School of English Drama and Film, UCD
Much of the writing on contemporary cinema has grappled with the significance of the medium in an era of radical technological change. The question posed by the title of Andre Bazin’s famous collection of essays has never seemed so apposite; namely, in an era defined by media convergence and the radical transformation of means of delivery, what is cinema? Is any attempt to police the borders of cinematic specificity merely an anachronism, the rearguard action of aging cinephiles and anxious academics railing against the erasure of boundaries which increasingly characterises media production and consumption? Do new media platforms imply new forms of content, and if so what relationship might these have to the traditional narrative fictions still found at the Cineplex? Is the distinction between the DIY production of online digital mash-ups and professionally produced films designed for 35mm projection one of kind or merely one of degree? Finally, and most pertinently for this article, how does the brave new world of online delivery impact upon the role of government subsidised film funding bodies, whose raison d’être has traditionally been to produce work capable of achieving a cinematic release?
The occasion for these musings is a review of the Irish Film Board’s Virtual Cinema funding scheme, the output for which from 2010 is now available for viewing online [http://www.irishfilmboard.ie/funding_programmes/Virtual_Cinema/75]. The description of the scheme on the Film Board website is as follows:
Virtual Cinema is a new scheme for the making of high-quality short films that are suited to the new forms of digital video consumption…The scheme aims to encourage exploration of fresh filmmaking ground, with no creative holds barred. We are looking for creative ideas which will exploit interesting, new and traditional filmmaking techniques but can hold the attention of the YouTube audience.
The funding provided for each film is set to a maximum of €2,000 and the duration of the films is to be no more than two minutes (although this is not always strictly adhered to in the films produced). The shorts can be originated on any digital format and must be delivered on a format suitable for digital distribution. The aim seems to be to break beyond traditional definitions of cinema and to tap into the creative potential of those working within an online platform, even those who would not self-identify as filmmakers in any traditional sense.
In a discussion with Fran Keaveney, the Film Board executive with responsibility for short film schemes, she asserted that the films were specifically not intended to be for cinematic exhibition due to their technical specifications. However, at the request of the filmmakers, the films have been screened each year at the Darklight Film Festival in Dublin. This short anecdote perhaps illustrates some of the tensions around the relationship between the cinematic institution as traditionally constituted and new media forms. For Keaveney, the ability to attract numerous hits to an online short is nowadays, she says, as much an indicator of filmmaking ability as film festival awards or other traditional markers of prestige. Indeed, the number of viewer hits achieved is clearly the defining measure of worth for most producers of online media. However, the fact that the scheme was funded by the Irish Film Board seems to position the Virtual Cinema productions within a more traditionally cinematic institutional framework, despite the intentions of the funders themselves. Indeed, Keaveney noted that there was a strong crossover between the personnel who applied for funding under the Virtual Cinema scheme and those who applied for other short film schemes supported by the Film Board. For these filmmakers, it seems, a presence on the cinema screen remains the ultimate indication of success.
Theorists such as Thomas Elsaesser and Lev Manovich have addressed the nature of cinema in the digital age in their attempts to answer the questions with which this article opened. They have discerned the impact of technology in film’s changing relationship to narrative and the reconstituted relationship between the image and the real. Digital technology, by its very nature, challenges the boundaries through which we orientate ourselves to cinema and to the world. Previously inviolable distinctions such as animation/live action and imaginary/real have blurred to the point that they become indistinct. This blurring of boundaries is replicated at the level of access, as the ease of publishing video online has enabled home produced films to compete for online audiences with professional fare. However, whilst the Internet is predicated upon the concept of open access and content which can be freely navigated by the end-user, funding institutions such as the Film Board act as gate keepers who reduce access to end-users but ensure a guaranteed level of quality. Attempts to exploit online delivery such as the Virtual Cinema scheme thus entail a clash of paradigms at the level of production and distribution. The question remains as to whether the films produced remain within the aesthetics of traditional cinema or whether they have exploited the aesthetic possibilities of the digital age.
Of the nine films produced under the 2010 scheme, one could be classified as animation whilst a further three involve a combination of animation and live action footage.Daylight Saving Time (Jason Butler) uses the Trace Bitmap function in Flash to give an animated effect to its footage, in the manner of Sin City (Robert Rodriguez 2005), whilstSigns (Vincent Gallagher) also uses Flash to animate its charming tale of road-safety signs which come to life. The latter film was nominated in the ‘Best Use of Film or Animation’ category at the 2011 Digital Media Awards. Interestingly, the winning entry in this category was a piece of promotional material produced by the company Design Partners for a series of gaming products. The fact that a Film Board short was competing with a piece of commercially produced promotional material illustrates the need for film critics and academics to revisit our traditional means of categorising audio-visual output. On the other hand, many of the films produced under the Virtual Cinema scheme seem to quite comfortably belong within the traditional cinematic understanding of what constitutes a short film. They are narrative driven and frequently utilise a set-up and payoff structure, usually to comic effect. One of the most successful shorts produced under the scheme is the 2008 film The Perils of Internet Dating (Simon Eustace), which depicts a series of catastrophic blind dates and builds stylishly to its final comic twist. The piece is undoubtedly a success as a short film, but the question remains as to how it differs from the films which would be funded by other Film Board schemes.
The Virtual Cinema scheme is an innovative attempt by the Irish Film Board to respond to the changing landscape of cinema in the digital age. It has encouraged filmmakers to exploit the availability and affordability of digital technology and acknowledged the increasing importance of the Internet as a delivery platform. However, at the time of writing the scheme is not scheduled to run for 2011, a fact which seems to acknowledge that it has not entirely achieved its aims. Indeed Fran Keaveney, the originator of the scheme, suggests that the Board would like to continue to run it in some guise which encourages filmmakers to boldly engage with the possibilities of digital film production. Whilst the films produced under the scheme thus far are varied in tone, theme and mode of production, for the large part they remain within the paradigm of short narrative fiction. It is uncertain how they might respond to the aesthetic and formal possibilities of Internet exhibition, which replaces the linear with the viral as the defining mode of engagement, but what is clear from the very existence of this scheme is that the changing nature of cinema is something which must be grappled with by filmmakers and commentators alike.