Bits and Bytes and Flickering Lights

This work is Brian Dennis's class final project for Impact 96, INFOSYS 296 A, taught by Professor Howard Besser at UC Berkeley. It was completed December 5 1996.


Digital technology is inducing profound changes in our society. Possibly the most highly visible change is in one of our most cherished institutions, the cinema. United States based companies, by far dominate both the movie industry and the computer industry. In this four part Web essay, I examine some of the effects that faster processors, bigger hard drives, and speedier networks are working on the films we see in the theater. The essay breaks into four general areas, a look at old guard Hollywood, an examination into independent cinema, a discussion of emerging cinematic techniques, and some coverage of the current technology. The overriding conclusion is that while amateurs and independents have much more creative technology available, the simple fact that a movie requires so much human capital means Hollywood doesn't have a whole lot to fear.

Before We Begin.

First of all, I really shouldn't need to do this but just in case, here's the definition of essay from the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

es.say n [ME, fr. MF essai, ultim. fr. LL exagium act of weighing, fr. ex- + agere to drive--more at agent] (14c) 1: trial, test 2 a: effort, attempt; esp: an initial tentative effort b: the result or product of an attempt 3 a: an analytic or interpretative literary composition usu. dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view b: something resembling such a composition <a photographic ~> 4: a proof of an unaccepted design for a stamp or piece of paper money.

This piece is designed more to make you think than to be incredibly accurate or exhaustive.

There are a ton of links in the subportions of this essay. I've collected them all in case you're too busy to read the entire work. Please use them as a resource. There are a few though that deserve special mention for the amount of information I gleaned.

First off all, the American Film Institute's web site is a treasure trove, especially the CineMedia database. Most of the links in this essay are only a link or two away from this site.

Second, FilmMaker Magazine has a very well organized site. While I mostly used it for finding out about actual production, they have sections on all aspects of the film making process.

Lastly, Dan Garcia, a colleague of mine in the Computer Science Division, has a special passion for animation. So much so that he teaches freshmen and sophomores how to make animations. His teaching material is invaluable even if you can't go to the class.

The Way Old Guard.

Movies are big business. Scratch that. Movies are huge business. Even absent the amount of money involved, the sheer number of people affected  by the movie industry, just as consumers, is staggering.

The epicenter of the movie industry is of course Hollywood, which can be thought of as the United States collective cinematic institution. In some sense, the cinema has been ahead of the curve in taking advantage of technology. Fueled by big bucks and star power, the Hollywood moguls for a long time have been taking advantage of the latest and greatest technology, even inventing some of it themselves.

In the first part of this project, I expound on how Hollywood is and isn't changing in the face of the World Wide Web and new computer technology. I do this principally by examining the Web sites of many of the major Hollywood players: the studios, the guilds, film schools, etc. While for the most part, these institutions have visually impressive sights, I'm not sure they're really taking advantage of the Web in any artistic fashion.

World Wide Underground.

On the other hand, the World Wide Web has enabled geographically distributed networks of independent, cult, and subversive film communities to come together. While marginalized in the physical world, these communities build valuable brand recognition on the Web, which currently places a high value on radical creativity.

Many people are fond of saying that on the Web small companies have the capability to look like a big company. Underground and independent cinema is the one place where I have found this to be true. I'll demonstrate this by visiting a number of provocative film sites.

The Way New Cinema.

New technologies obviously change how old artistic institutions operate, maybe even for the better. However, sometimes they enable brand new artistic expressions and aesthetics. When it comes down to it though, you still have to make a linear work on tape or film to call it cinema. With the rapid decrease in the cost of digital video technology, are there any auteurs out  there breaking the well understood cinematic styles? Or are we just getting a bunch of poseurs futzing about with expensive toys.

Toys of the Trade

As a reader of this Web essay, you probably have enough available capital to purchase a digital home studio. Really. Between credit cards, loans from banking institutions, loans from your friends and family, disposable income etc it's fairly easy to scrape together enough money to make a movie on a computer. You might be in debt for quite a while, but it's more impressive then paying back student loans. Besides, you get a film at the end instead of a sheepskin. In this part of the essay I examine some of the technology you would need, including pricing, to demonstrate my point.

This then begs the question would you want to? Alternatively, what kind of movie would you get? Even more importantly, how would you know what to do?

The toys may be getting cheaper and more easily available, but when cable first came into existence, they thought people were going to make movies in their living rooms.

The Final Analysis

People are smitten with the idea that computer technology in general and the Web in particular are incredible democratizing forces. Anyone can have their own printing press. Anybody can have their own music studio. Anybody will be able to make a movie.

While this may be in some sense true, the results of true democracy are not always pleasant. Once upon a time anyone could and did have a homepage. I doubt that that phase of the World Wide Web will go down as a high point in artistic history. Similarly, we've had the capability for people to make cheap videos, in analog, for a few years now. Other than America's Funniest Home Videos, the Rodney King tape, and home porn the impact has been less than stunning.

Even if you believe that having a tidal wave of crap is okay for the 0.01% yield of visionary material, we still have to face up to the fact that people have to eat. Dealing with computer technology is relatively expensive by any metric including money and time. For most people these are in short supply, which is why television is so effective. For the few that get into making films on computers it will at best be an expensive hobby akin to racing yachts.

In the final analysis, a movie, a true cinematic narrative, requires an incredible amount of human capital called creative talent. Hollywood mobilizes small armies of people, all of whom are spectacularly talented at what they do, to make a big budget film. Even "small" independent films need fair sized packs of at least extremely enthusiastic people to get a 30 minute film out the door. It is my guess that despite the rapid changes in the technology, the computer as we know it can not reduce the need for talent. Despite the barbarians at the gate, Hollywood is safe for the next few decades.