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Power To The Film Tribe: How Changes in Technology and Distribution Are Changing the World of Filmmaking

Today, as cameras shrink and technology improves, beginning filmmakers can do even more with less. We find ourselves in a period of rapid technological change, where anyone can make a movie with their phone, but not everyone can make it to Sundance. What does this easy access to pro-level video gear mean to the dedicated media creator?
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In our book Video Production 101: Delivering the Message, Tony Manriquez and I shared what we had learned over decades as media educators: effective strategies for filmmakers, film students and instructors looking to create more polished, sophisticated projects without succumbing to lack of funds, access to resources, or just general project anxiety.

With our DVD Video Production 101: Learn by Video: Delivering the Message, we drilled deeper, demonstrating and visualizing some of the techniques we detailed in the book, showing how crews numbering from one to fifty can efficiently organize, shoot, cut and mix a project good enough to enter into a festival, anchor a Kickstarter campaign or create a professional portfolio, almost regardless of the project’s budget or access to cutting edge gear.

Today, as cameras shrink and technology improves, beginning filmmakers can do even more with less. We find ourselves in a period of rapid technological change, where anyone can make a movie with their phone, but not everyone can make it to Sundance. What does this easy access to pro-level video gear mean to the dedicated media creator?

In this article, I explore the transformation of personal devices into professional cameras, whether it will be a game changer for the industry, if mobile devices will one day approximate the video standards of professional cameras, and what the new image standards will be.

A Brief History of Low-Fi Cinema

First, let’s take a quick look at how we got to a place where filmmaking newbies can create product that can compete with the big boys (and girls). Those who come to the table with a fresh story, interesting characters, and catchy dialogue stand a better chance than ever before at landing a place at the table and jumpstarting their careers as producers, writers, or other creative professionals, especially when they mix it up with that freshest of technological marvels – television.

The digital evolution of low-fi cinema has moved in fits and starts over the last twenty years. In 2000, an inventive short film called “405” made by a couple of visual effects artists shooting with digital camcorders composited a scene in which a 747 lands on a freeway. It was seen by over a million people on a burgeoning new website called iFilm.

In 2003, Jonathon Caoette released a successful, feature-length mixed media documentary called “Tarnation” on a budget of $200 using Apple’s editing program iMovie. Some of cinema’s old guard, entrenched in the culture of film reels, grease pencils, and trim bins, resisted the smaller, cheaper, easier-to-use digital cameras (which to be fair, had their problems too – bad in heat, worse in cold, battery power issues, etc.).

Others ran with it, made their marks, and before long, the industry was theirs. Old Grandpa Film had to cool it at the lobby bar of the Chateau Marmont until Scorsese or Spielberg, Tarantino or Nolan or Apatow used their clout to continue shooting on 35mm film stock or – praise be – IMAX 70mm. These happy few appreciate that the process of filming creates an image that is dirty, random and chaotic, and displays, as it is otherwise known, the cinematic look. Digital, on the other hand, is clean as a bean (even when recorded with the 24 frame progressive filter).

On the flip side, the whole movement of using inexpensive, easily procured gear puts content first and diminishes fears of production costs or return on investment. This movement recalls previous generations of storytellers like the French New Wave, where artists like Jean-Luc Godard in the 1950s were using smaller, cheaper cameras that could go pretty much anywhere and film more easily on location than Hollywood studios could do.

Today’s Media Technology: Smaller and Better

In the most recent step towards the empowerment of the masses via access to the means of production and distribution of professional quality media, companies including iOgrapher and Zacuto have introduced devices and apps (media cases, mikes, lights, mounts, etc.) that can enhance the capabilities of smartphones and tablets to create high-resolution content that can be sold and distributed professionally.

Of particular note, the application Filmic Pro has given media creators greater control of exposure, focus, white balance, and shutter speed than the built-in iPhone and iPad apps, and it allows the video camera to shoot at a resolution of 4k, which is higher than the DSLR cameras that have been used by Hollywood studios for years.

As a matter of fact, the success of Filmic Pro has prompted the iPhone 6 and 6s to increase resolution, clarity and color representation, particularly in low-light situations. The Samsung Galaxy and LG G4 are now able shoot in a crisp, clear 4K resolution, which is practical for media creators who plan to exhibit their output on a large screen versus a TV or computer monitor.

An important milestone was reached in 2015 when writer/director Sean Baker’s project, “Tangerine”, which was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s using anamorphic lens adapters and the Filmic Pro app, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on its way to a theatrical distribution by very successful distributor, Magnolia Pictures (Magnet Releasing).

Predictions for Media Makers

What does this really mean for the future? Technical innovations and milestones are not always the harbingers of revolution one might imagine. When the Internet became prevalent throughout libraries and schools, some presaged that America and other developed countries would experience a world-polarizing quantum leap, with all students staring at screens, devouring information at the speed of thought “Matrix”-style, developing into superintelligent superbeings spanning all socioeconomic barriers, capable of researching complicated topics at the drop of a hat.

However, in 2010, the New York Times reported that the presence of the Internet in the homes of economically challenged families had had little to no educational effect. And so the question remains, will access to powerful tools create more filmmakers and ultimately translate into a wider range of ideas and stories from a broader demographic in the marketplace?

The previously mentioned, well-reviewed “Tangerine,” set in the world of transsexual prostitutes on Santa Monica Blvd., is a great example of a personal film whose script could easily have been passed over even by indie companies worried about their bottom lines.

The filmmakers benefited greatly from the freedom to shoot as they wanted, responsible only to themselves for the project’s look and content. But will greater access to the ability to record professional quality material with mobile devices and a higher number of distribution venues such as Netflix result in a broader spectrum of more original content available to audiences worldwide?

On the technology side, things are changing rapidly. “Tangerine”, which came out last year, was made on an iPhone 5s, two iterations ago. The 6s offers a 12 megapixel image as compared to 8 megapixels on the 5s, with a larger sensor recording a much clearer image, particularly in night shooting or other low light situations.

Apple’s recent purchase of LinX imaging may let them realize even more dynamic range and clearer color gradation in the iPhone’s video capture, allowing films shot on the iPhone to more closely compete with professional grade digital cameras.

Factoring in competition from Samsung and LG, who have both made great strides developing cameras whose specs match or come close to the iPhone, this is a win-win for the consumer and particularly in this case, the mobile filmmaker. High definition video capture is a very active prosumer marketplace, which has been and will continue to be driven by constant innovation.

What Recent Media History Tells Us

Will the widespread commercial application of innovations such as 4K on a smartphone or deep trench isolation (no leaky photons on the sensor = clearer pictures) become powerful tools for content creators or a gimmicky way to shoot hotter Tinder photos with background focus blur? It may be helpful to look back at recent media history.

Although I graduated from of a world-class film school (U.S.C.’s School of Cinema-Television, now called the School of Cinematic Arts) and am an aficionado of film schools and media programs everywhere, self-starters today have access to so much instruction online that they could scarcely be faulted for taking the do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) path, forgoing formal instruction altogether, and just jumping in to make their mistakes quickly and cheaply so they can punch their way to international superstardom as quickly as possible.

Over time, the Internet has become a significant distribution entity for short films, music videos, and portfolio pieces. Music and video artists have developed audiences online, and the Internet has created many viral sensations. As a result of the high-definition revolution, most artists have had at least occasional, low-cost access to gear capable of producing TV-ready content.

Yet, twenty-plus years after the digital revolution, the great majority of content that catches on in a meaningful way and enables creators to reach an audience is still developed by companies with access to professional gear and big budgets.

The question remains, will the transformation of personal devices into professional cameras and audio capture rigs be a game changer for the industry? Will mobile devices one day approximate the video standards of professional cameras? What will the new image standards be, and will they ever settle again?

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