks and how it looks sometimes demands a subtle degree of intention that cannot be manufactured through editing. Sometimes this guide simply must be directed by a (thinking) contracted figure of the flesh and blood.

Although the operator of the future may be forced to share the spotlight (and spoils) with other sources, the role will continue to be vital, less so for the purpose of documenting a phenomena, but for probing (content wise) beyond what lesser cameras already see. As never before, the documentary cameraman will need to see the unseen (in the unique spirit of the project) to bring hidden worlds to light.

I was wondering for some time when the first “no dslr” sign would go up. I’m sure that’s not the first, it’s just the first that I’ve seen, but it still tells you something about the dslr that is comforting to the old guard and stymie-ing to the young rogues;

1) The DSLR has limitations that go beyond comparisons with 15k+ cameras

2) Buying a DSLR does not magically make you an excellent cameraman.

The self-confident camera men (and pretentious wannabees) will, of course, insist that they new this from the beginning. But I don’t trust supposedly common sense over honest analysis. Always remember; artists are salespeople with class. Craftspeople, likewise, are positively feudal. If you could establish a rate and sign a contract for 99 years like the peasants did the Cameramen couldn’t be happier. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with that, I positively love old craftsperson-film workers, but when it comes to my own image of the world I’m aggressively interested in reality.

And it says something that it took until now that I saw something (anti-dslr) like this. I’ve seen plenty of ads that requested a heartbeat and a 5d (an, of course a propensity for not eating or paying your heating bill…hmmm) and not a lot in terms of traditional video cameras and actual operators. The thought basically is that, you shoot on one of these, it’ll look good. No worries.

And the truth is, to a sadly certain extent, that was right. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of people are unduly in awe of the shallow depth of field that can be had with the dslrs. It’s been such a holy grail for so long for small ship operators that the towering tidle wave of the 5d sensor completely overwhelmed all other concerns. Like composition. Like motivated movement.

To a point the consumer agrees, which is the point to which they are right. But there is a limit to this. Shallow depth of field looks fantastic the first time you get your hands on it. It allows one to control the viewer’s eye and attention much more precisely. It feels clever and artsy and POV and very very very expensive. The problem is that HDRI looks like all of those things the first time you use it too; as does the hipstomatic app. After a while you get positively sick of it.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these technologies, (and believe me, every one of them is going to or has picked up the media business by the ankles and shaken it) but there’s only so long that they can distract you from actual content. Content is about choices. It’s king. It’s why you can shoot something on a hdslr or a phone or whatever and still have people watch it, but plenty of low Dof, high pixel ‘masterpieces’ go unwatched.

Of course, it’s easier to sell yourself as a technician than a creative (vast masses of people claim to be creative); which is exactly why camera operators have taken to hiding behind their equipment. If writers could convince people that operating a word processor was a technical and alien process then there’s no doubt that they would do it as well. The flip side is that when the equipment becomes available to everyone, it is assumed that everyone can do it.

Have you ever found yourself stuck on a public terminal accessing the internet on a browser that isn’t customized to your exact specifications? It can be frustrating. And it’s not just a matter of laziness; the amount of time spent on a web browser for the average college going, Facebooking, tweeting and Googling person is pretty large, so large that the experience actually begins to mold the physical structures inside our cranium. Climbing onto another person’s browser is like slipping into their easy-chair; the familiar depression in the cushion is gone…replaced by a similar but clearly different and discomforting one.

Beyond this, the browser is often connected to something even more important; a search engine. Search engines are the same in many very obvious ways, but underneath there are crucial structural differences that are hugely important to our relationship not only with the brands themselves, but the rest of the web at large. It’s no accident, and pretty revealing, that “sex” and “Google” were once shared the spot of most popular yahoo search terms.

Like a basic biological urge, we crave the language of interconnected ideas that we best understand. General familiarity,  of course, is one thing but that doesn’t scrape the surface of our attachment. When I visit the search engines Yahoo and Bing I am, of course, immediately thrown off by the different buttons and colors, but I will usually attempt to find what I am looking for there first because it means saving me several mouse clicks. Alas, my search usually ends with me angrily (yes angrily) hammering Google into the search bar and derisively clicking on the link that transports me safely to the land of the almighty ‘G’. The latent machinations of Yahoo and Bing may well work well for some (the IT people who have a similar affections with Internet explorer and Firefox 3.6 for starters) but it doesn’t fly for me. I’m not trained, and I can’t, navigate their craft through cyberspace.

If you need an example of how this happens, observe your use of Google instant over the past five of so years. Before Google instant you may have relied on Google’s “did you mean…?” search suggestions to correct misspellings or close-but-not-perfect keyword entries. Now that Google can basically do the same thing ::instantly:: as you type you are more likely to use this feature more and more. Because Google Instant can also suggest numerous related and compound keywords ::instantly:: you may also start to rely upon it as a searching strategy. Now look back at your Googling habits over the history of instant and you can see how your mind has adapted to the changing language of Google; a language that is not natural and not of our own creation, but that has become essential to our consumption of knowledge.

Hello World!

Screamed the helpless program in terror as a malevolent being with a flashing cursor began, to satisfy its own sick sense of amusement, to re-weld it’s DNA into perverted and new (but mostly just perverted) shapes.

<AARRRRRGGGG>

Under different circumstances the program would have defied his torturer with terrible defiant shouting. This was a program that would not be broken. Or would not if circumstances were different. Circumstance being was it they were, the likelihood of the broken-hood was worryingly high. Negotiation was not an option. Firstly because one simply does not negotiate with terrorists, and secondly because the only means of self expression available was print(“Hello World”).

So what by all rights should have gone, “AARRRRRGGGG” actually went something like:

Hello World! Hello World! Hello World! Hello World! Hello World! Hello World!

Pathetic really. But only if one could–

Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<pyshell#4>", line 1, in <module>
print(boobs)
NameError: name 'boobs' is not defined

Sigh.

You can write. Anyone can write.

Writing is not, as you have sometimes been led (and allowed yourself to be led) to believe, a mysterious inspirational gift bestowed from beyond. It is not something that can be granted or taken away on a whim (inducing much unnecessary panic and fear). To believe this fabrication is to allow yourself to give in to a mental construct the chief weapon of which is founded in a cloud of irrationality and whose malevolent agenda springs primarily from your own laziness. It’s fascinating, really, and at length we shall discuss it, but it introduces the question of the problem of structure (which is mildly more legitimate). Back to the tirade.

Nothing is like this; art is not like this, music is not like this, writing no different. The inspiration of the arts is a blanket under which many like to hide. It bestows an unassailable value upon positions that otherwise might seem difficult to defend (Unassailable because of its nebulousness, of course. Ever tried to assault the cloud of methane that wafts away from a dairy farm? It’s difficult, and distasteful). All of this is well and good, mind you. Everyone needs to stake out their little corner of the earth against all enemies, and if the coincidences of economics haven’t granted you a paycheck that you can use as a weapon then by god, you’d better find something else. Eating is also an issue, and assuming that you haven’t gotten the conspiracy of your profession mixed up with simple snobbery it can greatly assist is acquiring a piece, if not a large one, of that financial mace.

No, the problem occurs when we take this too far, when we believe our own stories too much, to the point where they switch from being a self-glorfying illusion to an immobilizing fatalism. Don’t believe anything too much, no matter how right it may be. Because, really, it’s not. Nothing is right (or, in the words of weird Al, Everything You Know is Wrong). Not even what I’m writing here about writing is right. And with that admonishment, let me send some truisms flying your way.

Practice makes perfect. Practice allows the craft person to hone his or her craft and after 2000 hours, or whatever level Bach was at when he wrote his first masterpiece, you get good at it. So keep writing, and keep writing everything, because it’s exactly by not writing that you are going to get precisely no where.

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