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Sunday, June 03, 2007

This Moment in History

Wendy Levy of the Bay Area Video Coalition asked me to moderate a panel discussion yesterday at the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, a 10-day workshop where documentary film- and video-makers explore ways to tell stories in other media -- videogames, cell phones, interactive kiosks, or virtual worlds like SecondLife.

The more I thought about this group of creators, I wanted to put this particular moment in history into context.

So I started by showing this film, made in 1895 by Thomas Edison and William Heise. This was about a year after Edison's Kinetosocope movies were first shown to the public in 1894.

Then I showed this video, made by Judson Laipply in 2006. (Astonishingly, even though this is the most-viewed video on YouTube, about 90 percent of the audience said they hadn't seen it before.)

Watch them both, and then think about what they have in common...which we'll come back to in a second.

They both feel to me like new media being born. No one quite knew what to put in front of the camera, what would hold the audience's attention. The cinema didn't really develop into a medium for modern dance... and Internet video may not develop into a medium for short-form, physical comedy like "Evolution of Dance." But I think this moment in history is going to be shaped by creative people who figure out what works both artistically and commercially on YouTube...on cell videogames and virtual worlds.

I'm amazed at how much these two clips have in common: No dialogue. No cuts. A camera frozen in place. Both dance-oriented. Both involve shooting a performer who hails from another medium (Annabelle Whitford was a vaudeville performer...Judson Laipply is a motivational speaker who tours college campuses.) How much was the budget to produce each of these? Judson told me that the cost of his was exactly equal to the cost of a DV tape; Whitford probably got paid to perform at Edison's studio in New Jersey, but I'm guessing that making "Serpentine Dance" was not a very pricey proposition.

Our conversation yesterday at the Producer's Institute touched on lots of topics that creative people are concerned about, among them:

- How do you maintain control over your work once you put it on the Internet, if other people want to put it in contexts you don't like, or re-edit it? Or can you maintain control?
- How do you draw an audience to your work?
- How can you measure the size of the audience you reach on the Net?
- Where are the good examples of substantive, socially-relevant content being seen on the Net?
- Where will financing come from (this, actually, was something I discussed afterward with a filmmaker from Buenos Aires)?

The subtext of the morning's conversation, to me, was that in 2007, new technologies are offering a fresh sheet of paper to people who want to use images to tell stories. You can take advantage of that, or you can ignore it and keep doing what you're doing.

But anyone willing to experiment and learn and take risks -- young or old, part of the establishment or an outsider -- is going to shape what these new media become.

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