Monday, September 12, 2011

The Ubiquitous Eye

We, a buddy and myself, just finished a technical rehearsal for our independent short film project. He's the writer, director and sound man, I'm the camera guy. On a project such as this, life gets a whole lot more complicated when you purposefully impose further limitations upon the technical parameters of one's craft. In this case, we've imposed the limitation of shooting the entire film on Flip video. That's right, Flip -- those little cell phone-sized, fixed focus, diminutive cameras that Cisco (the manufacturer's current owner) recently decided to kill off. This is not the way you're supposed to make a movie.

Back in the mid-1990s, the independent film revolution hit in full stride with the advent of consumer-grade digital video cameras of sufficient technical quality to not totally suck when edited and displayed. All of a sudden, it seemed as if the corporate, studio model of film production, that had dominated for decades, had finally been broken by the seemingly universal democracy of an easily accessible video technology of adequate quality. This new spirit of independent film was accompanied by an idealism that seemed limited only by the state of the technical arts.

The Holy Grail of independent film technology has been a camera system that delivers cinema-quality imagery at Walmart prices. The quest for this goal has up to now been a futile fantasy, and here's why. Equipment manufacturers, and the tech press that markets their products, have for decades played this subtle game of implying that state-of-the-art, consumer-grade video technology (an oxymoron of a term) would empower the would-be film maker as the next Spielberg, while at the same time siloing advanced hardware features into various price/feature strata, in affect perpetuating the money-buys-you-access paradigm of mainstream media. Instead of the idealism of some new media democracy, we've been witness to the trickle-down economics of pay-to-play that uses as its prime motivator the Technology Treadmill, an endless cycle of just-around-the-corner technology break-through promises, coming soon to a retailer near you. This Media-Manufacturer Complex (a term coined in purposeful reference to Eisenhower's Military-Industrial Complex) has, in the intervening decades since Ike's warning, served to reinforce a top-down hierarchy of information flow within media and culture. Fortunately, there are promising signs on the horizon of breaks in the monotheism of dominant corporate media; but also new warning signs.

The result is that, while many would-be film makers fixate on the bleeding-edge of technology, plodding along on the Technology Treadmill (an approach that continues to limit access to those of considerable financial means), the technology has been found to be continually progressing to the point where the bottom floor of adequate technical quality has become ubiquitous in availability. True grass-roots video has sprung up like weeds on the Internet, at places like You Tube and Vimeo. And so, although there remains a hierarchy of technical sophistication in video equipment, recent advances in the technology have resulted in the bottom floor of the Adequately Good suddenly becoming accessible by the masses.

Enter the Flip video camera and their ilk. The Flip represents everything that the high-end HD camera isn't. Forget interchangeable, variable focal length zoom lenses. Forget manual exposure and focus control. These little cell phone-sized marvels were suddenly found flooding the market with HD-quality video, extremely wide depth-of-focus, fixed lenses, stereo audio, simple one-button stop/start recording and easy upload to one's computer, using internal software to permit simple editing of one's footage and upload to the Internet.

The thing is, fledgling film makers (such as ourselves) soon discovered that, due to its size and wide depth-of-focus, you could shoehorn these little dudes into almost anywhere. The art of film making was no longer fixated around the altar of a large, heavy, extremely expensive single camera. Now, you could afford to buy several and place them around a set and do multi-camera shots, on the cheap. The promise of a universal media democracy, fueled by easily accessible technology of adequate quality and the Internet, seemed inevitable.

Then, at the height of its popularity and steep growth curve, Cisco killed Flip. Conspiracy Theories abound. There were stories that Flip was about to unveil some marvelous new technology, or that Cisco purchased Flip in order to acquire the intellectual property rights and use it for other purposes. Whatever the reasons, there were and remain to this day competing point-and-shoot video cameras on the market while, as of this writing, Flips can still be purchased for deeply discounted prices at various online and retail outlets.

And then there are the iPhone and its smart-phone variants, promising to further extend the availability of personal communication via instantly available, ubiquitous video technology. With this in mind, we should also not forget the recent events within the Middle East and North Africa, of authoritarian regimes under attack, not by means of external conquest but, through a series of social awakenings from within, fueled in large measure by ubiquitous communication tools like cell phones and portable video cameras. The forerunner of these events was the humble camcorder of the 1980s, whose seminal moment as a tool for enabling social change being the L.A. riots of 1992, spurred on by amateur camcorder footage of the Los Angeles Police Department's encounter with Rodney King the previous year, and the subsequent acquittal of the LAPD officers involved in the incident. I was reminded of this again several years ago during the time of the Iranian election protests of 2009, a precursor to the Arab Spring movement that continues to unfold, when we witnessed first-hand the effect on social change of new communication tools in the hands of a newly-emerging generation of young adults dissatisfied with the status quo.

Meanwhile, there's our little film project, and we're struggling with keeping to a shooting schedule, ironing out the bugs and getting adequate crew support to fill all of the required roles. It is perhaps ironic that, given the use of Flip video, the quality of our imagery is the least of our concerns, which is as it should be, given the nature of this ubiquitous medium to diminish the superficial distracting problems of technical film making, only to reveal the more important issues that remain, which are in the realm of the creative arts. Many of us engaged in these technical arts are tempted to fixate on the technical issues at the expense of the creative concerns, to live under the false assumption that "if only we had upgraded, then would our project finally succeed". Computer technology can do this to us, distract us from our real work.

The hard truth is that, if your film sucks using Flip video, then the problem isn't your camera. Although Flip minimizes those annoying distractions, you can't spend yourself out of a lack of creative talent or vision, you can't install an upgrade that delivers instant creative genius. Fancy camera work, like the over-used gimmicks of shallow depth-of-focus and slow-motion tracking, won't fix a lack of talent and vision. Great writing and acting are essential, everything else being secondary to that. You either have it, or you don't.

Meanwhile, we're still hopeful and optimistic about our project. We have a good script, and our actors are talented and eager. Today, we were witness to our two actors truly becoming one with their roles, and we're excited about that. I think we may have something good here.


Blogger Cameron said...

Your post illustrates that the CONTENT of a movie -- the writing, the characters, the camera angles etc. are what makes a good film, rather than the sophistication of the technology capturing the images.

Remember the little Japanese "novellas" created on mobile phones a few years ago? They became wildly popular.

There are so many ways of conveying art these days. It doesn't have to be accomplished on high-end equipment in order to be good.

I hope that I can see your finished product someday. Best wishes for the successful completion of your project!

8:51 PM  

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