Craft Matters

The waitress in the New York City coffee shop placed her brand new $6,000-plus camcorder on the table where I had been expecting my breakfast.

“I hear you know about these things,” she proclaimed, trying to provoke a response from me. Surprised, I didn’t know what to say. But it didn’t take very long to find that she had almost no knowledge of video production.

Why, I asked her, did she spend all this money on a camcorder? “I want to make videos,” she responded confidently. “So I bought a video camera.”

In fact, she had spent her last cent on the camera, assuming it would buy her a new career and the ability to leave that dreary coffee shop job behind. She wanted to enter the “glamorous” world of television production, and thought buying the camera was just the ticket.

I was floored by her audacity. How do I respond to this, I thought to myself? I didn’t want to write off her supreme act of chutzpah, since it’s in such short supply these days. But, I didn’t want to feed her grand illusion that no skills are now needed to make professional video.

Sadly, she had studied nothing and had no preparation for what was ahead. The camcorder manual was all she had read. She had zero accessories — not a single microphone, no lights, no tripod or head. Not even an extra battery. In fact, she didn’t even know most of this gear existed.

Why do I need all that stuff, she asked me, showing me that the camcorder made quite acceptable pictures (in her mind) in the natural light of the coffee shop? The audio from the camera’s built-in microphone sounded just fine to her as well.

I gently suggested that video production involves much, much more than just aiming the camera at a subject in available light. Professional videographers learn a craft, I told her, and that process can take years of practice.

High-quality video images, I explained, are shaped with the creative use of light and shadow. The videographer has to learn how to use lighting as a tool, just as a painter uses brushes. Sure, lighting skills can be learned on a very basic level, but it is essential that every competent videographer learn them, I said.

Turning to audio, she couldn’t understand what was wrong with the on-camera microphone. She could hear the sound. Wasn’t that enough? I told her nothing was wrong...unless she wanted to record dialog, interviews or anything beyond the ambient sound in the room.

Just as with lighting, I told her, audio is also an art form. It can take years to learn to capture great sound alone. It doesn’t just magically happen. Microphones are also like artist’s brushes — but they manipulate the audio. The right mic is chosen for the recording task at hand.

Alarm spread across her face. She wanted to know how she is supposed to learn all this. I suggested going to school or attending workshops to develop skills and then practice, practice, practice. “Workshops are kind of expensive, aren’t they?” she noted. “And I can’t go to school. I have to make a living.”

You get what you pay for, I told her. She will have to learn the skills somewhere, I told her, annoyed that she had spent more than $6,000 on a camera she couldn’t begin to understand. At the same time, I felt sorry for her.

Her situation is not unique. In this era of iPhone videography, many total amateurs think all they have to do is buy a camera and they are ready for the video business. Some, especially the ones who watch too many Apple ads, even believe an iPhone is all they need to make a feature film.

Learning one or more professional crafts is out of sight, out of mind. And when I say that I mean video, audio and lighting just to begin. Some amateurs now even refer to themselves as “artists” and ridicule those who spend years learning these essential skills. The president of Instagram once told me in an interview that he sells “creativity in a bottle.” Hogwash, I thought.

What happened with professional video also happened with audio, especially with the collapse of the professional studio business and the rise of home recording. Everyone thinks they are experts with sound, plowing ahead producing some truly awful recordings. They then make videos, combining their lack of skills. Most of it can be painful to watch.

The waitress disappeared for a few minutes, returning with my breakfast, which she thankfully left me to eat alone. She’d probably already heard way too much from me anyway.

A week or so later she left her waitress job. I don’t know what happened to her next in her journey to become a professional videographer. I never even learned her name. I hope she was successful and I wish her good luck

I would like nothing better than to see that she acquired the skills needed to break out of the pack, learn the craft and do great work. But somehow I’m not optimistic. A person either learns the necessary skills or they don’t. People who don’t recognize this reality, tend to fail.

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