A thing to practice: quiet, low-concept filmmaking (and middle-class media making)

31Jan12

I openly idolize Charles and Ray Eames’s filmmaking, especially the elegant, playfully “high concept” explainers they made like Powers of Ten. I also idolize the technically innovative, brimming-with-process-value “brand journalism” that Google produces in its promotional videos. When I saw this spot, I didn’t just love it. I lusted it:

It’s the kind of filmmaking that I wish I could do all the time, on every project: physical, inventive, unconstrained by petty things like “time” and “budget”, and engaging as hell. The closest I’ve gotten — and it’s pretty darn close — is the “Lego Antikythera” film I directed last year, which had a very large budget (relatively speaking, compared to what I’d worked with before) and got nearly 2 million views on Youtube, Vimeo, and elsewhere:

Since making that film, I’ve been lucky to parlay its success into working with generally bigger budgets and more “high conceptey” projects. Just what I wanted, right?

Well…

Those kinds of films, while creatively invigorating, can also be kind of exhausting to produce — or even get to produce. The bar is set pretty high each time and the energy barrier for client “buy-in” is high, too. And even when the budgets swell, it still “never feels like quite enough.” The high-concept reach always wants to extend just a few inches beyond one’s practical means, no matter what the scale is. (Maybe this just means I’m a bad producer.)

Moreover, I’m noticing more and more that I am just as inspired and engaged by quiet, simple, “low concept” films. Like this promo for Twitter’s redesign…

Or this concept/demo video for BERG‘s Little Printer:

Or this wonderfully elegant, tactile documentary about letterpress:

Or this concise, stylish, informative portrait of the inventor of the first digital camera:

In a sense, these films all look and feel “the same.” A lot of locked off shallow focus shots, graphically composed like still photographs, lined up in a stately pace, with some cute or elegant or simply unobtrusive music underneath. There’s not a lot of formal inventiveness or physical “wow factor” like the Google videos or Eames films.

And yet, they connect.

I want to train my creative brain to consider this kind of filmmaking more often, but it takes effort. There’s a fear there: how can I get anyone to pay me decently to make something that looks this… easy? How will anyone notice me (and want to hire me) if what I make is this… simple? If I don’t shoot for the moon every time out, turn every project into some kind of ambitious experiment (for better or worse), aren’t I… settling?

Above is a Twitter conversation I had with Timo Arnall, a “director, designer and researcher” at BERG and the filmmaker behind that Little Printer clip (as well as all of BERG’s other great video work). I had a sense that I might be drifting from my own creative maxim, borrowed from Paul Rand: “Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.”

What I love about Arnall’s work is that it’s all about “just trying to be good.” Good in the sense of effective and useful. It’s well-designed, suited to its task, and not tricked up any more than that. (It exemplifies another maxim I like to remind myself of, by Milton Glaser: “Less is not more. Just enough is more.”) It’s not surprising because at BERG, filmmaking is a means — a tool for illuminating and exploring design ideas — not an end in itself, or at least not an end in the way I usually think of it.

The irony is that the mighty Eameses also made quiet, low concept films — they’re not as well known as, say, Powers of Ten, but they’re just as bewitching. Toccata for Toy Trains or Blacktop: A Story of the Washing of a School Play Yard wouldn’t look out of place on Vimeo’s DSLR page, even though they were made half a century ago.


[I couldn't find a copy of "Blacktop" with the original soundtrack. This one has Elliott Smith music dubbed in. Ignore it.]

Another irony is that making something that appears simple or “just enough” is often much more challenging than “shooting for the moon.” I think it requires more creative confidence — the confidence not only to achieve “just enough,” but to even recognize it. “Just enough” is a point, not a space or a range. And its location is not always obvious. Throwing a ball over a high wall is one thing, but throwing a ball to knock a pebble off the wall is quite another.

Keith “keef” Erlich, a talented director who recently launched a small business built around this kind of “just enough” filmmaking, coined a phrase I quite like recently while we were chatting over coffee: “middle-class media making.” Basically, the idea of doing good creative work in a sustainable way for decent pay, in a zone somewhere between being a young’n’hungry striver and being a creative “1 percenter” like Mark Romanek or Spike Jonze. Or to use another analogy: “middle class media making” is like owning a successful small restaurant in a neighborhood you like — rather than being a dishwasher, or being David Chang.

As someone who recently started a family, that sounds like #winning to me.

Could doing more of this “quiet” kind of filmmaking be a way of helping myself build a more sustainable “middle-class media making” career? I wonder. I’m proud of the fact that every film I’ve made in the past couple years is very different from every other. That was on purpose. In a way, doing more “low concept” projects would continue that trend. At the very least, it’s probably something worth experimenting with — if only to confront some fears, and avoid falling into a rut.

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3 Responses to “A thing to practice: quiet, low-concept filmmaking (and middle-class media making)”

  1. Great post! I’ve been sharing this around with friends – your idea of “middle-class media making” is perfect. I’d like to hear more ideas based off that riff.

    Cheers!

  2. Hey! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers
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