What’s Up? HD is!

Although I’ve been back from sxsw for several days, I haven’t been posting although my mind has been busy on several things.

First, I’ve been doing massive amounts of research on HD videocameras. As crazy as it may sounds, I’m at a point where I can and should buy an HD videocam, probably the Sony HVR-Z1U . There’s a lot of technology to learn, and purchasing decisions to make, not to mention testing to do, but I’m up for the challenge (sort of). I’ve been collecting my video links here.

I don’t consider myself a filmmaker or a particularly visually-oriented person, but I took video production classes a few years ago. But nowadays, people are consuming more stories through their TV and DVD’s; a storyteller needs to adapt to the preferences of one’s audience. Video confers power. You become not just the constructor of words but a director and yes, even an actor. In the last ten years I’ve noticed that for most people, novels, poems and plays mean anything. Yes, they are at bookstores and libraries, and occasionally in the background for an LA Law episode, but for most people it it unnecessary to read novels to fit in or to be “in the know” about the world around them. Books are about old people: nice to visit on occasion (especially as a gesture of goodwill) but ultimately enervating. As much as literature of the past interests me, I end up spending more time watching sitcoms than reading Melville or Faulkner or Zola. Cinema is about mainly technique–something I have no interest in really, especially if it requires technical resourcefulness or special effects. The dramatic pace of a Drew Carey episode is much more interesting; if Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure he’d be on the staff for CSI Miami or Friends.

While I’m trying to get a handle on HD, other storytellers are venturing into animation and gaming. Tradeoffs apply; when you spend time making movies, you are taking time away from the craft of writing; Dostoevsky and Dickens and Flaubert had time to master a single genre with a growing audience.

What’s wrong with reading novels these days? The disadvantages are numerous: short attention spans, the whopping time commitment and competing forms of entertainment. I can watch an artistic video for 2 hours and not lose much time in my life if it sucks. Reading a mediocre or even a bad novel can cost me several weeks of free time.

On the other hand, novels have certain advantages: interior monologues, verbal tapestries, the power to envision things next to impossible to film, and of course the intimacy of being near a person’s private thoughts and feelings. Even if we agree that broadband will become even more pervasive and storage media more cheap, the portability of a story–the ability to pick it up at a random moment and rejoin the narrator or protagonist– is a lovely thing. Interrupting a 2 hour movie is far more disruptive; while you read a novel, a significant amount of time passes; as you grow into the novel, you almost grow with it. I experienced Brothers K in two intense weeks, Moby Dick in two other weeks, and Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy in 3 weeks. All absolutely glorious. When reading a novel, it’s a given that you’re going to put it down and do other things (go to work, sleep, see friends). With movies, the only sanctioned interruptions are potty breaks and snack breaks. You have more time to dwell on the story; more time to imagine the emotions and the people.

Novels have to grab you; movies merely have to keep you watching. As long as you have enough footage of volcanoes exploding and animals doing adorable things and politicians cracking into emotion, your audience will stay with you for an eternity.

In the future I suspect people will be more tolerant of novels and less biased toward video narratives (if only because humanity has moved onto more sophisticated genres). But video provides immediacy and presence. The actor or subject (whether it be me, a friend, or an actor) embodies the story. Novels are lofty things, but where are the DVD extras, the commentaries, the biographies? Novels are….well, just novels. Just jack in the boxes that never open and surprise you.

That said, let’s point out some advantages of novels–purely from a production standpoint. Novels are easy to construct, requiring only a typewriter and an imagination. They require little technical knowhow (although a knowledge of the genre is essential). While novels are expensive to translate, they can be translated; if written correctly (with an eye to basic aspects of storytelling), they can be repurposed in different formats. True, novelists spend a lot of time in contemplation and research, but compared to filmmakers, they spend a higher percentage of time actually writing. The videomaker, on the other hand, must learn technology and techniques and do a lot of experimenting; video production has a lot of really tedious aspects (although hopefully the ratio of meaningful work v. tedium probably improves as one gains in experience and competence).

Making a video doesn’t require much in the way of imagination, but it does involve trying to think of an appropriate visual representation for your theme. In documentary filmmaking, you’re not creating; you are just capturing and trying to explain why something is significant (and thinking of ways to convince people). Making a video also means competing against people who have a lot more money and talent and experience. The good thing about fiction is that with the right amount of talent and storytelling skills, any person could finish a novel; whether you’re rich or poor, educated or uneducated, old or young, it really doesn’t matter. With video, your background and financial situation have a profound difference on how you make a film. People with lots of money can produce lots of special effects and possibly even professional actors. No matter what one thinks, a film with a million dollar budget is likely to be more interesting and watchable than one made for 10,000 dollars. That’s a fact of life. (It doesn’t mean that big budget films can’t be duds or that low budget films can’t be brilliant).

Finally, video intrigues us because its main character is the external world. One documentary filmmaker mentioned last week that a cable channel for HDTV pays for 5 minutes of nature footage from unusual places (the channel is called “Windows.”). It seems like an idiotic idea–why would anyone watch that?–but to have your bigscreen TV open up new vistas to a world of viewers is a tempting thought. Indeed, the very notion of pornography–that intimate acts normally never seen can now be recorded and reproduced –is a byproduct of our fascination with video renditions of reality. Video is really a series of artifices (just as any other genres), but it is nice to imagine that this clip–this series of clips–comes close to approximating the life we are never able to experience.