Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The DSLR Killed The Specialist

When the video DSLR was introduced, it was heralded by many as a truly revolutionary piece of filmmaking technology. No longer were the filmmaking gates closed to those without large pocketbooks and budgets. They were now open to anyone with a spare $1,000 - $3,000, or an available balance on their credit card. While this affordable, and "cinematic" technology has opened the doors for new talent, it has brought with it some unintended consequences. Like it or not, the market is shifting, and has been shifting for several years now. The importance of the specialist is diminishing, and the age of the generalist is rising. If the TV killed the radio star, then the DSLR has killed the specialist...

Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None.
Earlier in my career, it used to be that the more highly skilled you were in a specific area, the better. The focus was on becoming a master at one specific skill. What this produces is the ability to be specialized and highly gifted in one skill set, and it is why I think the masters of cinematography, like Conrad Hall, were able to get to the level that they attained. Being able to hone your skill set in one area allows you to be truly great.

However, it is with great sadness that I look into the future and predict that the days of the specialist are numbered. As the DSLR has risen in popularity, I have noticed many photographers start to offer "motion" services alongside their photography services. Around the same time, productions also began asking me to provide photo services or to shoot video content during a photo shoot. It seems that young, eager, inexperienced producers saw an affordable tool that could do two jobs, and decided to combine them. They figured that if a tool could do two things well, why not combine two different productions?

At the same time as the tools became more affordable, productions were being asked to squeeze more out of their diminishing budgets. Instead of having multiple people in the camera department, (DP, 1st AC, 2nd AC, Loader) the shoots were scaled down to two or less people (DP, or DP & 1st AC). The hype around the affordable tools fueled the perception that less was always more. After all, the camera only costs $1,000, why should the crew cost more? You don't need a team of skilled people who know what they are doing. You can get by with 1- just do it all yourself. (I have even been asked by a less than experienced director if I could light and shoot an entire feature film by myself. In other words, I would actually be the entire camera, grip, and lighting crew... for a FEATURE!!!).

Technology hasn't been helping the matter any, as many computer programs and tasks have been combined into one. Take Final Cut X for example. Once a suite of programs for sound editing, color grading, and editing, it has been simplified down to one application that can do almost everything for you in one place, at a price anyone can afford*.

Large businesses who are not only fighting to stay alive, but who are also wanting to maximize their profits, continue to consolidate the roles of people in the production world. The firing of the entire staff of photographers at the Sun-Times, and their replacement with reporters carrying iPhones, is only the latest example of larger organizations devaluing the role of the specialist.

The internet and social media have only accelerated the push towards being a generalist instead of a specialist. Every day, we wake up and are bombarded with choices of what to watch or view, and how to spend our limited time. With everyone fighting for our attention, often times what this means is that good enough, or passible, is really all that matters. The drive is to get more content out and in front of more people, more quickly.

Are DSLR's bad? Are productions who require you to do more than one role wrong? Are businesses who are wanting to maximize their profits evil? Are technology and social media fueling the creation of a mass market of generalists who produce mediocre content, ruining our collective visual palettes? That is for you to decide. I'm merely stating what is, and where the drive for being a jack of all trades, master of none, comes from.

*I'm all for simplicity & ease of use. Tools should not be overly complicated just to "protect" a job. But the unintended consequence is that the perception becomes that the artistry behind the implementation of simple tools is no longer needed. The pen and paper are the simplest tools out there, yet I am no Hemingway or M.C. Escher.   

Become A Jack Or A Master?
What is someone to do who is just getting into the business? Should she become a specialist or a generalist?

If she chooses to become a generalist, she will have a much easier road to travel at the start of her career. By knowing and having a lot of skills, she will be highly marketable and adaptable. One day she could be in an office editing, and the next out in the field shooting content. And being more marketable and adaptable is important for a struggling artist. The more often she works, the more she will make, and the easier it will be to advance her career. The other benefit that the generalist will gain is an exposure to the many rolls in production. This exposure to the requirements of different departments can be invaluable when working on an understaffed production, as she will be able to make more informed choices on set. And there will be a lot of work for her as a direct result of this wide skill set.

The downside to being a generalist is that the market is becoming more and more flooded with other generalists. So, as her career rises, it will eventually plateau, and she'll find herself having a hard time standing out in a field of generalists, without much to differentiate herself. In the end, the skill set becomes the prize.

If, instead, this same person chooses to become a specialist, she will have a more difficult road to travel at the start of her career. Because she is focusing only on one skill set, she will be less marketable, and less adaptable. She will be passed over by productions who are looking for people who can perform more than one role on set. The work will be fewer, and farther in-between. And in the worst case scenario, she could choose to develop a skill set that is eventually replaced by technology in the future, like the direction that DIT's are headed in.

However, there is potential for a big payoff for choosing the path of the specialist. If she not only has the skills, but also has a creative eye and talent, then after traveling the long hard road of specializing, she will find it easy to differentiate herself. She will not be lost in the sea of sameness. And because of it, she will be more marketable and more desirable, because productions can only go to one place to get her results. In the end, she becomes the prize.

It would be too simplistic for me to tell you which path you should choose; life is not that simple. And you could buck the trends and create your own third or fourth path to travel. But what I can recommend is that you choose a path that fits with your values, and where you want to end up. If you focus on the goal of where you want to get, and keep at it with hard work, then over time and with a bit of luck, it is possible to get there.

But regardless of the path you choose, I highly recommend setting yourself up for success as an artist by following the tips I have outlined in my How To Succeed As A Freelancer article.

Have you noticed the trend towards generalists over specialists? Which path have you chosen? How have you adapted?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
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