Should Today’s Young Filmmakers Know the Masters?

Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

UPDATE: Be sure to read the follow-up commentary once you’re done.

My friend and photographer Carlos Baez is passionate about his craft and paying homage to the photography masters. Boy, don’t even get him started on the fact that so many of today’s young photographers have no idea who Helmut Newton is. Maybe it’s the Latin blood, but when we get talking about the state of education and experience among the young photographers of today, he gets rather riled.

Honestly, I used to think he took it too seriously. I’d tease him about it. But that was because it was photography (i.e. not MY craft. Isn’t it funny how some things don’t really bother us that much until it hits home for us personally?). Today I was talking to an extremely talented filmmaker and mentioning names like Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers, and he/she hadn’t seen any of their work. “Well how about The King’s Speech?” “Nope.” I can’t say I got as fired up as my buddy Carlos, but for the first time I think I felt a little bit how he felt. “How can you not know the Coen Brothers?!” (If the person I was talking to is reading this, don’t feel bad. You are a crazy talented filmmaker. I don’t think ill of you. But you DO need to get that Netflix account we talked about and watch you some films. 🙂 )

So, I got to thinking: how important is it really for talented young filmmakers to know the works of Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini, Kubrick, Hitchock, Houston, Wyler, or Wilder? Or the works of contemporary “masters” like the Coen Brothers, the Andersons (PT or Wes), Jarmusch, Soderbergh, Scorcese, Allen (as in Woody), or Coppola (daddy or daughter)? (I’d add Tarantino to this list, but given the number of times I’ve seen the “Reservoir Dogs” walk in wedding as well as corporate films, I think QT is pretty well known.)

Today I’m just posing the question out to the world wide interwebs. Tomorrow I’ll offer some of my thoughts (to be honest, I’m still percolating on it).

So, what say you?

Now go read the follow-up commentary.

P.S. If you want to get a crash course in amazing filmmakers, check out the podcast Film Spotting and follow along their marathons. This is a must-podcast for any one who fancies himself/herself a filmmaker.

23 thoughts on “Should Today’s Young Filmmakers Know the Masters?

  1. I always thought that to master your craft, you have to know the history of it. Photography, Cinematography, Painting, lighting it is all interconnected. To de-construct something, you need to know how to construct it first. Look at Avedon’s portraits, Gabriel Figueroa’s lighting, Antonioni’s composition, Fellini and Bunuel’s images that sometimes had no explanation, but just whatever you took from them. Helmut Newton use of hard lighting, on incredibly sexual images, and still had a hard/softness to them (explain that!). The list goes on and on, and you should never stop studying the great. We do not come from Pixels, we come from Celluloid. We have the most advanced technology for recording images ever, but no matter how many 4K or 5K raw you can shoot, it will always be about who you are, your depth as an artist, your understanding of where you come from. Film is NOT dead!

    1. I love your passion and knowledge Angel. And your work is amazing. Is it safe to say that the reason your films are as beautiful as they are is because of your knowledge of the Masters?

      1. Before I see a movie, I make a point to see, who is the Director of Photography, and who is the Director. It is hard for me to see a movie, and not to be looking at the lighting, composition, camera moves. Its not until the second time that I see a movie that I can disconnect from the technical and really enjoy the story. My wife hates that 🙂 But yes, sooner or later your knowledge of the Masters will creep in your storytelling, at least I hope so.
        That said, I have tried to copy John Woo’s style, on a Action film I was shooting, man that was a disaster.

        1. I’m sure the first time John Woo tried his style it was a disaster too. 🙂

          It’s funny, I’m kind of the opposite of you. The first time I see a movie I’ll usually get into the story, then on subsequent viewings will I get more into the technical.

          Thanks for sharing.

  2. There is a always a delicate balance between consumption of others work and going out and doing your own work. If you more concern about great filmmakers work and trying to cover all of the “masters” are you going out and shooting enough? However, if your not taking the time and studying the masters how will you know what is consider good?

    I think in this case “why” and “what” is more important than “who”. What methods are these filmmakers using and why are they using it?

    Sometimes filmmakers might inherit these techniques through other filmmakers who know the masters. The important thing is that they identify the technique and use it a correct matter!

    1. I guess a good example from my life is the “Ken Burns effect”. I used the Ken Burns effect before I even knew who Ken Burns is or even seen any of his documentaries. I saw other people used it and decided to use it for a project that required it! Again, what and why is more important that who.

      1. The truth is, I don’t think Ken Burns even invented that “effect.” It just came to stick with him because of the success of his war documentaries.

        I agree with you on the what and why. I guess if a certain technique or style connects with you, the who doesn’t matter as much. I guess the question is, are you actively seeking out experienced “whos” to get that inspiration and education? If you are (vs just randomly looking a videos on Vimeo until you see something you like) why not look to the masters.

        1. I agree it’s important, but I believe thats changing…

          I think in today’s age the masters will be hardier and hardier to find. Back in the day filmmakers would only see work from the top pros for hollywood (to a extent). We all know where certain come from where because everybody saw the few films that the masters made. Now we have Vimeo and from that we get many masters instead of few masters. Trends will start poping up from these techniques and their name might ultimately get lost outside of the initial “early adopters”. People don’t use citation for their video techniques unfortunately! 🙂

  3. Do young film makers need to know those that preceded them? Depends… If they wish to be content in their ignorance, superior in their own little world, and not have a clue about how to express themselves through their medium of choice and be contented in “awww- crap…that looks so cool dude” mentality…then NO they dont. The ability to create a stylized aesthetic that is recognizable, well that only comes from studying the works of previous film makers. Understanding the medium that you are working in is the main reason why young/modern film makers need to know the artists that preceded them.

    If they do not know what the medium of cinema is capable to producing by studying and examining the works of masters past, then they will not be able to better lead the medium to the future. Without the study of previous works, many modern “film makers” will simply be content making what they think “looks cool” and have no idea how to elevate their art above the simple aesthetic.

    WARNING: I am entirely entrenched in academia… so thats the origin of my stance on the matter. (I’m a photographer stuck in a cinema dept….oh no… :-p)

    1. You made me laugh out loud David! 🙂 I’m still chuckling.

      To be fair to SOME of these youngins (not that I’m that old mind you), some just don’t know any better. They picked up a camera, have a innate gift, and they run with it. But take the guy I mentioned, I know he is willing to learn and take the time to see their work. That’s a start, right?

      Thanks for giving me a good laugh today.

  4. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, is it really necessary for everyone to have the same set of references and touchstones? Does this not, in effect, set everyone off playing from the same playbook? I’m certainly not suggesting that we remain ignorant or disrespectful of our craft, but I wonder what things would look like if we were focused on creating and executing from inside rather than from emulating or “paying homage” to the past. Will future generations feel obligated to pay homage to our copies?

    It isn’t an argument about whether or not the accepted and celebrated stuff is “good” or not, but I wonder if the definition of “good” isn’t too narrow, or perhaps could be broadened and developed further if there wasn’t so much emphasis on digesting what had come before. What about what has yet to come?

    Again, playing Devil’s Advocate.

    – trr

  5. Wow, thanks Ron. It’s an honor to show up on your blog. I’ve loved your work in the PartnerCon films and I have a lot of respect for your film-making talents, so it was kind of a happy moment when I read my name on bladeronner!

    Maybe I’m mellowing. I guess my perspective about what is important to me personally is changing. I’m also kind of tired of being thought of as a grumpy guy. I’m not. I truly value the work of those who went before me. I believe that by studying their work and by trying to mimic it I learned the techniques that have freed me to pursue my own vision. That’s the path I chose. When I taught at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, that’s the way I taught.

    Today there are so many young photographers who don’t seem to want to know. For a while I let that become a distraction. I guess I’ve kind of turned a corner. Each person has a right to pursue their dreams however they please. They don’t need me telling them what to think. This doesn’t change the fact that I think studying the masters is beneficial. It is, in so many ways. It’s just to say that I’ve sort of decided it’s time for me to focus on other things. My business is busy. My first love is capturing light through the lens. Particularly when that light is reflected from the skin of a beautiful woman. (I guess that’s the cuban in me after all!) I am working on a fun new project.

    If someone wants to know the greats, the Hitchcocks, the Coen’s and others, their work is there for them to see. If they don’t they don’t. I don’t think that’s going to be a distraction to the greats. I don’t want it to be a distraction for me either.

    As Jim Collins would say, “Onward!”


    Carlos …

  6. Gracias Angel.

    Usted sabe los cubanos nos gusta que sea real, en nuestro trabajo o nuestra vida personal.

    Todo lo mejor.

    PS. Great work by the way Angel.

  7. Who was the VERY FIRST “master” of filmmaking? Think of that person. Then ask yourself, “did _____ know who preceded him before he got good?”
    No on preceded him.
    So, no i don’t think it’s requisite for modern filmmakers to know or pay homage to past filmmakers to become great.
    i think it EXTREMELY increases your chances of success by learning from those who have amazing things to teach you, but no – i don’t think it’s necessary.

    me? I’m not talented enough to be that much of a pioneer. so yeah – i try to know the works of the masters. at least those that resonate with me most.

  8. Let’s not forget Terrance Malik, Won Kar Wai, Krystof Kieslowski, Ki-Duk Kim, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Darren Aronofsky (just to name a few of my favorite visual pioneers). It’s not necessary to know all the masters in your field (is that even possible?) and certainly you don’t need to like them all (Kurosawa doesn’t move me like he does other people), but to be completely ignorant of everyone else in your field is a very strange situation to be in.

    I’d argue that even more important than knowing the pioneers or “masters” in your field is knowing those of another field you can start an interdisciplinary dialogue with. Though I agree 100% with Carlos on the importance of the “masters,” I’ve found I’ve learned at least as much and probably been more inspired by artists in different mediums (especially film) than my own.

    Another reason to know who the masters are is that it demonstrates a serious engagement with your craft. Not knowing who Michael Jordan is might not affect your basketball-playing abilities, but a lot of people are going to have a hard time taking you seriously as a basketball player if you keep saying you’ve never heard of him.

  9. @andrew

    Yes, the very first “master” of filmmaking built on the achievements of other inventors and pioneers in many different fields. Research the origins of film and you will find that one can’t even pinpoint its exact origin because its a long chain of people working on the inventions of people before them, and sometimes people working concurrently.

  10. If I played basketball by myself every day, I would be a good basketball player….

    If I played basketball with Michael Jordan every day, I would be a GREAT basketball player…..

    Surround yourself with people who are better at what you do than you are, and one day they won’t be.

    I don’t even know if I made a point…. I’m still jet-lagged.

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