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Digital Cinema Gets "Aggressively Boring" at Beamfest

French filmmaker Chris Marker once defined cinema as "something you look up to." Moviegoers literally look up to the screen from their vantage point in the stalls of the theater, and audiences "look up" to films — great films, at least — with a sense of wonder or even reverence. If television, and then, streaming video on the Web are a step down from this lofty aesthetic, the next evolution of visual entertainment – PDA cinema — shrinks the silver screen even smaller.

On June 20, conference delegates at Streaming Media West’s Beamfest – a showcase for PDA (personal digital assistant) video and animation content — were looking down, not up, as they zapped short films to each other from the infrared ports of their Palm Pilots, Handspring Visors and assorted PocketPC devices.

The showcased films included the Final Fantasy trailer, animated shorts from entertainment destination Platinumstudios, and a series of shorts conceived specifically for the PDA from The Aggressively Boring Film Festival (available for download at newvenue.com/takeout).

In a panel discussion preceding Beamfest, animator and panel host Bob Cesca questioned the value of reformatting his work for yet another medium. "I already encode my shows for Real, Windows and Quicktime, and encoding it for PDAs means even more work," he said.

But Peter Hoddie, chief executive officer of Generic Media, said that the company’s transcoding tools would answer the reformatting question, and that content creators would benefit from an additional distribution channel for their work. "I’m guessing that the reason you make content," he replied to Cesca, " is because you want people to watch it." Hoddie urged filmmakers to embrace the new platform. "You can either sit back and wait to see what happens to the technology, or you can get involved now and see what’s possible creatively," he said.

Adapting to a New Form Factor

The Aggressively Boring festival was the result of a Generic Media (www.genericmedia.com) partnership with Newvenue founder Jason Wishnow, to display the capabilities of Generic’s G-movie player. At Streaming Media West, Generic also announced a relationship with PacketVideo, which will enable content creators to stream video to PacketVideo-enabled MPEG-4 mobile devices.

Wishnow suggested that the novelty factor of the PDA as an entertainment platform might make it appealing to consumers. "You can have the Final Fantasy trailer on your Palm and be the coolest kid on the block," he said.

But Wishnow also commented that the directors who achieved the most effective results in the Agressively Boring series were those who acknowledged the technical constraints of the platform and worked within them, rather than squeezing a Web or film project into the smaller medium of the PDA. Film directors working online have now become familiar with the need to adapt their creative visions according to the technical constraints of the Web, and content creators could evolve another set of guidelines for PDAs, Wishnow said.

Echoing the first creative experiments with Web video, many of the short films in Wishnow’s series allude to the genesis of cinema – a fact highlighted by one of the Aggressively Boring filmmakers in his billing at the Newvenue site. "In the history of cinema for any medium," runs the text for Marc Ostrick’s Don’t Lose It, "there must always be a film that begins with a close-up of an eyeball." (The declaration refers to a famous sequence from Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 collaboration between Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali).

Wishnow admits a 1940s influence in his own film, The Look At Me Stop Looking at Me Movie – one of the first films ever made for the Palm – while Brad Bruce, director of Matchbook Movies, describes his work as "tiny movies that will take you places, like the kinetoscope travel films from the turn of the century."

Other works are almost child-like in the simplicity of their subjects. Newvenue bills Mike Grant’s Goat Boy as "the story of a goat and his boy;" and Dan’l Linchan’s Fat Man is described as "an animation about a man who is fat." The first films in cinematic history by the Lumiere brothers over a century ago (The Sea and A Train Arrives in A Station) were similarly straightforward experiments in kinetic representation.

While harking back to cinema’s antiquity, PDA movies also introduce a dimension of the digital film experience which is entirely novel. Wishnow commented that the act of beaming a movie to another person’s PDA is a personal encounter that makes PDA movies more intimate than Web videos. "There’s a commitment involved," he said. "Accepting a film from another person can use up a lot of memory on your device." Wishnow also jokingly described the act of beaming as a "one-on-one viral experience."

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