Edinburgh International Film Festival was grand. As I posted here, I was speaking on several panels for the festival, Shooting People and BAFTA Scotland. I really enjoy these panels, because I almost always learn about new things from the other panelists or we talk about something that really gets my head thinking about new directions in the film/media sphere. This happened once again on the panel called FutureThink, where I was joined by Susan Kemp, Co- Director of Film In the Public Space at the University of Edinburgh, Ted Cawrey of Olswang and the filmmaking team of Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm who had a film called The Red Machine premiering at the film festival.
The panel was about new directions in film and media, and Steph and Alec smartly pushed us to focus more on the future of storytelling than on distribution, etc. The conversation inspired me to launch a new series of columns on this blog, called FutureThink, where I'll pay homage to Edinburgh by trying to write more frequently on emerging trends and how they might impact indie films.My hope is to keep these shorter than my usual (quite lengthy) posts, but that also means I won't be analyzing these things too in depth, just throwing out some ideas in hopes you'll give me more in the comments.
Up first, virtual production and/or virtual performance. Stephanie brought this up as an area of great interest to her, and while I had thought about it before, I hadn't really thought about it as much as she has. So, what is it? Well, I think there's many meanings to the term, and all of them are worth thinking about, but here we're speaking about virtual performance - when actors are playing characters through digital renderings, and entire worlds of characters might be produced with green screens, digital tech and some fancy facial muscle techniques - think Avatar, the Hobbit, etc. We've all seen these great creations where an actor like Andy Serkis gets transformed into Gollum or King Kong. Stephanie pointed out how different it is for an actor, and for the director, when doing such productions. That's a bit obvious, of course, but I found it cool to think about how this changes the nature of acting. Stephanie likened it to having to go back to all your black-box theater skills. While this is all done through technology, it also kinda gets us back to where the director can focus on working with the actor to create a story world - which perhaps can lead not just to new characters, but also new ways of telling stories.
The problem has been (perhaps not a capital P, problem) that such technologies have been and still are very expensive and often proprietary. Like all technology, however, such effects are already getting cheaper and it's not hard to imagine that within a couple of years almost any indie will have the tools on their laptop to create not just amazing CGI but also whatever character they want. This may be with actual actors doing some virtual acting, or it could be completely computer generated. In fact, there's already been many people doing this, creating machinima, or films created in Second Life, where people used their avatars to create an entire Western, for example. That was way back in 2006, by the way, so I'm sure it's come along much further now.
As these costs come down, indies will undoubtedly use them to their advantage, but it's interesting that while this phenomenon is nothing new, this was the first panel I've been on where it ever came up in relation to indie and arthouse films. I attend a lot of festivals and conferences, and while I am sure there's been a few (I know SXSW had at least one), I'm surprised it doesn't come up more often. Sure, the technology is a bit in the future, but I'm also worried that many indies are so focused on the current state of things that this sector is bypassing them altogether. None of my indie friends ever mention machinima, yet some of the most interesting films I've seen have been virtual mash-ups, often created by young folks. I meet a ton of actors, but very few who aspire to learn the skills necessary to be the next Andy Serkis. Some theorize that this trend will mean the death of stars, but I doubt it - if anything I imagine a world of fewer stars, but with the same ones playing multiple virtual roles - kinda like how the voice-over world is dominated by just a handful of stars now. I get in plenty of debates about the future of copyright and piracy, but let me tell you - the fights over piracy of celebrity's images will put them all to shame. Once we have fake digital Bogart's running around in every film, Hollywood (every aspect from the stars to the agents to the home office) is gonna sh-t a virtual brick (performed by which actor I wonder?). What does this mean for documentary, when it becomes even harder to be sure that was really so and so big whig talking, not some avatar? Think that there's been a loss of industry jobs due to runaway production and ever-cheapening costs? Just wait until a farmed-out team of teenagers in China or Mexico is being hired via Amazon's Mechanical Turk to produce entire sets and act out most of the motions for pennies on the dollar....I think you get the point, there's a lot of interesting things to discuss, but very few people seem to be having the discussion (if I'm wrong, please point me to some resources in the comments).
Of course, it's not all bad - as I said, this might also lead to some cool new storytelling as well. I, for one, am excited at the prospect that much of this work can become cheap and digital, leaving storytellers to focus on story, once again.