What Does Your Footage Mean to You?
Yesterday, an actress friend of mine told me that her boyfriend is a writer and aspiring director, so she was thinking about getting him a Flip Camera for practice and did I think that was a good idea?
I told her that there’s nothing wrong with the flip if you are using it to “record” an image or event, rather than to “capture” it, and there’s a difference between those two approaches. So what’s the difference? Really, it has to do with the role of the camera in in a given situation or the footprint we’re going to allow the camera to have.
Recording the Event
To me, “recording” creates a goal to reduce the camera’s footprint to almost nothing. The filmmaker brings the camera along into the real world, a live event, a vacation, or location of a news story. It’s a mental note, a record of what actually happened, a reference. In preproduction for a larger filmed project, recording is great for location scouting, prop and wardrobe shopping, and auditions. In some professional filming situations such as the creation of “found footage,” recording is actually the desired effect because of its raw, unvarnished feel and it is exceptionally hard to create with professional tools. Although the audio of a recording is often self-contained, technology allows it to be decent if proximate. A recording is functional, it’s not beautiful. It’s point-and-shoot, and it’s a mistake to work too hard trying to force aestheticism upon it. It has its limits.
Here, for instance, is some “man on the street” video (shot by Alicia Conway) we used to promote a play I directed last year. This is actual Flip footage:
The bottom line about recording is that the least amount of care should be spent on how it looks and sounds, as the most important aspect of the recording is that it brings the viewer to the place, the moment, the visceral reality of where the camera operator was when they hit “record.” Nothing wrong with that. So where are its limits?
Capturing the Feeling
I wish there was a better word than “capture,” but the parlance of filmmaking has moved from “filmming,” (i.e. “shot on that emulsion-covered-plastic stuff) to “image capture.” But what’s the distinction? I would argue that it’s about capturing an emotion, something a recording can only accomplish accidentally. A filmmaker (capture-ologist?) who is using the medium to tell an actual story will use any tool he or she is given to create emotions. Those tools consist of things like lighting, lens selection, sound design, music, composition, and editing. Things that don’t happen accidentally for them to record, but rather things that are meticulously set up.
This is only my opinion, but to me the difference is this – a “recording” tells you how a camera would see something whereas “capturing” tells you how you might have remembered the event if you’d been there. The lighting, colors, and feeling are designed to be more the stuff of memory than camera circuitry.
Here, for comparison, is a trailer I shot for the same play, on the Canon 5D Mark II:
But as of late, the lines have blurred as extremely small and affordable cameras like this one have begun to offer functions previously only afforded the “capture” set.
You Don’t Have to Choose
One of these is not better than the other. They both have earned a place in our lives. Someone once said that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” That’s true and I’ve taken many pictures over the years with my cell phone. I’ve seen amazing pictures taken on the iPhone 4, and apps like “Plastic Bullet” make it fun to use the small iPhone sensor to create evocatively-abstract pictures. If I was climbing a mountain, I would vastly prefer to stick a flip camera in my pocket than to schlep even a spartan DSLR package up with me. Unless the point of the climb was to take beautiful pictures.
But if you Have to Choose…
Even the most Cinéma vérité-style documentarian works to find the best compositions and editing to tell their story. Even if it could be argued that they were “recording” an event on the day, they later work endless hours assembling that footage in order to evoke a desired emotion. If the only footage available to a documentarian was taken on a flip or a cell phone, I’m sure they’d use it. But when they go after a story, I guarantee most documentarians bring the bigger guns even if they have the small one in their bag somewhere.
But when it comes to filmmaking – telling stories with the camera with all the tools we have these days – I feel like cameras like the Flip are really only recording devices, a small step up from security cameras. Could you make a great film on them? Why not? If that’s the best tool in your filmmaking arsenal, I’m sure its disadvantages could all be turned on their ear. But price-wise, a camera better-suited for narrative would increase the cost only a little while exponentially increasing the camera’s ability to capture the moment.