How many times have you seen article or video headlines professing to provide you the key to reaching your artistic goals in three easy steps? Well, if you don’t want your bubble burst, this might be a good time to stop reading.
I just spent a long and extremely hot holiday weekend here in Los Angeles doing two things. One, sweating profusely. And, two, binging the Hulu show The Dropout, the limited series about Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of now defunct and discredited medical testing firm Theranos. You’ve probably already seen it. I can be slow getting around to hit shows. But, even if you haven’t, you probably know the basic outline. Young entrepreneur starts a tech company, becomes the darling of Silicon Valley and Washington D.C., only to have it later revealed that the business was a complete scam and the emperor had no clothes.
Early in the series, Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, is shown as an ambitious teenager driving in her car when the Alabama song “I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” about someone wanting to get ahead in life as quickly as possible starts to play on the radio. Later, she quotes Mark Zuckerberg’s famous Facebook slogan: “Move fast and break things.” Among the many shortcomings of the series’ central character, some of the main themes are her impatience, her desire for success, and her willingness to cut corners to get there as quickly as possible.
Of course, Elizabeth Holmes’ story is far from unique. It is human nature to want to get from A to Z in as few steps as possible. The more letters we skip in between, the better we perceive ourselves to be doing. It’s not lazy. It’s efficient. And just as logical as it is for human beings to want to shorten their journey, it is equally practical that there should emerge a group of other human beings who look to profit off the first group by promising to have the secret that will get them there.
These prophets professing to have all the answers are not necessarily charlatans. In fact, the basis and motivation behind the advice given is more often than not done in good faith. Another factor of human nature is that when we learn something of value, we tend to want to pass along that information to others. It’s a charitable inclination and one of the best natural instincts that humans possess. So, the words I’m about to say are not meant as some sort of condemnation of those brave enough to offer help. Rather, they are meant as a warning to those who wish to consume that help. Beware of those who come bearing promises of a straight road to success.
We live in a world where there are millions of blog posts, millions of videos, millions of books, and millions of opinions, constantly trying to define for us what art is supposed to be. In the internet age, where everyone with a keyboard can proclaim themselves an expert, this preponderance of advice has only gotten more voluminous. In a world of algorithms and trend-chasing, the very definition of “good” seems to change like the wind. Impossible to define. As my favorite football announcer, Ray Hudson, would say: “like trying to nail Jell-O to the ceiling.”
Yet everyday I go on YouTube and am greeted with headlines such as “How To Grow Your Photography Business In Three Easy Steps,” “I’m Changing From This Camera To That One To Take My Work To The Next Level,” or the ever present “Do THIS If You Want Your Footage To Be Cinematic.” Leaving aside for a moment that the vast majority of such videos don’t seem to actually understand what the word "cinematic" means to begin with, the problem is less with the instruction given, and more with the original premise. The idea that someone can follow specific steps and get a specific result. This might work in a mathematical formula. But such a magic formula doesn’t apply to art.
Let’s take the example of the plethora of “how to be cinematic” videos as our starting point. The vast majority pretty much boil down to a handful of basic points. Light from behind. Use shallow depth of field. And color-grade your footage some version of a teal-orange split. If you do those three things, then voila! The footage of your five-year-old’s birthday party shot on your iPhone will suddenly look like it was lensed by Roger Deakins.
Obviously, this is nonsense. But, because human nature dictates that we want to get from point A to point Z in as few steps as possible, we can find ourselves far too eager to believe any advice given simply because we are so desperate to be on what we perceive to be a higher artistic level. Because human beings are pack animals and hardwired to desire some level of acceptance from our peers, we can be heavily influenced by the suggestion that a specific approach will not only make our work better, but that it will, by implication, mean that our work is “accepted” by other artists. On some level, we all want to be part of the group. Even if this means ignoring that one of the fundamental strengths of an artist is their ability to stand apart from the group.
But stopping to ask very basic questions would lead us to be skeptical. Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films ever made and absolutely pioneering in its use of deep focus photography. So, is it not cinematic because it doesn’t use shallow depth of field? Do The Right Thing is bathed in warm red, oranges, and browns to depict the stifling heat of summertime. Does that mean it’s not cinematic because it doesn’t have a cool teal-orange split? Many a great star has been blasted with light from all angles, including the front, to make their closeups glow on screen. Does that mean that virtually all the classic studio films from the 30s and 40s weren’t cinematic because they didn’t resemble the most recent season of Ozark? (I love Ozark, by the way, just using it as an easy example).
The point is that being cinematic isn’t about following some simple formula that anyone can glean for a handful of YouTube videos. Being cinematic is about storytelling. How the images relate to the specific story being told. How the lighting is designed to support the mood and performances. How the performances bring to life the script. How the production crew works tirelessly to realize the director’s vision. How the director has a specific vision for this specific story that is based on the needs of this particular story and not on following an arbitrary set of rules for making something cinematic that have been crowdsourced from the internet.
Apologies for the rant. But, I think we can all agree, even those who have used it in a title in the past, that the word “cinematic” is quickly becoming one of the most bastardized and incorrectly used catchphrases in modern vernacular. And I don’t mean to single it out as the only shortcoming of modern artistic pursuit. Rather, it’s a prime example of a danger that faces us all.
Art is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. There are specific techniques that we share in common. For example, learning how to use the exposure triangle is a mathematical fact. It is necessary to be a great photographer. But, even with that said, there is rarely one “right” exposure. What’s “right” is up to the individual artist behind the lens. How you choose to interpret that equation is what sets your work apart. If you were to rely on what everyone else does to decide what you’re going to do, then your work will inevitably end up looking like everyone else's. And if you’re just going to end up producing replicas of images that already exist, then what’s the point in picking up a camera in the first place?
The Twitterverse we live in rewards brevity. We live in a world where we want the meaning of life to be explained to us in 280 characters or fewer. Our appetite for depth and nuance has been greatly diminished by an algorithmic society fueled by temporary hits of dopamine instead of sustained growth. But the truth is that if you really want to grow as a photographer or filmmaker, there is no shortcut to success. Only a long, sometimes slow, sometimes painful, journey to artistic discovery that may or may not result in success. There is absolutely nothing wrong with watching every single YouTube instructional video that gets posted, or even making one yourself. But, it is essential to realize that the people making those videos are on their own creative journey and don’t have all the answers either. So, while learning what you can from others is a wise decision, relying on arbitrary rules to define what’s good and what isn’t is the course of fools.
Art comes from within you. It cannot be defined in simple terms. Not even by a long-winded, rambling wordsmith like myself. There will come a point in your artistic journey where you will realize that you have to be the one to define what’s good and what’s not. You have to decide what’s the right aesthetic approach to your work is based on the story you are personally trying to tell. Not based on anyone else’s set of rules.
There is no miracle cure for creativity. Only the endless pursuit of happiness.