This post was written by Jason Eksuzian.
We filmmakers love some good lingo: C-47, menace arm, hot points, fraturday, flying-in, push, pull, grip, stinger, and “striking!” While our industry may boast quite a unique lexicon, one of the oldest and most widely used terms in the business is dead wrong, and it has everything to do with a fundamentally backwards metaphor.
If you are a film and TV professional, you (like I) have used phrases like “What are we shooting?” “I love that shot!” and “Have a great shoot,” thousands of times. The term is so ubiquitous that it is routinely said with authority by still photographers, actors, models, influencers, critics, film nerds, and mothers worried about the long hours their showbiz children are putting in.
We obsess about our favorite shots: impossible shots; crane, drone, underwater, dolly, opening and closing shots. The trades speculate about who is shooting what and when. There’s a shoot we are prepping, and, if the budget only allowed, we would have definitely won an award for “that shot.”
'Desperado'Credit: Sony Pictures ReleasingIt wasn’t until recently that I really started thinking deeply about why we use this word “shoot” in relation to the act of photographing. My little epiphany began with an expression I absolutely loathe: “Let’s spray down the place for B-Roll.”
This is something I hear frequently on the sets of my unscripted shows, and if you’ve never heard it before, I’ll explain: “Spray down” (or its equally cringe-y alternative wording of “hose down”) is often used by producers or directors as a way to ask for general B-roll of a location. I’ve always been somewhat allergic to it because instead of inspiring thoughtful visual compositions made to support the story being told, the phrase suggests a messy, artless approach emphasizing quantity over quality. In this scenario, what exactly is being sprayed? Who is cleaning it up?
Many people whom I respect have framed a B-roll request to me in this way. While I do not hold it against them, I often think about how and why we have come to see a camera in this way.
'Pulp Fiction'Credit: Miramax Films
Why Do Filmmakers Use the Word “Shoot”
By my calculation, exactly zero percent of the filmmaking process involves anything at all exiting the camera. The entire event is about intake and capture. No projectile is shot, sprayed, launched or otherwise ejected in the making of moving images.
So how did we get here? The etymology of shoot, as it relates to filmmaking, allegedly finds its roots in the days of the hand-cranked film camera. A camera operator cranked away, running film through the shutter mechanism and gate. This resembled the hand-cranked machine guns of the time, and so the correlation was made: a cameraperson “shot” film as a gunman shot bullets.
We can also find commonalities in the basic ergonomics of a movie camera and a gun: there is a barrel, a triggering mechanism, a sight. Where the similarities end is in the actual function of these two machines, as defined earlier. A gun’s purpose is to propel a bullet outward. A camera’s purpose is to take light inward. In their most fundamental mechanical actions, we can see a gun and a camera are polar opposites.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidCredit: 20th Century Fox“So, what’s the problem?” you ask? Who really cares? We use antiquated phrases, harmless slang and generally accepted misnomers all the time on set and in life. Fair point. But maybe, upon deeper examination, this one bothers me because what we make as filmmakers is art. Art is creative, not destructive. Art generates new ideas, births thought, stirs emotions, inspires. Art puts meaningful ideas into the world, it doesn’t take them away. It doesn’t wound or maim or kill.
Words matter. So what effect does this constant and casual usage of inherently violent terminology have on our workplace environment and our final artistic expressions? Is there something about it that unintentionally roots our perception in something destructive rather than creative? I have no idea, but I think it’s worth asking: do we as filmmakers and artists want our process described this way? I don’t think I do.
It’s not easy, but I am trying to mutate my industry DNA around these ideas by choosing to use words like capture, filming, frame and to project, in place of the gun metaphors. Besides being technically and practically more accurate, it just feels better to me.
I encourage you to try it too, with the Martini Shot as the one exception.