Notes from SXSW: Day 2
Joshua Sikora | On Mar 14, 2016
My second day at South by Southwest focused more on the impact of new technologies on the commerce of independent film and developing media. Here are some of the highlights:
Your Future Life with Robots: Explained
IBM and SoftBank Robotics offered a demonstration of their new “companion robot,” which they call Pepper. The robot is designed to serve as a physical personal assistant in the home or in specialized work environments. Prototypes are already being used in hotels as a replacement for the concierge, as well as on cruise ships and in hospitals.
The hospital use was one of the most interesting test cases. They’ve used robots to assist when giving kids shots or other usually frightening procedures. The AI-driven robot interacts with the child while the doctor is performing the procedure and dramatically reduces the child’s stress levels. Another example was in medical consultation, where robots were being used to explain oncology treatments to patients. They found that patients were more willing to ask questions of the robot than they were to actual people, and that in many cases the robot could be programmed to have more patience and a better bedside manner.
The next planned implementation is to use these robots as an aide for the elderly and sick — a companion that can remind people when to take pills or help set up doctor’s appointments. They envision robots that can prompt people to get up and exercise when needed or to call a friend or family member if they’ve been spending a lot of time alone at home. The robot could also serve a “telepresence” role, going to a wedding in place of a sick grandparent for example, and allowing that person to experience the event from home.
1 + 2 = Blue: The Science of Color in Film
A filmmaker, a neuroscientist, and a colorist collaborated on a dynamic presentation focused on color perception and its effect on our brains and emotions. Bevil Conway is a research scientist at MIT who specializes in studying the way the brain processes color information. Conway has used FMRI technology to analyze how different colors activate specific parts of the brain and, in collaboration with filmmakers from The Mill, Conway is working to connect these neurological responses to develop a stronger, more scientific understanding of color science.
Film colorist Mikey Rossiter, from The Mill, drew the comparison to music, suggesting that color could be composed in an image with similar resonant qualities to that of notes in a melody. When an image contains multiple colors, there is visual harmony that resonates not unlike a musical chord.
Rossiter and filmmaker Rama Allen explored the history of color in film and photography, pointing to key turning points in the cinematic medium and some of the dramatic effects that new approaches to color offered, such as Blade Runner’s innovative use of strong “daylight” colors to offset the classic, dark noir-ish lighting in the film. Allen’s summary, that “color isn’t just aesthetics, but also a narrative tool that amplifies emotion and drama,” is not a surprise to filmmakers, yet the developing science behind these ideas is an interesting and powerful confirmation of this idea.
Indie Film and the Death of the Theatrical
A panel of film distributors and exhibitors offered a somewhat depressing look at the state of theatrical distribution for independent films. Once an essential part of any film’s release strategy, theatrical distribution is now a problematic, unwieldy, and prohibitively expensive proposition, even for larger independent films.
The potential is there — Scott Glosserman of Gathr Films pointed out that of the more than 40,000 screens in America, theaters remain 90% empty on Monday through Thursday. Gathr Films is taking a new media approach to this situation through a new theatrical-on-demand distribution model — filmmakers rally local support until enough fans have committed to buy tickets for a particular screening event, and then the theater gets booked, with the filmmaker knowing that the screening can be covered by the attending fans.
Other companies, such as Tugg, are also pursuing this new model, but it relies on a very dedicated, pre-built fanbase. The most common films shown using this model are documentaries that partner with local organizations or causes to connect with issue-driven supporters. For narrative films, this model is much more difficult to implement.
A Conversation with Andrew Bujalski and David Lowery
Andrew Bujalski is a veteran independent filmmaker, known for his “mumblecore” films. I was a big fan of his very odd faux-period film Computer Chess. and it was great to hear him discuss the state of indie cinema with acclaimed-director David Lowery of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the upcoming remake of Pete’s Dragon.
The filmmakers discussed the range of work they’ve experienced, from the smallest micro-budget films to Lowery’s latest work with Disney on a major family blockbuster. Both have been in situations where they took studio jobs for the money and found that their work suffered as a result of a lack of passion. It’s essential, they felt, that you always find a personal angle or reason to be invested in the projects you’re working on.
They also discussed developing technologies, which they’re both fascinated by, but creatively less excited about. “VR seems like it will be a sea change and I can see it becoming addictive and being a new form,” Lowery said. “The appeal of film might go away, so then I guess I’d go open a coffee shop.” It was a joke, but they agreed that film as a major industry might not survive the technological evolution. Bujalski pointed out, “My wife is a novelist, so she’s just a few decades ahead of me in terms of… irrelevance.”
The somber view of new technology was rooted in their mutual love of feature films, but Lowery summed up the discussion pragmatically: “We can whine about changes in technology, about shooting or cutting on digital or making VR, but in the end it’ll happen and we’ll embrace it, otherwise you’re not making anything.”
Writer’s Blockchain: Full Stack Storytelling
The last session of the day was one of the most interesting. Led by futurist Robert Scoble, Gracenote founder Ann Greenberg, and multiplatform storyteller William Kendall, this panel explored the way that “the Blockchain” could revolutionize media in the 21st century. The Blockchain is an emerging approach to currency exchange, related to bitcoin, but offering a number of versatile uses for filmmakers, storytellers, and media producers.
The Blockchain is a way of using code to create and enforce contractual obligations, such as payment for services or other rewards for actions or exchanges. It could allow media creators to collaborate organically with each other across the internet, tracking the creation of a production (and therefore the financial shares owed to each participating creator) and then the Blockchain tracks the distribution of the content, storing each interaction with an audience member or customer. Micropayments can be received from consumers and then automatically dispersed to all content creators through the Blockchain.
Because the contractual rights are stored within the Blockchain, artists can release their content to be remixed, mashed up, or adapted by other artists with certain specific stipulations and the Blockchain tracks those requirements and ensures that the original artist is compensated as new creators work with the content further along the chain.
Creators could also use the Blockchain as a way of rewarding fans. The system creates a sense of digital scarcity so that a creator could authorize a limited number of interactions with content — perhaps engaging initial influencers through targeted content that can then be shared, rewarding those diehard fans for their upfront investments.
While the specific implementation as currently being developed seems complicated and potentially problematic (there are some big concerns with privacy that I noted during the presentation), the general idea seems somewhat inevitable. As Lawrence Lessig suggested a number of years ago, the future is all in the code and the Blockchain is a strong example of how coded technology will change the way we create, share, and profit from the artistic content.
I also made it to three films throughout the day. The first was a hard-hitting documentary called Starving the Beast about the defunding of public research universities. Told from an unabashedly liberal political point-of-view, the film does an impressive job of exposing key challenges in higher education and exploring some of the complications that are resulting from politicians on the left and right using public education as a pawn in their political games. While Washington fights over how to fund universities (if at all), students and professors are caught in the lurch. Starving the Beast reveals how poorly conceived policies are being implemented — under the guise of cost-savings — to facilitate massive overreach from the federal government into the educational administration of public universities. Speaking from my own experience in academia, what the film gets right is that education cannot be approached as merely a product to be consumed by customers. Politicians argue for more “efficient” approaches, such as online education, with little regard to how effective those new approaches may be. In the end, it’s the students that are suffering the most. Despite its strong political bias, Starving the Beast is well worth checking out for anyone who cares about the future of education in America.
The second film I saw was my favorite so far — and it won’t surprise my students to hear that it’s a film about NASA. Operation Avalanche is a goofy 1960s found-footage dark comedy about a team of CIA agents / wanna-be filmmakers who end up helping NASA fake the moon landing. The director and star of the film, Matt Johnson, actually secretly shot parts of the film at the Johnson Space Center, which was a treat to witness for this Houstonian. There’s also a delightful subplot involving Stanley Kubrick and impressive recreations of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the actual moon landing footage. While the film is obviously fiction, the found-footage style creates a fascinating tension to the viewing experience. I tend to feel that style has been over done, but Johnson’s approach is thoughtfully designed to pose larger questions about how we trust what we are seeing on TV and in the media. What makes us trust the blurry, fuzzy footage of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, yet totally disbelieve this film, other than context? And yet throughout the film, footage is re-contextualized and recut in a way that causes us to question even the most absurd moments of this film. Definitely a film worth checking out when it’s released later this year.
I ended the night with one of the horror films that film festivals tend to run at midnight. Hush is directed by Mike Flanagan and is a well-produced thriller about a deaf woman trapped in a cabin in the woods, while being stalked by a psychotic killer. It’s bloody, brutal, and twisted, but also quite well-executed. Flanagan pointed to Rear Window and Die Hard as his two primary cinematic influences, and the inspiration shows. He combines Hitchcock’s classic approach to suspense with a very modern, visceral style that fits the material quite nicely.