On Science, Myth and the Movies; Or, “Who Cares What an F-Stop Is?”
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Visual media today is a complicated blend of art and science. Film, photography and animation wouldn’t exist without groundbreaking scientific innovations. Many media projects would not be possible without cutting-edge equipment, or precise algorithms. Nevertheless, media creators can sometimes be uninterested or intimidated by the technical aspects of filmmaking. This is especially common for those who are just starting to become interested in visual storytelling. I used to be one of them.
There is a widespread cultural myth that science and mathematics are incompatible with creativity and wonder, two qualities that encourage so many people to become filmmakers. It’s a myth that was heavily ingrained in me as a child, discouraging me from learning the scientific principles of filmmaking. There are a lot of reasons why this myth persists - for example, mass media and education policy - but it simply isn’t true. A brief look into the history and practice of science and mathematics would show creativity and wonder in abundance.
When I was a teenager, however, I felt overwhelmed by all the functions on my video camera rather than excited. Then I read Robert Rodriguez’s memoir and how-to guide for independent filmmakers, Rebel Without a Crew. Like many others my age who were obsessed with making movies, I found it inspiring. The whole book is filled with cool stories and great advice, but the part that still sticks out for me, years later, is a bit different. It’s this:
“What's an F-stop? Who cares what an F-stop is? Don't worry about the F-stop. I never did […] If it seems that I'm oversimplifying even these basic aspects of filmmaking, I'm not! I think it's best not to concentrate your energy on all the pain-in-the-ass details that aren't that important at this point in your career […] No one will ever care that your movie has great F-stops. Is the story compelling? Are the characters interesting? When it's all over, those are the only things that will really matter.”
This was very appealing advice to me at the time. I loved creating characters, I loved telling their stories, and I wanted to be able to tell those stories visually. When Rodriguez told me these technical issues I was worried about didn’t matter - at least, not when you’re first starting out - I felt free to explore the visual storytelling I was interested in without worrying so much.
However, as I got older, I began to question this advice. I found that I couldn’t imagine working in videography, photography or post-production without understanding what an F-stop is, without having a strong grasp of optics, of mathematics, of physics. Understanding the basic scientific principles on which the film and media industry is based benefited my work enormously.
Of course, Rodriguez’s point doesn’t necessarily contradict my experience. He’s encouraging people to ignore the technical details to begin with, not through their careers. On the surface, this makes sense. Since these details can be so intimidating to aspiring filmmakers, why not start by focusing on the story and characters, “the only things that will really matter”? Then, when you grow more comfortable and experienced, you can start to learn those technical details.
The problem is, Rodriguez seems to accept a common assumption; that there is a clear division between the creative side of filmmaking and the technical side, and the technical side is a lot less interesting. This assumption was the reason I found technical stuff so intimidating. They seemed dull and overwhelming, completely different from the exciting, accessible world of visual storytelling.
I now question that assumption. Why should creativity not play heavily into how you learn what an F-stop is and how to use it? Why should you treat the principles of light any differently from the principles of storytelling? Aren’t they both tools we can use creatively when we understand them?
Suppose, at a crucial moment in your project, a character learns a devastating truth. You want to capture their anguish with a close-up shot. Your ability to capture that moment won’t just depend on the script, actor and framing, but on the way the light hits the subject, the way the camera perceives that light, the distance between yourself and the subject. If you don’t understand how these work, you may not know that a few small changes in your camera settings could radically improve how the moment appears when you shoot it. If you do have some understanding of these principles, you have a whole new range of tools to play with to capture it, possibly in ways you never expected. Isn’t that more interesting, more exciting, more creative?
For example, one of the most interesting things I’ve read over the past few years has been this article about the cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Knives Out, The Last Jedi):
Many filmmakers consider film cameras to be inherently superior to digital cameras. However, their arguments are difficult to quantify. Most argue that film just has a special quality to it, something that can’t be defined. However, Yedlin argues that we can define it, and more importantly, we can replicate that special quality on digital cameras through mathematical algorithms. Yedlin’s demonstration is incredibly convincing, and the possibilities it presents for the future of filmmaking are exciting - provided filmmakers and other industry professionals are willing to embrace its principles.
Crucially, Yedlin does not provide a specific algorithm for reproducing the film look using digital cameras. He provides the following reasoning:
“My whole point […] is to empower and inspire filmmakers to be authors of their look instead of slavishly following well-trod paths. If I offer another competing path that’s equally fixed (instead of tools for forging your own path), then I’m undermining my own philosophy.”
To me, Yedlin’s work is a prime example of how science and mathematics can be used with great imagination to create new artistic milestones.
On reflection, I would not give the same advice to aspiring filmmakers that Robert Rodriguez does (although his book is still absolutely worth reading). Instead, I would say not to be afraid of the technology side of filmmaking, even if you don’t see yourself as particularly good at science. You don’t need to become an expert on these principles, but having a basic understanding can still help you enormously. More importantly, playing around with these principles can be just as exciting and creative as rearranging your story elements, drawing up your storyboard, or directing your actors.
I highly recommend visiting Steve Yedlin’s website. His writing on colour science and other film technology is outstanding.
Khan Academy’s “Pixar in a Box” is a phenomenal online course for beginners and learners. It covers a broad range of Pixar’s creative and technological principles, including visual storytelling, lighting, colour science, cameras and computer graphics. Learning all of these ideas in the same course, and seeing how they interact together, is eye-opening.
For an introduction to the history of science that helps to capture its wonder and humanity, I would highly recommend Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
For an exploration of the role science plays in the modern world, and some of the problems with the way it’s taught and understood, I would recommend Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Although parts of the book are dated, it is written with more compassion and thoughtfulness than most books on the subject.