An Introduction to Filmmaking in the Digital Era by Greg W. Locke
Greg W. Locke is a director and filmmaker. In this article he delves into the differences between the past and modern times in regards to filmmaking, including new technologies, trends, and tools that filmmakers now use. In the past, technological limitations hindered the filmmaker’s ability to obtain a certain scene, gather people together for collaboration, or share finished projects with the rest of the world. However, through the massive technological advances in recent times, such items have become resolved, and the modern filmmaker is able to be more efficient and productive than ever. Through the accessibility to better equipment – which includes the iPhone, iPad, and free editing software such as Windows Movie Maker – anyone can easily enter the filmmaking sector and get started making films almost immediately. Due to increased communications through the Internet, one is able to assemble a crew of actors and behind the scenes staff very quickly, an endeavor that took a lot of time and energy in the past. Finally, the introduction of Youtube and Vimeo has enabled filmmakers to be able to share their finished films with others; through such use of new innovations, modern filmmakers are able to get their films seen by people all over the world. Locke also delves into the change of the film industry culture and norms. Such advances in filmmaking have led to new ideas and new projects, such as Vine, short films with the maximum duration of 6 seconds. By contrasting the past and the present nature of filmmaking, it is evident that filmmaking has become much more easier to be involved in and to get one’s film noticed and shared with others.
The coupling of new online collaboration tools and innovative new technologies have forever redefined the production process in the world of cinema (Learmonth 2010). Just a few years ago the major majority of films being produced for commercial public consumption were shot on film, costing on average about $1,500 per day in film stock alone (Hurl 2011). Now, for better or worse (production purists and cinephiles would argue “worse”), most film productions exist in the digital world, allowing those without budgets and studio support to do work they never before could have dreamed of doing. The best argument for these changes is that a person who could never before afford to make a film – but might have a great vision or a flair for filmic storytelling – can now make a movie if they’re clever enough to buy or borrow the right tools. For example, if one were to buy an iPad Mini for $299 they can shoot full 1920 HD video (a very good looking picture) using that device. Not liking the look of the footage your iPad is getting for you? Easy – download one of the countless iTunes video camera apps for your iPad (many of which only cost $1, such as ProCamera 7) and play around with the settings (Tschida 2013). You can even edit your footage into a film using iMovie, a freeware program provided with your iPad purchase (Cohen 2004).
So you have your footage and it looks better than you could have imagined for the price, right? Sure, your lighting might not look like lighting in the movies you see at the theater and your sound wont be too professional – but the point is that you can make a good looking, nicely edited movie in the year 2013 using just one small, $299 device that’s quite easy to acquire. Just 10 years ago film students struggled to make equally good looking, professional films using limited resources and spending thousands of dollars renting equipment (Grove 2013). Filmmakers can even now upload their feature-length works to YouTube.com or Vimeo.com at no cost, then monazite their video and perhaps even turn a profit from their work (Everleth 2011).
These new technologies have allowed a whole new generation of filmmakers to work differently than any movie-makers before them. Using resources on the Internet you can now cast and staff an entire production without leaving the comforts of your desk chair (Nichole 2006). If you’re an actor wanting to work with a specific filmmaker on a specific project you can now record your audition using your computer’s webcam, then upload that recording to YouTube or Vimeo at no cost. Sounds weird, right? Well, consider this: the new Star Wars films are being cast online (Trenholm 2013). If the online audition process is good enough for the biggest movie franchise of all-time, well then that sort of sets a standard, don’t you think? Once the auditions are submitted the film’s directors and producers and casting director can then pass around the video links they receive from actors using e-mail and then discuss their feelings about the auditions face to face using a free video conferencing service such as Skype. Again – all at no cost and all online. Likewise, if the director wants to see more from an actor, they can do so via a Skype session, working face to face from different parts of the world if necessary. Below is a sample of a video audition that went viral and, eventually (because so many filmmakers saw it), helped make the actress involved – movie star Rachel McAdams – become a household name.
Now that you have your actors you’re maybe looking for a director of photography for your film, web series, commercial or television program, right? Easy. Put out a free listing on a film job site like Mandy.com and then watch submitted footage reels on YouTube and Vimeo (Illuma 2013). (Gone is the need for Cinematographers, Camera Operators or DPs to set aside thousands of dollars to they can have multiples of their sample reels printed out on film and distributed.) Need to find a location for next week’s shoot? No problem – start by nosing around on Google Maps then post an ad or two on Craigslist. Or you can use a service like Reel-Scout.com to help find your locations. All free, all accessible, all regularly used tools within the film production world (Le 2013).
You can even now submit your film to thousands of film festivals around the world using one-stop festival entry services like Withoutabox.com – a free service owned and operated by the same company known for IMDB.com (Internet Movie Database, the world’s No. 1 film reference tool). Now let’s say your film actually gets into the Cannes Film Festival but you can’t afford to make the trip and the festival’s organizers have asked you to do a Q&A session following the screening of your film. Bummer, right? Wrong. Many Q&A sessions at film festivals are now done using a Skype session that’s projected onto a screen (Eoff 2011).
As exciting as all of these new production and submission processes are for low- and no-budget filmmakers – especially when compared to how things were done a few years ago – let’s say you really want to go to Cannes because there’s a good chance of actually selling your film to a distributor or production company. Not going could ultimately only be a negative thing for your film and the careers of all those involved, right? Right. But, again, you just don’t have the money to make the trip to France – after all, you made your film with virtually no money, didn’t you? And so you’re out of luck then, right? No – absolutely not. Set up a fundraising campaign using a crowd-sourcing site like Kickstarter.com or Indiegogo.com (Thomas 2013). Plan your campaign carefully and work hard. Then plan some more and some more and some more, then work even harder. All the tools you might need are there, and you need little more than a small amount of money, Internet access and a whole lot of time and energy to make your idea into a reality.
Now that you have a good idea of how the film industry has changed due to new technologies and new methods of collaboration, we’ll use the following few paragraphs to look closer at the details of how many of these new collaborative- and Internet-based tools work, focusing on some examples of how others have used them thus far.
While working on Boxee, Vimeo founder Zach Klein suggested that someday none of us will watch network programmed television anymore. He said that he believes that eventually we’ll watch everything online and, mostly, we’ll be watching each other (Cutrell 2009). You’ll be making videos and I’ll be making videos, and it’ll all exist on the Internet, organized into any niche point of interest you could ever imagine. While Klein’s suggestions seemed a bit extreme at the time, things definitely seem to be headed in that direction. The popularity of YouTube is growing on a daily basis and an increasingly growing number of Americans have a video camera (usually on their phone) in their hand or pocket at all times. Go out in public and see how long it takes you to find someone who is pointing a camera or camera phone at something. Not long, huh?
On the cusp of Klein’s ideas right now is writer/director/actor/producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, best known for his performances in films like The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Looper and (500) Days of Summer, as well his directorial debut, this year’s Don Jon. Levitt’s biggest project to date isn’t a film though, but, instead, a website called HitRecord.org. Go to his site and the first thing you see is a photo of Gordon-Levitt (holding a camera, of course) and some large text that says “Hello, Regular Joe Here. Wanna work with us?” Below that it says “We make: Video, Audio, Images and Text.” Click around and you’ll find endless content made by people collaborating on art projects from all over the world – mostly video projects. Using crowd-sourcing, Gordon-Levitt and his HitRecord.org have made countless high quality video projects over the last few years, all of which will soon culminate in a television show called “HitRECord TV” (Barness 2013). His show will feature video projects that were written, directed, edited, scored, produced and acted in by people – both filmmakers and non-filmmakers – from all over. HERE you can view a video of Gordon-Levitt inviting you, me, everyone to contribute to his television show.
BACKSTAGE, MANDY, CRAIGSLIST, MASSIFY and POPTENT
Head over to backstage.com right now and you’ll see a number of listings for production and acting jobs. FX Comedy show “Louie,” starring Louie C.K., for example, needs “a trio of adolescent male actors” while a short film called Dilemma, produced by a student for their School of Visual Arts thesis project, seeks people to help with production. Also on the site you can hunt down talent agents, casting directors, managers, acting classes, headshot photographers, production companies and more. There’s also an editorial element to the site, with stories about things happening within the industry as well as advice columns and opinion columns (Vail 2013). Backstage.com attempts to be something of a one-stop for those who work in the film industry and are looking to find work and opportunities using the Internet.
Next, head over to Mandy.com., a high-traffic site that has been helping those who work in the filmmaking industry find staff and stay informed for several years. Many working relationships within the industry – especially amongst crew – have been formed over the the last decade using this site. If you live in or near Los Angeles or New York City and do – or want to – work in the film and television industry, then Mandy.com will be your new best friend if you’re not already using it. At its core, the site is essentially a job listing site for people who work in the industry, though if you look deeper and become a part of the Mandy.com community, it can be much, much more.
And, obviously, we have Craigslist.com, which is more or less a Wild West for people wanting to do things with and to other people using the Internet as a meeting device. If you peruse the TV/Film/Video/Radio job listings section of Craigslist you’ll find a constantly growing list of positions you can apply to. Jobs for actors, writers, directors, producers – any job you can think of in the film and television industry. There are also a whole lot of people looking for others to collaborate on projects with – especially if you are a film student living in New York City.
According to Killer Startups writer Charly Zaks, “Massify.com is a network for film producers and actors. With Massify you can make your film ideas become a reality by using the tools Massify.com has to begin your project. You can pitch your idea and begin to recruit actors and a crew. You can share your ideas with other users and collaborate. One of the great things about Massify.com is that it is an artistic community of users interested and experienced in film” (Zaks 2013). Sounds familiar, right? Sounds a bit like Mandy and Backstage to me. The difference here is that Massify is the new, hip site that makes new, hip projects using new, hip talents. It’s where aspiring New York filmmakers go to find people to work with and projects to work on.
Finally we have Poptent.net, a site that brands itself as “the world’s largest video production house” (L.D. 2012). According to New York Times writer Stuart Elliott, PopTent is much different than other video production models. Explains Elliott: “Rather than using traditional models, like teaming up a copywriter and an art director at an advertising agency, crowd-sourcing [sites like PopTent.com] come up with ad concepts in collaborative fashion via the Internet” (Elliott 2012). Essentially, a company who needs a video commercials meets up with PopTent and outline what they need/want for their video. They supply some design materials (such as logos and other graphics) and direction, then PopTent organizes the information into a public pitch. The pitch then goes online via Poptent.net and anyone around the world – literally anyone – can shoot their own video. Within the pitch are details about how those who have the best videos will be paid. Most often the top few videos get some money and the winner – whose video will be used by the client – wins a more substantial amount (usually anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000). Entire production companies have started up around the country who solely work on Poptent projects (Chmielewski 2012). HERE is an example of one of Poptent’s most successful commercials to date.
HOLLYWOOD & VINES, LIFE IN A DAY and MASSIFY’S PERKIN’S 14
As technology prices have gone down and online collaboration resources have become more and more credible we’ve seen a number of new projects surface that never before could have existed. Massify, for one, created a modest feature film called Perkin’s 14 using their online resources, collaborating with people from all over to craft their film (Davis 2008). The production, considered to be the “first fan-created horror flick” considered 400 pitches before settling on a script (Davis). Next they began casting by asking people to upload auditions to their site, then allowing members to vote on their favorite auditions. The winners from that contest were then flown to Los Angeles for proper screen-tests. The process went on from there, using Massify’s diverse online collaboration platform to craft a horror film that eventually went on to play at film festivals around he country (David).
And then we have Hollywood & Vines, a short film co-produced by websites Airbnb and Vine. According to Filmmaker Magazine writer Shaun Seneviratne, “Airbnb is tasking Vine users with creating the content that will comprise its crowd-sourced short, which will premiere on the Sundance Channel” (Seneviratne 2013). The producers would post a description of a single shot they needed, then people from all over would shoot their version of that single shot, make it into a six-second Vine clip, then upload it for consideration. The best shots were then selected and crafted together to make the short film. All together a huge number of people helped to make this short film that gained much attention from the media due to the very modern, very collaborative methods used to create the final product.
All that said, the idea of these crowd-sourced film projects isn’t anything new. According to Seneviratne, “My first memory of crowd-sourced filmmaking was Star Wars Uncut, where users were able to claim roughly 16-second-long scenes from Star Wars: A New Hope and create their own version of it. The film was then edited together and released online, taking fan fiction to a new level by fully utilizing the potential of the Internet” (Seneviratne).
Perhaps the biggest crowd-funded film yet – and maybe the most impressive by-product from this still new era of online film collaboration – is a Ridley Scott produced feature film called Life in a Day. That film’s director, Kevin MacDonald, wrote a piece about the film for The Guardian in which he described the process of the documentary’s production, which included filmmakers from all around the world. “My aim was to create a whole movie from intimate moments – the extraordinary, the mundane, the preposterous – and thereby take the temperature of the planet on a single day. Contributors would upload their films to YouTube and let me and a team of editors turn their footage into something that captured a day of human experience. That was the theory behind Life in a Day, anyway; the execution turned out to be far from simple.
“First, we had to let people know about the project. I spent a horrific week doing press around the world: Korea in the morning, Latin America in the afternoon. I did 26 US breakfast TV shows in one day via satellite, coming in with my pitch between ads for Pop Tarts and stories about puppies. Fortunately, we had two big advantages: free advertising space on YouTube and Ridley Scott as executive producer. Scott made a short film imploring would-be directors to just grab a camera, get out there and start shooting” (MacDonald 2011). The film was eventually completed and released by National Geographic, going on to be rightfully celebrated celebrated around the world – millions of people watching the movie on Netflix and at festivals, praising it’s scope and execution. Some have even called it one of the most important and impressive film productions of all-time. Watch the film’s trailer HERE.
Thinking back to what the film industry used to be like can feel quite shocking when considered within the context of how things currently work. New, innovative ideas seem to pop up on an almost weekly basis, some new filmmaker like Kevin MacDonald presenting work full of ideas that no one could have ever imagined just five years ago. We can now collaborate, using the Internet, on film projects with people from all over the planet. The most exciting thing, really, might be trying to daydream what’s around the corner. Projects like Life in a Day suggest that it could be just about anything.
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