How many times have you seen article or video titles claiming to give you the key to achieving your artistic goals in three easy steps? Well, if you don’t want your bubble to burst, now might be a good time to stop reading.
I just spent a long and extremely hot vacation weekend here in LA doing two things. One, sweating profusely. And, two, binging the Hulu show The stall, the limited series about Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the now defunct and discredited medical testing company Theranos. You’ve probably seen it before. I can be slow moving to hit shows. But, even if you don’t, you probably know the basics. A young entrepreneur starts a tech company, becomes the darling of Silicon Valley and Washington DC, only to be later revealed that the company was a complete scam and the Emperor had no clothes.
At the start of the series, Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, is introduced as an ambitious teenager driving her car when the Alabama song “I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is about someone who wants to move forward in life. as soon as possible starts playing on the radio. Later, she quotes Mark Zuckerberg’s famous Facebook slogan: “Move fast and break things.” Among the many shortcomings of the show’s central character, some of the main themes are his impatience, his desire for success, and his willingness to cut corners to get there as quickly as possible.
Of course, Elizabeth Holmes’ story is far from unique. It’s human nature to want to get from A to Z in a minimum of steps. The more letters we jump between, the better we perceive we are doing. It’s not lazy. It’s effective. And as logical as it is for human beings to want to shorten their journey, it is equally practical that a group of other human beings emerge looking to take advantage of the first group promising to have the secret that will get them there. . .
These prophets who claim to have all the answers are not necessarily charlatans. In fact, the basis and motivation behind the advice given is most often in good faith. Another factor of human nature is that when we learn something of value, we tend to want to pass that information on to others. It is a charitable inclination and one of the best natural instincts that humans possess. So the words I’m about to say are not some sort of condemnation of those who are brave enough to offer their help. Rather, they are intended to warn those who wish to consume this aid. Beware of those who come with the promise of a straight path 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 age of the Internet, where anyone with a keyboard can claim to be an expert, this preponderance of advice has only grown heavier. In a world of algorithms and trend hunting, the very definition of “good” seems to change like the wind. Impossible to define. As my favorite football presenter, Ray Hudson, would say, “like trying to nail Jell-O to the ceiling.”
Yet every day I go to YouTube and am greeted with headlines like “How to grow your photography business in three easy steps”, “I’m switching from this camera to this one to take my work to the next level. superior”, or the never present “Do THIS if you want your images to be cinematic”. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the vast majority of these 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. It could work in a mathematical formula. But such a magic formula does not apply to art.
Let’s take the plethora of “how to be cinematic” videos as a starting point. The vast majority boils down to a handful of basic points. Light from behind. Use shallow depth of field. And color your footage with a version of a teal-orange split. If you do these three things, then voila! Footage of your five-year-old’s birthday party taken on your iPhone will suddenly feel like it was filmed 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 may 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 workhorses and hardwired to desire a certain level of acceptance from our peers, we can be strongly influenced by the suggestion that a specific approach will not only improve our work, but that it will implicitly mean that our work is “accepted” by other artists. On some level, we all want to be part of the group. Even if it means ignoring that one of the fundamental strengths of an artist is his ability to stand out from the group.
But to stop asking 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 isn’t it cinematic because it doesn’t use shallow depth of field? do the right thing is bathed in warm reds, oranges and browns to portray the sweltering heat of summer. Does that mean it’s not cinematic because it doesn’t have a cool teal-orange separation? Many top stars were lit from all angles, including head-on, to make their close-ups shine on screen. Does that mean that pretty much every classic studio movie of the 30s and 40s wasn’t cinematic because it didn’t look like the last season of ozark? (I like ozarkby the way, just using it as a simple example).
The thing is, being cinematic isn’t about following a simple formula anyone can glean from a handful of YouTube videos. To be cinematic is to tell stories. How the images relate to the specific story being told. How lighting is designed to support ambiance and performance. How the performances bring the script to life. How the production team 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 adhering to some arbitrary set of rules to do something cinematic that has been outsourced 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 misused catchphrases in the modern vernacular. . And I don’t mean that this is the only flaw in modern artistic research. Rather, it is a prime example of a danger we all face.
Art is not a unique proposition. There are specific techniques that we share in common. For example, learning to use the exposure triangle is a mathematical fact. You have to be a great photographer. But, even with that said, there is rarely a “right” exposure. What is “correct” is up to the individual artist behind the lens. How you choose to interpret this equation is what sets your work apart. If you were to rely on what others are doing to decide what you are going to do, your work will inevitably end up looking like other people’s. And if you end up producing replicas of images that already exist, then what’s the point of taking 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 explained to us in 280 characters or less. 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, if you really want to grow as a photographer or filmmaker, there’s no shortcut to success. Only a long, sometimes slow, sometimes painful journey towards artistic discovery that may or may not end in success. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with watching every YouTube instructional video that’s posted, or even creating one yourself. But it’s essential to realize that the people making these 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 move, relying on arbitrary rules to define what’s good and what isn’t is the course of fools.
The art comes from within you. It cannot be defined in simple terms. Not even by a long-winded, rambling blacksmith like me. There will come a time in your artistic journey when you will realize that you have to be the one who defines what is good and what is not. You have to decide what the right aesthetic approach to your work is based on the story you are personally trying to tell. Not based on someone else’s ruleset.
There is no miracle cure for creativity. Only the endless pursuit of happiness.