Sunday, April 29, 2018

What's My Artist Brand?

An On-going Argument

A while back, I talked about my photography journey in a post entitled Why I'm Still Embroiled in the Film vs. Digital Debate. I wanted to write about the film/digital question because that discussion has a tendency to turn nasty when brought up in online forums. I have no idea why. I mean, we're talking about what kind of camera you use to take pictures and make movies, for crying out loud. So many other subjects--child abuse, domestic abuse, drug abuse, war, etc.--deserve a strong emotional response. Film vs. digital? It seems trivial by comparison. So why all the drama?

I think part of the reason is that the film purists tend to come off as a bit snobby when talking about their art form. I can understand why they would have that mindset. After all, photography and filmmaking used to be disciplines reserved for those most dedicated to the craft. Learning to get a good picture (and even more so a good movie) on film was (is) hard work. It doesn't happen overnight. Why? Because when you're using real film you're shooting blind. You don't know if your picture is going to turn out dark or grainy, or if the shudder speed is so slow it results in a motion blur, until you've shot an entire roll of film and taken it for processing. So to do anything professional with the medium, you really have to know your craft. You have to practice. You have to shoot hundreds of terrible photos so you can learn from them and not make the same mistakes again. Then, when you know the workings of your camera inside and out, you can think about going pro.

Not so with digital. If you have a digital camera, you can see the finished image before you shoot. You can adjust and get it almost perfect before you even take the picture. And if the picture turns out terrible? You can immediately delete it and snap another.

Because of all this, I think some film photographers feel they've earned bragging rights that digital photographers don't have.

But why are the digital guys so adamant that we should just let film die? Well, I think they may feel insulted by everything I've mentioned above. But that doesn't mean film should die. It just means digital photographers should fight for their chosen medium. To each his own, right?

Maybe the issue is that some film enthusiasts want to keep harping on all those points, to the degree that digital photographers are made to feel like they have to use film if they want to be "real" photographers. And the digital guys don't want to use film because of the freedom digital cameras give them and is expensive and who wants to have to pay as much as a dollar per exposure (depending on what film you're using and how much your lab charges for processing) when digital makes every shot free?

Still, I don't think that is a reason to let film die. It has a different look from digital, especially if we're talking about filmmaking, and that's reason enough to keep it around. Some people will always prefer it and they have the right to create their art the way they want to create it.

Should I Go Digital?

In another post, What I Learned in my First (Semi) Professional Portrait Session in Over 10 Years, I discuss my frustrations with the fact that I can't afford a digital camera. I'm frustrated because if I want to be a professional portrait/event photographer, I can't keep shooting film. First of all, it's expensive, and I'd make more money if I made the switch. And second, clients have come to have certain expectations from a photo shoot. Quite often, they like to see their pictures right away. They want to pay by the hour instead of by the roll and have grown accustomed to a copious amount of shots being taken in that hour. And they've come to expect perfection, which is something a digital photographer can give them because a digital camera tells you immediately if you've messed up a picture. 

In addition, film does not do well in low light, which makes it less than ideal for capturing those candid wedding shots everyone loves.

But should I switch? The thing is, I love film. Especially in movies. When I watch a movie, I notice right away if there are dots dancing in the white part of the screen, and if I see the dots (I'm talking about film grain, if you haven't figured it out) then I enjoy the movie even more. I love the look of a movie shot on 16mm. It reminds me of a lot of the low-budget horror movies from the seventies. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a beautiful (in terms of cinematography) film shot on an Eclair ACL. Then there's The Evil Dead. Ah, The Evil Dead. That great beacon of hope for all amateur filmmakers everywhere. It's truly one of those movies you watch and think to yourself, "If they could do it, so can I!" And it was shot on an Arriflex 16 BL. 

Yeah, I nerd out on cameras a little bit. 

But, the thing is, I nerd out on film cameras. I don't feel the gentle stirrings in my soul when I think about digital. And honestly? Now that I've spent so much time learning the intricacies of real film, if I make the switch, I think it will feel like cheating. 

But the question is, do I need to make the switch? There are still a lot of artists out there shooting exclusively on film. Why can't I be one of them? Why can't I make that part of my brand? There are a lot of reasons, of course. Cost of processing is a big part of it. But, if I ever manage to go pro, all I need to do is charge enough money to compensate for the cost of developing and I'll come out in the black.

So what's a camera nerd to do? Buy a digital camera because it would make achieving my dream of professional photography easier? Or stick with film because it's what makes me unique? And, let's face it, I really do love film.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Cinematography in Life is Beautiful

Have you seen Life is Beautiful? I highly recommend it. It's a great movie. However, my focus today is not going to be on the merits of its story, its unique treatment of the serious issues it tackles, or the talents of its actors. Today, I'm only focusing on its cinematography.

So have you seen it? If you have, you may have noticed that, when watching it, you feel like you're watching a much older movie, perhaps one from the fifties or sixties, despite the fact that it was made in 1997. Part of this is the acting style seen in the film. The people speak and comport themselves in a way that feels very old-timey, but the retro feel of Life is Beautiful goes beyond that. It looks like an old movie. Why? I can't say definitively, but I have some theories.

Before going any further, I want to refer you to my older posts, What Made 70s Movies Look So 70s, Part 1 and Part 2, in order to understand more fully what I've already learned about the look of older movies.

I had come to the conclusion that older movies looked the way they did because they were shot in Technicolor, while movies made in the 70s and later were shot on color film. So you can imagine how confused I was when I saw Life is Beautiful and felt like I was watching an old movie. Life is Beautiful couldn't have been shot in Technicolor, could it? It is my understanding (and please correct me in a comment if I'm wrong about this) that movies have not been shot in Technicolor since the mid-70s. I know there was something of a revival in the late nineties (around the time Life is Beautiful was made) but, based on things I read, I concluded that the movies utilizing this process were only printed in Technicolor, not actually filmed in Technicolor. And I've watched clips of some of those movies. Pearl Harbor is one. It doesn't look like Life is Beautiful. Pearl Harbor looks like a newer movie while Life is Beautiful looks, well, old.

I needed to know why this was, so I paid close attention to detail while I was watching it, and I noticed some things.

I've already mentioned the acting styles, and that's certainly a big part of it, but it's much more than that.

First, there are the camera angles. The movie utilizes wide, medium, and close-up shots, with very few, if any, extreme wide or extreme close-up shots. Also, when showing the characters, the camera remains approximately at eye-level with the actors, so no high or low shots. That sort of limited camera work is quite common in older movies. At least in older color movies. Film Noir was a bit more creative, but I don't want to get into a discussion of Film Noir here.

Second, the filmmakers seemed to prefer a deep depth of field. This means that everything in the shot is in focus. Even in the close-ups of the characters, the background can be clearly seen. This is a camera technique that is not really in vogue at the moment. Newer movies are all about blurring out the background, or sometimes the foreground. Focus pulls are quite common (and beautiful...I love a good focus pull). Not so in older movies, and not so in Life is Beautiful.

And finally, Life is Beautiful is lit differently from movies of today. Nowadays, natural lighting is quite popular, and studio lighting is stylized to the point of being somewhat reminiscent of Film Noir (I may need to write a post on Film Noir in the near future, I seem to keep harping on it). Life is Beautiful is different. In the studio shots, light spills in from everywhere, even from above. There are shadows, sure, but not deep shadows. There are no dark parts of the frame anywhere in the movie. Even nighttime scenes are bright. Blue in color, yes, but still bright. And the outdoor shots? Well, they all look like they were filmed at three o'clock in the afternoon (can I get a collective groan from any photographers reading this?). No use of the precious "golden hour" in this unique film? Maybe in a couple of scenes, but for the most part the sun seems to be high in the sky whenever the actors are shown outside. I imagine it was through a generous use of reflectors and fill lights that they avoided making this look unflattering to the actors. And, to my recollection, there is no use of backlighting anywhere in the movie. Contrast this to movies of today. It seems that almost everything is filmed at the golden hour now. Backlighting is incredibly popular. Shadows are used to create mood and a sense of realism. 

Now that you've read my thoughts on it, I'll ask again: Have you seen Life is Beautiful? If not, you really should. While you're watching, pay attention to some of the things I've pointed out in this article. And if you have seen it? Go back and watch it again, this time with a keener eye for detail. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Showing My Age

I think I was in middle school when I started watching reruns of The Smothers Brothers with my parents. I don't remember what channel it came on, but it became a nightly ritual in our home. My parents, of course, were reliving good memories of having watched the show when it was new. I was discovering it for the first time.

Several years later (I was either dating my husband or we were already married, I don't remember), we were all over at my mother-in-law's house. My parents were there as well. I don't remember what the occasion was. I just remember that we were all together. Somehow conversation drifted to a discussion of Bible stories about brothers, and my dad made some quip about Tom and Dick Smothers. I, desperate not to be left out of this lively conversation, quipped right back, "I don't think they were in the Bible." My mother-in-law (who may or may not have been my mother-in-law yet) apparently didn't pick up on the knowing smile I shot my father when I made my joke because she looked directly at me, with that look an older person gives a younger person just before imparting some useful knowledge which the younger person obviously doesn't possess, and said, "That's a joke only us old folks would understand."

I was highly offended.

I've titled this post "Showing My Age", but I'm using the title ironically because I rarely "show my age." And I'm bothered by anyone who, after referencing a beloved song or movie, immediately follows with, "I'm really showing my age here!"

Why? Why does knowing about a specific song automatically date a person? Can't people know about songs that came out before they were born? I certainly do. And I have for a long time.

1989 is the year I turned ten years old. It's also the year my parents decided to go see Paul McCartney in concert. They loved going to concerts, and for some reason they always took me with them. They wanted to take me to see Paul McCartney but remembered the last two concerts they attended, with me in tow, and realized that, if I didn't know any of the songs being performed, I would be miserable. And if I was miserable, I would make them miserable.

Thus began my musical education.

Songs by The Beatles, as well music from Paul McCartney's solo career, played in our house day in and day out for months. My parent's goal was that, by the time we went to the concert, I would know all the songs well enough to sing along to them, which would make me enjoy myself while I was there.

Their evil plan worked. Not only did I enjoy the concert, I became completely obsessed with The Beatles (a fact that got me teased a good deal in school). But I didn't stop with The Beatles. By the time I was in eighth grade I had discovered all the best songs from the sixties and seventies (and a few from the fifties). In ninth grade, I found our local oldies station, and that became the background music for my commute to and from high school and, later, college. While most people my age were listening to...whatever young people listened to in the nineties (I have virtually no memory of the music that was popular during my teen years), I was rocking out to Petula Clark, The Hollies, Sonny and Cher, The Seekers, Buddy Holly, and the list goes on and on.

Showing my age? Well, I'll certainly never show my age when it comes to the music I like. While I have, in recent years, found one or two nineties songs that I've determined are worth listening to (I think Hootie and the Blowfish have a couple that I like) for the most part nineties music leaves me cold. Or, worse, it sounds like the music all the mean girls at school listened to. You know, the girls who made fun of me for liking The Beatles.

It was very frustrating when, as a teen, I would try to talk to someone of my parents' generation about music and they would preface every statement with, "Of course you're too young to know this song..." Why? Why was I too young? Maybe I was too young to remember when the song was new, but the song still exists. Anyone, young or old, can listen to it. There's no such thing as "too young to know a song."

And now? Still not showing my age. You see, I'm now a mom of teenagers and they, unlike me at their age, are into new music. So I listen to it with them. And I'm finding that I like today's music a whole lot more than I will ever like anything that came out of the nineties.

What can I say? I've always been a little weird.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Indie Book of the Month: April 2018

Given to Fly by K. L. Montgomery:

I've known about this book for a long time, but was somewhat wary of reading it based on the first line of the blurb, which says, "Can you break your vow if it's the only way to save yourself?" As someone who cherishes my religious beliefs and who also views marriage as a beautiful thing that's always worth fighting for, I feared this book would be an attack on all the things I hold dear. Not that I don't respect an author's right to tell a story from her own point of view, even if it differs from mine. I just knew that if I read it, I would then feel obligated to review it, and I try very hard to only read indie books if I can give them a good rating. 

I've never been of the camp that views religion as a man-made institution designed for the control of the masses. That's not been my personal experience with the whole church thing. For me, church is a place where I can connect with fellow believers who support me on my walk of faith. And religion itself? Look, I won't claim I know with absolute certainty that the teachings of my church are one hundred percent true, but even if the theology passed down by this religion or that religion turns out to be false, still I don't see the whole thing as one big pack of lies, but rather as a natural outcropping of man's search for the truth and the answers to life's big questions. And the reason there are so many different religions with so many different beliefs? Well, those big questions are hard to answer and we're only human. We can only understand so much. 

Because my faith is so precious to me, it hurts a bit when people want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I'm referring to the attitude that because some religious people are hypocritical or judgmental, even bigoted, then religion, by extension, must be all those things as well. As though God is to blame for the fact that some of his followers are scoundrels. As though there's something wrong with me because I choose to seek God within the walls of a church.

I was afraid that's what this book was going to be. I was afraid it was going to tell me I've been brainwashed by an evil institution that specializes in selling lies for the purpose of mind control.

That is not what this book is.

Rather than an attack on faith itself, Given to Fly is a critique of the hypocrisy often found in Christian social circles. The fact that hypocrisy is one of the biggest problems within the religious community is well-known, even by the members of that community. We all know the temptation to be more self-righteous than we are righteous. We all know the temptation to gossip about our fellow man. We all know at least one group of judgmental little church ladies who look down their noses at everyone else. This book calls out communities of faith for those behaviors, and I think that's a good thing. People need to be aware of the damage they often do in the name of God.

The book also seems to be something of a critique of the megachurch culture so prevalent in modern Christianity. Listen, I'm not going to criticize anyone's chosen form of worship. If people find God in a megachurch, good for them. However, that particular brand of faith has never been my preference, so the glimpses this book gives into that culture did not bother me. Whether they are accurate or not is not for me to say because, as I said, I don't attend a church like that. 

So I'm giving this book a proud five stars for tackling some serious issues in what I felt was a very sensitive way. I can't say I agree with all the conclusions drawn at the end of the story, but following Annelise on her journey of self-discovery got me thinking about some of those big questions I mentioned earlier, and I appreciate a book that goes that deep into the philosophical and the theological. 

I want to mention that I appreciate Annelise's reluctance to leave her husband when she finds out he's cheating. I know that's an area where some reviewers have taken issue, but I fully understand her point of view. You see, this is her marriage she's fighting for, and she entered into that marriage thinking it was her happily ever after. Thinking it would last forever. That's not an ideal she's going to let go of easily. You don't change your whole worldview and give up on your lifelong dreams overnight, even if letting go of those dreams are what you really need in order to be happy. And confronting her husband about it? Sure, that would have been the right thing to do, but it would also be the scary thing to do. I'm one of the most non-confrontational people in the world. I can't imagine having to go to my husband and tell him I caught him cheating. Heck, I break out into a cold sweat every time I have to call my parents and ask them if they can babysit our dogs when we go on vacation because I'm worried they won't want to do it. A cheating husband? first instinct would be to pretend nothing was happening, just like Annelise does. Though I did want to scream at her to stop trying to get pregnant with her husband's baby. I realize she thinks that's what it will take to save her marriage, and I guess I can understand the fact that, until you actually have kids, you don't realize that, rather than saving a marriage, they are more likely to put strain on that marriage. I've known so many people who seemed perfectly happy together until that bouncing baby came along, then a couple of years later suddenly they're separated. Raising kids is hard, and bringing one into an already damaged home is never a good idea. But how could Annelise know that? She wouldn't. 

I would have liked to see a little clearer glimpse of Annelise's faith. By the end of this book, she makes a decision that goes against everything she's been taught her entire life. I don't think she would make the transition quite as easily as she seems to in this book. I've gone through more than one period of doubt in my own faith journey. Doubt in my fellow Christians. Doubt in the church. Even doubt in the existence of God himself. Going through those doubts is scary. You feel like the very ground on which you're standing is about to be pulled out from beneath you. I would have liked to see a little of that in Annelise's story. It would have made it feel more real to me. 

I also felt the ending was a little too pat. Everything seems to come together perfectly in this beautiful package that's wrapped up all pretty and topped with a neat, red bow. Life doesn't work that way. Life is messy. There are loose ends that sometimes never get tied up. And after everything the characters in this book have been through, it seems that there would be some lingering wounds that will take a long time to heal. 

Nevertheless, this is a great book that really got me thinking about what I believe and why. 

Whatever your personal conviction regarding faith, marriage, family, etc., I encourage you to take a chance on this book. If nothing else, it will get you thinking, and that can't be a bad thing.

Grab your copy here: