Over the years I’ve periodically dipped my toe into the waters of discussing the “business” of filmmaking; a topic I am, so far at least, fairly lousy at (at least from the perspective of profit). Frankly, as a filmmaker it’s all I can do to break even at the moment, and my go-to joke is that I make money doing and describing post-production so I can lose it doing production.
However, as the odd duck who both works in post and produces original work, I’m in the unusual position of being on both sides of the fence when it comes to film budgets. As a colorist, I want to be paid for my time, and I want a rate that’s commensurate with what I offer as an artist. As a filmmaker, I need to pay a lot of people to get my projects done, so while I want to pay for professionals, I need to stretch my budget and minimize each line item in as non-insulting a way as I can so I can write all checks I need to.
As a colorist, I want to deliver the goods. As a filmmaker, I want to impress the audience. However, as a colorist I’m limited by the number of hours the client can afford; I work hard to maximize that time by being efficient, and I often round down a bit to keep the budget in the box, but I can’t afford to give my time away past a certain point. As a filmmaker, I only ever have so much money that I’m trying to stretch to fit the project of the moment, and that demands various sacrifices that shape the result.
As much as I wish the visual mediums in which we work were entirely divorced from commercial concerns, the truth is that shooting anything more than a webcam video where you’re sitting on your ass is going to involve some manner of financial commitment, whether in terms of dollars spent on rentals and crew, or in time spent on behalf of the volunteers who are sacrificing other things they could be doing in order to fulfill your dreams. Even if you use a phone to shoot an available light comedy sketch with friends of yours that you’re editing into the next hot zero-budget web series, at the very least hard drives cost money. The phone or tablet or laptop you’re cutting on cost you money. The software you’re using (probably) costs money. If you’re going that route, film festival entrance fees cost money. The internet access you use to upload your projects to YouTube costs money. You’re paying, even if you think you aren’t paying.
And I sure hope you at least bought your friends lunch for their efforts.
If you want to do a project of any ambition, that financial commitment grows. By “project of ambition” I mean a project that’s lit by one or more people who know how, that’s shot with a camera recording a high-quality image with high-quality lenses that are being focused by someone who’s paying attention, that has high quality audio recorded on a dedicated device by a dedicated person paying attention to it, that has some manner of camera motion facilitated by whatever type of camera support you can access, that uses practiced actors and interesting locations both of which are deliberately dressed to look the way the story needs them to. In other words, you have more people helping you out, and perhaps more equipment that you either bought, are borrowing, or are renting.
John Eremic, who works at HBO, who’s responsible for Endcrawl, and who knows what he’s talking about, and I had an interesting discussion on Twitter a month or so back about his ongoing assertion that the film industry is ripe for “disruption.” It was spawned by John’s response to the following article (by Canadian Filmmaker Kevan Funk which I wholeheartedly agree with, by the way, itself a response to a prior article to which I had the same response as Kevan).
I get what he’s saying; by being held hostage to the feature film and television forms of narrative we’re making now, we’re stuck with a system of financing and distribution that doesn’t encourage innovative stories, because the institutions that provide the money for these activities are risk-adverse. The consequence is that either (a) filmmakers dedicate themselves to pitching work that conforms to what studios are willing to buy, or (b) filmmakers do whatever they want, and distributors will cherrypick only those projects they’re willing to buy, based on what the distributors think audiences will attend. In either case, the outcome of what movies are available to people browsing Fandango or Netflix or Hulu or their cable listings for something to watch is the same.
New forms of media that are ostensibly cheaper to produce promise to free media makers from the burden of raising so much money to do their thing, while new distribution methods promise to make it easier to reach an audience and potentially monetize your activity, thereby enabling you to take greater risks on telling stories in novel ways that the more expensive and hidebound forms don’t allow, due to their expense.
Sounds great. I’m all for that.
However, I’ve developed a pavlovian response to the word “disruption,” with its attendant implication that old workers must lose their jobs so that a new guard doing innovative new things can flourish. An implication stated in the title of John’s blog entry, “Do We Want Better Movies, or Do We Want to Keep Our Jobs?”
Clearly, change is upon all of us who work in visual media. The evolution of film and video technologies into digital technologies, whether we’re talking about cameras, postproduction methods, or distribution technologies and strategies, have in many respects reshaped what we do, and reduced the footprint of these activities in terms of both expense and employees.
And new forms have absolutely emerged to compete for the leisure hours of audiences. Video games have become an enormous industry, spawning epic storyline-driven masterpieces that will easily consume fifty to one hundred and fifty hours of your life (I believe I spent 125-odd hours playing through Dragon Age 3, I can’t remember how many hours I put into Skyrim, and I never wanted to know how many hours I put into the final collection of Diablo III). Indie games on both traditional game platforms and on your phone compete for your time against YouTube stars with various followings, and the various streaming services are beginning to experiment with new types of programming with which to retain subscriber dollars with.
These new forms change the landscape in important ways. However, in many ways they don’t. It still takes a lot of people to make a video game or movie or television show of “ambition” (and I use that word loosely). I don’t think anyone in the industry would argue with me when I say that gear is not the most expensive part of any given production. People are.
It’s not to say there aren’t cost advantages that have emerged. Cameras are getting cheaper. Reasonably equipped post suites are nowhere near the financial commitments they once were. 3D modeling and animation software has plummeted in price, and the hardware needed to render intensive scenes has also fallen by amazing amounts. On the other hand, those were always things people could rent or hire for a fraction of the cost of ownership. Don’t get me wrong, easier and cheaper long-term availability of gear and software is an improvement all media producers or laborers, but it’s not the key driver of a modern production budget.
The cost of hiring artists and craftspeople remains the bulk of any budget. Actors, whether on-screen or voiceover. Gaffers and grips. Audio recordists. Stylists. Cinematographers. Makeup artists. Editors. Set decorators. Audio mixers. Wardrobe. Colorists. Stunt people. Coordinators. Assistant Directors. Directors. Screenwriters. Storyboard and Concept artists. Modelers and animators and compositors and previs and model makers and practical effects specialists and myriad other VFX artists. Composers and musicians. The list of available specialists goes on, with each one you add to your budget making a unique artistic contribution that years of experience have honed. One can hire fewer of these specialists and do the remainder of the work oneself, or one can hire more specialists in order to focus oneself more deeply on fewer personal contributions to the work, but the bottom line is that doing any manner of audio-visual presentation, you’ll be needing some combination of other people to create content of sufficient polish to be tolerable to an audience.
Even in other forms of media creation.
The four most solitary media forms I can think of at the moment, web comics, webcam entertainers, indie game programming, and podcasts, are all certainly things that individuals can do. And as such, they’re the most successful forms for truly independent media artist right now, “success” being loosely defined as something an individual can sustainably do in an ongoing fashion without becoming homeless.
This success encompasses everything from (a) being able to do these things as a sideline from day jobs, to (b) being able to quit the day job and be able to make a modest living doing the thing, to (c) upon rare occasions being able to do well financially when the thing somehow grabs an audience of significance.
This is an exciting development, and provides both hope to creators and a fertile body of lively work to audiences. But it is of limited applicability to the narrative short subject, feature-length, or episodic storyteller, or to the game developer doing a larger project involving ever more art, performance, and technology; in these instances, such “works of ambition” of necessity require more than a single person to either break even or be paid. And this isn’t just a matter of “well, shrink the crew,” because from what I’ve seen, even if you only add two more people to your project, you’ve significantly diminished your ability to be sustainable from the modest revenue streams available to the totally independent media creator (direct sales, patreon subscriptions, online ads, t-shirts, swag, etc.). The most successful independent media creators I’m seeing out on the web are one-person-bands. Maybe they hire an assistant to do specific, containable things, but largely they’re working solo to produce work with very low overhead, or that’s subsidized somehow by circumstances unique to that person’s situation (their day job affords certain access to gear or expertise, for example).
If you want to tell a story in a manner beyond a recorded Moth podcast, let’s look at a solid minimum way of going about it, using narrative storytelling as an example. You write the script and direct it yourself. You borrow a DSLR kit from a friend in exchange for lunch. You shoot available light, but get a friend to hold a bounce card for you and generally help with the camera. You write a scenario with the minimum characters necessary to tell the story, three actors who bring their own wardrobe and do their own hair/makeup as necessary. You shoot on private locations arranged by friends in order to avoid municipal permits and the absolute necessity of production insurance (it’s never a good idea to avoid insurance, by the way). However, you realize that without good audio, all your intentions are for nought, so you get another friend with a Zoom recorder, and rent or borrow a microphone and boom pole. After the shoot, you decide to save on post by teaching yourself everything, editing, audio mixing, color grading, title design, you use automated music software to generate a score, and you do all the post yourself. Done.
You’ve still needed the help of five other people. And this scenario depends on you being a good screenwriter, director, cameraperson, person with an eye for lighting, organizer, DIT, editor, sound designer, dialog editor, mixer, colorist, motion graphics designer, and finishing editor. You must do all of those things well in order to have something at a level of quality people won’t turn off after the first 10 or so seconds (or so I’m told).
If we’re talking about stories here, no matter what the medium, there are certain minimums. Someone has to create the story. Someone has to visualize the story. Someone must bring the characters to life. The result must be assembled and fine-tuned. Visuals must be polished. Audio must be polished. The people and the process must be organized somehow. Even for a project in which the characters are drawings on sequential cards brought to life with clever narration, it has to be written, drawn, voice acted, edited, mixed, finished, and organized.
Using any combination of innovative technologies, how many of those things can you do yourself?
How many things should anyone do by themselves?
Additionally, think on this. You’re not just hiring people to do things you aren’t good at doing yourself, or that you can’t do yourself. You’re hiring people to bring an additional perspective to the work being done. You’re hiring people, hopefully, that are in a position of saying, “hey, that thing you thought was a good idea? It’s not, we should do something better, and here’s a suggestion.” You’re hiring people to bounce your ideas off of. The more you undertake to do by yourself, the fewer opportunities you get for someone else to bring value to your creative work, no matter what it is.
And if you’re not paying those people money? Than what you’re doing isn’t sustainable. You’re working at a loss, even if that loss is non-monetary in terms of burning out your volunteer/collaborators over time. I’m not saying working with unpaid collaborators is bad, it’s certainly something that must be done from time to time of necessity whenever you’re new to your craft, but I am saying that it’s not an ideal way to pursue a long-term career.
So that’s why I’m dubious about the disruptive potential of technological advancements and new categories of entertainment for changing how projects are made when multiples of artists are needed. Certainly a bit of “doing more with less” becomes more possible, but while you may have replaced your “cast of thousands” with a Massive simulation, you now need a not insignificant team of programmers and artists to drive the replacement methodology at the same level of quality, that are likely (hopefully?) earning more per-person than those extras would have.
Art, which in my view is hopefully the thing we’re all pursuing here, is a profoundly human engagement with the world. It’s the need of a person to say things to other people. The writing of stories, the framing of images, the realization of characters, the shaping of narrative through the units of shots and scenes, the moulding of audio to draw out the emotional potential of each scenario, the adjustment of color and contrast to perfect each image, the composition of music. Each one of these tasks provides the means for that person to communicate to the rest of us, and requires a universe of skills unto itself. Each part of the process is a craft where having a human practitioner with a point of view is valuable.
I have no doubt that finding ways of automating various of these tasks will increase efficiency and drive costs down, and I have no doubt that machine learning and various other technologies being developed will eventually eliminate the necessity of hiring, say, colorists, as filmmakers will be able to simply point at a style off a menu and have their scene instantly balanced and made to look like that. But where do we stop? Automated story generation? Automated editing technologies? Automated music generation is already upon us, and will undoubtedly improve, but how much fun is it to work with composers and musicians to find the unexpected?
My point of view about where innovation can help, rather than steamroll, the artist is that the overall goal is to empower humans to tell more and different types of stories, and for other humans to exercise their art to help improve these stories. At a certain point, unless the goal is to create streaming services powered by audience-feedback-driven automated story generators and to eliminate humans from the storytelling process altogether, we’re still going to want to find a way for human practitioners to sustainably do audio-visual art.
More to the point, in the face of increasing technology, automation, and innovation, there are still people who are going to want to do things the “old” way. Novels and short stories continue to be written, forms which if you include epic poetry go back for centuries. Paintings and sculptures are still constructed from paint and stone. Comic books are still being written and drawn, increasingly digitally, but still by hand via stylus, colored, and lettered by separate individuals. Over thousands of years of evolving forms, theater is still being made. All of these methods of delivering narrative content to audiences continue to be practiced by artists and engaged with by audiences. Technology has certainly impacted the creation of all these forms, and yet, artistic specialists continue. Authors need editors. Painters hire frame makers. Comics creators employ writers, pencillers, inkers, and letterers. Theater, depending on the production, has its own armies of specialists despite, and perhaps because of, the many more technologies that have become available to the theater production, many of which overlap with cinema and television production.
And so it goes with visual narrative. Technologies don’t alter the fundamental desire for humans to drive the mechanisms used by each of the various disciplines. Steenbecks have given way to NLEs, rolls of film and reels of mag have given way to volumes of bits, and klieg lights have given way to LED lighting, but the decisions about how to use all of these things continue to come from the human artistic impulse.
This isn’t to say I don’t believe in the need for evolution, to improve how media reaches the public and make more widely available the means of visual storytelling to a wider pool of culturally and politically varied individuals, because I agree that there is a problem. That problem is that the business of storytelling interferes with the process of storytelling and the selection of who does the storytelling, even as the business of storytelling enables storytelling at the scale at which mass audiences are interested in seeing it. It’s well and truly a conundrum in need of innovation.
However, visual narrative, be it cinema, series, or video games, or whatever VR content proves to have the most durable audience, require teams of people, and these ought not be considered a liability. Humans are not a bug in the system, they’re a feature, because when you hire right, each one of these people makes the project better. Which is nice, because people need jobs.
Innovation is great, but let’s try and focus it on the things that suck. Let’s not just envision innovation for the sake of eliminating people from a process that, in the long run, probably won’t need us as much as we need it.