Two free open-source movies

This week I finally learned how to use Bit Torrent, and I downloaded two free-licensed open-source movies: Elephants Dream by the Orange Project and The Boy Who Never Slept by Solomon Rothmon (who is credited as Producer, Writer, Director, and who plays the title role). Both are interesting as first ventures into free-licensed open-source filmmaking, but the contrasts are more striking than the similarities, both technically and aesthetically.

The Boy Who Never Slept

I think you should realize that as an early venture into FLOS filmmaking, I really wanted to like this film. So when I say “It sucked”, I really, really mean it!

In almost every aesthetic way, the film was just awful. I really suffered to sit through the whole thing. Right up to the voice over the final credits that notes (quite rightly) that if you didn’t enjoy it, well, at least it was free.

Seriously, though, the mere existence of this film, the fact that I can download and watch it, and the fact that all of the source material is there in case I wanted to try to improve on it, is all amazing stuff. It’s also true that this was shot on a $200 budget, which puts it well below the league of such illustrious filmmakers as Ed Wood (famous for Plan 9 from Outer Space, which is widely regarded as “the worst film ever released”).

Given these kinds of limitations, making comparisons to “real” films is somewhat unfair. It’s almost like criticizing a child’s drawings because they fall short of Leonardo da Vinci. I know this, and I apologize up front. But releasing the film the way Rothman has done implies opening it up to direct and uncompromising criticism, and that’s what I’m going to do. But I want you to know that I feel empathy for the filmmaker and I respect what he’s trying to do by releasing the film in this way.

Certainly, the problems with the film, apart from those directly attributable to the budget, do not stem from the nature of the licensing. Indeed, many bad (probably worse) proprietary films have been made. The miracle is that such an unreviewed, unvetted film could even get onto my hard drive to view. That’s for two reasons here: 1) the nature of free-licensed distribution makes it relatively easy and makes it so I have little to lose by acquiring it and 2) the rarity of such films makes it stand out for novelty value.

The sordid and offensive plot

The film really ought to be called “Portrait of a Pathetic Internet Predator”, since, in the end, it comes off as slightly incoherent advocacy for sexual irresponsibility and sleeping with underage girls. That would be the “offensive” part: the main character, who is presented in a sympathetic light and has all the earmarks of an “author avatar” is a criminal and immoral sex offender. By the end of this film, he belongs in jail. The fact that he is let off the hook strikes me as a miscarriage of justice, and a case of wish-fulfillment for the would-be offender. I seriously hope that, despite various autobiographical overtones, this story is fictional!

Fortunately, the film is so poorly written, directed, filmed, and acted that the apparent intent of the film as an apology for statutory rape is highly diluted.

It claims to be a “Sexy Dramatic Comedy” about “an unlikely love affair”, but it contains neither real drama nor real comedy, being instead a dreary depiction of mediocre and unconvincing characters meeting in an “internet chat room” and having a purely superficial relationship, apparently because the man is a totally irresponsible loser who no adult woman would give the time of day to and the equally irresponsible girl is too young to know any better (and has very lax parents). Technically there is sex, but it’s not very sexy.

The parents do find out in the storyline, which is something of a relief. But only after we’ve already been through the sex and the close call with pregnancy. Daniel breaks through his writers block by writing a film script about the relationship and trying to get it approved. He doesn’t even bother to change the names though, and the script falls into the hands of Melissa’s father. Nevermind the implausibility of this coincidence, the real kicker is that after unmasking this, Daniel shows up and attempts to convince Melissa’s parents that it’s really “true love” and that they shouldn’t prosecute him for his crimes. He’s successful, and the film ends with Daniel in a business suit continuing his IRC relationship with Melissa.

La Nuit Americain ... NOT!

Now we come to the actual filmmaking.

This “film” is actually a video, apparently shot on a consumer CCD digital video camera. Now, if you’ve ever used one of these, you know that the CCD chip has a somewhat limited dynamic range—you can’t film very well in low light. The CCD response gets very slow and noisy, and you get artifacts.

Rothman doesn’t let this faze him, however—he just keeps on filming in the dark. So, I’m going to suggest to all you budding video filmmakers out there that you learn one of the oldest tricks in the book, called “La Nuit Americain” or “Day for Night”. It’s really very simple: you shoot in sufficient light for your camera, then you either stop-down (as in the original technique) or you digitally tone the result (which is likely to be both more effective and easier with digital video). I haven’t actually investigated how to do digital toning on a PC editing system, but I’m sure this is well within the capabilities of CinePaint (a free-licensed GIMP variant designed for film work).

Had he done this, his night and darkened room scenes might have been comprehensible. As it is, however, they involve a lot of vague, possibly-human shapes milling about amidst static and MPEG artifacts.

Post-dubbing would be nice

Much of the original video sound was actually unusable. But Rothman uses it anyway.

When this happens on real movies, they “post-dub” the lines: you either play the original sound into the actor’s earphones or you let them watch the video, and they re-deliver the lines, synchronizing as much as possible with their lips (or the original delivery). It’s sometimes called “mickey-mousing” because it’s how cartoon voices are recorded (ironically, Disney usually does it the other way around, these days in order to capture actors’ ad lib performances better, although post-dubbing is still the prefered technique in Japan).

This would be a relatively easy thing for Rothman to fix if he can find the actors, since it’s post-production work. It wouldn’t be easy for anyone else, though, because they wouldn’t match the actors’ voices. You’d have to dub the entire movie if you wanted to fix this. This is one of many technical reasons why open-source doesn’t work as well for filmmaking as it does in software.

More substantial problems

Aside from these merely technical foibles, however, there are bigger problems. The script is poorly written. There is little characterization, and many character questions remain not only unanswered, but apparently unconsidered: who are Daniel’s parents? What does he do for a living? He can’t possibly be what he claims to be, which is a “writer”, because he obviously can’t write. I find it highly implausible that he can be the kind of person who chats on IRC for entertainment, but prints in a spiral notebook when he wants to write.

I’ve met people like this, but they aren’t writers. They’re people who want to think of themselves as writers because they think it impresses girls. Now if Rothman were to play that angle up, he might’ve had something, but it’s all too obvious that this irony was not intentional.

The directing is better than the writing, but the cinematography is singularly unimaginative. It does manage to communicate the plot, but with no panache, nothing interesting to hold your eye. It might as well be an instructional video. In particular, it is mind-numbingly explicit in detail. Daniel and Melissa have an IRC conversation in essentially realtime, with each line voiced over as the character thinks about it, and then displayed by the cunning film technique of videoing the monitor in an oblique close-up. This would be less painful if the conversation itself held any interest, but it actually manages to be lower content than most randomly-selected IRC conversations between teenagers who have nothing of interest to say to each other. Daniel immediately steers the conversation to sexual issues, and Melissa totally fails to be alarmed by this, giving out her home address and phone number as if that were a perfectly normal thing to do with a stranger online.

I was somewhat relieved that there was no actual “sex scene” in the film, that might’ve been a bit too much to take. It is of course, a resort of some filmmakers to play up the prurient aspects of their film if they can’t actually make the film any good. Rothman thankfully avoids this pitfall.

Melissa is obviously a complete wish-fulfillment character. The story makes no sense from her point of view. Daniel is supposed to woo her with poetry, but it’s pretty unconvincing. And it’s quite hard to understand what she’s getting out of this relationship. Certainly if Daniel really liked her all that much, he ought to be willing to sustain the relationship until she reaches the minimum legal age of consent. You’d think so if this is “true love” as he keeps trying to convince us.

Ah... but it’s open source

Then, there’s the interesting part. This film is open-source (not just free-licensed!), so there is a download of the entire film footage, audio voiceovers, and music that was used in making the film. That means that anything that can be done in the editing and post-production phase can be re-visited by others. I could, if I have so many complaints about the film, fix it.

Several ideas did occur to me. The first was that the cut is extremely loose and boring. Maybe the subject matter could be made interesting just by cutting it down to 10 or 15 minutes of film?

As direct storyline, this script is both unconvincing and pretty creepy. You could turn that on its head by using it ironically. For example, what would this look like if re-cut with an ominous over-dubbed voice talking about the “evils of internet chat rooms”? Done that way, you could go “too far” to the other extreme and wind up with a pretty funny remix, along the lines of “Reckless Youth” skit in Amazon Women on the Moon (Carrie Fisher plays a young woman who falls into “bad company”, in 50’s educational film style with ominous narrator warning about the dangers of “wild parties” and “social diseases”).

It might make a halfway decent music video.

The girl playing Melissa doesn’t actually look 16. We could just snip that detail right out of the story and make Daniel not quite so creepy. Sure the “hard-hitting dialog” with Melissa’s parents at the end would be lost. But it wasn’t any good anyway (As a father myself, I can assure you that Daniel would’ve needed severe reconstructive surgery by about 15 seconds into this scene. He’s just not as charming as he obviously thinks he is—the scene as written is completely unrealistic!).

One of the problems with “fixing” the film, though is that, unlike a textual work such as a program or a book, a live-action films is composed of performances by live actors. As such, the recipient of the work is already at an immediate disadvantage. No matter how good a director I am, I can’t get Rothman to re-do any of his lines. I can’t fix bad writing or bad acting or even most of the directing (the part that happens during production). The kind of thing you can do is more like “sampling” than improvement of the work.

Brilliant production and marketing, though!

For US$200, though, this is a pretty well-done production. There’s a number of different locations. Indoor and outdoor shooting, and some difficult subject matter to shoot (such as the video screens). He had to convince people to act in his film for free.

All of that considered, it doesn’t really look that bad. And there is a very nicely prepared movie “poster”, titles, and a fairly nifty (if slightly ad hoc) website for distribution of the film. Rothman may not be much of a screenwriter or director, but he’s obviously a pretty capable guerrilla producer.

Rothman decided not only to release the film under a Creative Commons By-NC-SA license, but also to release all of the source material under the CC-By license. That makes the work meaningfully open-source, which is the reason I feel so obligated to give it every chance it can remotely deserve.

It’s a shame that the film takes a morally suspect stance and that it is executed with such poor aesthetic values, but then again, Birth of a Nation, the world’s first feature length film was a pretty suspect piece of work too (for those unfamiliar with film history, the film is one of the most racist ever made, as the nation in question is the Confederacy, and the heroes of the film are the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, the film is important because of its technical and artistic (or craft) advances).

Elephants Dream

After watching The Boy Who Never Slept (BWNS), watching Elephants Dream (ED) was a fantastic experience. They are opposite in almost every way but their distribution. Both are free-licensed, open-source films. Elephants Dream, along with all of the files used to create it is released under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-By) license. The only exception is the complete tracks of music which are available under a separate CC-By-NC license.

Elephants Dream, is of course complete 3D animated, using the free software 3D editing and animation application Blender. While BWNS is a classic loner guerrilla film, ED resulted from large-scale internet collaboration (although the actual production staff was pretty small in order to maintain a more intimate creative environment).

While BWNS is arguable too long, ED is too short: a mere 10 minutes in length. Every second of ED counts, because the imagery moves by so quickly. While BWNS is mired in a poorly scripted and far too explicit story, ED’s story is far too laconic, and as a result, ultimately rather incomprehensible.

My interpretation of what happened in ED is that Eemo and Proog are actually just slightly deranged street people, and that Proog, controlling, manic, paranoid, and delusional is dragging his friend Eemo through his fantasy world. Eemo consistantly says he can’t see anything, but Proog (and we) can.

Alternatively, Eemo and Proog are experiencing an alternate fantastic reality which they collectively create through their own thought processes. Proog is trying to convince Eemo to come to some consensus with him over the shared reality, but Eemo doesn’t cooperate (although he seems to be very efffectively altering that reality.

All of this is pretty incomprehensible, though, and not very much of a story. It also doesn’t strike me as a powerful insight or metaphor, so the script itself is not impressive. I still can’t figure out why it’s called Elephants Dream (nor whether that should really be Elephant’s Dream) unless it’s a reference to the story about the blind men who encounter an elephant and each draw different and conflicting interpretations of the “nature” of elephants based on the bit of the elephant that they touched.

Fortunately, however, the visual experience more than makes up for this lack. The production values of Elephants Dream are extremely high. The renderings are really excellent, as are the 3D creature and character designs.

One thing that probably could be better is the character movement. I have the impression that with motion-capture or reference-frame technique, it would be possible to achieve smoother, more natural movement. However, since the sources are provided, anyone wishing to try can go ahead and to improve the animation appropriately.

Visually, the film which moves through a fantasy environment, is like a demo reel of Blender 3D artwork and animation. It really is quite impressive, and the result is fun to watch, even if it isn’t clear what the heck Proog and Eemo are talking about.

Free filmmaking

Taken together, these two films represent a vast gamut of possible free filmmaking, precisely because they are so different. One is a guerrilla, small-scale, feature-length, live-action film, the other is a slick, animated film short. Both are shaking the assumptions that we have about the expense and organization of the filmmaking endeavor.

I hope we’ll see a lot more free-licensed open-source movies like these, even if I don’t always approve of them aesthetically.


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