Future Speak

By Stephen Bayly

In the world of film and television we don't have to be futurologists in order to perceive change. Better to be a seismologist. The ground is quaking and shifting under our feet. Much of what we imagine in the future is with us already. Last November a “movie” was projected digitally, transmitted via satellite, to five North American cinemas. Moreover, the “movie” was not shot on film, but with a digital electronic camera. Film was never part of the process. Recently at ShowWest, two rival systems of digital projection had a “shoot out”. It's too early to tell which one is winning but, like Betamax and VHS, one will eventually wipe the other off the map and digital electronic projection will be the standard way of showing movies in cinemas.

The National Film and Television School, in co-operation with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, recently organised a day of short presentations, lectures and screenings entitled The Next Wave at BAFTA's headquarters in Piccadilly. The event was designed to allow students and industry practitioners to take stock and to conjure up a view of where we might be in 5/10/15 years’ time.

synthespians.jpgSynthespians images courtesy of Dominic Wright of Createc

I opened the morning's proceedings with a projection to the year 2099, taken from futurologist Ray Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines. He conjures up a world only a hundred years in the future, where machine-based intelligences claim to be human. These software-based humans outnumber us mere neuron-cell-based humans. They can conjure up bodies at will, either virtual ones, or nano-engineered ones. To us old-fashioned humans, life expectancy will be irrelevant. Conscious entities will no longer need a physical manifestation of themselves.

How does one make such a huge leap of the imagination? Kurzweil traces an exponentially rising curve in the development of intelligence. This is what his crystal ball foretells ten short years from now: “Computers able to perform a trillion calculations per second. Most routine business transactions take place between a human and virtual personality. Translating telephones are commonly used for most language pairs. Bioengineered treatments for cancer and heart disease greatly reduce the mortality from these diseases. Human musicians jam with cybernetic musicians.”

In supporting this rapidity of change Kurzweil refers to Moore’s Law, cited later in the conference by Andrew Berend of the Creative Arts and Technologies Centre (CREATEC ) set up at the NFTS as a high level digital research unit. Gordon Moore invented the integrated circuit and became chairman of Intel. His “law”, proposed in 1965 and since updated , claims that every two years the surface area of a semiconductor is reduced by approximately 50 per cent. In other words you get twice as much circuitry at twice the speed for the same price. If you find any of this far-fetched, just remind yourself that Dolly the Sheep is already with us.

While Kurzweil is concerned with the exponential growth of Information Technology, Ben Keen, the Editor of Screen Digest, made a similar analysis of media-related consumer goods, plotting the accelerating curves of such products as radio, TV, video, and now the Digital Versatile Disk (at one time called the Digital Video Disk) which has zoomed off the graph in the United States. Keen, who makes a living from keeping abreast of new technologies and patterns of current consumption, identifies the convergence of the television screen with the computer as the exciting new growth area – “smart TV”. He makes a distinction between the “sit-up” and “sit-back” experiences of entertainment – the interactivity of the Internet versus the couch potato behaviour of the television viewer.

nagra.jpgSixties revolutionary: the Nagra

The Internet is already stealing the thunder of television. Spumco.com is an animated series, on-line, in compressed “streaming video”, by the originator of the Ren and Stimpy cat and dog cartoons. It works well with a plain old modem. Then there is the Goddam George Liquor Show. The finance for this programme is based on selling T-shirts, and the producers are in the black. Troops is a hilarious Star Wars parody, with much CGI (computer generated imagery) done quite cheaply. There is a new Internet comedy channel, for high-speed modems only, about to be launched.

Curiously, DVD has not yet taken off in Britain, where digital television has captured people’s hearts and imagination. Elizabeth Murdoch proclaimed at Edinburgh last August: “I have seen the future, and it is digital television. It arrives in Britain on I October”. However, recent research at the Henley Centre shows that of the 24 million homes targeted for digital TV, 64% have no intention of paying fees for extra channels, and one half object to having to pay monthly subscription fees. This illustrates that it's a lot easier to predict the future, especially with wishful thinking, than to make it happen.

In terms of the “sit-back-communally" experience, i.e. cinema, Keen points out that, although movies form an increasingly insignificant part of the global market when compared to video, television, DVD and the Internet, they still remain – and will be for the foreseeable future – the prime generator of product to serve the totality of the electronic media.

Nigel Palmer, Head of Media at the law firm of S.J. Berwin, points out that film prints currently comprise a huge proportion of the marketing budgets for a feature. With the new systems, these costs will disappear, leaving only the advertising as a major expense. Potentially we could see new relationships forming in distribution, with advertising agencies, for example, holding more power in a reconfigured paradigm. However, as these new systems will cost between $80,000 and $100, 000 per cinema to install, it is most likely that the vertically integrated studios may be the only ones able to afford them at this stage.

idiots-lars-von-trier-1.jpgThe Idiots, 1998

The keynote speaker at the conference was Peter Broderick, who runs an LA based company called Next Wave, set up to sell and distribute micro-budget films, such as Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane. Generally material is brought to Next Wave in an unfinished state. Peter and his colleagues provide finishing funds and a lot of advice to see the young filmmaker through to the end of the process.

About two years ago, Next Wave noticed an increase in the amount of electronic material which was being submitted to them. It makes sense. Cameras are inexpensive, as is stock. Material can be edited together and sound and music crudely mixed using cheap software on a home computer. Of course young and first-time movie-makers are using this route. As Broderick says: “It's so cheap to produce that, if you don't like the results, you can throw it out and start over again – on a new script, or on a 'remake' to improve the quality.”

Next Wave have discovered and promoted such marvellous new talent as Christopher Nolan, whose first film, Following, won the First Prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival on the very day of our London conference. Sadly, much of the material through which Next Wave are obliged to sift is either highly derivative or incredibly crude and banal. Obviously controlling the means of production does not make a good film. Clear storytelling and scriptwriting abilities are the bedrock upon which a production should be built.

The fact that two hand-held movies shot on DV (Digital Video) “domestic” camcorders were officially projected (on film) onto the giant screens of the Grande Salle at Cannes last year indicates that new techniques and methodologies have already gained a certain respectability. These were Festen by Thomas Winterberg (which garnered a Special Jury Prize) and The Idiots by Lars von Trier. These two Danish directors, both of whom have made beautifully presented films on 35mm, wished to explore the versatility and mobility of lightweight digital video cameras, thinking it would allow them to get closer and give more freedom to their actors. Both directors are signed up to the rules of Dogme 95, a partly tongue-in-cheek code for a radical approach to film-making which suggests, for example, that only locally available light be used, and that if the light level is too low, a shot be dropped. The director is not meant to put his/her name on the film (but so far none of the signatories has obeyed this rule). While the hand-held results fall into the category of “wobblyscope”, there is no denying the impact of these movies. The latest Danish Dogme movie, Mifunes Sidste Sang, a comedy directed by Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, won the Grand Jury Prize at the recent Berlin Festival.

idiots-lars-von-trier-2.jpgThe Idiots, 1998

Another conference speaker, Larry Sider, founder, host and master-mind of the now internationally acclaimed School of Sound, cautioned us that technology always gets better and cheaper, but this does not make better movies. He reminded us that, thirty-five years ago, the Nagra recorder and the highly portable Eclair 16 camera introduced a new mobility which revolutionised filmmaking, but not the art of film. For him, the important issues are not technology driven, but linked to finding new ways of organising images and sounds into powerful narratives. He thinks that the changing aesthetic is not just the province of young film-makers or Danish radicals. He quoted Mike Figgis, who recently declared that, in order to maintain artistic control, he does not wish to shoot “higher” than Super 16mm.

Peter Broderick for his part, had announced at Sundance this year, the formation of Agenda 2000, not quite an American Dogme, but a new fully-funding enterprise to encourage accomplished filmmakers to shoot DV movies. He mentioned that, interestingly, the trailers which the studios prepared for electronic films such as Festen and Fox Searchlight's 20 Dates take great pains to disguise the nature of the original material, using quick cuts and eliminating any “wobblyscope”. They thus masked the intentional rough edges put there by the film-makers. For him, the great value of cheap “domestic” digital technology such as DV is in allowing directors unprecedented freedom to work with their actors and improvise.

While much of the day was consecrated to digital production and distribution for the cinema, using technologies which currently exist, we concluded with some examples of cutting-edge work being done at the NFTS with industry based collaborators – and not just for the cinema. Michael Eleftheriades demonstrated methodologies for creating virtual sets, which he is currently teaching at the School. Simon Pummel (animation tutor) screened a stunning example of 3D animation techniques and compositing (done in collaboration with The Mill). Andrew Berend, director of CREATEC, demonstrated “Synthespians”, a cost-effective way of creating virtual actors to close-up standard which manages to reproduce the recognisable features and mannerisms of well-known actors or personalities. These virtual developments may well represent the giant leap forward towards Kurzweil's Age of Spiritual Machines.

Offering a non-cinema context, Dominic Cahalin of Sony Playstation demonstrated that many of the new (especially 3D) technologies have immediate application for the world of games. This, in turn, makes the games arena more interesting for film-makers. But he cautions us not to confuse games with storytelling.

Many of the participants in the event left with an awareness of the new tools at their disposal, a sense of new routes for making movies, and a long-term vision of a brave new world in which they can play a role. The lingering question remained whether the explosion in communications, with the means of production and distribution more widely spread, will result in greater banality, or provide genuine opportunities for new talent and creativity. Hopefully the NFTS will have a role to play in ensuring the latter.

Stephen Bayly studied at, and is now Director of, the National Film and Television School. He was co-founder of Red Rooster Film & Television, for whom he directed Joni Jones, And Pigs Might Fly, The Works, Coming Up Roses and Just Ask for Diamond. His credits as a producer include Loving Memory and The Author of Beltraffio (both directed by Tony Scott); Richard III (which gained several BAFTA Awards, the Evening Standard Best Film Award, and an Oscar nomination) and Mrs. Dalloway.