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August 7 at 8:15am

Will the internet free motion pictures from the old ways of telling stories?

By Ted Hope

By Randy Finch

In 1958 the most influential film critic of his day, André Bazin, wrote that the 19th century invention of photography had brought with it “a great spiritual and technical crisis” that profoundly affected other arts – in particular painting.

After the invention of the camera, the burden of what Bazin called “duplicating the world outside” was snatched away from painters and handed to photographers.

Here’s how Bazin describes what happened next: Photography “freed Western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism.”

In other words, André Bazin argued that modern painting – with its emphasis on abstraction – would not have existed without photography.

While some painters saw opportunity and pursued non- representational art in the late 1800s, many Old World painters were not happy. Similarly, these days many established professionals are not happy that their accustomed role in motion picture storytelling is being usurped by cellphone-wielding “amateurs.”

But (then as now) the Old Guard’s contempt has never stopped tech- savvy entrepreneurs from coming up with better ways to serve fundamental human needs (like storytelling)…

We’ll never know what André Bazin would have made of the spiritual and technical crisis that the internet has caused in the early years of the 21st century. André Bazin died in late 1958, when he was just 40 years old. But undeniably the 20th century’s dominant art forms – including filmmaking – are undergoing a significant disruption: A disruption that mirrors the changes that photography forced on traditional realistic painting 150 years ago.

In the early 1800s, before the invention of photography, painters were the acknowledged masters of accurate representation. For centuries, painters had served a special role in the culture. That role ended abruptly when the photograph and photographers arrived. As Bazin observed (writing 100 years after the fact), the change in the role that

painters served came with fundamental changes to the aesthetic goals of painting. For example, because photography in the 19th century lacked color, pioneering Impressionist painters emphasized the role of color in their art.

Cameras, utilizing “automatic means,” were the disruptive technology of 150 years ago. Today the internet and affordable digital tools are replacing the old systems for producing and distributing motion pictures. As everyone knows, the internet has already disrupted the business models and forced changes to the aesthetics of newspapers and music. And, just as photography created new revenue streams in the 19th century (e.g., photography shops sprang up to serve common people, who could never own a painted portrait), the new digital tools are in the process of creating new revenue streams for motion pictures. (With all the lamentation about motion picture revenue lost to “piracy” – has anyone tallied up how many billions will be spent worldwide in the next few years on devices and mobile plans for viewing online video?) Most importantly, when the human impulse toward a “likeness of the real” became readily available to a mass audience 150 years ago through photographs, the aesthetics of Old World painting changed. Does the advent of the internet hold a similar promise for a new aesthetics of motion pictures?

How will motion pictures change when motion picture narrative is freed from delivering content that the web does better? Are there elements of storytelling (e.g., exposition? back story?) that might be better delivered on a second screen or via hypertext? If traditional movies are not as immersive as some interactive web-experiences, or there are elements of popular storytelling that the web does better, how will traditional movies evolve? Will the hero’s pearl–handled pistols remain unexplained in a New World Hollywood film – with some fans seeking and finding the story of the pistols online? Will Hollywood motion pictures continue to emphasize big-budget spectacle (something that democratized online filmmaking doesn’t currently offer) or will other aesthetic goals emerge that reinvigorate Old World film production?

Traditional portrait painters didn’t give up without a fight and the transition to a new way of motion pictures won’t be easy either. Old World movies will survive; after all, it’s still possible to get a realistic

portrait painted today. But, as Bazin notes, photography narrowed the psychological and cultural reasons for having a portrait painted. The reasons for commissioning and sitting for a painter today (ostentatious show? self-indulgence? vanity?) are not entirely the same as they were before photography. Which begs the question: What kind of filmmakers will continue to make films in the Old World Hollywood model, once democratized filmmaking is the dominant form?

Just as some painters advanced their art after photography, the redefinition of filmmaking in a digitally networked world comes with opportunity. Some pioneering painters seized the moment in the 19th century: Who are the young filmmakers today who will be remembered tomorrow for their innovative contributions to the aesthetics of modern filmmaking?

150 years after photography changed painting forever, we are living through another democratization of representational art. To paraphrase André Bazin, the aesthetics of Hollywood films and TV shows must change as the internet replaces some of their function. The question all filmmakers should be asking: How will the internet free motion pictures from their obsession with the old ways of telling stories?

Randy Finch has produced movies (e.g., OUTSIDE PROVIDENCE and THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE) and plays (e.g., work at Lincoln Center in NY and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC). Mr. Finch has also contributed to online storytelling experiences (e.g.,plantcitystories.com and miraclemileparadox.com). Mr. Finch’s first film, MILES FROM HOME, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Finch currently teaches New World filmmaking at the University of Central Florida.


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  • Arnon Shorr

    I don’t think the structure of the internet necessarily achieves the aesthetic “goal” of film in the way that the structure of photography achieved the “goal” of painting.  Cinematic storytelling may evolve, but not like painting evolved 150 years ago.  Narrative is still linear, even on the internet (Except that on the internet, we can chose the narrative threads to follow).  There will always be people who tell stories better than we can, and we’ll still go to them for our stories, rather than trying to muddle through our own narrative web.

    -AzS

  • Kevin Holohan

    Randy, what I wonder about it what the effect of solitary viewing of film and film like media means?  Do these art forms change in import when one is no longer in an audience in a darkened room to see them?  What is the potential for self-validating solipcism when there is only my reaction and no other?

  • http://www.finchclasses.blogspot.com/ Randy Finch

     

    @Kevin Yes. Online filmmaking isn’t built around one large audience
    in one “darkened room” sharing the experience. And I understand that something
    powerful will be lost if that form of social sharing goes away.  (I suspect it won’t. The experience of being
    part of a large crowd  – laughing in
    response to a film comedy or freaking out together at a horror film – is so strong
    that I doubt that the shared theatrical experience will disappear.) But, and
    here’s the kind of re-thinking Old World filmmakers need to do – online
    filmmaking IS social.  In fact, the
    communities that erupt around online films are a key part of what excites New
    World storytellers. The various forms of social interaction – enabled by the
    internet – are an essential part of New World filmmaking. If you want to focus
    on the “solitary viewing” that the web enables – OK. But (done right) it’s far
    from solipsistic. In the words of Henry Jenkins, when you’re creating content
    for the web: “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” In fact, the process of making
    online films requires a commitment to the social functions of sharing,
    recommending, commenting and even perhaps allowing fans to participate in the
    storytelling.  In other words, successful
    online filmmaking requires an obsession with the social functions of the new
    form – which means that tomorrow’s big-name online filmmakers will be much less
    inward looking than the filmmakers currently churning out formulaic sequels in
    Hollywood.

  • http://twitter.com/JulianLives Julian Perez

    Randy – great analysis. When studying technology, ironically, the most instructive thing to study is history. 

    Disruptive technologies do change everything but it doesn’t mean the world is suddenly going to end and no new art will be created. Television, radio, and the VCR all were talked about like they were going to be the end of movies, and yet it didn’t happen. 

    Those who believe a new technology or medium are going to end art forever have not been wrong *sometimes* – they’ve been wrong ALL the time. 

    My favorite was the hysteria over the introduction of sound to movies (done, incidentally, to compete with radio), called “the demon microphone.” Some movie stars with foreign accents or horrible voices lost their jobs (Pola Negri), but it didn’t end movies. Nowadays, the idea of making a film without sound is unthinkable. It’s an expectation of the medium today, like color is. 

    The same arguments are made over and over and over again: a new technology means the end of everything and art (my favorite are the claims that we’ll expect a future filled with nothing but amateurs making cat pictures – a view of the future that’s already a self-parody without me having to do anything to it!). 

    The argument essentially is a “stick ‘em up or our culture gets it.” 

    This “argument” never worked once, whether it’s sound, radio or television, because it’s not even a real argument, just a limited worldview based on lack of imagination. 

    Let me put it another way. Historically, there has never been an example where a technology, particularly a distributive or media technology, has resulted in less art. In the final analysis, Western Civilization was better off with the printing press instead of highly trained copiers and scribes.

    Nothing will replace the social movie theater experience, because if something could, television would have done it by now. Theater attendance is higher than ever. The notion a new technological breakthrough would threaten this social experience, as you put it, is not a rational panic right now. Television was seen as competition for movies in the 1950s, and for good reason: people could enjoy it in the privacy of their own homes. Yet we still have movies and movie theaters.

    Actually, TV is a pretty good comparison to the internet. Like early YouTube, TV prior to 1954 was viewed as cheap and disposable entertainment that wasn’t fit competition for movies, yet this era was filled with geniuses like Paddy Chiyevsky and William Friedkin who created brilliant things like “Marty.” 

  • Kevin Holohan

    Fascinating.  Maybe the vocabulary needs to evolve away from “online film” in the way that “horseless carriage” was once the best term people had for automobiles.  It’s aesthetic resemblance to the big format sitting in a room event does indeed hamper understanding, my own included, for which I am grateful to you for throwing light on it all.

  • Pkurta

    Thoughtful stuff Randy.
    While technology has allowed more people to participate in storytelling, I’m not sure that it has created more stories worth telling.

  • RG

    The real issue to me is not so much how filmmaking will evolve – that’s been happening constantly for decades with every new technology.  The big issue is how distribution is evolving and how will the artist get paid.  We now have a system in place where the end user is happy to pay Apple for a cool viewing device and willing to pay Comcast and other cable operators/telcos every month for a data pipeline but reluctant (or absolutely unwilling) to spend money on content. It’s like some weird leftover from the days of over-the-air television “I bought the box, so the pictures should be free!”  That’s absolutely standard with college-age kids today.  They own $2,000 laptops but have never paid for music.  Film is lined up next for that slot.

    Even when money is spent directly on content, so little of it trickles down to the artist that the act of creation becomes something of a loss leader – a calling card to attract audiences to somebody who might leverage that exposure into a reality TV show career or something worse. I truly fear the day when filmmakers (and musicians and writers, etc.) are equally judged by both their work and their social networking skills. That is a fundamental shift in job description.

    I don’t have answers, except the thought that that solution lies with connecting audiences and artists as directly as possible so that a larger portion of revenue can actually make it into the artists hands and encourage them to continue creating.  It makes me realize the value of the editor or gatekeeper who can direct audiences to worthy art.  We all thought the internet would eliminate that role, but I think the opposite has occured.

  • http://twitter.com/JulianLives Julian Perez

    I think you misunderstood exactly what Randy was trying to say – a new technology doesn’t mean there won’t be any more new art of quality, but that the focus and priority of art will change, just like photography made artists think about what they can do photography can’t. 

  • http://twitter.com/JulianLives Julian Perez

    I think this “how will artists get paid?” anxiety is undue, unnecessary alarmism. There are MANY ways to monetize content production. People will still go to movie theaters, for example. 

    Saying “kids won’t pay for content now” is not true and is a misunderstanding of what’s going on – consumers have more power now. The expectation is there will be an *immediacy* to the TV and movies we want. The trick is to find a model that delivers that immediacy. 

    Let me put it this way. I can easily download all three seasons of Star Trek via bit-torrent, but what I really want is to rewatch the episode “Balance of Terror.” It’s $1.99 on iTunes. I can download it there at that reasonable price for an a-la carte purchase, and download it in minutes. 

    Alternatively, on Startrek.com I can watch “Balance of Terror,” as all 79 original Trek episodes are available and ad-supported. Or I can watch it on Netflix, who paid a licensing fee, 

    There are three totally legal ways to get a Star Trek episode where the corporation that makes it available are compensated. What I want is a single episode of Trek NOW. I would pay to have it now. 

    As for saying it’d be a shame if artists have to be ranked on their ability to network…I don’t really see the problem. Maybe it’s because I’m an old comics fan and the defining characteristic for comics is the sense of accessibility to the people that make them and the community around them. People have started to ignore artist John Byrne because he acts like a big jerk. 

  • Eric Breitenbach

    My indie filmmaking and distribution philosophy, regardless of where the technology goes:

    1. Don’t give up your day job–yet. (No crippling debt, either.)

    2. Self-educate. (Know what a good story is and how to tell it.)

    3. Do whatever it takes to make films you care about. (It may take years.)

    4. Settle for nothing less than excellence. (Maintain your integrity.)

    5. Get a sales rep. (Win a few festivals or be critically well-reviewed and they’ll return your call.)

  • RG


    I think this “how will artists get paid?” anxiety is undue, unnecessary alarmism ”

    Really?  The music industry has basically been destroyed in the past decade. Yes, it still exists, but there are far fewer people making a living as musicians.  It’s about to happen to the film world. But rather than rehash points, check out this essay by musician
    David Lowery. He makes many of the points I tried to touch upon in a much more lucid fashion.

    I applaud your effort to show the many legal ways there are to download content.  I love Netflix and use it all the time.  But don’t believe for a second that a proper cut of the revenue generated by those sites go to the artists.  It generally gets absorbed by the corporate entity in the middle, particularly since most contracts were created without the internet in mind (some variation of that’s been happening for a while – see Peggy Lee’s lawsuit against Disney).  Even when a deal is provided (Netflix distribution deals, for instance), the fee offered to the artist is rock bottom and barely enough to cover legal expenses.

    As for “Saying “kids won’t pay for content now” is not true and is a misunderstanding of what’s going on”, all I can say is I teach at a University and every year, I ask my students how they obtain their entertainment. The number who buy music and movies legally is tiny. Most download it illegally or rip it from each other. That’s the fact. Curiously, this appears to have the side effect of making them not care as much about the music. 

    Oddly, these same poor college kids still manage to cough up $10 to go to the movies on the weekend to watch Hollywood’s latest explosive piece of crap. So maybe that’s our saving grace. That and popcorn sales.

  • RG
  • http://twitter.com/JulianLives Julian Perez

    Ohhh, you’re a Trichordist cultist fan of David Lowery’s alarmist, nostalgic ranting, cherry picked numbers, and crackpot Google conspiracy theories? 

    My mistake – my reply was directed toward a reasonable and sane person. 

    Trichordist = autofail. It essentially means admitting you’re an extremist who can’t be convinced or have a grownup discussion with.

  • RG

    Jeeze Julian, it only took me 2.5 entries to make you 
    ditch the conversation and reach for the “autofail” cliche?  Gosh, you are certainly so much cooler than me and everyone else here!  We are all in awe.  Now, I’m going back to live in the real world. You go and enjoy those comics!

  • Hank B

    No I don’t think the internet will free movies from the old way of telling stories but I think the affordances of digital media have already changed our language and stories. Stories now are WOW, Final Fantasy and Zelda for many audiences and for others it is an alternate reality game/story, larp, or augmented reality experiences – that with the new Google glasses might easily blend into a story-world reality described by Vernor Vinge in “Rainbows End.” We need to stop looking at the theorists of the past and start developing original ideas such as the “new aesthetic” or “object oriented ontology” because stories are about seeing the world in new ways and we need to let go of the old, comfortable way we tell stories. Movies and TV shows will continue as an old story model as new story forms evolve and remediate the stories of our lives.

  • http://convercinema.tumblr.com Miles Maker

    People are starting to tell their own stories, but more importantly THINGS are starting to tell their own stories and we have to be able to navigate and process all this information coming at us. Storytellers/advertisers are going to start leveraging this knowledge about the brain to tell stories that will emotionally move people so platforms will have far less significance other than initial discovery. 

  • Ron Merk

    The democratization of the storytelling process may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  While it will bring us lots of good material, it also bring many more BAD things.  If you’ve ever sat on a festival jury, like I have, and had to endure what passed for “films” you would be more circumspect in your admiration for democracy. I think as long as humans dream the way they do, and in case no one ever said this, THIS is why films and all forms of drama have the form that they do, not much will change in the way we tell stories, maybe with the exception of the tools.  The internet is a tool, and not a thing in itself as Kant might have said.  We still have to satisfy the emotional needs of our audience.  That has not changed, and I hope that it never will.

  • Ron Merk

    One more thing, when the medium becomes the message, that’s a fetish, not a tool.  Let’s remember that the internet is a tool.  Just like a hammer can drive in a nail, the internet can drive home a message or idea.  When we let it become more important than the creators who upload their work to it, then we’ve lost sight of it as a tool.

  • http://twitter.com/maya_z00 Maya zuckerman

    Great article of a subject that has been talked about a few years now. I believe that we are going to witness both the democratization of film making + the need and want of higher quality film-making . Like in every quantum leap of technology – photography to film, ink pen to Gutenberg’s printing machines, there is always a stage of saturation and then the few that stands out. Anyone can type, but not everyone is a writer. Any one can create a disruptive entertainment experience but not everyone is a Lance Weiler or can yield a Transmedia experience like a big studio. But – it has become harder to be noticed above the internet noise but yet easier to get to your audience. The successful creators will be the ones that can balance these elements of storytelling in the brave new world – IMO.

  • Everette

    Technology is quickly changing many aspects of the movie industry, but that is not going to change the basics of storytelling. Storytelling will still have to be engaging and exciting. The spectacle will remain because a piece of software is coming that is going to allow some kid some where to blow up a building and make it appear as real as Hollywood does. A similar piece of animation software will do the same and then, the democratization will be completed. It will be open season. Hollywood against the Indies and the indies will win.

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