Technical vs Creative

To Each Their Own?

I’m going to talk (or maybe rant?) about something close to my heart – the false distinction too many people (especially students) make between the technical and the creative areas of filmmaking.

Although I have very little formal technical training (I’m an arts graduate of all things), I like to think I’m reasonably technically literate. I know my AC from my DC. I can solder a transistor without damaging it. I can talk depth of field and t-stops, decibels and reverb, aspect ratio and interlacing. I don’t pretend to be a techie, but I can carry on a meaningful discussion with most of them.

But why should anyone bother trying to understand technical manuals if they are focussing on the “creative” arts/crafts of writing and directing?


Creative Divide

Many beginning filmmakers tend to believe that technical issues are best left to the technically trained, and the artistic issues to the “creative types”. This belief is often accidentally re-enforced in film courses, when during film and video projects those students comfortable with the technology tend to gravitate to areas they see as technical (using the camera, sound gear, edit suite etc), and those uncomfortable with the gear tend to concentrate on positions that they think don’t require technical knowledge (e.g. writing, directing, production design).

I remember once when a person asked me about what filmmaking courses he should do. I asked him what areas of filmmaking he was interested in. Cinematography? Editing? Writing? Lighting? Directing? Design? His answer was that he had an artistic background, and that he only wanted to learn to perform the “art” of filmmaking. He said he wanted to “make films but not get into any of the technical stuff, or use cameras or press any buttons or anything”.

This strong division between “creative” and “technical” people might be useful in some industries (though I doubt it), but in filmmaking it’s short-sighted and counter-productive. Filmmaking is a unique blend of craft and art, technicalities and vision. At it’s best, these two ways of thinking merge into one and produce a film high in craft and artistic integrity (whatever definition of these terms work for you!).

See the Other Side

It’s very important that students aspiring to the positions often regarded as “creative” (directors, writers, production designers, etc) have a sound grip on so-called technical issues (cinematography, sound, video, lighting, etc). They don’t need the same level of understanding as the specialists on their crew, just a broad understanding of the gear and the issues. Because with this knowledge they are able to discuss the film with other department heads in a meaningful way, and be able to arrive at decisions that make sense – Writers won’t write scenes that are too expensive to film, directors won’t ask for shots that are impossible with the gear at hand, production designers won’t design sets that make life too hard for lighting and sound, etc etc.

People in these “creative” positions should also recognise that positions that at first seem technical to them (DOP, Gaffer, Best Boy, Sound Recordist, etc) are in fact as creative as any other. The contributions made by these “technical” positions are crucial, and if they do not understand and share the producer’s and director’s vision for the film, then it’s unlikely that this vision will end up on the screen or come out of the cinema’s speakers. A good DOP is a light-artist, and a good sound recordist is a sound-artist – and they work with the director to create the complete vision of the film, as well as being highly specialised and skilled technicians in their fields.


Technical and Creative

In the end, there is no conflict between the technical and creative points of view – they are both sides of the same coin. Once, while wandering through a watercolour exhibition, I asked one of the organisers what made one artist’s paintings stand out from the others I’d seen. She replied that in addition to the usual things required for watercolour success (talent and practice), the artist also had a detailed knowledge of paper and the chemistry of watercolour paints. Not a specialist’s depth of knowledge, but enough to help him in his art and craft.

And I believe it’s the same with film and video making. Many beginning filmmakers seem almost afraid of technical issues, since they naturally want to concentrate on the creative craft and art of filmmaking. But if you’re making your films and videos yourself, then you need at least a basic grasp of some technical matters. Don’t let the jargon put you off – most of it exists for a good reason. Once you understand it you’ll find yourself able to use technical concepts and language to convey what you want to the technically-trained, and, as an added bonus, you’ll be able to understand their answers!

Updated: 7 July 2000
Originally written for About.com’s Filmmaking page.