Aesthetic choices and economic constraints

// General articles

An approach to the intersection of production and diffusion

In October 2005, the Forum des Images organised Pocket Films, the first festival entirely consecrated to images shot and/or diffused with mobile telephones. The latest technological developments allow for the reception, recording and transmitting of video imagery on mobile telephones. Is it a new field of exploration for the creation and writing of the image ? Can the mobile phone introduce new forms of “cinema” ? Is there a real specificity or not to these films realised with a mobile phone ? Here is a sample of questions which came up through this surprise-filled project.

To explore this new field of potential creation, the Pocket Films festival team first took on a producer and then lent video mobile phones to 100 directors, artists and students over several months, with the only constraint being to experiment with this new tool.

Technologies and economy

Christopher Atabekian is one of the filmmakers to whom the Forum des Images lent a Nokia 6630 video mobile phone. I didn’t really choose to meet him, but more specifically to discuss, in the context of the festival, the question of the rapport between the aesthetic and the technique. He took it upon himself. In truth, the work that he created with this tool - a series of films entitled “Phone Bills” - seemed to me to encompass almost all the questions that I was asking myself about this tool. During the interview, I also realised that other aspects of his work as a filmmaker recalled one of the principal questions that had finally emerged for me : to what extent can technological developments mitigate certain economic constraints ?

Christophe wasn’t the first filmmaker whom I met through the festival who would talk about the financial difficulties experienced today by directors wishing to step out of the box. Jean-Claude Taki, also a filmmaker, had already several days prior revealed to me his regret in seeing experimental cinema more or less confined to museums and being linked more to fine art. As though films screened in a theatre were no longer allowed to be innovative.

“If you don’t go into all the box of the feature film, you’re stuck, you have no money. Cinema has always been an industry but I feel like it’s now become a dinosaur, that we’re killing the craft. And at the same time, the parallel networks are increasingly developing...” Jean-Claude Taki, August 2005

Would it become harder and harder for filmmakers to find financing to realise their projects ? I’d read that even heavies like Clint Eastwood was having a hard time financing films today, even conventional ones like “Million Dollar Baby”...

The lack of money as a trampoline for creation

But why not suppose that budgetary restrictions could also create a true trampoline for creation ? As Christophe pointed out during our interview, certain directors believe “no money, no film”. Others, on the contrary, will exhaust new technologies, maybe initially destined by their manufacturers to attract a larger and more knowledgeable audience, in order to realise their projects. Like the usage of the 16mm camera, then DV, then the digital cameral and now the video mobile phone, these have all enabled exciting, strange and for some, even magnificent, films to be released. And without a doubt have pulled more institutionalised, more classic cinema into the future.

Cinema has always been an art form whose evolutions are linked to technology. When you look closely, technological developments linked to cameras have democratised the practice of filming, by opening the door to amateur films, family films and other experiments from a larger audience, and have at the same time allowed filmmakers to invent new forms of cinema. The New Wave being the first example that comes to mind.

“Cinema is a technology, that was, as soon as it came into being over 100 years ago, immediately exploited for artistic and performance-related ends. The technology of cinema was born from innovations in photography and the... sewing machine ! The films we love are also born of technological innovations : from silent films we moved to the talkies, from black and white we moved into colour. In the 50s, the appearance of lightweight cameras incited new projects, new writing, bringing a radical shift. For the past few years, DV, which made people in the business nervous at the beginning, has opened up cinema to major works and exceptional entertainment.”

Benoît Labourdette - September 2005

Innovation and creation

It seems to me that in the same vein, the absence of budget creates a certain driving force, by obliging the director to innovate ; innovate, not because the technology allows him or her to realise technologically sophisticated films, like in the case of special effects usage that appear as the biggest line items for certain films and which surely open up a new field of possibles, but in pushing the director to invent new ways of writing for image, since he/she doesn’t have the means to finance the best technology. I mean pushing flaws or weaknesses of the tools available in order to create. Because what makes a work of art will never be the tool, but the work of the director.

“The ability to truly exploit my means goes down as their number goes up.” Robert Bresson - « Notes sur le cinématographe »

Similarly, if I take the example of mobile phone video, I notice that our director-guinea pigs often used pixelisation and the stroboscopic effect of speed to smooth out digital video fantasy images. Direct light also reacts strangely to the prism of these cameras. Like the Sharp 902SH makes flairs and certain lighting come out in a pretty mauve, which Jean-Claude Taki used in his film « L’homme qui aimait les fleurs » to create a universe unique to his subject. As for sound, the shot directs the tint of an equally digital texture. It obliges our experimental filmmakers to find other sound sources, as we notice in Phone Bills, by Christophe Atabekian.

Additionally, the aspect of being on the outskirts, less visible, allows directors to break the rules, to be outside of the law and thus to continually innovate in exhausting resources where other, more visible projects (more commercial) couldn’t. Still referring to mobile phone video, it clearly seems that another of the specificities of the tool allowed for the shooting of images in unusual places and/or angles (images shot from a helium balloon, for example), to shoot people more or less unaware, even if opinions diverge on this point (do the filmed know they being filmed ?). Or furthermore in places where authorisation is required, it can reveal a rich source of material (for example, the metro as a source of inspiration for numerous filmmaker-testers for Pocket Films).

“In economically restricted conditions, you can do luxurious things that rich people could not do.”

Christophe Atabekian - août 2005

The new fields of diffusion

The real strength of digital in this aspect of “poor” cinema resides today, for me, in the field of possibilities that it opens up for the distribution of films. We are seeing blogs and sites which diffuse films shot on DV, on digital cameras and soon on video mobile phones, spring up all over the internet. And we know the coming advances in video mobile telephones will certainly revolve around bettering the exchange of data on mobile phone networks, something that has, for the moment, disappointed our filmmaker-testers - the length of films exchanged is still limited to 30 seconds and the development and hosting of a WAP site remains more complicated than a web site or a blog.

These means of diffusion in a completely parallel economy, meaning still free, allows these films to be seen, and their creators to share. For me this is part of the fundamental desires of all those who create films. At the same time, these parallel networks, however accessible, are not wholly satisfying. The works remain extremely confidential, the multiplicity of existing sites on the web drowning them in a heterogeneous mass, and the contacts made remain, despite it all, virtual.

“Exactly because one of the unsettling things about the internet and blogs and all that, is that one is nevertheless in very virtual relationships with the people. And that, with Phone Bills, transforms itself into real things with real encounters, in screenings (...)” Christophe Atabekian - Augustt 2005

And if it was cinema ?

In all this reflection about possibilities raised by the digital domain to create and diffuse films on very tight budgets, a question still remains open for me : from what point on will we be able to qualify these works as cinema ?

« Cinema is simply the gift of space to the imagination and the daydream. » Christophe Atabékian - August 2005

« Cinema is : I watch the world. » Christophe Atabékian - August 2005

« Cinematography is writing with moving images and sound. » Robert Bresson - notes sur le cinématographe

Nathalie Roth.

August 2005.