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Bitfilm: A Different Kind of Digital Festival

Brad Blackbourn of DreamWorks Animation and Frank Passingham of Aardman Features describe how they met the challenges of layout/cinematography in marrying their two worlds on Flushed Away.

Bitfilm, held in Hamburg, Germany, is the international festival for digital film and it attracts some very creative entries. Unless otherwise noted, all images ©Tom Bland/Bitfilm Festival 2006.

I didn't really know what to expect when I was invited to visit Bitfilm in Hamburg, Germany, early this month. I'd have to say it was an interesting experience. Bitfilm is the international festival for digital film and it attracts some very creative entries. There are sponsored awards in the following categories:

  • The T-Com 3D Space Award -- Anything filmed all or partly with 3D animation technology.
  • The MTV Flash Animation Award -- Animations made using Adobe Flash technology.
  • The Nokia Micromovie Award -- Short movies created specifically for the micro-screen
  • Adobe's FX Mix Award -- Digitally composed hybrid productions which mix various techniques
  • Hamburg's Machinima Award -- Animation made in realtime using game technology
  • There's also a Grand Prix Digital TV award for the big boys -- Animation and vfx in major motion pictures

The winners in each category were picked via a unique virus vote. It worked this way: all of the finalists were posted on the Bitfilm webpage and viewed by thousands of people who voted. In addition, voters sent links to their favorites to friends. Eventually, more than 30,000 votes were cast. I thought this was a pretty bogus and statistically unsound way to select winners. But in the end, the winners were exactly the ones I voted for. So there must be something valid to it... at least from my perspective. For pure inspiration, I recommend that you got to Bitfilm's site and play the winners.

Why Go?

Consider the setting: Europe can be beautiful in the fall, but I expected Hamburg, up near the North Sea, to be cold and gloomy. I left Aspen in the snow and arrived to see trees with green leaves just starting to turn. It was nice, long sleeve shirt weather. Over the course of my stay, we had a few cool storms and a six-foot storm surge in the harbor. What made it so cool is that I was on a tour boat when it came in. Ride 'em cowboy.

I have to tell you that Hamburg was a surprising and charming city. Called the Venice of the North, it has hundreds of canals and bridges with ancient and modern buildings reaching right down into the water. It has some of the best restaurants I've ever eaten at, and the people virtually everywhere were warm and helpful. Even with the lousy exchange rate, I found Hamburg to be reasonably priced as well. So a special trip to next year's Bitfilm will be fun from many angles.

Mandarin Kasino is Bitfilm's main venue.

Bitfilm is located smack in the middle of the Reeperbahn, heart of St. Pauli's famous red light district. You might wonder what to make of that, and you almost have to be there to get it. First, this red light district is legitimate, and runs according to rules. It's not crawling with hookers. They have specific locations to ply their trade, and they don't bother you if you don't walk down their side of the street. Second, the Reeperbahn is a major center of Hamburg's lively nightlife, with the musical Mama Mia! just down the street from the main Bitfilm venue, Mandarin Kasino. It's considered a fun family destination. On top of that, Hamburg's famous Winterdom, Europe's largest family fun fair was held right around the corner. It is like the biggest county fair in the world, with loads of amazing beer and a mind-boggling array of foods. OK, that's where it is, now more about what Bitfilm is.

What is Bitfilm?

Bitfilm is subsidized and the price of admission is an eerie 9-12 euros depending on the days you pick. It's an intimate affair. Unlike Stuttgart's massive fmx, Bitfilm, it is held in small venues where you might be sitting on comfy couches listening to a presentation with 30-40 others. Better yet, you'll likely be sipping a nice wine or gulping a local Alterwasser. That's Hamburg's version of the Radler or lemon-lime soda and light German beer... very refreshing. This comfortable atmosphere is very conducive to good networking. The audience always gets a few minutes to interact with the presenters with questions and comments. Half the time people in the audience simply interrupted the speaker, asking for clarification. So some presentations were a lot like give and take dialogs.

Unfortunately, some of the presenters would go overtime and only be halfway through their presentations. That limited the regular question sessions. Hopefully, Bitfilm will find ways to deal with this as it matures. Bitfilm presentations are hard to describe. The most ludicrous one came from a French group who did a detailed presentation on how to hack your Game Boy to make music. I failed to see the "why" of it. It was a lot of work to come up with pretty much the same sounds, only lower fi, as you can make with ease using the MIDI card on nearly any computer.

Here's the lineup:

Suzy Wang flew all the way from Singapore to give a fascinating talk on the rise of micromovies in Asia.

Suzie Wang, MediaCorp Studios (Singapore): Mobile TV in Asia

Kai Froese, Nokia (Düsseldorf): Learnings from the European Mobile TV Trials

Markus Otte, MTV Networks (Berlin): I Want My Mobile MTV

Manfred Neumann, ProSiebenSat.1 (Munich): The 3rd Screen - ProSieben.Sat.1 Perspectives on Mobile TV

All were presented in excellent English. I found myself thinking of how I could hop on this exciting new bandwagon. Imagine a massive global market of more than a billion potential customers for 2-3 minute films. Better yet, they're bringing back the idea of cliffhanger shorts from yesteryear, like the exploits of Lash Laroo that played in theaters in the '50s. MediaCorp is developing serials made up of a long series of three-minute drama bits that leave you dangling so you have to buy the next episode. The big problem for me was that the revenue models are not well thought out. Some sell individual episodes, while others sell monthly subscriptions. No one is making money on it yet. Nevertheless, these short mobile-dramas fit right in with the new Sundance initiative, encouraging the production of 2-4 minute micromovies for mobile consumption and they are not about to be stopped.

Versus from Supinfocom in Valenciennes, France, won the 3D category. © Supinfocom Valenciennes. Courtesy of Bitfilm.

Strangely, the festival started with a catered, invitation-only awards show. During the week you got a chance to talk with the various artists who created the winning entries. I think the awards show might have been better placed at the end of the festival to help build suspense as to who would win. My favorite winner was in the 3D category. Produced by Supinfocom in Valenciennes, France, it's called Versus, and it is a brilliant piece of short animation. The fact is, everything I've ever seen from Supinfocom has been superb. But I have to say the other category entries were a wild bunch of edgy animations with elements of humor that were clever and disturbing. Bitfilm takes all kinds of entries seriously. If your piece is experimental or cleverly makes a political point or just demonstrates really clever short storytelling, Bitfilm is a wonderful entry point to the international film festivals. They also consider different formats from micromovies for mobile phone consumption, to Flash animation and the unique Machinima class, which consists of stories filmed in realtime using game engines.

Bitfilm is all about digital entertainment. There were seminars on everything from new mobile video venues to a celebration of Japanese monster movies of the '50s and '60s, including a 17-minute all-digital homage to them. Presentations ranged from totally professional to interesting but poorly presented, to one or two that I found just plain awful. Fortunately, you can imbibe during presentations and you get your pick of what to attend.

Micromovies for mobile phones were the talk of the festival.

Cool Stuff at Bitfilm

My favorite was the Nokia Live! Film studio set up in St. Pauli's main square, Spielbudenplatz, across from the main venue. We were able to use Nokia's latest N series cell phone with its excellent Ziess lensed video camera built-in to create fun videos. People were given a choice of various greenscreen sets and a variety props to create short videos that Nokia people would edit for you, compositing in various backgrounds. One of the sets was the surface of the moon complete with large slices of green cheese, a full bore moon suit and, if wanted, a flashy ray gun. After a few beers, attendees would loosen up and make delirious fools of themselves, all documented and sent home on wrist mount jump drives. I assassinated a pretty girl in the basket of a balloon while flying high over the German countryside.

I'd Go Again

All in all, bit film was a unique experience. I met a ton of new contacts from Europe and Asia, discovered a very appealing city and learned a lot about micromovies. Bitfilm is still a little rough around the edges, but in a way that made it more interesting and intimate. I believe that I was part of something important that is growing. If your interests are in the areas covered by Bitfilm, by all means consider going next year. You're bound to have a good time and learn a few things.

Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. Peter's latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews.