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The Independent’s Manifesto

Arts & Culture | February 10, 2010

If you’ve ever tried to create music, film, or art on your own, it probably didn’t take long for you to realize there’s one huge roadblock standing in your way to fortune and fame: the studio system. Fifteen years ago, unless you were a descendant of royalty or part of someone’s “entourage,” your chances of success as an aspiring director were similar to those of winning the scratch-off lottery jackpot.

It’s not the studios’ fault. The financial and legal framework, as well as the scalable resources that studios control, have always been necessary to fund, promote, and distribute movies. Without them, the barriers to entry would be so high that no filmmakers would ever be able to succeed. The costs of film, equipment, actors, crews, sets, and costumes can run into the millions—and these only represent one phase in the life-cycle of a movie.

Eventually, because the studios became so good at producing and marketing products, they began to exhibit normal capitalist tendencies: economies of scale, squeezing out of competitors, and high revenue/cost ratios. Good news for studio executives, filmmakers within the system, and consumers who share the same tastes as the majority of Middle America. Bad news for everyone else.

Yet there remains a ray of hope for small and independent filmmakers: the digital revolution signifies a shifting paradigm for the studio oligarchy.  No movie represents this upheaval better than Avatar.

By any measure, Avatar has been shaping up to be the hugest movie ever: a giant budget, record-breaking box office receipts, and a titanic crew of CGI programmers, which together created the enormous imaginary world of Pandora. In other words, there hasn’t been a movie this “studio” since the days of Cecil B. DeMille. So what can it possibly do for an independent filmmaker?

The answer is “new media.” Our generation has been wired to take advantage of interactive and collaborative technologies as tools for creation. “New media” empires like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have razed the ancient status quo almost overnight; not by inventing new products and marketing them but by embracing existing technologies and appropriating them. For instance, the Internet was introduced decades before the creation of eBay. But even when people started to use the Internet widely, no one could have foreseen how eBay would use this technology to invent an entire industry. To employ an outdated metaphor, these companies invented the magazine, not the paper.

Avatar, for digital media creators, is inventing the paper, or at least publicizing it. While it’s still impossible to foresee exactly how “new media” filmmakers will adapt its technologies, we know that its debut—just like the debut of the Internet—is a good sign.  (Admittedly, it’s nowhere near the importance of the Internet, but go with it for now). The following are some of the areas in which James Cameron’s new technologies can make an impact:

ACTING

If you haven’t seen the movie, “avatar” refers to the computer-generated alien bodysuits that the main characters jump into using a Matrix-style computer program. These graphic representations, although blue, animalistic, and 10-feet tall, look just like their human actor counterparts, thanks to revolutionary facial recognition technology.

Peter Jackson used similar technologies in movies such as Lord of the Rings and King Kong, in which cameras recorded the facial movements of real actors and then pasted them onto the faces of digital monsters. You may have even seen behind-the-scenes footage of Gollum actor Andy Serkis in front of a green screen, his face covered in tiny sensors that transmit movement to computers across the room. You may have been unimpressed.

James Cameron vastly improved this technology for Avatar, putting the capture equipment right in front of the actors’ faces in order to record eye movement, the key to emotive acting. The blue aliens in Avatar evoke in audiences the same emotions as actors in makeup do, because that is effectively what they are. Although the movie’s avatars appear as blue aliens, their faces and movements match exactly what their human counterparts acted out on a soundstage.

The benefit to the director is that there was little else on that soundstage besides the actors and cameras. Since everything but facial movements (including the avatar bodies, the landscape, and even the weather) were created by graphic designers later on, it meant that Cameron could completely devote himself to his actors. Normally, a director must scramble around his set, worrying about the position of the sun, where the dolly tracks are laid, how the makeup looks on the actors, and other minute aesthetic details that take his attention away from the number one make-or-break element of a film: the acting. A director’s real job is to make sure that his actors are comfortable, in character, and conveying the appropriate mood for each scene. By stripping away every physical element besides human beings, Cameron invented a revolutionary environment for directors, something akin to an acting lab.

Cameron’s movie was transformed by this technology into an art of pure creation. Unlike both photography and traditionally shot movies, where so much depends simply on how a lens captures a random moment, every single image you see over the 2 ½ hours of Avatar was invented and drawn by artists.

So how will independent “new media” filmmakers use this new method of storytelling in their own projects? Again, it’s impossible to predict, especially since right now this technology is financially prohibitive for anyone outside a major studio. However, it could one day allow smaller filmmaker/animator teams to focus more on what normally keeps their projects from a larger audience: malnourished acting.

3D TECHNOLOGY

Much like facial recognition technology, the innovative 3D cameras used on the set of Avatar are too costly for independent filmmakers right now. Still, the Avatar movie-going experience is encouragingly prescient for the “new media” revolution.

If you’ve seen Avatar in 3D, you know that it’s not like going to see a normal movie. It’s an experience unto itself; Avatar uses the technology to subtly pull you into the vast, detailed world of Pandora. On some levels, you could call the movie interactive in that the audience feels like a part of the landscape and story, much like what “Virtual Reality” promised but couldn’t feasibly deliver.

As film critic Manohla Dargis writes in her Avatar review, “Like a video game designer, Mr. Cameron seems to want to invite you into the digital world he has created even if, like a film director, he wants to determine your route. Perched between film and digital, Avatar shows us a future in which movies will invite us further into them and perhaps even allow us to choose not just the hero’s journey through the story, but also our own.” Comparing the Avatar experience to a videogame, Dargis is predicting the emergence of an entirely new medium, a departure from the “sit and consume” paradigm of TV, newspapers, and movies towards a more interactive and collaborative platform, which may one day be the canvas for a new generation of artists.

In short, technology is opening doors that never even used to exist for low-budget filmmakers. While the studio system’s main functions are to fund production, distribution, and marketing of movies, digital cinema and the Internet are allowing filmmakers to do these jobs all on their own.

Although we’d like to imagine cinema as art, in reality, it’s a business, with suppliers, distributors, and consumers just like the auto or pharmaceutical industries. Hence, the eternal question is how to make money through movies. Independent films might one day be able to thrive via online-only releases, or digital projection could foster a burgeoning independent theater industry acting outside the studio oligopoly. While it’s impossible to predict the future, student media creators should be encouraged by the technological advancements in the field. What we can do now is continue to learn and create as much as possible and to stay ahead of the curve.