Saturday, May 19, 2012

Film Industry, Digitalization and Creative Empowerment: "Side by Side"

Executive Summary: In the context of the excellent documentary, "Side By Side", here is a quick snapshot of digitalization's impact on the film industry along the dimensions of film making process, creativity, innovation, innovation collaboration, end product quality-trade offs between digital and film, the human factor, and history and trends. Is it digital vs. film, or digital and film? Or is this debate a distraction? From the desk of No-Industry-Is-An-Island-Unto-Itself.


Digitalization has impacted our lives in many ways, specifically, how we-
- Connect with people,
- Search for, find, and utilize information and entertainment, and,
- Get things done.

Over the years, there has been quite a bit of news about digitalization's impact on the publishing industry (you could blame the NYT's media desk for a lot of it). I have talked about a "fly on the wall" documentary, "Page One: Inside The New York Times", which describes the impact, here.

On the other hand, there has been relatively less news about digitalization's impact on the film industry beyond the usual reviews about special effects laden movies.

How has the film industry been dealing with the digitalization of the world around them?

Some Initial Questions

Waiting in a standby line for the sold out film, "Side by Side", at the Tribeca Film Festival, I roped in fellow film enthusiasts, waiting in line, into an interesting discussion about digital technology's impact on the film industry. Some of the questions raised were:
- Do you lose out on quality (cinematic experience) with digital films?
- Is 3D really better?
- Would actors be replaced by machines?
- Digitalization impacts jobs and people's lives- is it really a good idea if it does that?
- Wouldn't human experience be lesser in movies driven by machines?

Thoughts Before the Screening- Baseline Ideas

My initial reaction to a lot of these challenges was:
- Human beings have been telling stories for ages- this is just another tool to help us tell stories.
- Any narration would always have to rely on creativity in the story, and on how well the story is told.
- Film was a technological advancement in telling stories. Digitalization is just another step in this story telling evolution.
- Human beings would always want "real world" contact with another person (there are anecdotes about conversational skills of teenagers that seem to prove otherwise).

I am of the view that this digital vs. film debate is a distraction. The conversation should be able the story *you* want to tell, and the story *you* want to hear.

"Side by Side"

The documentary, "Side by Side", premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, provides a bird's eye view of how digitalization has affected the film industry. It was surprisingly well equipped to handle a lot of the questions raised.

Here are a few of the areas it covered:

Film-making Process and Creative Empowerment:

An anecdote by a woman filmmaker summed up the empowering outcome of digitalization. A woman filmmaker (an actor on Girls, on HBO) admits that she would not have been able to make a movie if it were not for digital technology. She was daunted by movie making process as a complex film "undertaking".

As the documentary slices through the various facets of film making you can see this creative empowerment theme through the various film making steps below:
1. Movie development and production:
- shooting and production
- acting and actors
- film direction,
- cinematography and camerwork,
- film editing, and,
- post production
2. Film planning and budgeting decision making
3. Film distribution,
4. Film screening, and finally,
5. Film archiving.

Digitalization has forced changes in the degree of creative control and influence asserted by each step of the creative process. While independent movies had embraced digital technology early on, fully aware of the detrimental impact on cinematic quality at that time, big budget movies appear to have  begun to embrace digital technology as a tool for budget control.

Movie making creativity:

The documentary covers while getting industry greats and pioneers, from George Lucas to Scorsese, to spill their guts about the creative impact of their choice between using film and digital media for their film releases.

While some directors have relished
- the flexibility and freedom of instant feedback,
- the removal of the 10 minute shot, and,
- the cost constraints of using expensive film for footage,
some others have decried the loss of cinematic experience in moving to digital.

One filmmaker was concerned that the quality of films has dropped drastically since anyone can now make a movie thanks to digital technology. Quote: "there is no taste maker". Christopher Nolan believes (and correctly so, for now) that digital does not match film in quality.

Scorsese points out that for effective storytelling, you must return to the wells of human creativity. David Lynch summed the pro digitalization view on storytelling and cinematic experience aptly, by drawing a parallel with the publishing industry, through the analogy that "everybody and his brother has paper and a pen..."

Innovation, and  Innovation collaboration:

A striking example of innovation was the team behind RED cameras talking about how they rigged a camera mechanism overnight to enable the rowing sequence for "The Social Network" to be shot. While George Lucas had collaborated with Sony on "Star Wars: Episode 2" to move digital camera technology along, this is a different order of innovation collaboration.

As with changes in creative control and influence exerted by each step of film making, the potential for innovation is leading to a need for greater collaboration and participation across each area associated with movie making.

End Product Quality- Trade offs between digital and film:

The documentary pulls no punches on the technical details of how film captures images and how digital technology has advanced over the years. Digital technology, in many ways, is still short of the cinematic experience that film can provide.

While digital technology is catching up, it has a lead in:
1. Night sequences of the type shot in the movie "Collateral",
2. Movies of the type "Star Wars",
3. The active sequences of the type shot at the beginning of Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire", and,
4. The rowing sequences in the movie "The Social Network".

The Human Factor:

The movie making team is changing on the dimensions skills, creativity expectations, collaboration, creative control and turnaround time.

"Side by Side" clearly lays out the human impact of this massive change. George Lucas had to call a summit at his home to deal with the backlash from his decision to shoot Star Wars: Episode 2. Some members of the industry accused him of shooting on film and claiming he was shooting in digital, because "digital could never be that good".

It has been a tumultuous period for the film industry, with old skills being replaced by new, especially in functions like editing, and post production.

History and Trends:

The film covers the gamut of the movie making ecosystem, from George Lucas' and James Cameron's big budget movie technology toys to a student at NYU's film school, shooting a film on a Canon 7D. Her take was that while the Canon 7D is not a movie camera, it allows her to focus on the story and turn in her project within the time and budget constraints.


The film industry has had its fair share of upheavals, like the publishing industry.
It will continue to embrace the advantages of digital technology.
Story telling skills will always be in demand.

Finally, this all hinges on the movie goer enjoying the experience. That has been a different story altogether, as you can see in this article here:

My view? This documentary put me firmly on the side of the view that this debate is a distraction. It should be able the story you want to tell, and the the story you want to watch. Use the tools you believe will help you deliver and enjoy the experience your way.

What do you think?

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