Innovation and new technology have always been at the forefront of cinema and photography. Humankind’s insatiable appetite for the new has led to poorly executed gimmicks, such as smell-o-vision, as well as leading towards great advances of the medium, such as talkies — the first use of synchronized sound in films. It is a wonderful thing when an artist finds or creates the perfect medium for telling a story.
In 2015 there seems to be nothing new under the sun. The best films of the past year were shot using extraordinary techniques, including Birdman, which won Best Film and Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards this year. The entire 113-minute film appears to have been shot in one take thanks to the seamless editing and skilful camera handling of Steadicam-operator Chris Haarhoff. The look of the film is remarkable and dreamlike, but it is not new. Thirteen years earlier, Russian Ark was shot in one take, incorporating over 2000 extras and three orchestras.
Another of the most-talked-about films of the last year was lauded for its innovative technique; Boyhood is a great film, but the 12-year shooting schedule pales in comparison to the 49 years (and counting) of the incredible Up documentary series, which has visited a group of English individuals every seven years since 1964.
The 3D revolution, which was spearheaded by Avatar, seems to have fizzled out — but it’ll be back. In 1922 audiences flocked to see The Power of Love, which ushered in dozens of 3D films. And then 1953 Bwana Devil was the start of a raft of colour 3D films, which were enormously successful until audiences got bored of them by the time Alfred Hitchcock released Dial M for Murder in 3D just a year later. It’s a pretty sure thing that in 20 years we’ll all be heading back to the cinema to see the next generation of 3D films, looking at 3D fashion shoots in magazines, and thinking about getting a 3D TV.
The big news in video technology right now is 360-degree video. I know of several local production companies which are working on seamless systems for 360-degree film-making. Just imagine the possibilities. David Attenborough has already announced virtual-reality nature documentaries, and the big players in technology are throwing their weight behind 360 too. YouTube has just integrated the ability to upload and view 360-degree video content. Last year Facebook purchased a virtual reality goggle development company, Oculus Rift, for $2 billion. With a reported three billion videos being watched on Facebook each day, it is understandable why the company has a keen interest. Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, recently said, “You realize, when you’re in it, that you are looking at the future, and it’s going to be awesome.” Samsung has just released its virtual-reality headset, and Sony and Microsoft have hardware coming soon. Easy-to-use 360 cameras are emerging too. Ricoh’s Theta camera has two fisheye lenses, each facing in a different direction, and with the footage being digital it’s stitched in real time to create a full 360 result. The 360fly looks like a futuristic black golfball, and has one ultra fisheye lens pointing up. It is being targeted at the GoPro market of extreme-sports enthusiasts.
Three-sixty cameras are not just for immersive, goggle-wearing, or tablet-swinging viewing. Film-makers can view the immersive video and select the angles of view they’d like to export — effectively shooting now and composing later. This brings up another debate, if a photographer or camera operator doesn’t need to focus or compose a shot, what are they doing? That is reminiscent of the debate regarding the Lytro light field cameras, which allow users to select the point of focus and depth of field after the image has been made. It’s an interesting discussion, but not a new one — skilled photographers and film-makers will always be essential.
So, everything has been done and everything is new. It can sometimes feel like a chore just keeping up with the latest thing. Whether you are shooting with a ringflash, on infrared film, with a drone or a tilt-shift lens, the question to ask yourself is, “Is this a fun gimmick or an effective tool for communication?” The reason Birdman is a great film is the same reason that Don Quixote was a great book when it came out in 1605 — it is a brilliant story, with a relatable protagonist, told in an interesting way.