Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Next Step for Digital Filmmaking

Independent filmmaking has gone through more radical changes in the past decade than it has in nearly the last century. The introduction of consumer digital video tools in the late 1990s, and the availability of non-linear editing systems like Final Cut Express made it possible for amateur, DIY, and independent filmmakers of all stripes to have access to the same tools, and to the same level of quality and technical expectations that were previously the purview of the professional.

In 1999, the New York Times published an article by Rick Layman titled "New Digital Cameras Poised to Jolt World of Filmmaking" (Rick Layman, The New York Times, 11/19/99). In the piece, Layman describes the technology being used by filmmaker Mike Figgis during the filming of his landmark film TIME CODE, which combined four separate, 90-minute takes into a single film. In addition to discussing how the coming changes in technology would affect established filmmakers, the article also discusses how - more importantly - the new digital tools could revolutionize the world of independent filmmaking, not just in the production stage, but also in terms of direct digital distribution to theaters. Where the article makes it most pressing point, however, is that the attraction of these tools for independent filmmakers is not just technological, but also artistic.

This article conveys the excitement over the sense of newness resulting from emerging digital technologies that, for a brief moment, looked as though they would usher in a wave of new opportunities for independent filmmakers to produce and distribute their work.

The excitement over the possibilities of digital filmmaking loomed large over the independent filmmaking world during much of the first half of the 2000s. Nearly 15 years later, however, the excitement has dissipated. Digital cinema has seemed to fail to live up to its potential. Discussions about its possibilities abounded but now seem rather quaint. The New York Times article refers to a hypothetical scenario proposed by Mike Figgis, in which he speculates that if he were a "young filmmaker in Ohio or someplace", he could make a film like TIME CODE with on location with his friends as crew, and that the whole thing could be shot for around $100,000.

Figgis' comments are intriguingly prescient in terms of one of the misinterpretations about the possibilities presented by digital filmmaking that were at least partly responsible for its current transformation into a more expensive and unwieldy proposition that has once again become the purview of professionals.

A real turning point in understanding this transformation occurred in 2005-2006, with the emergence of YouTube, which ushered in its own era of user-generated streaming video content. Because YouTube allowed registered users to upload video content to its servers free of charge, the site quickly became overrun with an overwhelming amount of media, with over 100 hours of video being uploaded per minute according to their website. YouTube initially seemed like the final step in democratizing film. If MiniDV and affordable cameras, NLE systems and DVD authoring software had made production more feasible, then YouTube made it possible for the filmmaker to upload his or her work to distribute to a potentially worldwide audience.

Instead, YouTube proved to be the wedge that split and divided digital filmmaking permanently. Because distribution of digital films had still been previously limited to festivals or other curated viewing experiences, that became the mark of seriousness. In other words, even though the digital filmmaker might be using equipment that could be purchased at the local Best Buy or Office Max, he or she still enjoyed a certain level of professional affirmation through the film festivals or other exhibition channels that vindicated these films by mimicking the traditional modes of commercial film distribution.

YouTube instantly blew away the traditional models and instead made it possible for quite literally anyone with a camera, a computer, and an Internet connection to get their work shown to a potentially larger audience than had ever been previously possible. Thus the split between the "professional" amateur and the "amateur" amateur. It was only in hindsight, particularly as YouTube moved toward increasingly commercial and sponsored content and away from being primarily a home for user-generated content, that the possibilities promised by the emergence of digital tools a decade earlier began to resemble a lost opportunity.

To return to an earlier point regarding Mike Figgis' comments about the hypothetical "young filmmaker in Ohio", it is useful to look at the exact wording of his quote in order to understand how one of the biggest misconceptions and, eventually, disappointments surrounding the potential of digital cinema came to be. At first, his statement appears to be suggesting that any kid in the Rust Belt could make a film like TIME CODE if only he had access to the tools. In the article, he says "If I were some young filmmaker in Ohio..." This is not splitting hairs. The difference being that Figgis, whether he was working in Hollywood or Ohio, has the ideas and vision in the services of which to employ digital tools. The big lie of digital filmmaking was that "anyone could be a filmmaker".

The absurdity of the statement is no different than suggesting that by giving someone a brush and a canvas, that they could paint the Mona Lisa, or that someone could write "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" just for being given a pen and paper. Both ideas are ludicrous. Why should it be that filmmaking, unlike other arts, is assumed to be not just attainable, but able to bemastered, even by those with no skill, training or - most importantly - ideas?

When filmmaking as an art form is impoverished and ghettoized by such attitudes, it is not surprising that eventually technology itself - and the vast amounts of money necessary to pay for it - became seen as the very mark of professionalism and seriousness. The tremendous upswing in the number of film schools and self-professed filmmakers demonstrates the degree to which people bought into this mindset. One result of that mindset has manifested itself in the slapped-together dreck passing as "camp" or "parody", or the inward-gazing "slice of life" pieces that demonstrate nothing so much as the filmmaker's lack of imagination in dealing with a world beyond their own limited experiences.

For a brief but glorious period there was an acceptance of the kind of expressive and personal work that could be produced using the tools available to the artist. Films shot on MiniDV, edited on home computers and burned onto DVD-R for viewing, could be taken seriously precisely because audiences and other filmmakers were interested in the possibilities of what could be produced when you removed the technological barriers that had long been the roadblock to filmmakers working outside large-scale commercial systems. The emphasis became focused on expression. Because of the low production costs, it also created a situation in which "making your money back" did not need to be the constant, overriding concern at the expense of everything else.