All right, the world of online digital filmmaking is not much to look at right now.
by Max Sparber
The top three most-viewed films on YouTube, the most popular digital video website, include a six-minute parody of popular dance styles (seen over 29 million times), a music video made to the Pokemon theme song and shot entirely in a teenager’s bedroom (over 14 million viewings), and a professional promotional gimmick consisting of a live-action version of the introductory credits for “The Simpsons” (over 8 million viewings). Browsing randomly through YouTube and similar digital video reveals a nearly infinite number of three-minute video clips of people’s dogs, illegally uploaded segments from “The Daily Show,” Jamaicans dancing an inexplicably popular (and notably spastic) dance called “The Bird Flu” in their living rooms, and other assorted home videos.
It doesn’t seem like the ingredients for a revolution, but then, who would have expected the drunken ravings of a group of expatriate British businessmen in New England taverns to produce a rebellion against King George III?
at more recent history, who would have expected that the homemade, lo-fi digital
recordings (with titles like “Cold Turd on a Paper Plate”) hosted
in a lossy digital format on an obscure web page would instigate a revolutionary
transformation in the music industry. Well, admittedly, they did—they
being the band The Ugly Mugs, author of the “Cold Turd” song. In
1993, they hacked together a web page to host digital music, and named it the
Internet Underground Music Archive, and genuinely created a new music underground.
it’s common for unsigned bands to record entire albums digitally in their
apartments or garages, upload the music to websites such as Apples iTunes store,
promote themselves through their own webpages and social sites like MySpace,
and bypass the mainstream music industry altogether. This revolution seems to
have reached a climax of sorts this past year, when soul mash-up band Gnarls
Barkley hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom with “Crazy,” a song that
was, at that moment, only available online.
A revolution brewing
In 1991, acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola made a remarkable prediction,
preserved on film in the documentary “Hearts of Darkness.” “To
me, the great hope is that now [that] these little 8-millimeter video recorders
and stuff [have] come out, some ... people who normally wouldn’t be making
movies, are going to be making them,” he said. “You know, that suddenly
one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the next Mozart and make
a beautiful film with her little father’s camcorder. And for once, this
whole ‘professionalism’ about movie making will be destroyed forever
and lead into an art form.”
years ago, Coppola’s democratic vision for filmmaking seemed willfully
naïve (and it was—he was entrenched in the process of making “Apocalypse
Now” when he was quoted, and was bitter enough about the process to hope
for something simpler). After all, at that time, even a low-budget film shot
entirely on video was costing somewhere between six and ten thousand dollars.
Once the film was shot on video, it had to be edited, and editing on video (or,
more expensively, on film), was an expensive, daunting, complicated task that
required extensive expertise.
And once the film created by this portly Ohio child was completed, the real
problems kicked in: How to get it seen? Getting it shown in a theater would
require the creation of, at the least, a 16mm print, at the cost of additional
thousands of dollars. Even with a 16mm print, the film would need to find an
audience, and promotional costs for a film can be enormous.
Certainly, there have been some filmmakers who found an audience with almost
no money. There was a rather lively film scene in New York in the ’60s
that screened low-budget films at a local theater, creating a sort of underground
scene for idiosyncratic filmmakers like George and Mike Kuchar, teenage twin
brothers from the Bronx who made garish, exploitive satires of Hollywood melodramas
on a cheap 8mm camera. They were popular favorites in a film community that
included such underground legends as Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, and fans
of cult cinema were certainly familiar with their names from books such as J.
Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Midnight Movies.” On the
other hand, if an interested cineaste wanted to see any of the Kuchar brother’s
films, they had some work to do. Most of them existed in only one print, in
one of George Kuchar’s drawers, where, he admitted, they were starting
It’s been 16 years since Coppola’s naïve prediction, and the
filmmaker is starting to look like a prophet. Head over to YouTube
and ignore the millions of videos of teenage girls lipsyncing to “My Milkshake,”
and type George Kuchar into the search engine. Three of his films have been
digitized and made available (including the astounding “Hold Me While
I’m Naked”), most within the last two months. More are sure to follow.
Quite a few of Kenneth Anger’s films are likewise available on YouTube,
as well as such hard-to-find art film oddities as Robert Frank’s 1959
portrait of Beat authors Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, narrated by Jack
But it isn’t the sudden availability of ’60s cult films that points
to a digital film revolution. That’s just a sign that tomorrow’s
revolutionaries are doing their homework, revisiting the film underground of
No. The forthcoming revolution has been made possible by an advance in technology.
We are at a time in history when it is possible to shoot high quality digital
video, edit it with free editing software on your computer, and upload it to
a web page that hosts videos, all for exceptionally little money. Peter Broderick,
president of Next Wave Film, had this to say to Indiewire.com:
“Now, when a filmmaker comes up to me and asks ‘How much do I need
to make my movie,’ I tell them, ‘How much do you have, because it’s
cost of making a feature-length movie just keeps plummeting. In 1992, critics
were stunned that Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” was made
for just over $7,000. In 1998, “The Last Broadcast,” a British thriller,
was made for $1,000. 2003’s “Tarnation,” an acclaimed documentary
about a filmmaker’s mentally-ill mother, was created from years’
worth of videotapes and mixed together using the iMovie software that comes
free with Apple computers. Total cost: $218.32.
This unique confluence of circumstances creates the possibility for a cinematic
revolution similar to the zine revolution of the 1980s, when inexpensive photocopies
made it possible for thousands of amateur publishers to create their own self-printed
magazines. These they printed and distributed through the mail in small quantities,
usually a hundred or so, in exchange for other zines or for enough money to
cover the printing and mailing costs. An overwhelming majority of these zines
were terrible —indulgent interviews with mediocre punk artists, barely
comprehensible political screeds, unreadable poetry. But a few, such as “Cometbus”
and “Murder Can Be Fun,” became countercultural artifacts. A few
others, such as “Ben is Dead,” became glossy national publications.
And zines paved the way for innumerable careers in mainstream media, providing
an inexpensive, hands-on education in the writing, layout and distribution of
The need for a cinematic revolution
In an introductory interview to the now-classic (and now-outdated) “Making
Feature Films at Used Car Prices,” vitriolic critic Ray Carney complained
that America offered no alternative to mainstream movies—at the date of
the interview (the early ’90s), there was simply no alternative venue
for non-mainstream work to be seen. Carney was specifically talking about the
sorts of films identified as “art films”—small, independent
features that explore atypical subject matter or attempt unusual technical experiments.
Certainly there was a glut of independently produced exploitation material,
as the video store had taken the place of the drive-in theater as a venue for
cheaply produced, direct-to-video features focusing on sex, action or horror.
But you would be hard pressed to walk into a video store and see the sorts of
idiosyncratic, personal artistic creativity that could be found in the independent
music and publishing scenes in the early ’90s. Film was simply too expensive
longer. While the Internet is not yet at a point where it is easy to distribute
feature-length independent films (download time is still prohibitive, although
one expects it won’t remain that way for long), Flash-based sites such
as Google Video and YouTube
have made it quite easy to download and watch 10- or 20-minute short films.
And there is a massive, ravenous audience for such films: YouTube estimates
that 100 million clips are watched on its site every day.
There is little money-making incentive in internet distribution. While Google
Video allows filmmakers to charge audiences to watch their movies, most sites
don’t, and there is still no real business model for distributing films
online. But then, the internet is historically slow at moneymaking (Amazon.com,
as an example, didn’t show its first net profit until 2003, eight years
after the web bookseller started doing business), while it is historically excellent
at promotion. The internet has encouraged the popularity of new marketing ideas—that
of a meme (a “unit of cultural transmission”) going “viral”
– to explain the explosive popularity a web presence can bring. For example,
Sam, a blind, Chinese-crested hairless dog, was declared the world’s ugliest
dog at a Northern California contest in 2005. His web page, which contained
quite a few pictures of the dog, received a sudden surge of attention as a result
of internet users e-mailing each other photos of the creature: The site received
over 35 million hits in August and September of 2005.
Of course, aspiring filmmakers can’t count on that sort of popularity,
but a film placed on YouTube will generally get a few thousand hits within a
few weeks of being placed. But there is already one significant example of a
short film enjoying explosive success as a result of its internet popularity:
In 1995, two film students at the University of Colorado created a short animated
film on commission as a Christmas card for several FOX executives. The film,
titled “The Spirit of Christmas,” attracted massive attention online,
even though, at the time, it might take an entire afternoon to download the
5-minute short. The filmmakers were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the popularity
of the video led to the development of a television series for Comedy Central
based on the short animated film’s characters. The show? South Park. ||
THE COMING DIGITAL VIDEO REVOLUTION
Digital Revolution" by Max Sparber
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