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People in Film: Frank Rose (Part 1)

Sep 18, 2012

Frank Rose is a writer and speaker on the impact of technology on entertainment, advertising, and society. In his words, he’s a digital anthropologist. He’s also the author of ‘The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories’ and a longtime contributing editor at Wired magazine.

As we explore the effect of digital technology on film, here is the first of a two-part interview with the New York-based expert.

DFI: What’s your book about and why should filmmakers read it?
Rose: The Art of Immersion is about how the internet is changing storytelling. Every new medium – television, film, print – began by imitating what preceded it. Early TV shows were little more than radio with pictures. The first movies were shot as if they were a stage production, with a stationary camera where the audience would be. And it was a couple hundred years after the invention of the printing press before you had novels. Fictional accounts involving more-or-less ordinary people – not kings, not heroes, not gods – were an entirely new form of storytelling. That’s why they’re called novels.

It was 25 years after the invention of the motion picture camera before movies routinely employed all the devices we now take for granted – cuts, pans, fades, point-of-view shots. These constitute the grammar of cinema, and they had to be invented one-by-one because before you had movie cameras, there was no way even to imagine such a thing. That’s how it is with the internet. Two decades after the birth of the web, we’re only now beginning to understand how digital storytelling should work.

DFI: So how is the digital generation remaking Hollywood?
Rose: Let me start with a tiny example. A couple of years ago I met a young guy who was working as an assistant in a Hollywood production company. He’d just gotten a film degree from USC, and he emailed me his thesis – which was totally conventional except that the introduction was in video. To him, mixing video with type was just a natural thing to do. That’s because the internet is the first medium that subsumes all media. It can be type or audio or video or graphics or anything you like. And it can be all of them at once. Today we have movie directors, television producers, game developers, and so forth. But I think the days when people think of working in a single medium are numbered.

DFI: How is world cinema affected?
Rose: If anything I think it will have an effect on world cinema even sooner than in Hollywood, because movie studios are huge institutions that are closely wedded to the way they’ve always done things. There have been incremental changes, of course, such as videocassette recorders creating the home video industry. But look what happened there – the studios filed suit against the consumer electronics manufacturers claiming that the VCR encouraged piracy, and it took a US Supreme Court decision to overrule them. What happened next is that home video eclipsed the box office as the leading source of film revenues. Hollywood is too fixated on piracy to re-imagine the future. It’s easy for studio executives to see what they have to lose. It takes a lot more vision for them to see what they have to gain.
It’s not that way across the board. There are certainly people in Hollywood who are eager to take advantage of what internet technologies have to offer – James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro, for example. But for the most part they are writers, directors and producers – people on the creative side, not on the corporate side.

On the whole I think indie filmmakers are much less invested in the status quo than Hollywood is. I was on the jury of the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund this year, and we saw some fascinating proposals from documentary filmmakers in the US, in Europe, in the Middle East – people who wanted to rethink what a movie could be.

DFI: You seem quite positive on the internet’s impact on film. Why? Are there any negative impacts?
Rose: In general I’m positive, because I see a lot of promise – how often do you get to reinvent a medium? But I don’t think the change is going to be easy. Digital technologies have radically lowered the barriers to movie-making – both the economic barriers and the technical skills required – but they’re also undermining the economic basis of the media industry, and obviously that’s not going to make for a smooth transition. I’m firmly of the belief that if people really want something, a way will be found to make it pay, to make it economically viable. But it’s not always obvious how that will happen.

Read Part Two of our interview with Frank Rose here.

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