Cloud Filmmaking

In a recent blog post –  Stop Making Docs -  Brian Newman argued that the era of the short doc has arrived. With the web, shareable media, mobile exhibition, he argues, the longer and feature length documentaires that dominate festivals are no longer where it’s at, if the aim is to reach an audience and make an impact. His alternative, “Make me a really interesting website, that happens to have maybe 20 minutes total of video. In 3 minute segments. Let me trade it, use it, share it, on my phone. Let it actually have an impact instead of just stroking your and your funder’s egos. Let it be interesting and aware of today’s realities. Let it be useful. Let it never play a film festival. Ever.”

The film maker who is really working this territory is Tiffany Shlain. The founder of the Webby Awards, Shlain has been developing a form of web-native filmmaking she has called “Cloud Filmmaking”. Nov 8th saw the release of her latest film, Brain Power. Shareable, on web and mobile. Here it is:

The video asks what we learn when we compare the internet to the human brain. It turns out to be a rich analogy. Compare them – neurons v web pages – the internet is much bigger. Synapses v hyperlinks – the brain of a human baby is vastly bigger. (Don’t ask me how anyone can quantify these things…) Recent discoveries about how the infant brain develops in relation to human interaction now make it clear how the quality and consistency of early interaction is critical for healthy human development. Continuing the analogy – brain, internet – the film asks what the internet, still in its infancy, needs for healthy development. Give the film ten minutes of your time. It’s interesting. It’s also being released in the form of a TED book.

Brain Power is a video that’s truly native to the networked environment. Not in the sense that the viewing experience is interactive, or “connected” (taking advantage of HTML5), but in terms of its production and distribution.  It expresses the vision that Shlain and her associates at the Moxie Institute have enshrined in The Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto.

1. To use the cloud to collaboratively create films with people from all over the world.

2. To create films about ideas that speak to the most universal qualities
of human life, focusing on what connects us, rather than what divides us.

3. To give back as much as is received, by offering
free customized films to organizations around the world to further their message.

4. To use the cloud to translate films into as many languages as possible.

5. To push the boundaries of both filmmaking and distribution by combining
the newest collaborative tools available online with the potential of all the people in the world.

So Brain Power has a remix aesthetic, heavy on archive, stills and animation. It includes sequences drawn in through crowd-sourcing; gathered, for example, by asking how people in different places imagine the brain. The background to the approach, Shlain has explained, “When YouTube first came out, I had a vivid dream that all the videos were in HD quality and had easy pull-down menus that explained how I could license the footage. I was like a kid in a candy store. As a filmmaker who hardly shoots anything and is primarily into remixing and recontextualizing images, this explosion of online video was not only a much bigger candy store than I had ever dreamed of, it also completely changed the way I make films.”

Brain Power is the third film in the Let it Ripple; Mobile Films for Change series. The first was A Declaration of Interdependence, a contemporary reworking of the American Declaration of Independence, with video from participants around the world. (You can watch it on the still below – though the player button seems absent.) It’s been translated by volunteers into 66 languages.

The Let it Ripple series are offered in free customised versions to non-profits (supported by an anonymous donor). According to the Let it Ripple website, 300 customised films have been made to date. Talking to Co-Exist Shlain explained, “We work with organizations to drill down on what their call to action is…The organizations are so grateful. They’re doing such important work, and we’re such an image-based society…Giving them an emotional and inspiring short film for them to further their work has been really wonderful.” You can see some customised endings to Declaration below.

Shlain has made longer documentaries too. I’ve not seen her award winning feature length film, Connected, which led to the Let it Ripple series. The truth is I’m not rushing to. I’m not keen on the humanism of these films – the universalist idea behind point  2 above, which it seems to me sidesteps such deep structural inequalities. Take the second Let it Ripple film – Engage. Some call it moving. I find it very sentimental. What I do find inspiring though is Shlain’s vision and energy in realising this short filmmaking approach. It gives us a glimpse of one emerging future for media as a networked form.

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