ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 5.12 - MARCH 2001

The Scarves of Sundance
(continued from page 4)

I've managed to elbow my way onto a panel, "Digital Filmmaking: The Filmmakers." Mark Osborne is the first co-panelist I meet (or, instead of panelist, I should go by the title they've printed on our badges: "Digital Dialogian." The Sundance folks are insistent about it -- Mark called up the offices: "Hello, I'm one of the panelists..." to be rebuffed with, "No, no, you're not a panelist -- you're a dialogian"). I'm a big admirer of Mark's film, More, which I first saw on ifilm.com. It's a masterful claymation short, with bits of 2D animation interpolated in precise and deliberate counterpoint. In the few short minutes of its running time, Mark manages to accumulate a surprising emotional weight. I think it's a brilliant short, one of the best short films I've seen -- and it's great to meet the fella behind it, and find out he's a nice guy, quite friendly and accessible.

The panel is quite well-attended, putting to rest my anxieties that people aren't interested in this stuff. The other panelists are George Evelyn, Jennifer Arnold, whose Mullet Chronicles (a serialized documentary dedicated to "mullet pride") are in the online festival, Ariella Ben Dov, the festival director of the Queer Short Movie Awards, Mark and myself. The moderator is John Sloss, a lawyer and producer; he opens by sheepishly admitting he was involved in the infamous Pop.com -- the online entertainment venture involving Spielberg, Katzenberg and Ron Howard -- which managed to burn through several millions of dollars, blazing straight into bankruptcy before actually materializing anything on the Web. Pop.com is always brought up first in the inevitable lists of failed Internet entertainment ventures, and unfortunately it comes freighted with undeserved implications -- namely, if Spielberg can't make entertainment fly on the Net, then who can? Which of course is running the thing backwards. The whole Hollywood infrastructure is tuned to such different economies of scale, it's almost inevitable they'd get tripped up and bogged down.

We get to run some of the directors' shorts off a laptop, through a big screen facing the audience. It's nice getting a mass reaction, hearing people laugh in the right places, etc. These are the instamatic satisfactions you don't get when you put work up on the Web and people watch it on their own time. Although when the question comes up from the audience, all the directors say they prefer the kind of audience feedback they get through the Web -- less immediate but also less nerve-wracking, and usually more in-depth and heartfelt. Of course, you're also more likely to get negative comments as well; anonymity, it seems, is the handmaiden of vituperation, but the slams are usually pretty entertaining, if you're an appreciative student of grammatical novelty and unintentional typographical avant-gardism. Sometimes I fantasize all the rants delivered over the Net are written by the same person -- they're all chapters in a cumulative work, and if they were to be assembled in one place, we'd be witness to one of the greatest conceptual fiats of post-modernist literature. Finnegan's Wake, as if written by Joyce's eighth-wit brother.

There's a lot of talk about how the Web solves problems of distribution and delivers heretofore unreachable audiences. An interesting schism on the panel arises -- the Flash animators (myself and George) are in love with Webcast, but all the folks using the Web as a vehicle for video keep running against the obstacle of poor image quality -- the Web hasn't caught up to video yet (when we run Mark's More through the pixelated blockiness of RealPlayer, it's obviously torture for him since the film was originally shot for IMAX). Because of the technical exigencies of the Web, animation (specifically Flash animation), as a tool of communication, has gained an inflated importance. Before the panel's over, I even get to trot out my pet argument that there are aesthetic strengths to be found through the current limitations of bandwidth -- it forces filmmakers to use editing strategies favoring clever arrangements of juxtapositions and comparisons to build stories. Jennifer throws out La Jetee as a film that would be perfect for the Internet -- a series of still images, put together with consummate intelligence.

We get some good questions from the audience, and a few comments that sound like sales pitches. One person explains his project -- something that's been inevitable for some time now, but which he's evidently put into practice -- an online film where everything in it is for sale. You like the Ming vase on top of the armoire? A couple mouse-clicks, and Fed Ex has it on the way. A couple more clicks, and the armoire's on the same flight. The entire house the movie is set in, in fact, is for sale: "If I just sell that, I've already covered my production costs." George shoots back: "If somebody buys the house, does it disappear from the movie?" In fact, George is on to something: imagine an episode of Friends, where you can buy every article of clothing, and as soon as you do, said article disappears from the thespian-slash-mannequin. The only snarl in this scheme, is that you'd have all these hetero guys depleting their credit cards with bra and panty purchases. We'll have to wait for fashion to take a few more bold steps toward androgyny for this sort of thing to work out.

To the real-estate-agent-cum-auteur, I want to say, "Excuse me, but don't you find this at all horrific?" but bite my tongue. I don't suppose he'll be making many movies about poor folks, unless perhaps they work as shoe-shiners in some swanky resort.

After the panel's over, a few folks come up to Mark and I, who are malingering to talk up a few stray points. Someone half-jokingly ventures the theory that Spielberg et. al. created Pop.com to run it into the ground deliberately, and take down the Web with it. You gotta love the conspiracy theories. Mark says the medium is about communication, small communities, small economies of scale -- things that are handmade and personal. That's the exciting potential of the Net, and that's what will always escape the Hollywood guys -- they're institutionally incapable of grasping it. In retrospect, I'm disappointed that so much of the Q&A centered around economic models, with relatively little said about the cultural content of online film. The new economic models being formed are interesting, and may have wide repercussions for the development of the art form -- particularly promising, to me at least, are peer-to-peer models, and the eventual advent of micropayments -- but sometimes it seems the only interest people have in art, is an interest in art-as-commerce-by-other-means. It bespeaks a disappointing lack of curiosity about the human animal, about the texture and the substance of the mind.

 

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