The Joy of Creating Art: Non-Technical Edition

Today I hope you will allow me a brief pause from the discussion of technology and technique to revel in a little of the pure joy that is the process of photography.

Last night I went to the cinema to see “Fatal Attraction”. Yes, you are reading this in the year 2022 (or sometimes in the future internet). No, you haven’t traveled back in time to 1987 to a time of big hair and even bigger shoulder pads. Instead, I found myself sitting in a small neighborhood movie theater, with the bottoms of my shoes partially smeared to the floor by decades of spilled and partially cleaned popcorn butter, watching the director’s opus. Adrian Lyne to infidelity because I love movies more than anything else. in the world. And, even though I had seen the film several times, it had been a long time since I had seen it on the big screen as planned. And, with all due respect to advances in cellphones, movies are meant to be seen in a theater. So whenever I get the chance to see a movie on the big screen rather than through a streaming service, I hop in the car and head to the box office.

This particular screening was offered by the American Cinematheque, a film appreciation organization of which I am a member. In addition to the most famous “rabbit in danger” film, Fatal Attraction, the evening would also be a double bill, with another Lyne blockbuster, “Flashdance”. Even more intriguingly, Adrian Lyne himself would be there for a live Q&A between movies to talk about his process and shed some light behind the scenes. There were plenty of memorable moments from the night, but, for today’s article, I’m going to highlight one.

This might not seem like a highlight to some. Others will know exactly what I’m talking about. As I took my seat in the theater, exactly equidistant from front to back and side to side, after a brief introduction from the host, the lights began to dim. I always love that brief moment because it’s, on the one hand, confirmation that the projectionist hasn’t gone back into the gin and fallen asleep in the control room, and, on the other hand, the opportunity for a brief moment of quiet anticipation before the story begins to unfold. Once the house lights went to sleep, the only illumination in the room was from the opening title card from Paramount Pictures.

It was immediately obvious from this opening frame that this particular print had seen better days. For those of the age where you only know a perfectly clean digital projection world and your only interaction with dust and scratches in film is like an effect you apply in DaVinci Resolve, just know that these effects are intended to return to what used to be the norm. After hundreds of trips through various movie projectors over several years, a traditional film print will naturally begin to show its wear and tear. Studios regularly create new prints or strive to revive old ones. But, in the case of this print, I seriously wonder if it was one of the first soldiers sent into combat in 1987.

Beyond the scratches, it’s not so much the look of the film that stood out to me, it was the sound. Not the sound design of the movie, but the literal sound of the movie itself. As you probably know, film prints arrive in theaters on huge physical reels which are then loaded and run through a physical projector at 24 frames per second. There is a projectionist on hand to watch the film from the cabin and change the reels at the right time to keep the film playing without interruption. Unlike a digital cinema print, which is the norm today and is essentially a data file that projects a video image onto the screen, a film projector is a much more tactile experience. And with this process of physical film passing through a projector, sound is emitted.

So as I sat in the room and the film projector kicked in to display the film’s first silent title cards, my ears were filled with the sound of 35mm film spinning on its reel. to create the images displayed on the screen. It wasn’t too noisy. It’s just that hearing that sound so clearly in the credits suddenly reminded me of how much that sound has largely disappeared from modern cinema. I realized that I had missed it. Something about hearing it brought me back to the thousands of other movies I had seen in theaters over the years and the subconscious physical sensation I felt on a trip to the cinema.

We talk a lot these days about technology. We discuss megapixels and resolution. We go to the same lengths to defend our chosen camera brands as we do to defend our countries in times of war. We can take 12 turns on pretty insignificant things and find it far too easy to equate technology with artistic expression. But, the problem with creating art, whether you’re a photographer, filmmaker, or painter, is that there’s more to being an artist than just the end product. This is the creative process. Nuts and bolts. The sounds and beats of being in the moment as well as the last moment of seeing your work spill wide across your digital screen.

When I think of photography, I’m obviously concerned with getting the perfect image (for me). But I also like the feeling of hitting the on/off switch on my Nikon in anticipation of a shot. One of the things I miss the most after transitioning to mirrorless is the loud snap of my DSLR shutter every time I took a frame. Sure, you could hear it 10 blocks away, but something about that loud shutter click gave me a kind of overriding emotional release. Before mirrorless, when moving from film to digital, the biggest joy that was missing was my film advance lever. With digital, you simply take frame after frame. With my old manual Canonflex 35mm, I had to manually advance the film after each shot. It’s not nearly as efficient as just automatically priming the camera for the next frame. But, there was something subliminally satisfying about manually ending the previous frame and fully completing that creative thought.

Not that this is a bashing of new technologies. All of the newest digital instruments we play with in the modern era have their own set of charms. And, whatever set of toys you play with, they’ll come with their own set of quirks that, at the time, you might find boring, but, in retrospect, you’ll probably remember with fond memories.

How many times have I held my C-support tilted and spread my legs in the correct position? How many times have I heard the click of the latches on my Pelican cases locking into place? How many times have I felt that surge of power every time my strobes fire through a softbox placed at just the right angle to my subject? How many times have I heard that little click that indicates my lens is securely mounted in place?

Part of the joy of being an artist is the pure sensory joy of creating. The sound of a pencil sliding on a white page. The sound of the clap as the second throws the next shot. And even the sound of an old-school movie projector warming up before the opening credits start rolling.

What are the little moments that you like in artistic creation? What are some of the seemingly insignificant parts of the process that you would miss if they disappeared with the next wave of technology? Artistic creation is as much about the process as the product. And, as the processes go, there is nothing like it.

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