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The Danger of the Shortcut Mentality

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In “Skill in the Age of Instagram”, I had opined about the lost value of skill sets, and how the modern approach to skills is to “approximate” them with shortcuts like Instagram, Autotune, and Photoshop.

Even though these tools offer the quickest and shortest “path” to the immediate goal, being your current project, they retard your potential growth by limiting your skills and knowledge about what you’re doing. If the pseudo-magic time-saving software is taken away (or encounters a limitation), how will you continue to be able to function without it?

In cinematography

Cinematography is rife with this kind of intellectual laziness, as all creative fields have a tendency to be. A few of the places I’ve seen this have been:

  • Cameras. If you haven’t met a single cinematographer who has lamented that s/he is being held back by his/her rig, you haven’t gotten out very much. I call crap on that argument, mainly because of fine work like Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color”. Learn to use what you’ve got, rather than pining for something better / different.

  • Color correction and grading. Virtually every amateur forum on color correction and grading is full of people asking where they can get a “one size fits all” LUT which will make their footage look “like Hollywood”. If there was such a thing, the entire industry of color grading specialists would just be wasting their time and skills. There’s even an “Instagram” of sorts for color grading – Magic Bullet Looks.

  • Focus. I’m still surprised at the number of people who complain that cameras do not do the focusing work for them. (It’s easier to remind them that, much like other electronics, more expensive things have fewer bells and whistles – and autofocus is a terrible, terrible idea.)

  • Lighting. As soon as low light cameras capable of cine work, like the A7s, came out, people came crawling out of the woodwork, happy that they no longer would have to worry about learning to light a scene. Putting aside the relative noisiness of the sensors, low light / no light still does not look like actual lit footage.

Falling into these thought pattern “traps” may seem easier at first, but following this “shortcut mentality” doesn’t may off in the long game.

Why?

I’m not sure. I have previously said that I believed intellectual laziness or possibly a culture obsessed with instant gratification could be blamed for attempting to take the easy way out. Upon further observation, I cannot isolate a single cause behind the widespread acceptance of these tools and shortcuts, but I’ll iterate through possible causes.

  • Illusory superiority. We aren’t very good at figuring out how good or bad we are at something (the concept of illusory superiority contends that we usually overestimate our skill level, and the Dunning-Kruger effect also stipulates that we will eventually under-estimate our skill level, once we’ve gotten past a certain point). It’s one of the reasons why 90% of drivers believe that they’re in the top 10% of the skill curve – and also could help explain why using some of the aforementioned tools has become so prevalent. If we believe we’re in the top percentiles of a skill set, we’ll also believe that whatever we do (as part of our “process”) is, and must be, inherently correct. This can be seen by the inability of many Instagram filter users to understand why their tool is an “easy way out”.

  • Instant gratification. Our culture, especially the now-pervasive “millenial generation”, which has come into cultural power with a shorter-than-ever attention span and a lack of any understanding of their own skill levels, thanks to a society hell-bent on issuing participation awards to everyone.

  • Intellectual laziness. Increasingly, people seem to be less interested in how something works, and simply interested that it works.

  • “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There is a look and feel “arms race”, which closely parallels the loudness war, in that photographers and cinematographers are pressed to try to replicate the look and feel of their Instagrammified and Photoshopped brethren.

  • The social disease. No, not “the herp”; the disease of social networking. A seemingly endless desire for likes, “+1”s, shares, and every other type of social networking accolades, has been a driving force in recent years; “self-status seeking” is one of the primary goals of those who engage in social networking. In efforts to garner the esteem of “friends” and “contacts” on these social networks, users are adopting the lowest common denominator, in many cases, to attempt to appeal to the greatest number of followers.

What’s the solution?

This is where I’m at a bit of a loss. I’d like to believe that, given time, those who possess the requisite skills of the trade will advance, simply by virtue of having learned to ply their skills more effectively, and those who use “skill approximation” software will drop off, or will continue to produce mediocre or cookie-cutter output.

That being said, it didn’t happen that way with pitch-correction software. Musical artists no longer have to be able to sing in tune (although, you could point at musicians like Bob Dylan to say “they never had to be able to”, but I digress) to be able to rise to the top of the pop music charts, and photographers don’t have to be able to take a clean picture to be able to produce a cover image for a magazine. The exact opposite, in fact, is expected from professional photographers – knowledge of manipulation tools is expected, and some photographers are becoming well known through their Instagram-filtered images.

(As an aside, even though I do have an Instagram account, I do tag my photos with #nofilter and #noprocessing to indicate that I do not manipulate them, apart from the forced square ratio imposed by Instagram.)

I can only recommend the long road – and I’m going to end this post with a quote that, while it may seem to be a bit cliché, is perfectly apropos:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference. - “The Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost

It is even more appropriate that the oft-misconstrued sentiment of Frost’s poem was to lament that he had chosen the more difficult route, not to celebrate that he had taken it.

So please, take the long road of learning and discovery, rather than looking for shortcuts ; you’ll be a better, more skilled person for having done so. Good luck!

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