Do You Have Spec Obsessive Disorder?

This is a guest post by Evan Luzi, a camera assistant and editor of The Black and Blue.

Filmmaking has always been an art uniquely tied to the technology that enables it.

This operates on several levels: innovations expand possibilities like sound or color, camera advancements make them more affordable and democratize the process, and — on the most basic level — without a camera, we cannot make films.

But lately I’ve felt this balance between art and technology is lopsided towards new gear.

Maybe it’s the massive influx of new cameras recently. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been spending too much time in the blogosphere echo chamber. Or maybe it’s just an evolution of filmmaking culture.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear there are some filmmakers who suffer from Spec Obsessive Disorder.

So, what is Spec Obsessive Disorder (SOD)?

It’s a term coined by David Pogue, a tech writer for the New York Times, who wrote a column about the nature of smartphone buyers to burden themselves by thinking too much about specs. And though he was referring to smartphones, his points stand pretty well within the context of digital cinema cameras:

I’ll keep reporting the most important specs in my reviews, because techies care about such things. But to me, the questions should not be, “How much memory is in this tablet? How many nits of brightness does that phone’s screen put out? What graphics processor is in that laptop? How much milliamp-hours does that phone’s battery pack?”

Instead, the questions should be, “How fast is it? How good does it look? Can you read it in sunlight? Does the battery last? How long does the battery last?”

And even those are secondary questions. The bigger ones are, “Is it a good value? Is the design excellent? Should you buy it?”

Imagine if the spec-obsessed adopted this line of questioning. Instead of “How much resolution does it have?” they would ask “Is it enough resolution?”

(A small, but notable alternative with a completely different answer.)

Diving further, as Pogue suggests, they might ask “Do I enjoy watching it? How does the image make me feel? Did it make me feel warm? Cold? Estranged? Fuzzy?”

Then they could apply those emotions to the context of their project.

Then weight the importance of those images to their project against the cost of the camera to obtain them.

For cinematographers and directors, skills that enable you to light, to compose, and to translate the ethos of a story into the visual medium of film are far more useful than the ability to dive into the minutae of sensor size. For producers, your ability to go beyond specs and learn more about the tone of the project, the budget of a project, and the practicality of a camera in the reality of a production is paramount.

Pro Lost’s Stu Maschwitz hit on this point precisely in a post about camera tests when he said, “Are camera tests useless? Not at all. I’m grateful that so many people want to do them. It frees me up to grab a camera that I think is going to be pretty much right for the job, and get busy.”

One of the worst symptoms of Spec Obsessive Disorder is always looking at small differences between cameras while ignoring the large differences. In the case of Stu, the small differences might be resolution, sensor size, and compression algorithms, but the most important difference — and the one he acted on — is what camera is available, right now?

Is there a perfect camera for a job? Sometimes, but rarely. It’s much more likely that several cameras will be more than great for your project.

And though specs will serve their purpose in helping you choose out of that lineup, it’s also important to remember filmmaking is still an art. When you ask “What’s the sensor size?” be sure to consider how that does or doesn’t matter to your film.

Because the number one sign of someone suffering from Spec Obsessive Disorder is they care only about the technology of a camera; thinking that somehow all that power will translate into artistic potency.

Spec Obsessive Disorder may not be fatal to you, but it certainly can be for your films.

Evan Luzi is a camera assistant and the editor of The Black and Blue, a site full of practical filmmaking tips for below-the-line crew. Evan recently asked Why Are We So Obsessed with Camera Specs? and found the best medicine for spec obsessive disorder is to become a fan of movies, not cameras. You can also follow Evan on Twitter (@evanluzi).