Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Finding the "missing" talent in a technology-rich present

Filmmaker David Schmüdde wrote at Beyond The Frame about director Peter Webber’s latest post for Webber discussed film and technology in his entry, The Newest New Wave; he lamented that in spite of the quantity and quality of technology available today, new filmmaking genius has not emerged:

“…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.”
Director Aaron Stewart-Ahn’s recent comments informed Webber’s post:

"...we don’t see films as brave, funny, entertaining, ambitious or unashamedly intellectual as the ones they [Godard, Coutard] made together....Nowadays there seems to be an overall diminution of ambition, an unfortunate limiting of horizons."
Is this true? It may be more accurate to say we’re prevented from seeing clearly the heirs of Godard/Coutard:
1) The US is now a culture of amateurs. Anybody with a digital camera/videocam, camera phone, tablet with camera--but without any additional training--is a potential creator of video for publication/distribution. Much of what appears in public online video repositories is produced by the untrained but highly motivated user. It may not look like the product of seasoned creators.
2) Education in the US places a premium on analysis (and not storytelling) in preparation for the workplace, not on analysis for the creation of better art. However, analysis is taught, and it may yield content that looks very different from Godard/Coutard's generation. What narrative emerges will also look very different.
3) Venues for sharing/publication/distribution like YouTube and Vimeo receive and warehouse so much content that it's unfathomable how even the existing film industry could drink from this firehouse and find satiation. There's just so much content that it swamps whatever is really good; how do we find the needle in the haystack?
4) Success breeds contempt; The Blair Witch Project neutralized the indie creator space for quite some time. Commercially-funded cinema has mimicked independent film to the point of discouragement (see Cloverfield [2008] for the use of cinéma vérité complete with jump cuts as an example, applied in a sci-fi/fantasy production). The product of blowback against earlier real and faux indie efforts may look quite different as it rebels against past success.
Stewart-Ahn also said,

“…Today’s musicians and artists defer to their mentors too often. Regressive, referential work is pervasive. The plague of the familiar haunts our remixes and our genres. ...”
Again, some of this in the US may be laid at the feet of the education system; students are not provided an in-depth, reading/viewing-across-the-curriculum exposure to the arts, regardless of media. Their experience tends to focus on a narrow range of predictable materials since the government (and therefore the adult voting public) has insisted on a standardized education. The focus is on predictable outcomes and not on encouraging unique talents and perspectives. Students become comfortable with mashing up familiar, safe content rather than starting with an altogether clean slate.
The commercial consumers of art – including the film industry – have also reinforced this situation. They demand a guaranteed success, funding sequels or repeats of financially successful content, rather than take any risk on anything avant garde, bleeding edge.
The truth of personal economics also extracts its toll. Take a starving recent graduate with more than $100,000 student loan debt on top of living expenses and throw them in the job pool. Would they risk creating anything that couldn’t assure their bills are paid month-to-month?
A number of factors ultimately suppress the emergence of talent—it’s hidden, or it’s suffocated and thwarted when it exists. Only by looking from different perspectives and with different tools will we spot genius.
One example is’s crowdsourced online television series, Beckinfield. Approximately 4,000 participants have contributed to the program’s development. Many of the participants have produced and submitted video supporting the story arc established by the series’ progenitors. Beckinfield’s focused narrative and supporting infrastructure provide a means for consolidating and showcasing talent while allowing contributors to be wildly creative through collaboration. Imagine not one movie or even 12-parts to a series, but thousands of videos produced within months, painting a multi-dimensional story.
Another less obvious source of future video/film success lies within the gaming community. Teens often create their own gaming content, video it, mix with music and audio, then upload to their own YouTube channels and websites; they extend the creative process in game space by discussing their content as they play, providing complete critical analysis and planning for future works. Video/film may not look anything like passively-consumed, pushed content, but actively-consumed, push-and-pull media in a fully interactive gaming environment. In gaming what we’ve come to know as movies may not have only one or several story arcs, but a myriad of potential storylines that play out differently each time the content is consumed. Certainly some of the content may be mashed up, but it’s generally not from existing movies or theatre; it’s retrieved from games and extended.
Perhaps these two examples point to yet another factor hiding the talent that exists in our technologically-rich present. The labels used are anachronistic or limiting, i.e., television for video and print programming that will never appear on a television, and game content for videoed story-telling material. We miss the genius gathered behind these labels because we’re looking for we’ve called video, film, or cinema in the past.

Peter Webber can be found on Twitter at @peterwebber.

David Schmüdde can be found on Twitter at @dschmudde.

Aaron Stewart-Ahn can be found on Twitter at @somebadideas.

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