Gerbil in a microwave

The edgiest indie "films" are being created and distributed online.

In the dark and dense forest of The Blair Witch Project—not the movie itself, but in the hype surrounding its Net-heavy publicity blitz—it's easy to forget that there are filmmaking tactics a lot more "indie" than using handheld cameras and writing a compelling script. You could, for instance, draw a gerbil in a microwave.

As omniscient auteur, it's your prerogative to destine your gerbil to go the way of all microwaved rodentia. The masses will adore you: AtomFilms, one of Seattle' growing flock of Net-based "film" (film?) companies, says that Micro-Gerbil 2001 is one of their most popular titles. After that, you might produce a 30-second movie, or invent a new kind of scene-transition effect, or break a traditional documentary script into sections and film each in a different style.

Such is online cinema, where would-be Welleses and Kubricks (and the occasional Spielberg-in-waiting) are so close to serious money their credit-card companies can almost taste it. Four years ago a nation of art school graduates looked at the Web and saw an avenue out of the would-you-like-fries-with-that ghetto; this time it's the film school crowd's turn.

Matt Hulett summed four years of hard-earned Web-business acumen earlier this month at WebFlicks, 911 Media Arts' recent Web-cinema showcase night, noting that sites relying strictly on banner ads to make their money are probably screwed. The Pioneer Square-based AtomFilms, of which Hulett is chief marketing officer, steps lively where other sources of funding are involved; they currently have deals with HBO/Cinemax, Sundance Channel, Continental Airlines, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Warner Bros. Online, @home, and a bunch of other places that don't usually come up in articles featuring exploding gerbils. Neither does RealNetworks, Hulett's previous home, though it was RealPlayer's Spike Lee-directed launch showcase that got Hulett excited about online video.

AtomFilms.com is a great place to blow an afternoon. At the moment they host over 100 films free for the viewing, ranging from surreal thrillers (Grey) to animated comedy (the Oscar-nominated Canhead) to, well, Micro-Gerbil. Some of the films are created specifically for the Net; others find their way here after doing the rounds of European cinemas, cross-country flights, and other short subject-friendly locales. They're strictly shorts, with no film clocking in at over 38 minutes—though feature-length films are available online, watching them is no one's idea of a good time. And so AtomFilms has both its niche and its work cut out for it; it aims to be, as Hulett puts it, the Miramax-style short subject distribution hub of the Net.

MountainZone.com, on the other hand, doesn't aim to be Miramax; it would probably interfere with their climb time. MountainZone, just up the way on Western Avenue and also at Webflicks, aims to cover mountain sports better than anyone in the world, and that includes video reportage. In May they had exclusive coverage of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, a (successful) trek up Everest to discover the fate of that 1924 attempt on the summit. During that climb MountainZone saw over one million page views per day.

Ray Taylor, a multimedia producer for MountainZone, used four strikingly different documentary styles for his four Mallory films. His skills are, by necessity, all over the map; working in QuickTime as well as streaming video and audio formats, he's also shooting the video and in some cases writing the music. You've got to work with what you've got in this racket—he succinctly describes his job as "making videos out of slop."

JoeCartoon, on the other hand, makes his movies out of even less: a few stray pixels and a warped sense of humor. The creator of the infamous Micro-Gerbil is perhaps the only filmmaker in the world to ever raise the ire of an antivirus company: Last year Symantec's Asia Pacific division cautioned about the spread of his Frog in a Blender via email ("the programs are not malicious, although they display graphic images that may be unsettling to some"). It ain't Siskel, it ain't Ebert, but it ain't hay either.

JoeCartoon—of course it's not his real name, and presumably his Webmaster isn't legally named "Russ the Barbarian"—sticks with the interaction-friendly Flash format, which he picked up after starting his Web site (www.joecartoon.com) to showcase his cartoons and T-shirt designs. He's got a signed deal with AtomFilms for eight more movies, none of which will be, say, Cat in a Dryer: "I get requests, but I don't give the people what they want—I give 'em what they need."

And how, pray tell, does this sit with the traditional film folk—the ones still using actual film? Usenet is alive with the sound of digital-video advocates bickering with film traditionalists, with video folk waving the democracy-of-access flag, film folk winning the technical elegance battle, and both sides claiming high ground in the artistic vision war.

San Francisco-based iFilm.net affords a good view of the crossfire. A comprehensive site handling films of nearly every genre and type, iFilm carries news, columns, discussion groups, auctions, portal-type relationships with Film Threat and indiewire.com, and pretty much everything else an aspiring filmmaker could want in a portal-type site. It's all very slick, but a recent editorial from Maxie Collier, editor of weekly site 'zine IFILM IT, hints at the tension between the camps. Calling for d鴥nte in the debate about image quality and accessibility of the medium, Collier says folks should allow things to take their natural course: "Some of us will find an audience, some will not. And ultimately, true talent will stand out from the competition." With a gerbil. In a microwave.

 
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