Knowing what to do with one of these things is not even close to knowing how to make one of these things.

Knowing what to do with one of these things is not even close to knowing how to make one of these things.

The camera took on a foreign aspect in my hands, an object of impossible provenance. It was Saturday afternoon, and as I was cleaning up my home work space I found myself in a brief conversation with my son. Holding a rather ordinary video camera in my hand I sat down on an old couch in my studio. Then, when he left the space, I looked at the object in my hands and saw it as if it were entirely novel, something completely unencountered before. The camera looked like an artifact collected from an archaeological dig of the future.

There were no sharp edges, no illogical protrusions. Matte black, highly refined, the device represented the accumulation of thousands of hours of hard engineering decisions and labor from sophisticated teams, likely spread across many laboratories, foundries, departments, and offices. It was not a special device; tens of thousands like it had been sold around the world for every imaginable use, but as a example isolated from its peers, this one appeared as improbable a collection of matter as anything could be.

I didn’t have a battery installed, so at that moment it couldn’t do anything but suggest possibilities.

If you’re involved in media you’re inherently some sort of electronics geek. To some degree you have to be. Cameras, computers, software: there’s endless stuff necessary to make ideas come to life, and without a deep appreciation of what they can do and how they all operate, those transformations cannot happen. But as I turned the camera over in my hands, appreciating it for reasons beyond it’s ordinary utility, it occurred to me that I would have no idea how to make a device like it. While I could easily explain the relationship between aperture to depth of field, I didn’t have even the first clue to knowing how engineers computed the precise physical requirements of the lens and other innards of the camera to deliver a proper focus. Where I understood how to properly attach a boom mic via an XLR cable to capture dialogue for a tiny two person crew, I had no idea how to design the electronics for turning real sound into electrical signals that could be reproduced later as a simulacrum of that real sound.

I could use the machine, but I hardly knew anything about how the machine came into existence.

Then in occurred to me: the people who designed and manufactured this camera probably didn’t know very much about how to build drama in a scene, or how to capture a nuanced cutaway to convey unspoken sentiment or emotional resonance. Where they focused on facilitating my choices for controlling my white or dark levels in my video images, I focused on how to get those white or dark levels to contribute to a story. Where they clearly agonized about how to arrange more than twenty switches and buttons for efficient operation, I furrowed my forehead about which configurations of those switches would give me the results I wanted.

I’m a gizmo geek, but only up to a point. The thing that really interests me is what I can do with my gear, not the gear itself. I know plenty of people who groove on the goodies that each new widget can deliver, and to tell the truth, I’m glad to be able to call on them for guidance. But what really occurs to me as I now glance over at that camera now sitting on my work table is that the engineering teams who created this device are no less creative than the storytellers who use it. We see the world differently, perhaps, but where they see the camera itself as the profound fruit of their labor, it’s what I see through the camera that compels me.

We don’t speak the same language, but guess what? We need each other.


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