Koch anticipated a high-speed production camera so small that it’d fit in the palm of a person’s hand. Such a tool, he felt, would create a new production model, one more accessible to young filmmakers, faster, more mobile, less technically encumbered and, of necessity, less labor intensive. Few people, today, leave home without their cell phones, making everyone a filmmaker every time the record button is pushed. That “voila moment” can be as grand for the creator as it was for the inventors of film, Leland Stanford and Edward Muybridge.
Railroad baron Leland Stanford who, like Koch, was, also, a horseman, invented the motion picture so he could prove his theory of “unsupported transit,” i.e., the existence of a moment, invisible to the naked eye, when a horse’s four hooves leave the ground, simultaneously. Stanford allied himself with an unlikely partner in this quest, the photographer, murderer, and raconteur, Edward Muybridge who dressed like a bum, to boot. Though reluctant to undertake Stanford’s assignment, at first, because he thought photography couldn’t rise to such “perfection,” Muybridge, subsequently, stitched together still frames he shot of running horses, projected the images for Stanford and friends, and proved, by “time-and-motion studies,” that Stanford’s theory, that birthed the movies, was correct. “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” by Edward Ball, details the unlikely story of the patrician and the disheveled, murderer, Muybridge, who kept changing the spelling of his names for unknown, suspicious reasons.
As marvelous as Muybridge’s work was, it was viewed, initially, as cocktail and dinner party entertainment, rather than as the nascence of an industry that would be unparalleled in creativity, influence, and the history of art. The same underestimation of the cell phone camera may lead some, also, to discount its importance to the film business. The sheer weight of empowerment conferred by the cell phone, however, is staggering.
The International Telecommunications Union, (ITU), at the 2014 Mobile World Congress, reported that the number of cell phones on the planet would surpass the number of people before the end of the year. Phone apps of the future will include full post-production suites, scoring capabilities, and everything under the sun needed to create a full-fledged, feature film, or TV series, on even the skinniest shoestring budget, If you don’t drive, you even can edit your work on the streetcar home from your set.
Tech manufacturers have enabled a new revolution in information technology that allows every cell phone user on the planet to be, at the very least, a professional documentarian, if not an artist. The New York Times, in its Feb. 15, 2015 edition, featured a piece by Rena Silverman describing the artistic acceptance of cell phone still photography. She affiliated its rise with the, now revered, New York Photo League, founded in the 1930’s to promote “social and street photography. ” The League’s somewhat bohemian members used to vie with one another for best artistic storytelling. Cell phone photography is, now the definitive method to document life, regardless of demographic or locale. The Columbus Museum of Art is running a major exhibit of phone photos made in the style of the Photo League’s thematic [coma deletion] approach to documentary photography. This is not the first exhibition of its type. Look for the gift books and expect the Getty Museum’s photo collection to grow with the addition of cell photo pictures.
Even more interesting than what’s happening with cell stills, though they are the building blocks of film, as Muybridge showed, is the effect cell movie work will have on filmed and taped entertainment. The first cell phone movie to break through the celluloid ceiling was 2011’s “Olive.” Shot entirely on a Nokia N8, it qualified for Oscar contention by playing a week in Los Angeles in the specified period. Back In 2007, Ithaca College and Texas Instruments began a partnership in Cellflix, a film festival dedicated to cell product. Sundance, always courant, hosts all forms of traditional and untraditional films. Enter your cell phone films there and tell them I sent you.
The news isn’t exempt from this revolution, either, as a Los Angeles citizen, recently, proved when he cell recorded an LAPD action in which a group of officers shot and killed a mentally ill, skid-row-sidewalk-tent-dwelling man of color after he was already face down and pinned to the sidewalk by at least three officers just blocks from police headquarters. The cell phone operator’s video sustained the bumbling officers’ contentions that the man had grabbed a policeman’s gun and attempted to fire it, which surely would have been deadly to more than one participant, at least that’s what it looks like and the city pretty much agrees, so far.
The L.A. footage wasn’t Michael Moore tilting at Charlton Heston in a contrived attempt at political persuasion, or personal conversion. It was visceral; it was (arguably) true; and, it was definitely permanent. The story, in no small part due to the availability of shocking visuals, ran on national news and, for locals, if you hadn’t seen the late afternoon shooting at least a half-dozen times before dinner, you didn’t pay your cable bill on time. Yet another, unknown, amateur, cameraman has shot a story that dominated the news cycle. That’s the power of the documentary.
Other videos, of similar types, surface, nationwide, periodically, and if their existence isn’t readily know, they can be the subjects of intense searches, particularly when facts surrounding traumatic wounds are in dispute. Regardless of what they show, or whose fault they might illuminate, the film made by the man on the street, and his cell phone, have raised the level of documentary filmmaking beyond anything previously contemplated. Put another way, reality TV is most real when it isn’t faked or augmented. Marshall McLuhan, media guru of the 1960’s, [coma added] was famous for the line “The medium is the message.” When the medium and the message merge and are combined with the third part of the informational trinity, distribution, everyone owns a veritable studio. For a two year, or briefer, contract, nothing down, you get your personal studio handed to you in a small box.
The cell-phonation of the earth isn’t ready, just yet, to grind out films able to compete with Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper, Ben Affleck as Batman, or Tom Cruise as, well, himself. Don’t sell it short, though, or at least the concept of the citizen auteur. We are living in a split reality. The first part of this reality is composed of the creative 1% that has access to talent, money, and can work, anywhere in the world, but not without huge logistical support, big money, and periodic international diplomacy.
The parallel, creative film universe is composed of roughly 7.3 billion people, all of whom are capable of posting their work directly to YouTube. It is impossible to determine how many videos have been uploaded to this host, however, because numerical estimates are all over the landscape. An answers.com contributor calculated the number of YouTube videos at 8.45 billion. A YouTube video, itself, credited to educatetube.com, determined the total to be a lower 2.9 billion. Though no may know, ever, the total number of videos posted to YouTube, at the rate of 200,000 a day, more or less, it is an astronomical number that makes YouTube the largest film vault in the world.
Putting a camera in the hands of everyone, from toddlers to the dying, that for some people like Farah Fawcett, was a necessity, is not the same thing as Dali dipping eels in paint and tossing them on paper in the hope something intriguing will result. There is no randomness to storytelling, even though the narrator may ramble; it’s the story that counts, or at least the effort to tell it. That is the immutable constant, the need to connect. Films costing hundreds of millions to produce have, from time to time, diminished their conglomerate shareholder’s bank accounts. Other times they have succeeded and, there are, also, the windfalls, the small pictures, made for gum and a prayer, that gross enough money to be immediately hailed as great artistic successes. Frank Capra said it best, “Film is a dichotomy of art and money.”
The future Koch saw is still unfolding. The incredible changes [extra spaces removed] in how films are made and distributed are galloping forward. These changes affect everyone in the business, from storytellers to extras, so that, regardless of whether a craftsman works in front of, or behind, the camera she or he can expect, soon, to learn a new set of skills, or experience some rapid income disparity. It started with the sale of the MGM back lot in Culver City for single-family residential development and it is still true that studios, pretty quickly, are better dedicated to condos than moviemaking. Universal is forever trying to promote residential tracts on its property, though the closest they’ve gotten to the goal is the soon-to-open Harry Potter World complete with Hogsmeade and castle.
There are still photographers who shoot with 8x10 negative format cameras. They do so for purely artistic reasons because a Costco digital SLR can yield equal enlargement ability and clarity. Most, however, have left that format on the entryway table for slicker equipment with vastly more capabilities, technically. Video cameras have existed, for a long time, alongside film ones on sets, with video providing the instant replay previously unavailable. Before their advent the first look at a day’s work didn’t take place until the next morning’s screening of the previous day “rushes.” Now, the smaller cameras, morphed into HD digital sound and video recorders, are set to move their bulker, more expensive, and labor-intensive brethren off stage. GoPros and drones have made many cranes obsolete, assuming an operator with a steady controlling hand. [add period] and “film,” depending on size, can now fit on camera cards available at stationery stores, supermarkets, and gas stations.
Reality T.V., including whole networks dedicated to its sub-genres, like cooking, has acculturated a new generation to less formulaic modes of production. There will never be enough movies, ever, to sate the demand for product required to fill our entertainment and informational larder. Major countries have tried to sever their people from this revolution of knowledge and failed. The movement from plutocrat to citizen filmmaker illustrates the parable of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” namely, that nature will not be restrained. Neither will ideas and, fortuitously, the more accessible the tools to publish ideas the greater their eventual number and value, and that benefits everyone, in the long run.
There is still money to be made from traditional filmmaking and, probably, like output from the 8x10 format camera, there always will be a market for such work. The polished product of contemporary, lush, effects-laden, film production, however, is subject to the vagaries of taste and style. Each succeeding era defines its own notions of taste and beauty. Study and perfect new ways of story telling using smaller tools and revel in the ability to get down and dirty, if needed. Computer skills are your best friend. While you can’t make an entire Spiderman on a cell phone, it’s not inconceivable that someone could make a “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off,” “Dirty Dancing,” or “American Graffiti” on a Kochian-pocket cell phone camera because, like nature, filmmaking will not be repressed, so be make your mark, even if it’s a selfie.
Mike Malek is a photographer, artist, author and attorney. He lives in California.