100 Ideas That Changed Film - A Must Read

Maya Deren

Maya Deren

When a small handful of enthusiasts gathered at the first cinema show at the Grand Cafe in Paris on December 27, 1895, to celebrate early experimental film, they didn't know that over the next century that their fascination would carve out its place in history as the "seventh art." But how did it happen?

That's just one of revelations in the our new favorite book, 100 Ideas that Changed Film. Written by Oxford Times film reviewer David Parkinson — who brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design — the book offers a concise and intelligent chronicle of the most influential developments since the dawn of cinema.

From technologies like magic lanterns (#1), the kinetoscope (#3), and the handheld camera (#78), to genres like slapstick (#21), poetic realism (#50), and queer cinema (#97), to system-level developments like the star system (#23), film schools (#38), and censorship (#48), to cultural phenomena like fan magazines (#31), television (#63), and feminist film theory (#86), the book blends the illuminating factuality of an encyclopedia with the strong point of view of a museum curator to reveal, beneath this changing flow of technologies and techniques, cinema’s deeper capacity for playing on universal emotions and engaging our timeless longing for escapism, entertainment, and self-expression.

As Parkinson promises in the introduction, the book covers all aspects of film:

What follows is as much a chronology of business opportunism and technical pragmatism, as a a celebration of artistry, social commitment and showmanship.

Drones on the Move for Hollywood Productions

Hollywood has waited patiently for the Federal Aviation Administration to grant exemptions for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for film and video productions. The wait is over. After several years of wrangling, the FAA made it official, allowing six firms to go ahead and fly drones - the first time private companies legally can do so in the U.S. With Hollywood leading the way, the decision has huge implications for a broad range of industries. 

Hollywood's exemption is the first granted to multiple companies and the first to open an entire industry for commercial drone use. This being Hollywood, expect plenty of publicity and statements from industry insiders. Neil Fried, MPAA senior vice president, is already on record in support of drones, saying that drones are "an innovative and safer option for filming. The new tool for storytellers will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots, and it's the latest in a myriad of new technologies being used by our industry to further enhance the viewer experience."

Previously, many filmmakers had taken to shooting with drones in foreign countries to get the shots they wanted, notably the James Bond pic, Skyfall, in Turkey. With the FAA allowing Hollywood productions the legal exemption to fly drones, there also comes a long list of strict safety and compliance rules, aiming for safety and noninterference with commercial aviation. Federal authorities such as the National Park Service won't take these rules lightly and have already made it clear drones would be allowed to fill the air like a swarm of bees. One Danish tourist learned the hard way and got stung with a $3200 fine for failing to comply with government rules.

Despite the slow implementation, progress is being made - but it will continue to be slow going. With forty other requests for exemptions pending, there's quite a backlog the FAA needs to get through. Expect to see draft rules for integrating drones into national airspace by the beginning of 2015.

Five Tips for Using Drones on Your Production

When CNN commissions a study on using drones to capture news footage you know unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have hit the mainstream. Today, more and more cameras are taking to the sky for sports coverage, reality TV and even real estate listings.  

It used to be that stunning panoramic shots were limited by the length of a crane or the locations a helicopter could safely fly. Not anymore. Now a filmmaker can put a GoPro on a drone and get shots that only existed in their imagined storyboards.

As you venture out into the wild blue yonder, here's a few tips to make the best of the experience.

  1. Get The Entry Level Model. It's easy to get ahead of yourself and get the elephant gun when all you really needed was the water pistol. The DJI Phantom is an ideal entry level purchase. It won't get your camera in the air but at $399 it's a great way to get comfortable before you take the big leap and put all your precious equipment in the sky. Think of it as a training course that gets you valued flying experience.
  2. Watch Before You Fly. Read the manual thoroughly, then search the web for instructional videos. You'll find everything from how to charge your batteries to how to install prop guards. DSLRPros has some great videos on how to get up and flying but there are many other people out there who have taken the time to create tutorials.
  3. Practice, Practice, Practice. Once you've read up on everything, get get out and fly as much as you can. It can take anywhere from 10-20 hours to get comfortable so don't get discouraged. And don't worry about the video you're getting. Work on getting the drone in the air. Practice hovering. Practice landing. Once you get comfortable, then you can start pushing the envelope.
  4. Use Prop Guards. Face it, you're going to crash. Everyone does. You’re landings will not be gentle. You'll run into things. It will tip over while the props are active. Save yourself the money and the headaches and install your prop guards. Sometimes they get in the way of your shot, but it’s better to use them and risk ruining a few shots then to damage the drone.
  5. Use Common Sense. Take it slow and be safe. These things can get out of control very easily and should be kept away from people. And because of their ability to fly hundreds of feet in the air, be aware of other aircraft in the area. It's a serious problem if you come too close to manned aircraft. You can visit the Academy of Model Aeronautics for more information. They have valuable resources about government regulations. 

Follow these tips and get that camera up in the air. You'll be amazed by the beautiful footage you'll capture.

Who Killed the Movie Soundtrack?

Growing up some of my favorite CDs were movie soundtracks. The good ones always had a collection of great songs that perfectly encapsulated the mood of the film. Some were a handpicked selection of Top 40 hits ("Saturday Night Fever," "The Big Chill") while others were eclectic mixes of songs I had never heard before ("Trainspotting," "Natural Born Killers"). The best soundtracks gave a great variety of music and were huge sellers for record companies and studios alike.

Then in the late 1990’s the format hit a wall. Interest waned, numbers plummeted and the quality left a lot to be desired. The first "Transformers" soundtrack didn't even sell 500,000 copies. "Spider-Man 2," the 11th highest-grossing film of all time, couldn't sell a million soundtracks. Although the audiences for those films were huge it didn’t lead to soundtrack sales.

Sure there are the occasional outliers like "Garden State" but those are few and far between. How did such a successful genre fall so far, so fast? It’s a mystery even a gumshoe like Sam Spade would have difficulty unraveling. There is a trail of evidence however. Let’s examine the clues …

Although they had much to gain by the success of soundtracks, entertainment conglomerates always saw them as just another ancillary revenue source. When cost-cutting hit the studios hard in the '90s, it was easy to scale back on original music. The new strategy was to throw in a bunch of filler music with a single original song by a name artist. Trouble was that song was usually under the end credits and often missed by audiences. Although a cheaper way to make soundtracks, consumers didn’t respond.

Licensing music has become an expensive proposition over the last 20 years. Songs from popular artists like The Beatles are impossible to find due to price. Add a shrinking catalog of artists that studios could get affordable access to and suddenly there was this repetition of music on soundtracks. Do a search sometime and see how many times “All Along the Watchtower” appears on a soundtrack. Great song, but it’s worn out it’s welcome.

One explanation might be that people don’t buy soundtracks anymore. Around the world, music sales have declined precipitously this decade. That’s partially do to iTunes and later file-sharing networks like Spotify and Pandora. Much like in the 1950s, we’re in a time where the single is more important than the album. If the album itself is a weaker concept, it stands to reason that the soundtrack is too. Why buy the whole soundtrack when you can download the one or two songs you really want and create your own movie playlist?

The creative side of film also shares some blame. Music has become an overlooked part of a film and left to the music supervisor to figure out. Just contrast the music for "Transformers" with the decades biggest soundtrack hit, "O Brother Where Art Thou?"  With a clear strategy and hitless bluegrass music we rarely heard, "O Brother" went on to sell 7 million copies. When directors and producers get lazy on music, the movie soundtrack is bound to suffer.

Who killed the soundtrack? It can be argued that it was a collaboration of all. Have faith music fans because all is not lost. Movies like "O Brother," "Magnolia" and "About a Boy" provide a glimmer of hope. All were not only fantastic soundtracks but integral parts of the film. More than providing color or revealing shifts in mood, the music was part of the action onscreen, speaking through characters.

Soundtracks will survive, although it is on life support. Certain films lend themselves to excellent music like the band-focused "Once" or others with a strong musical vision like "The Life Aquatic" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

The key to continued cultural relevance of the soundtrack is in good original compositions. The good news is that there are a host of talented musicians out there just itching to get a chance to compose music for a soundtrack. Let’s hope the studios and record companies give them a chance.

Ode to a Frame of Celluloid

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
— John Keats
Film Projector.jpg

Poets and scholars alike have waxed poetic about loved ones no longer here. With last Thursday’s announcement that Kodak is selling off the rest of its print film business there's yet another old friend leaving us: Film. In the last year, the major manufacturers of motion picture film cameras, Aaton, ARRI and Panavision, all ceased production of new film cameras. Actual 35mm celluloid, running through a projector is disappearing. Fuji says it will stop making film next Spring. Now Kodak, who seemed invulnerable to change, seems to be moving towards pulling out of a business it helped define. Let's call it what it is... film as we know it is dead. Or on life support at the very least.

Who would have dreamed film, that magic medium of the past century, would die so quickly. I doubt Kodak saw this coming either. Only a few years ago I was telling friends that digital formats would never win over the time honored process of light shining through celluloid. The image created was far superior to anything shot digitally, the colors rich and vibrant not harsh and cold as HD video could be.

My thinking was the consumer would always want the best quality available and by that standard how could you improve upon film. While quality is important, I forgot to acknowledge another important driver – the entertainment industry’s thirst for innovation. From TV to VHS to DVD, we’ve always wanted technology that improves our viewing experience. The fact is that film had reached its apex. In the race for faster and cheaper it could not keep up.

For over 100 years film ruled the roost. At their peak, movies accounted for more than 12 billion feet of film processing each year, according to IHS. That’s enough to fly back and forth to the Moon five times! But a changing economic landscape made studios look towards other options.

With digital formats, studios save billions of dollars in film stock and processing costs. Once the decision is made to shoot on digital, it’s a logical leap to want to project digitally as well. Today, half of the world's screens show movies on digital projectors further eroding the necessity for film. In this new order there isn’t a place for film. From a strictly financial perspective, the change makes sense. In my heart, it doesn’t.

There’s a tactile beauty to celluloid that’s so seductive with the silver halide crystals forming different patterns on every frame of film. It’s a romantic medium, like oil paints or clay. Studio bosses speak of the “silver screen” and directors wax nostalgic about film being run through a projector at 24 frames per second. And anyone that’s was raised going to the movies knows there’s something about being in a darkened theater and listening to a film projector’s gears turning softly in the background while images appear on the screen. Film wasn’t perfect but there was a mystical alchemy of how it worked that made it magical.

Part of the nostalgia I feel for film stems from my childhood. My Dad took a Super 8 camera with him on every vacation. In junior high I lived in the A/V room setting up projectors, respooling reels and repairing tears in 16mm science documentaries. Later, working with celluloid was my job, working as a projectionist at a six-screen theater in Colorado. These interactions with film fueled my creativity. I don’t want to lose that connection to my childhood its swift demise.

Purists may continue to shoot movies on film and the celluloid dream may live at film festivals and various shrines of cinema. But with film processing houses disappearing and some studios shutting down their film-rental business, if will become increasingly difficult for exhibitors to show celluloid. They will have to scramble to import prints from overseas or private archives, or simply scrap plans to show certain films altogether. The worst case scenario will be movie houses closing altogether since upgrading to digital projection is not only undesirable, but beyond their tight-budgeted means.

For now, film transitions from the theaters of Hollywood to auctions on eBay. It’s tough to witness this slow decline of my favorite medium, akin watching a dear relative succumb to illness. You want to do something but know there’s nothing you can do. As celluloid retires from public life and becomes a museum relic that auteurs wax poetic about, let’s raise a glass and toast its glorious past. Film you will be missed but never forgotten.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'