20 April 2012

Tools and filmmaking

From A BitterSweet Life:
This blog post by Peter Webber encompasses my every thought about the true value of technology and the tools in filmmaking. The act of creation is centered not on materials but on a vision and its realization. Take Pablo Picasso and his cardboard sculptures hanging on the walls of museums or Joseph Cornell’s boxes made of found objects. The unavailability of tools should not hinder the artistic process while the availability of them should not hinder the essence of creativity, to create something original, both personal and universal, and timeless.

The Newest New Wave
Despite the fact that I am excited by the possibilities of new technology, the following blog is probably going to make me sound like an old grump.
Writing about social media over the last few days got me to thinking about the massive strides that film technology has taken in the years since I left school. At twenty-six, getting into Bristol University where they taught the rather grandly named Postgraduate Certificate in Radio, Film and Television (or the RFT course, as we called it) meant I finally had access to a veritable cave of filmmaking wonders in all its mid 80’s glory: Bolex cameras, Nagra synch-sound recorders, Steenbeck 16mm film flatbed and low band U-matic editing equipment and best of all an impressive VHS library of the greatest films ever made. I was thrilled. I never looked back.

Now all that stuff belongs in a museum, and VHS has long been consigned to the dustbin of antiquated media format history. Its all so shockingly pre-digital.

At sixteen, your average London-teen now has a phone with an HD capable 8 megapixel camera, and a computer with pro-branded animation and editing software, complete with history’s most comprehensive visual library: Youtube, which also doubles as an unparalleled means of distribution. Its all there, and it’s all taken for granted.

Film maker Aaron Stewart-Ahn who tweets as @somebadideas (and is a must-follow) touched on this when he tweeted (and I paraphrase) that the average 24-year-old has better tech than Jean Luc Godard and his cameraman Raoul Coutard, but that we don’t see films as brave, funny, entertaining, ambitious or unashamedly intellectual as the ones they made together. The technological advances of that era such as lightweight cameras also liberated the imagination of these film makers and led to the French New Wave. Nowadays there seems to be an overall diminution of ambition, an unfortunate limiting of horizons.

The fact that it is now possible to make films at a fraction of the cost one would have incurred in the 60’s or 70’s and then beam them at no cost at all into the phones and computers of literally millions upon millions of people around the world is astoundingly effortless. And perhaps that is the key to the question of quality.

The ramifications of all this change have yet to be fully revealed, and whilst the possibilities remain exciting, there is no doubt we are at a very different place to where we were say in 1991 when Francis Ford Coppola said the following in an interview.

“To me the great hope is that now that (with) these little 8mm video recorder and stuff now, people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And, you know, suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and you know, make a beautiful film with her father’s little camcorder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form. That’s my opinion.
It is a prescient interview that in some ways anticipates the brave new world of Youtube. I love Youtube and can spend hours grazing it’s fertile plains. Yet it must also be said that we have yet to discover this new Mozart of the movies, there or elsewhere. The genius Coppola predicted has not risen from the wheat fields of Ohio. The new messiah is not yet amongst us. Writing in the 1940’s, Jean Renoir was firmly of the opinion that advances in technology in fact meant a diminution of inventiveness in the cinema. It’s certainly true that there is a magic in Melies’ Trip to the Moon that is sadly lacking in John Carter of Mars.
In the end, perhaps there is a limit to what can be expected from this democratisation of the means of film production. The most important commodity in all of this is not in fact the technology but the talent.
And that is always in limited supply.

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