How Technology is Making Your Creative Job Harder – And Why That’s a Good Thing
I remember when I directed my first play in Los Angeles in the spring of 1999. It was called “Golden Elliot,” and it was produced by a small theater in Hollywood called (unfortunately) “The Professional Actors’ Counsel.” We had no money for the set or props, and the “tech booth” consisted of a step up to a workbench with a series of hardware-store-bought light dimmers (like the ones your grandmother had in her dining room) which powered some clip-lights probably purchased in the same Home Depot run, and a 5-CD changer which made a loud clunking noise every time you switched from one track to another.
Everything about the operation was primitive.
And one night after rehearsal that had run a little late I asked the cast if they minded if I sent them the run notes via something called email.
A huge laugh erupted from the cast. Who did I think I was talking to – people who owned their own computers? How could I presume that anyone would have this elaborate setup, at home no less? I believe the fanciness of my trousers might have been pointed out. It was a small cast (5 if memory serves), but the percentage of them online in any way was zero.
Four years later, I was directing another play, Tom Kiesche‘s “Frankenstein, Vicky” as a late-night show at Sacred Fools Theater. And with a cast of 19 all but one of the cast had email. Shortly thereafter, that actor had it as well. And now, for actors, email is only the beginning – many have their own websites, Facebook pages, online reels, etc. There are great apps for actors even, like Rehearsal, an iOS app designed to help actors manage their scripts and learn their lines.
I talk about technology all the time here and obviously it impacts cameramen, sound mixers, editors, etc. on a daily basis. But those are people whose job is to operate technology so it only makes sense that their jobs change regularly, surfing the tech wave. But for the craftspeople whose work doesn’t directly require technology, the bad news is that now it does – and that’s something that hopefully works to everyone’s benefit.
But as a filmmaker, accepting technology as a part of my work has never been easy as technology either costs money or requires learning complicated new things (or both).
But the biggest obstacle I have found myself facing – and hopefully overcoming – is a result of how technology is making different kinds of stories possible; and it takes work not just to understand what can be done with current technology and techniques but to find new stories to tell in those worlds.
Scared New World
I remember in 2010 when I saw Gareth Edwards‘ indie giant-monster movie “Monsters,” a cinema-veite, mostly-handheld, natural-lighting-filled film that somehow also managed to be packed with convincing visual effects including deadly, giant octopus-like aliens in the same handheld frame as our two angst-ridden lovers.
I’d heard a few things about the film: The director was himself a VFX artist, who’d gotten a few hundred thousand dollars to make the film, which included a great deal of improvisation. Also, he’d created 100% of the visual effects by himself on computer programs that most people could own for a modest sum of money. Most were done in Adobe After Effects, a software I already had but had not yet learned. One anecdote the filmmakers told was that they were filming a scene and Edwards instinctively tilted the camera up to a tree, not knowing what was going to be there, but knowing that he could put something in that tree (it turned out to be a very convincing-looking boat, by the way). That was the first time I realized what many had already. That you don’t have to be James Cameron to dream bigger or think differently when concocting stories.
I’d come from a brick-and-mortar film school background, where if you wanted to have someone turn into the Jackel-headed Egyptian god Anubis (which I did once), you had to figure out how to physically do it. If you wanted a table of toys to fight one another (also something I had to do), you puppeteered physical toys with rods and fishing line and figured out how to shoot it so the camera couldn’t see your trickery.
So seeing “Monsters” was both a revelation and a call to arms. On the one hand, it was within reach to tell stories of a scope that I was not used to thinking within. And Gareth Edwards wasn’t just the face of my future competition, he was here already and winning. A year later, “Another Earth” spun a fresh, character-based, microbudget sci-fi yarn using a lot of extremely convincing visual effects, and managed to tell a story that would have seemed impossibly expensive just a few years earlier. The groundswell many had predicted was happening.
It was around that time that I worked on a project with a guy named Matthew Santoro – a visual effects artist who’d moved into directing, who could create pretty much anything he wanted on his computer using tools like After Effects, ZBrush, etc. Look at some of Santoro’s one-man-band work and be amazed:
Matt (who’s currently directing his debut feature), I came to realize, is someone who’s not bounded by what can physically be brought to the set on the day as I had been. He’s someone who, like Gareth Edwards, like an entire of generation of filmmakers coming up behind him, knows that there’s an economical way to achieve almost anything if you have the artistry, the patience, and the technical expertise. It was after working with him that I realized that in order to stay competitive as a director, it was becoming more and more necessary to learn some of these programs and work on that technical proficiency and artistry. Even if I knew that I would never achieve his levels in either, at least I’d be able to speak that language. But does that mean forsaking the boots-on-the-ground art of directing and focusing on graphic design? Taking drawing and sculpting classes? Learning to (gulp…) code?
One of the things that brought me much solace was Stu Maschwitz‘ brilliant book “The DV Rebel’s Guide,” which demystified a great deal of digital manipulation and learning to grow one’s imagination to fit what is possible with certain technology. Between this book, all of the great podcasts made by FXGuide and the free tutorials at www.videocopilot.net (and now that Cinema 4D is as ubiquitous as After Effects, greyscalegorilla.com), many refugees from the celluloid era such as myself are finding routes into stories in us we didn’t know we had.
Of course the vfx rabbit hole is almost infinitely deep, and the difference between knowing some rudimentary After Effects and building a fully-realized CGI tiger is as different as shooting small comedy sketch and making “Pacific Rim.” But also gone are the days where words like “specular highlights,” “ambient occlusion,” “normal map,” or “extrusion” would make my eyes glaze over. They’re quickly becoming as essential to the grammar of filmmaking as the C-Stand or room tone.
But What to do With the New Toys?
Which leads me to the real conundrum that this knowledge brings with it – finding stories to tell utilizing these tools without letting the showmanship of CGI artistry be the only worthy part of the story itself. I would argue that we’re in a transition (perhaps even towards the end of transitioning) where the digital toolbox is just another part of the process like sound mixing and color correction, and things that used to sound complicated like planar tracking, object removal, and digital beauty makeup can be accomplished to an astounding degree in post by those who know the best ways to accomplish them. It doesn’t fix everything (like a bad script or bad acting), but as filmmakers we can choose to use these accessible tools in so many new ways that I don’t think indie filmmakers have begun to dip into the storytelling possibilities.
Better Creativity Through Circuitry
As I’ve said before, I always assumed I’d get to be the directing genius and the geek squad would come in and add finishing touches to my work. Under my supervision. To my specifications. Now I find myself using these tools like After Effects, Mocha, Element 3D, and I’m even playing around with Cinema4D now that a lite version of it is bundled into After Effects. What this ultimately means is that, even with my personal hangups with obvious or fake-looking CGI, there’s a greater and greater deal of digital all of our futures; and as it becomes more accessible and more people learn to use it well, it will improve.
For those of us trying to rise above the fray, it’s an exciting time to imagine what the upcoming crop of indie films might do… And then do that.