MATT HANSON: From onedotzero to Open Source filmmaking in A Swarm of Angels
We were moaning about bank bureaucracy in the flat the other night when I started to fantasise about an Open Source bank. As Open Source software - which supposedly backbones some 80% of all websites - goes from strength to strength, more people are looking at how to apply the methodology - whereby people are united to create the best product, as opposed to growing rich - to the real world.
"The way print was reinvented with desktop design packages like Quark, film was ripe for the same thing to happen."
One person exploring this area in relation to film is Matt Hanson, famous for founding the trailblazing onedotzero festival, and who ever since has been exploring cinema's post-web where-next with works such as The End of Celluloid.
"The Internet allows you to create a large enough group of people who share niche tastes, to create media specifically suited to them and you. Paradoxically by including similar-minded people in his/her creative process the filmmaker can have more control and authorship over their vision."
Like Elephants Dream, A Swarm of Angels is an attempt to bridge the top down auteur-driven world of cinema with the bottom-up networked world of open source and the Internet, creating a fully financed feature film to be released under a Creative Commons non-commercial license. But if the finished film can be distributed freely upon release - why will anyone bother paying to see the end result? Well instead, people pay to be part of the process of creation. £25 gets you membership of the Swarm, and you can start voting on scripts, posters and production, while discussing decisions and direction directly with Matt himself. It's no small task, and Hanson seeks 50,000 angels / £1m to make the project, which he will write and direct, a reality, with just under 1000 signed up to date. That said, given the high production values shooters can produce on no budget when working together, open source stylee, one cam imagine something substantial being created with a tenth that many people.
Anyway, when Matt got in touch following the Torrents and Piracy article, I had to find out more...
You're well known for having founded onedotzero. Can you give an oultine of what you were doing before then?
I became a film critic while I was studying at Kings College, London. It was during the early nineties which was a super-vibrant time in US Indie filmmaking. When I left University I continued writing; I interviewed directors like Gus Van Sant, Tarantino, Atom Egoyan, Wong Kar-Wai, and John Turturro for magazines like The Face, and Dazed & Confused where I was the first Contributing Editor.
I was looking for a way to combine my interests in design and the emergence of the Internet with my passion for film. I persuaded the London Film Festival that I should do their first website, which I handcoded with a friend. I'm still waiting for them to pay me for the domain name...
And what led to its creation?
I didn't think there was enough innovation in feature filmmaking.
Desktop digital filmmaking was just starting to emerge--although very much in it's infancy--and I felt this was a whole new arena to experiment in and make a mark. I thought an event would be the best way to promote, explore, and be a part of a new 'digital filmmaking' scene looking at new forms of moving image. A good way to use the critical skills from my writing in a more curatorial sense. I wanted to get away from narrative formulae and it seemed to me film hadn't moved on visually to embrace the new possibilities opening up. The way print was reinvented with the desktop design packages like Quark, film was ripe for the same thing to happen.
onedotzero helped accelerate the invention and legitimise the area of modern motion graphics. I sought to nurture talents in the area. When I started organising the event I realised there wasn't enough work out there with the sensibility I was after -- things like Chris Cunningham's first video, and a few things tomato had done. So it was a natural extension to start commissioning and producing new work. In the early days amazing studios like Miles Murray Sorrell Fuel, and Antirom. I realised it could turn into something bigger so I got more people involved.
The festival seemed to champion a coming together of graphic design and film. How have things changed since it was founded?
The tools have developed. Now people are more open to new video and moving image forms and how they can interrelate and merge with traditional filmmaking. In the early festival editions onedotzero was at the vanguard of pushing this stuff to audiences, nationally and internationally. It was very successful at this, and the climate changed to accept these things. Other media arts festivals emerged, and film festivals started embracing more of the filmmaking spectrum from music video, computer gaming, and the like. Events like Mirrorball at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Exploding Cinema at the Rotterdam Int'l Film Festival. At that point, and after spinning off some of the videos to make two series of onedottv with Channel 4, I thought the argument had been won and it was time to move on.
Most of the work seems to be short - which artists / filmmakers would you say have successfully crossed over into features?
I was one of the first people to put the work of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Jonathan Glazer on the cinema screen, way before they had set their sights on longform work. I'm quite proud of that. Only a few people knew who these guys were at the time. Other directors, like Mike Mills who has a definite graphic sensibility, have yet to find their feet in that domain. I didn't think Thumbsucker was as good as his stellar short form films. Richard Fenwick has just sent me his latest short, The Box. He's a 'graphic filmmaker' I've strongly supported, and is firmly set on breaking into features. I think his work in the area is particular exciting if he doesn't change it too much to accommodate getting 'greenlit'.
The question is unfairly weighted because it assumes all these artists/filmmakers have a feature film as their ultimate ambition. I think the status of feature films has been eroded by emerging media somewhat. I'm personally interested in innovating in moving image in all its forms. I like the way Terry Gilliam, Wong Kar-Wai and especially Peter Greenaway, have embraced formats outside the strictures of feature film. Other filmmakers are starting to get that. Peter Jackson has recently started to focus on videogaming.
What does web 2.0 mean to you?
Internet enabling conversation from consumer to consumer, creator to consumer and vice versa: social networks, collaboration, open and responsive content. In a kind of tongue-in-cheek way I've labelled my latest project Cinema 2.0 because it is a more open, collaborative, (and as you would expect) digitally-focussed endeavour.
What was the inspiration behind Swarm of Angels?
I've written in-depth about the future possibilities of filmmaking in my book, The End of Celluloid: film futures in the digital age. The combination of these book ideas--many of which grew out of the kernel of the onedotzero concepts I had such as the 'film studio in your flat' idea-- and the social platform and community capabilities now possible on the Internet, coalesced into the idea for A Swarm of Angels. I'd been playing around with releasing video material via peer-to-peer networks, and using darknets and IRC channels to promote and seed it to see what would happen, and decided putting all these ideas together in a more understandable form would work better.
What are your main goals?
Now, in particular, I'd like to push feature film form forward because of its iconic status. There's a great quote I use in The End of Celluloid from William Gibson: "Digital video strikes me as a new platform wrapped in the language and mythology of an old platform. Lamb dressed as mutton, somewhat in the way we think of our cellular systems as adjuncts of copper-wire telephony. The way we still ‘dial' on touchpads. We call movies 'film,' but the celluloid's drying up."
Essentially A Swarm of Angels is an idea I've been circling around for a while to direct a film that starts to eject the assumptions of the old platform. For example, many directors focus on wanting their work to be distributed on the big screen. To me that's an old mindset, based on an outdated hierarchy of the screen. Yes I'd like it to be projected on a great swathe of cinema screen, but also on a video ipod, and a computer monitor.
Where is the project at now?
We less than a couple of hundred away from filling the 1000 members of the development community who can input on the initial script and project phases. Two initial script drafts are being written by me with feedback from members. In the next phase they are opened up so Angels can make edits (which I approve and filter). Finally all of the Swarm get to vote on which script to move forward into production.
Currently we've been recruiting solely via the Internet and blogs, and I've been refusing to do any offline media. The project's mindset is pretty way ahead of the mainstream at the moment so it is natural and more effective to get input from people who have the right digital mindset. For a revolution to start it first needs it's fanatics!
How involved can a swarm member get in the creative process?
Angels don't have to be involved at all, but if they have the right skills and enthusiasm they can become part of the main crew. I've already got a New Yorker involved who suggested the idea of a 'distributed user-generated documentary' on the project. She's going to head that up. So suggestions from members can be incorporated into the process. In the simplest sense members get to post on the project forum (non-members can't do this) and I take on board their feedback. If I think it's valuable and appropriate it heavily influences the project.
How is the swarm structured: how are decisions made and is the process democratic?
This is totally new, so we are evolving it as we go along. I wouldn't call the process democratic, but it is collaborative. I have overall control, much more than I would in a traditional project by a first time feature director. But in the same instance members get unprecedented access to the creative process of feature filmmaking, and the chance to influence and shape the film. That can be through direct contribution of skills and materials. Or it can be through voting -- we have series of polls on creative and production decisions. For example a member vote recently chose the version of the film project poster we are to use.
How do you apply the 'hive mind' to a medium which has often been auteur driven?
Hive mind implies a kind of conformity, a uniformity of vision, so I don't like the term compared to the idea of the 'wisdom of crowds', which is more about a diverse collection of independently-thinking individuals. I could argue you get a 'hive mind' in Hollywood cinema, or 'Euro co-productions', or US indies... there is a certain view held by organisations and individuals who can fund and distribute those productions as to what is commercially acceptable and artistically viable for them to produce.
The idea of my 'swarming angels' model is actually that we are not beholden to this spectrum of artistic taste and commercial payback. The eventual size of the Swarm -- 50,000 -- is a global niche audience that means I'm able to make something far more distinctive because I essentially only have to make them and myself happy. If someone else likes it that is a bonus, but I am free from commercial bonds. The members act as an echo chamber and feedback loop, so the film evolves into something that is more inclined to our cultural tastes. Forum postings on books, soundtracks, and movies we like suggest we are already self-selecting particular 'cult' tastes.
Do you think the idea of auteurship in cinema outdated?
On the contrary I think it can regain ground with digital tech as the enabling force. The Internet allows you to create a large enough group of people who share niche tastes, to create media specifically suited to them and you. Paradoxically by including similar-minded people in his/her creative process the filmmaker can have more control and authorship over their vision. I'm essentially trying to invent a new relationship between filmmaker and audience. But it needs a landmark project of this size to work, and for people to support it, to show that there's a viable alternative filmmaking model to the current ones.
Any clues on the story yet?
We started gaining members without any scripts, based on the strength of the concept. Now we have two definite script ideas that I'm getting some very high quality feedback and perceptive, tough!, questioning on.
This is the description for The Unfold:
A disaffected Musician receives a phone call from his Mother, who everyone believed died five years ago, triggering a search to rescue her inside 'The Fold'. It's turning into a kind of trans-dimensional sci-fi thriller.
This is the description for Glitch:
In a world of the wireless, the powerless, and the loveless, three strangers all make a connection that sets their worlds spiralling out of control. A trio of interweaving stories, both sinister and mysterious, about finding love through technology.
Do you think this ongoing dialogue with the swarm will help you better understand the ultimate audience for the film?
Ultimately they are the audience. At the same time they are the tip of that particular iceberg of people who share similar cultural tastes. This type of participative cinema means the Swarm develops into an ongoing focus group, and generator of ideas.
Why should someone pay £25 - what do they get?
Access to exclusive media including video, audio, podcasts, and limited edition merchandise including a member-only DVD. An Angel also gets editorial access to the process through member-only forums, and being able to post and communicate with the filmmakers, and vote on key creative and marketing decisions.
Most of all, this is a chance to be part of a revolutionary filmmaking experiment.
Why a million?
£1 million is a decent enough budget to make a debut feature film. It's an ambitious figure, but not unattainable. By using an all-digital process I figure we'll get the production values of a normal $3-4 million feature.
Will the swarm have a say in how that money is spent. ie by collectively finding ways to bring the budget down or save money?
Yes, the budget for the feature will be open and members get a chance to feedback on it and query stuff. At the same time this isn't a project for accountants, this is an entertainment project. An amazing thing about this process as we pick up members is that because they are given the freedom to become part of it, they want to offer services and skills. I've already had offers of post-production equipment, software, recording and mixing decks, etc. We'll be able to leverage the expertise of members as we go along. And this is the way the community starts to forge itself.
If you don't hit the target what will you do?
Depending on what stage we are at, I will gather options with my advisors and partners. These will then be available to vote on by members. At the moment though we are being optimistic based on how things have been going so far and focusing on what to do with any excess profits generated by the project. The Swarm voted that they should be rolled into the next bigger project...
It's Creative Commons licensed - what was the thinking behind that?
I've been involved in producing VJ and remix cinema projects. I like the idea of sampling other work, and doing it legitimately. So this is a digital community project as I want to give something back to the community by opening it up for free sharing and non-commercial use, as well as commercial sampling.
There's a huge opportunity in more open content that Hollywood and the music industry haven't realised or been able to move toward because their business models are predicated on something else.
As consumers we are all becoming used to creating our own media, and viewing it how we want. As such personally I don't want to cripple my media with bad DRM and punish viewers/users of my material. A Swarm of Angels has Cory Doctorow as an advisor who is a far more eloquent expert on the issues of copyright, open content, and opponent of DRM than myself. You should check out his arguments against it.
Do you worry about piracy?
I understand artists and creators should be paid for their content. Copyright was invented to protect those rights, but it has shifted dramatically to become a protection for commercial exploitation by companies. Often this actually harms the rights of artists now. So the idea of piracy has changed, and there is not a sensible debate on this because of the vast lobbying power of current commercial interests.
I'm not advocating piracy, but I am saying that artists can create viable business models which allow much more freedom and open access to their content, so more people can enjoy it. After all I think most filmmakers are more interested in communicating with their audience, rather than milking them dry of their cash.
Would you be happy if people around the world remade the finished film in local languages and settings, say using your CC script / art concepts?
I did envision the idea of the final film being remixed, reedited and rescored to become completely different -- and this is one of the ideas I would like to see. Members have already offered their services to translate and transfer the film into local languages. I hadn't thought of a total remake of the film, it's something I'd generally be happy about. If it was a purely commercial translation than that's another discussion.
What do you think a web based collaborative project needs to succeed? Coldcut's Now movie (www.nowthemovie.org) looked very promising but seems to have gone a bit quiet
That is a very different project -- in essence it is a mass 'user-generated content' model to create a montage film; pretty much a digital-age koyaanisqatsi as I see it. Now the Movie is asking users to create the film with a very open, non-specific brief. Hard to latch onto. It's a big leap for someone to make content for a film when they don't exactly know what it is about.
That's the difference between an emergent creative idea like Now, and A Swarm of Angels, which is based on my very specific overall vision where you can participate along the way (and crucially you don't have to make anything!).
A Swarm of Angels is asking people to subscribe to a participative filmmaking experience and help support it; first through money from subscription; second, through voting feedback; and third, through contributing relevant skills or expertise.
What are the advantages of an open source model for filmmaking?
Making truly digital-age cinema opens up the possibility of more artistic diversity, experimentation and risk-taking. More of what people want without it being lowest common denominator.
Tapping into the strength and vitality of a community centred around this creative process.
Utilizing the expertise and local knowledge of members to come up with more exciting creative possibilities.
Do you think the film industry could be facing a 'linuxisation?'
Possibly, it takes a large enough group of committed individuals working in harmony to render the first working 'operating system' to show that an alternate entertainment eco-system can exist. A Swarm of Angels can do that with enough people subscribing.
As producers start to communicate directly with consumers, are we witnessing the fall of media empires, or just the birth of new ones?
New media doesn't replace old media. It just adds another layer, and makes you appreciate the nuances of the media that have gone before. The new interactions possible between 'consumers' and 'creators' through digital media provide an amazing opportunity and playground for innovation.
How do you see things five years from now?
I see the digital arts rapidly coming of age. The toolsets have matured, the creators know what is possible, have started extending the boundaries, and while not mainstreaming quite yet, these new media forms are becoming part of the critical and cultural language. Everything will become mutable. If you want to shape it you can. A Swarm of Angels is already the start of that for many.
You can become one of the final members of the development community at www.aswarmofangels.com.