I just read chapter one of The Craftsman by Richard Sennett and one thing that caught my attention was the writer’s argument that CAD tools (computer-assisted design) in the world of architecture cause the head to suffer in relation to the hand (as he put it). In other words, the mind gets lazy because of the computer algorithms at work in CADs, so the repetitive or tedious process of doing the drawings by hand forces the architect to visualize the building, with its situational context and material properties, in the mind’s eye. The CAD drawings provide endless possibilities but can cause a “disconnect between simulation and reality” and lead to flaws in design thinking.
I don’t fully agree with the mainly negative view of digital tools in relation to craft and excellence, but I realize that there are aspects of the creative thought and planning process that have suffered for me in switching from analog to digital approaches in documentary film/video-making.
My first film was a 26-minute documentary about mixed race women’s thoughts on identity in American society. This is a project that began in my senior year of college, after winning a film grant for my proposal. The grant covered about ten 100-foot rolls of 16mm film (at that time, each roll cost around $100), which was a lot of film at that time but constituted only about 100 minutes of footage. The footage time constraint and the lack of money to buy more footage compelled me to come up with a “script” and a solid plan for shooting before breaking open those cans of film. I conducted long audio-only interviews on audiotape with the women that I chose to film, transcribed all the interviews and then created a script for them based on their own words. The filming of the “interviews” was very focused and the interviewees were generally more articulate and less nervous about being filmed because of all the preparation and the time I spent getting to know them beforehand.
In contrast, for the “film” (actually video, to use the more accurate but less glamorous term) that I’m working on now about adult competitive figure skaters, I wasn’t able to spend much time on preparation and I didn’t create a “script” for the interviewees. Tape stock is relatively cheap, so I treated taping in a similar manner as the audio interviews that I did in my previous film. I conducted my research on video, getting to know skaters as potential subjects, and then continued to videotape the skaters I chose to focus on. I asked them all similar questions about skating and their lives, and believed that I would be able to craft the story in editing, trying out different possibilities (which is easier and faster to do in video than in film, for obvious reasons). While I have a great deal of interesting and spontaneous-feeling footage, I don’t have the skaters stating things in the way that would have worked best for the story, so it’s been quite a challenge trying to cobble together moments from difference pieces of footage to create the best storyline.
The editing of each documentary is analogous to the shooting process, in that the craft of physically editing 16mm film with a Rivas splicer caused me to think carefully about each and every cut before I actually executed it, while the process of editing a video in Final Cut Pro allowed for more experimentation but made me less decisive and prepared. The 16mm film was finished years ago and is still in distribution, while the video is still waiting patiently for my time, my attention and my final decisions.
Over the years since undergrad, I’ve transitioned from virtually all analog forms of media production to digital. I love the speed, the variety of software features, the possibilities of structure, etc. but one of the things I need to remember is how analog tools informed my creative and decision-making processes, my relation to the craft of these disciplines, and the quality of my overall work.