In my quest to “make a movie”, my eternal struggle with motion graphics and VFX, and an understanding of my addiction to learning, I fired up a new video series this morning on cinematography. Like a lot of the video series that I have been watching on various subjects, it begins with the creators introducing themselves and their bona fides for making these videos. So far, everyone I’ve watched has gone to film school and has worked in the industry making movies, commercials, and music videos. This got me wondering about the value of online videos versus “traditional” instruction.
As a developer, everything I know about development I learned through online resources. It started back after high school when I took an online course in “Visual Basic 6.0”. At that time I had to — ahem — acquire Visual Studio by staying connected to a newsgroup overnight via dial-up in order to download it but nowadays development resources are plentiful and legally available to anyone who has the patience to sit down and learn.
What I’m finding with the whole ecosystem of “movie making” is that there are a lot of people willing to talk to you about the process — from the technical to the ephemeral — but it’s not so easy to put it all into practice. I can’t download a high def camera or all of the lighting I need to make a scene look good, for example. Unlike development, making even a short film can be costly, time-intensive (of course), and incredibly difficult to the point where I have to question the feasibility of offering online courses for this kind of thing.
The instructors making these videos are sharing their knowledge with those of us who are sitting at home in our PJs who fancy themselves amateur directors and cinematographers, or at least would maybe like to be as a hobby. To me that’s a kind of serious disconnect primarily because cinematography and making movies still seems like something so far away from what a person can do with their spare time. I get that these instructors probably like to share their knowledge, either because they believe that knowledge should be free, or maybe because they have a need to be a font of knowledge, but…is this really a subject that someone can receive a maximum benefit from?
On some level in my mind, any kind of instruction not only offers academic satisfaction, but also some degree of hope that you’ll be able to actually use this knowledge. For those who went to film school, I assume there’s some kind of academic pipeline similar to other disciplines — internships or alumni offering foot-in-the-door opportunities for promising graduates. More importantly, there’s a cadre of similarly matriculating students available to draw from should someone need an extra for a scene, someone to rig some lights, or model a background. Those of us consuming our knowledge from online videos have none of that. We’ll have to cajole our friends and family into understanding that no, this is not stupid and yes, we all understand that none of us have Hollywood level skills but that shouldn’t stop any of us from trying and just having fun. We also have to pay for everything out of pocket, which automatically makes this a Very Expensive Hobby. And then there’s the creative angle. You can learn about three-point lighting and the 180 degree rule until the CGI cows come home, but if you can’t come up with a decent story idea, it is literally all academic.
Maybe the end result is that in order to consume these videos, one has to be completely committed to the idea of going through with whatever is necessary to put those lessons into practice. Save the money, buy what gear you need and beg, borrow, or steal the rest. Work on speeches to corral people to participate, bribe, or threaten them (to get a good performance, of course). Hack a script together and don’t worry if it’s Lisa-And-Ralph-As-States-level bad. Do what you can, when you can, and assume that whatever masterpiece you envision in your head is almost certainly not what you’re going to get on film at the end of the day. This, really, is how we learn. We can internalize all of the buzz-words and obsess over doing things the way video-instructors-by-way-of-film-school teach us, but doing it is going to be the best teacher at the end of the day.