Tools are a necessary part of every craft. As better tools come along, we can upgrade our kit to help achieve the same or better product in less time and often with less money. However, we live in an age where new technology (for media especially) is being developed at an unprecedented rate. If you find yourself working or volunteering in the media department at a church, or any other organization for that matter, you probably have found yourself wagering tech specs as new gear comes to market. Weighing up your kit to the weekly latest and greatest starts out as a fun game of “Bigger and Better”, but if not monitored with a healthy dose of reality and a copy of Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods, then the game can turn you numb pretty quick.
I, too, was a part of this rat race. With Engadget as my guide and Beyonce’s “Upgrade” as my anthem, I consulted the gear gods every morning before I began the work day. And thus would begin what I like to call the symphony of seduction:
“Can I really have too many prime lenses?” “Maybe today will provide an accessory solution to operating the Zoom while holding a boom.” “If Philip Bloom says ‘buy it,’ then it must be gospel.” “Today is the day I switch to Nikon.” “Surely somebody makes a 10-foot tripod slider.” “If I don’t own Zeiss glass, then no one will take me seriously.”
Do any of these voices sound familiar?
Some call it gear hoarding, some may call it idolatry. No matter what you call it, it probably isn’t healthy. Sure, the game is fun for a while, but I think it serves more to distract us from finding the answers to a few very important questions — questions I began asking myself when I realized that I was losing the gear game.
Is this piece of gear going to make me a better storyteller?
Some gear is vital to the storytelling process. For narrative filmmaking, a fluid head tripod, a good shotgun microphone, a boom pole, a good audio recorder, and nice headphones are somewhat necessary to tell a good story without all the distractions that come with not having the right equipment. However, beyond the short list of essentials most of the process is up to how much time you put into mastering your art.
Also, consider renting instead of buying. Sure, I would love to own a sweet macro lens, but I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I have actually needed one.
As you progress in your art, gathering more gear can be necessary in order to achieve more difficult endeavors. Racking focus in the middle of a shot can be as simple as turning the focus ring. But what happens when you need to focus while the camera is moving? A good follow focus system is a great solution to helping you achieve this shot. The key here is to find function without breaking the bank. Do your research, rent or borrow before you buy, and think through why you need it and how often will you actually use it.
Can I have the same impact using Mini-DV?
First of all, the answer is “no.” But after your sigh of relief is over, I do have a point to make. Ready? Here it is: quality is never synonymous with gear. Both the greatest and the worst movies you have seen are shot on the same cameras using the same lenses and the same film. So what makes them good or bad? Well, the answer to that is 50% talent and 50% opinion, but I promise the gear has nothing to do with it. Wheelchairs and $35k dolly systems have been proven to achieve the same effect.
Take Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids) for example. Every studio in Hollywood wanted to sign him to an exclusive deal because he made great movies with no money and no gear. The short film that put him on the map was shot at his house, starred his little siblings, was shot on VHS, and was edited on two VCRs. Now put that in your DSLR and smoke it.
Honestly, how often will I shoot 200 frames per second?
Features make us want gear, but function is what makes us need it. Just asking yourself, “What are my needs?” and “What am I trying to achieve?” can eliminate the desire to play the gear game altogether.
How about the new features on this year’s DSLR cameras? By the time you read this sentence, 4K cinema will be yesterday’s fad, but for now it’s the biggest lure for early adopters. Sure, 4K resolution is great, but who is watching your videos? Will your audience be able to watch your masterpiece in all of its full-res glory? Probably not. Again, What are my needs? What am I trying to achieve?
The two grand that was just donated to your media department could get you that 5D Mark II that you’ve been eyeing, but your pastor also wants his sermons to be recorded on video. Considering that the 5D can only record video in 12-minute intervals and your pastor is known under the table as “Long Winded Larry,” the sub $2k DSLR route might not be the right path for your team. What are my needs? What am I trying to achieve?
Whose kingdom am I trying to build?
Elaboration under this section heading may be pouring salt in the wound of conviction, so instead let me try to encourage you with my own failures.
My wife and I recently bought a new home to make room for our baby that is on the way. Now, I’m sure you have seen cute houses. You may live in one, drive by them every day, or hate the guy next door to you because he has one. But I promise you, our house is cuter than all of those. I will not debate you, because you will lose. We made sure of it. We did not care about lot size, number of rooms, or even if the foundation was made of saltines. We bought the cutest home in the cutest neighborhood that was within our cute little budget.
We soon realized that we did not have enough cute stuff to fill our cute home. It’s quite obvious what happened next. We cuted up our new cute home with the cutest crap you can find. Hours online, in stores, thumbing through magazines in the bathtub––all invested in our top priority … or idol. Our kingdom.
While in attempt to achieve something functional we got caught up in the features. What started as us trying to find space for our baby and my home office somehow mutated into a binge of superficiality. Our idol sucked us in, drew us to our knees, and demanded our worship; and all the while we thought we were serving a functional need.
I know what you’re thinking. You want to ask it. Did we get rid of all the cute stuff? No. Of course not. It’s too cute.
So maybe I need to listen to my own advice. Maybe I need to apply the principles I learned from the gear game and apply them to the home game. Until then, I am grateful that God is so long-suffering with me. He was patient and loving long before I ever loved and served Him. He loved my horrible movies because they glorified Him, and drew people’s hearts toward Him. He loves my “more equipped” movies because I love trying to give God my best. Either way, when I ask myself, “Whose kingdom am I trying to build?” I quickly realize how insignificant the gear game really is.
Brian Cates is the producer for The Skit Guys. He lives in Oklahoma City with his beautiful wife where they take long (30 minute) walks, raise a miniature Dachshund named Pickles, and only talk to each other in funny voices. Check out his Skit Guys’ videos at www.skitguys.com or see some of his hobbies at www.brianmakesmovies.com. Also, follow him on Twitter: @bchristopher.