So i think this post is probably a year premature, I initially wanted to write this article and base my final opinions on where I’d be in another twelve months time which right now,is still twelve months away. Thing is, I read stuff on Ryan Walters blog recently and I realized that one’s career trajectory can not be absolutely determined by prevailing trends or circumstances or handicaps (this is my way of saying this is a disclaimer, take my words with a grain of salt and blah blah blah). That being said though there is a prevailing trend in Nollywood or our film industry, and it is predicated upon accessing a larger income over time. There really is nothing wrong with this, especially given the economic situation of our country (the rebased GDP Stuff is yet to impact me so I’ll just say it’s all ‘wash’). But when it begins to steadily shape an artist into an amoebic mass of mediocrity therein lies the problem.
I have often wondered if like Thelma Schoonmaker or Emma Thomas, a non linear editor could rise to popularity within our revered film industry in Nigeria, or if it were possible to accord a cinematographer in Nigeria the kind of respect accorded to the likes of Roger Deakins. Moreso if they stayed put in respective fields for decades without crossing over to directing or producing or any other such thing. The answer to that question, in my opinion as far as Nigeria is concerned remains an emphatic ‘NO.’ The answer to this question is based on these observations of mine.
Cinematography, editing, set design are still somewhat considered as semi-skilled endeavours as far as the making of a film and other related content is concerned and as such continue to command sub par wages. In other words, it is the kind of stuff Emeka can ask his nephew Jide to come around a set a couple of times or have him sit in a post production studio for two months and presto! He becomes a cinematographer or editor or whatever Emeka intended for him to be. Of course that’s why this new breed cinematographer doesn’t know what the histogram or zebras displaying on the camera means as long as the image looks good enough in HIS eyes. It’s the same reason the editor can’t fix crippling mono audio, establish continuity or cheat with shots to make up for errors during the shoot.
I once had the opportunity to talk to a camera man on the set of a production a couple of years ago and I caught a whiff of the passion he had for the job. However, the young man, who had only just ‘graduated’ from the position of a camera assistant (mind you camera assistant here does not refer to the focus puller. The camera assistant in this clime carries the camera bags and changes/charges the camera batteries) could not navigate the settings on a Sony EX3 camera! He knew how to pull the zoom, change the card slots, and press the very obvious record button. His very words were “give me a camera,any camera, and I will shoot for as long as is required.I may not know about settings but I can hold the camera steady.” At a point where all I wanted to be was the best editing hands on this side of the Atlantic and nothing more,I found his spirit commendable and hoped he would improve. It’s been three years now,and I sincerely hope he has, and if our industry trajectory is anything to go by, he would probably a production manager in another three to five years.
I firmly believe this apprenticeship mentality that goes into training would-be editors and cinematographers is responsible for the shortage of necessary skill set needed to excel in the industry and is the reason on the whole that such members of the creative community are treated like bricklayers on a construction site; overworked and underpaid. The instructor deliberately fails to comprehensively instruct his/her pupil so that they go out into the field incomplete. This enables them to remain relevant in the market and command somewhat respectable prices than their pupils who had they had all the knowledge would have undercut their instructors on price and knowing how producers love a bargain the instructors would have lost out to their pupils in the job market. At least I think that is what they are thinking. How else can I explain being financially and intellectually handicapped at the second studio I interned in as an editor until they noticed me display initiative outside their borders and then decided to make me their new workhorse. If that is truly the reason behind such actions though then I’d say it is rather asinine. Experience trumps knowledge anyday. You can transfer all your knowledge to a pupil but experience is, well that is why they call it experience.
So how about those who went to film school? Let me put it this way, You’ve gone and returned from film school, whether it was after six months or two years, point is, you’re back with all this knowledge and idea and all that beautiful ‘crap’, and then you jump into the fray that is our film and TV industry only to realize that the sub par standard is the SET standard and nobody wants to wait for you to run calibrations with a light meter or any other fancy stuff you’re on about. Basically it becomes imperative that you shape in or shape out!
Then all that film school money you paid for? You’re not going to make up for it in your first year working in the film industry. Film school or not, you will be considered as a greenhorn and will be priced along the lines of ‘apprentice’ filmmakers.
Moreso, there is no differentiating factor hence competitiveness amongst Cinematographers or editors is usually based on price. This means whoever has the capacity to execute the job faster and for less gets the job handed to them. Of course we can argue that in certain instances (post production specifically) getting the job done properly means painstakingly going through the job with a fine tooth comb. And that will be time consuming.
This implies that the longer you remain a cinematographer or an editor you will be faced with the threat of reducing profit margins to stay competitive. You then have the option of ascending the ladder. Become a production manager, maybe a producer or a director. Even an EP, who knows? Just don’t get drowned out by hungrier, younger people who don’t have families to feed and can afford to earn less and doing that will be nearly impossible unless you offer clients a differentiating factor that makes you distinct – hint,it shouldn’t be price, obviously.
Lower entry barriers to filmmaking means that digital content can be shot for next to nothing as far as production cost is concerned, from $400 Gopro cameras that shoot as much as 2.5K in resolution to iphones and samsungs to Nokia lumia phones with 41 MegaPixel cameras. This is sort of a good thing right? Yes actually, but again I share Ryan’s opinions in this article. Where jobs which would have been shot with a medium sized budget requiring a P2 camera or the EX3 would now have the option of being shot with cheap DSLRs. Usually they(the producers) are tempted to carry on with this cost cutting measure and extend it to the talent, the crew and even post production. So the logic becomes; “I can’t pay you the same thing i would pay you for editing the last job because it was shot on a SONY professional camera and this was shot on a DSLR camera.” Maybe that’s probably why the editor decides to let the job go out with some heinous errors on the final edit, just speculating.
Finally, money. While some of us may want to pursue the meaning of life, arts,science, religion, seek escapism through the lens of a camera, We have to eat, have clothing and shelter (I’m liberally paraphrasing some guy’s words who happened to be the founder of socialism along with Karl Marx).
Ours is a struggling third world economy, with bills to pay and communal mouths to feed, art has to start paying off pretty quickly or it becomes a liability. In the same way, the editor,cinematographer, or set designer has to live off of something else to ensure that his/her basic needs remains catered to due to the erratic/inconsistent nature of the job.
Editing is basically drab if you are not working on a ‘passion’ project. If you have to do that for a TV station or stream live events it becomes a chore, even for geeks (raises hand solemnly) such are usually the kind of jobs that you can do without opening your eyes. They are also the kind of jobs with the potential for handsome remuneration. Now don’t get me wrong, there are people who totally love doing multimedia jobs for TV that have nothing to do whatsoever with film, drama or whatnot. I for a fact
like love documentaries. But when people start to gravitate towards a certain aspect of multimedia because the pay is supposedly bigger, then we have a problem, the problem here is not even about fulfillment or other abstracts. The problem becomes saturation, individuals unnecessarily obfuscating other people with genuine passion for the job either by leveraging on their connections to gain an advantage (nothing wrong with that by the way) or lowering prices and still delivering below par. Then there’s that other stuff about not feeling fulfilled doing something that only pays the bills.
So, is there a solution? Well the thing is there is no purist way of making film, not in this clime or generation. The solution when oversimplified is basically this; adapt or die.
As a living entity, over time we evolve. Our bodies, down to their cellular contents adapts to external influences,reacting in ways that ensures our survival. In the same vein, filmmakers should see themselves as businessmen, your product is entertainment, propaganda, enlightenment, escapism, you want your product to draw emotion from the audience. Whatever side of the divide you exist in, treat your craft as a business. It’s now less about the film and more about the actual business that goes into the creation of film and related content. Negotiation, competitive pricing, differentiating factors, spurring customer curiosity, generating customer intimacy, engagement and retention are things you may need to consider as opposed to just doing whatever it is you’ve been doing. Whatever your niche in the film business you have to look at your sector, find out what you can offer that is sorely missing, meet that need and convince people of said need. Seems really easy in theory right? I thought so too until I started something along those lines.
Caveat though, if you haven’t perfected your skills in your specific endeavor as a filmmaker you might want to do that first, worse still, with new innovations cropping up ever so often you have to keep yourself in the know and constantly update your skill set, add that to trying to sell yourself from a unique perspective like I mentioned earlier plus actually working and you have a problem,but then there are people already doing that so no need whining about it eh. Go on and be successful then, but don’t hold your breath waiting for our economy to become more supportive of filmmakers. Besides, what art form exceeds the art of living life, and living it well?