It really started from a conversation I was having with a colleague of mine some time around November of last year (2018 for you future readers). I mentioned a side project I was looking into, something that was meant to be very low budget and contained, and this colleague said they loved the idea, but disagreed on it being possible to execute at a low budget. I paraphrase ‘You need to think of quality, this kind of story would need some expensive setups with large swooping shots and a lot of extras’. We agreed to disagree on that one but that word stuck in my head for a long time. QUALITY.
It’s a word I had seen over used within the creative and cultural sector(CCS) in Malta, mostly to describe projects which – to quote a legend – ‘spared no expense!’. Many of these projects turned out to be rather dull if not completely off putting or shallow. So why were they being described as quality projects?
After a few days it hit me, it seems that a lot of people seem to be confusing quality with production values, both are an important part of any artistic production but they are certainly not interchangeable. And the more I thought about this the more I started seeing proof of this confusion. From young filmmakers and artists lamenting the lack of financing to get their vision on screen, to established artists losing their touch as soon as the big cheques start coming in.
The thing is, when it comes to the CCS, quality is very difficult to judge, it’s not an easy term to define and in the age of character limits and listicles, an understanding or appreciation of quality is not something that can be easily accommodated. On the other hand, production value (technical prowess, complex lighting, scenery etc… for the uninitiated) is very easy to understand and point out. To make things worse, the digital revolution has made higher production values accessible to a larger percentage of the population.
Now, being a firm believer in equal opportunities and socialist ideals, this increased accessibility should make me happy, however, it also means that artists working within industries of limited financial means (like the Maltese TV industry for example) are tempted to simply use this increase in production values as an alternative to an increase in quality.
Let’s take Maltese TV, the improvement in image quality and visual styling we’ve seen over the past 15 years have been astronomical. Most current TV dramas are shot relatively well and some have production values that were unheard of a decade ago when you consider the shoe-string budget available. However, after you sit through fifteen minutes of an episode and the only thing you’ve learnt about the show and story are that it is set in Malta and the main character’s name, you quickly realise that the storytelling hasn’t really improved.
It’s great that even students have access to large sensor size 4k cameras with all the bells and whistles we could only dream of 10 years ago. It really is, the question is, do they need it? If you can’t tell your story with a simple camera and a couple of people, should you be telling it right now?
A year ago I was producing a project were a first time director was close to throwing a tantrum over the lack of a wireless monitor, he felt he couldn’t direct without it. Unfortunately I’m sure he’s not alone in feeling that the latest gadgets are important for a quality production. But as one of my tutors told me a handful of years ago ‘If Coppola managed to shoot The Godfather Part 1 without a video assist, I think you can survive your debut film without one too’.
Don’t get me wrong, technology has given us some amazing tools as artists to express our visions and there is no harm in using them. It is only when we let these tools be our crutch and we replace quality with production value that they become a problem.
In a way this also ties in with a philosophy I have been formulating as part of the development of Shadeena. Some projects do need bells and whistles, but that is not what makes them good projects. My focus has always been to take a slow and measured approach to filmmaking and I will always favour a story well told over one that is poorly told but beautifully shot. We hope to meet more young (and old) filmmakers that share our passion and to work with them to bring more stories to the screens in the coming years.