HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
The Future of Movie Making?
Film producer Matt Hanson calls it Cinema 2.0. Using a radical new model derived from the social networking web phenomenon and the Creative Commons/Open Source movement, this unprecedented evolutionary step in the development of cinema throws aside traditional studio production methods in favor of a decentralized, web-based approach.
Several high-profile projects on the web have embraced this new paradigm — and many of the most visible efforts using some form of this "crowdsourcing" are science fiction films. That this new cinema should have attracted the interest of the SF fanatics out there can hardly be said to be much of a surprise: after all, this is the movie production method of the future.
And that's the real question: are we witnessing the end of yet another antiquated steam-age industry — or merely the runaway expansion of a new tech bubble on the verge of bursting? Is this really the wave of the future — or is it just science fiction?
One of the first to dabble in this approach — director Timo Vuorensola — made the most successful movie ever released on the Internet. Over eight million people have downloaded the free Finnish SF comedy Star Wreck since its release in 2005. Mostly shot on greenscreen in someone's apartment, the film looks like a professional Hollywood product — although the commercial film industry would never greenlight an absurd Finnish-language parody that ends with an all-out battle between Star Trek and Babylon 5. Star Wreck was the product of a team of around 3000 volunteers, although Vuorensola found it difficult to organize such a large number of people. Somehow out of the chaos, the quick fixes and ad hoc solutions, he eventually learned how to gather volunteers, how to break the many important jobs down into smaller tasks, and how to distribute these among the helpers.
Vuorensola and his team took all this knowledge and found a way to automate the process — which led to the creation of a new website, www.WreckAMovie.com. Not only did they use the site to launch their new movie effort, Iron Sky, but they opened it up to other filmmakers who wanted to create their own crowdsourced movies. The site now hosts over a hundred projects by other creators.
Looking through the various projects on WreckAMovie gives an impression of what the Cinema 2.0 process might look like in action. The films include both shorts and feature length projects; everything from horror, SF and superhero films to industrial film projects and a few frankly experimental efforts. Some seem quite personal, while others (like Storm Warning's Zombie SS troopers) could be routine Hollywood exploitation flicks. One film — the first outside project launched on the site, a Finnish horror film called Sauna — is actually finished (it had a budget of over a million dollars). Another project, Marsipan, has already produced a series of short animated comedies, with more to follow. One author launched an attempt to create a collaborative novel, while the makers of the German apocalyptic SF film Taiketsu: Future Babylon Chronicles have decided to use WreckAMovie to create a sequel. A group of fans plan to create a Star Wreck short (Star Wreck 2pi: Twistdrive). Perhaps the most intriguing entry comes from the producers of a television show who hope to find visual effects experts online — and they insist this is a paying gig.
Some of the projects look quite professional — even commercial. Others seem inept, amateurish or (like a planned short film, currently on hold while they try to get Bruce Timm's permission to adapt one of his Batman stories) hopelessly naive. Perhaps many of these projects will never go anywhere as they only have one or two members at present.
At least one of them looks like it might be worth watching: Snow Blind, an SF spaghetti western set in a snowbound post-apocalyptic world. But perhaps that's just because their poster is so cool — almost as cool as Iron Sky's trailer.
In 1944, the Nazis discovered the secret of anti-gravity and set up a secret base on the far side of the Moon. In the year 2018, they return to conquer the earth. Iron Sky's creators launched their project with a stunning two-and-a-half minute teaser trailer featuring incredible images of Nazi flying saucers, of the moon landings and the secret Nazi moonbase. They describe it as a dry comedy inspired by Doctor Strangelove and the look of alien invasion movies like Independence Day. Slated for a 2011 release, Iron Sky, like Star Wreck, will be released on the web for free download. It already boasts its own website (www.ironsky.net), a variety of posters and publicity images, and this time the film will be in English. It boasts a planned five million dollar budget and a script by Johanna Sinisalo, Finland's best known science fiction writer (and no, this is not another example of the dry Finnish wit: her first novel Not Before Sundown (Troll in the US) has received a number of awards, including the Tiptree, and was translated into 20 languages).
Timo Vuorensola plans to gather ten thousand active volunteers into his filmmaking community this time. To get an idea how this will work, consider some of the current tasks posted on the site: one called for weapon designs, another for concept drawings of space ships. These vehicles would be part of a fleet of Earth vessels sent up to fight the Nazis — those produced by nations other than the United States. However, as the film is set only nine years into the future they had to represent a reasonable extrapolation from current technology. Another task asked for help with the US space fleet, although this was a writing task, not a graphic one, dealing with the question of the make-up of the fleet, the names of the ships and other details. As with most of the other collaborative film projects on the web, the writing tasks are set up as open forums for each particular part of the script: participants comment on and help to refine the text. Think of it as a variation on the traditional script conferences used by traditional studio movies — only with (potentially) thousands of participants offering their comments.
While Timo did not release Star Wreck in an Open Source format and has not offered to do so with Iron Sky, he has flirted with the notion in one of the movie's side projects. He released all the film elements of the Iron Sky trailer and invited people to edit their own versions of it (although any version without the trailer's annoying theme song would be an improvement!).
More radical is the approach adopted by another creator, Solomon Rothman. Rothman first toyed with the idea of Open Source film when he released his first short, "Boy Who Never Slept." He posted all the original footage and source materials online for anyone who wanted to put together his own version.
But he went beyond this with his second project, an SF short film, "Jathia's Wager." He started by releasing a script outline online, along with a call to action, asking for volunteers who wanted to work on a no-budget film.
While his volunteers helped develop the script, he also hoped that other people would make their own versions of his film. He gave them the opportunity to create their own script from his scenarios and at every step Rothman posted the newly completed segments — including his film rushes — under a Creative Commons license that made them available for use by other filmmakers. Some of his materials actually came out under a form of the license that allows their commercial use.
Perhaps no other element of the various Cinema 2.0 proposals is quite as exotic as this fascination with remixing. It is curiously common in the world of the Internet — thousands of "mashups" lurk out there on YouTube — but remixing is the one element of these all these plans that the mainstream industry will never accept. Even a director as open to new technologies as George Lucas tried to stamp out the various "Phantom Edit"s of Episode One (although the fact that they were better than his original might have something to do with this. One suspects, though, if it had been Steven Spielberg, he might have bundled them with a multi-disk release of his film!)
How might collaboration work on a film project? In one sequence, Rothman filmed an actor portraying a "universal life form" in front of a greenscreen in Ventura, California, which he would later combine with an exterior location shot. Rothman had a British voice actor record the lifeform's lines in England, with the help of a group of sound engineers he'd located on the web. Finally, he redid the special effects used to create the final image three times, after a flurry of e-mail exchanges with various members of his team.
Solomon Rothman released the finished film on the web on March fourth of 2009. However, his collaborative plans go even further than Jathia's Wager. He plans to explore the universe he created in other films, and hopes that other directors will do so as well. He set up his own moviemaking website, moviepals.org (which resembles WreckAMovie.com in many ways), and he hopes that it will generate other new collaborative films.
The most ambitious plan for creating a "Cinema 2.0" SF thriller came from an experienced digital producer, Matt Hanson.
It used to take Matt Hanson ten minutes to explain when anyone asked him what he did, but then his girlfriend coined the term "film futurist." Back in 1996, he created the "onedotzero" digital film festival, which has become the largest festival dedicated to cutting-edge digital imagery. When he learned that there weren't enough digital films around for the festival, he started commissioning and producing digital shorts. In recent years, he wrote several books on his vision of the future of film. With the rise of MySpace and other social networking sites as his inspiration, he put together A Swarm Of Angels, a project intended not merely to make a single film, but to create a networked online film production community.
And his vision is decidedly ambitious. He wants to make a movie with a budget of over one million pounds Sterling, which he plans to raise by subscriptions from the members of the Swarm. He intends to recruit fifty-thousand members, each of whom would contribute twenty-five Pounds (about forty dollars at current exchange rates) to the project. At least in the early stages of the process, he offered different levels of memberships at various prices, but the number of slots in each order were strictly limited. Despite these different levels, the swarm is a meritocracy: members advance in its hierarchy based on their performance. Ultimately, Hanson hopes, when the final project is filmed, that he can recruit many of the artistic and technical people he needs from within the Swarm's membership.
What do Swarm members get for their money? There will be some nice goodies along the way, special promotional items and videos, but the main draw is that you get to contribute to a real movie — one that millions of people will one day see.
Currently, he has the Swarm working on two separate scripts: The Unfold, and The Ravages (formerly Glitch), both of which might loosely be called thrillers with soft SF elements. The Unfold begins when a musician receives a call from his mother — who supposedly died five years before. She is trapped in the mysterious Fold — but rescuing her may mean the end of the world. The Ravages involves a love quadrangle set against a world in which neo-luddites persecute a virtual reality underground movement. Ultimately the Swarm will vote to film one of these two scripts.
This is one of the more remarkable aspects of the Swarm: all major creative decisions are put up to a vote of the entire community. What is even more remarkable is that Matt Hanson feels that this process will give him even more freedom to put his own vision on the screen than the traditional studio model: he gets final say on which ideas from the forums will end up in the film — and he knows that Hollywood expects the director to dance at the whim of the money people.
But the Swarm's mission goes beyond filming Matt Hanson's first full-length movie. One of the early decisions made by the Swarm was that they would put any money that their movie made towards filming their next project. While they intend to release the film for free, they know that there will be profits along the way — and Hanson hopes that they will set up the Swarm as an independent film production company, able to make its own unique products without having to answer to outside backers.
Not only does Hanson have his own considerable experience to draw from, but he recruited a group of advisors who include SF author, free culture advocate and copyright activist Cory Doctorow, cult comic book artist Warren Ellis (creator of such works as Planetary, Transmetropolitan and Orbiter), pioneer digital film producer Tommy Pallotta (who produced Richard Linklater's eccentric animated adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly), and musical mashup artist Eric Kleptone of The Kleptones. The Swarm's membership is now over a thousand members and, after a brief hiatus while they prepared for the next step of the production, they are once again ready to recruit the next flight of new members.
There is something truly awe-inspiring about Matt Hanson's plan, something about its radical approach, its heavy-hitting team of advisors, its aggressive take-no-prisoners challenge to the cinematic powers that be. If they do manage to gather a substantial amount of capital the Swarm could become a major player in the industry — and its members might end up reaping cash profits from their original investment.
And yet one feels a little like Sancho Panza, watching uneasily as his master levels his lance at the windmill's vanes. It seems too ambitious, too programmed, too much like one of those get rich quick books sold on late night TV. It might work. It might. Really.
It merely seems unlikely
Science fiction has not fared well in the hands of the traditional film production process. Blame the difficulty of bringing any idea through the convoluted production maze intact; the all too common bias that sees SF as something essentially juvenile; the demands of hesitant investors; the belief that a genre that commands a largely male audience should have lots of bullets, babes and bombs; or whatever other reasons come to mind. What is certain is that some of the most creative SF films (Primer, Cube, Dark Star and so forth) have come from outside that process.
The freedom that Cinema 2.0 promises might result in an unprecedented explosion of serious science fiction films. It could unleash the creativity of countless creators and allow them to work together no matter how far apart they are.
Or it might be a chimera, a pretty delusion which never takes us anywhere.
Is it future or fiction?
Unfortunately, only the future can truly answer that question.
But until then you might as well keep your eyes out for Snow Blind, The Unfold, Iron Sky or whatever else these wild-eyed film radicals might make.
They're guaranteed not to be commercial...
Iron Sky completed filming in early February and is now being edited.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Cole hates writing bios. Despite many efforts he has never written one he likes, perhaps because there are many other things he'd rather be writing. He writes from Warren, Pennsylvania, where he has managed to avoid writing about himself for both newspaper and magazine articles. His musings on Science Fiction have appeared in Clarkesworld and at IROSF.com, while his most recent story, "Let's Start from the Top..." appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
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