New Media for Filmmakers and Educators

Thomas W. Campbell

This entry is an initial response to the challenge of embracing New Media as a creative and business model for filmmakers, journalists and teachers.

Part 1 – What is New Media and why is it so valuable?

New media is a concept that comes almost intuitively to students – which means that professionals in academic environments, specifically college professors, have a wonderful opportunity to connect with them in a direct and engaging manner. It’s not a matter of being hip or trendy, especially in the eyes of our students. Understanding and implementing a meaningful New Media curriculum is a way to challenge students to address what they intuitively know and to help prepare them for digital realities of the creative and technological market place.

How do students – and adults – use new media in day-to-day lives? According to the 2011 Horizon report, recently released by the New Media Consortium . “The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing…” The internet is making our work more mobile, more collaborative, and more complex. The mobile phone is a powerful new media tool that we, as professors, often disdain (at least in the hands of our students). It turns out that mobile devices (phones, iPads etc) are a major technology to watch – and consider adopting – according to the Horizon report. They are already in the hands of almost every student – why not find ways to integrate it into the learning experience? WordPress, for instance, one of the coolest and most powerful blogging platforms – has a mobile app for blogging and editing. Wouldn’t it be cool – and useful – if students began to think of their phones as creative academic tools?


What is being called “Digital Media Literacy” is fast becoming one of the most important skill-sets across all professions. As a professor with a decade of experience – who is also extremely technically literate – I have had the same “behind the tech curve” moments that most professors talk about in private. This generation of students, at least instinctively, are in many ways digital experts. They can be really efficient and creative researchers of the information they crave – whether it is a new piece of open source software that will batch their audio files to mp3 quicker or a just released 3D game that allows international role playing. One way, I believe, that new media can augment the traditional forms of storytelling (filmmaking, print and broadcast journalism, book publishing) is to provide a platform for students to research, analyze, and learn to produce the kind of work that is currently exploding across the marketplace. Building on the primary storytelling models this “new” media is simple in concept but open in possibility. I believe that the primary traits of new media, and its more complex offspring which has become known as transmedia, come from its nature as digital media. New Media is digital. New Media is interactive. And, when properly developed, New Media is collaborative and community enriching.

In his seminal and highly influential treatise “The Language of New Media”, Lev Manovich, an early adopter of the concept, states that there are five principles of new media: 1) Numerical Representation (New Media is digital), 2) Modularity (New Media has the ability – and desire – to recombine elements from other various sources), 3) Automation (New Media uses digital programs that can take advantage of the ability to use scripting – for instance the “Massive” software designed by WETA to create AI-like behavior in thousands of animated Orcs in Lord of the Rings.), 4) Variability (…”a new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions”), and 5) Transcoding (New Media can exploit, for instance, the creation of human to machine interfaces – “of traditional ways human culture modeled the world and the computer’s own ways to represent it”). This is very heady stuff – but it points to a new and liberating way of storytelling based on understanding our digital tools and being able to expand our creative abilities around them.

Another way that the digital generation instinctively works and communicates is through social media. For instance, I am involved with the National Board of Review and we released our major film awards a few weeks ago. A student of mine who is studying to be a film critic just emailed me to ask if the NBR has a twitter page. He is following the LA film critics feed as they announce their awards live on their twitter site so he naturally expects that NBR should do the same. I had to smile to myself. It’s a great example of how young people “get it” and some of us are still catching up.

Taken together, the elements of social media – Facebook, Linkedin, Digg, Vimeo, Twitter, Second Life (a 3D online community) etc. – have vast potential towards the development of creative and collaborative communities. In film marketing, for instance, the ability to understand, utilize, and exploit social media to create grassroots communities around your message can be the difference between finding an audience and having no distribution. Two useful example of this, one micro the other macro, are the online campaigns for The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Dark Knight (2008). This type of interactive marketing is an example of Transmedia, which is kind of a post-modern version of New Media, and will be discussed shortly.

New media really caught my attention when I began to develop the Career Strategies for Film class at the School of Visual Arts in the summer of this year. I knew the former Professor so was able to speak with him about his goals for the class but wanted to look at the experience with a fresh eye as well. I knew that the thesis students came from four backgrounds – directing, editing, writing, and cinematography – and that I would clearly want to bring in guests from each area. But the class was not really about discussing craft (though we did plenty of that) – it was about trying to prepare the students for the realities of 2012 and beyond. And I found that a common thread among guests (whether individual or part of panel discussions) was that breadth of experience could be as valuable as depth of experience. In a discussion with members of the WGA East the topic of New Media came up – it was an important aspect of the negotiations concerning their recent strike. One result was that the Writers Guild has come up with a really creative way to help young writers become part of the guild – and it is centered around the New Media of writing for web series. This is not a lucrative experience for many but it is a potential entry point for young writers. Whether a webby award winning interactive series (http://www.deletedthegame.com/) or a more “conventional” zombie series ( http://www.deadpatrol.com/default2.asp ) someone writes them – and the WGA has found a number of ways to acknowledge the work in this New Media format.

What makes the New Media so interesting and gives it such potential in the academic and commercial environments is the ability to add functionality and depth of experience across many “conventional” platforms. Interactivity, a hallmark of the New Media, can be used to enhance publishing, for instance. One of the most interesting New Media interactive projects I’ve seen recently, which began as an idea for a “normal” book, is “Welcome to Pine Point”, created by The Goggles (the duo behind the remarkable “Ad Busters” campaign) and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada. It is the kind of interactive and imaginative experience that embraces documentary, journalism, narrative filmmaking, and book publishing. It was created using photographs, video and audio recording, flash (a 2D animation platform), and other relatively simple software that is readily available in the academic environment.

Another very flexible and powerful aspect of New Media is that it embraces all three aspects of digital production – development, production, and distribution/exhibition. One of the most seminal examples of New Media promotion that ran parallel to both the production and distribution of the film is Mike Monello’s work for The Blair Witch Project,. Regardless of what one may or may not think of the film, it was an incredibly successful and influential example of New Media / Transmedia marketing – creating expectation and excitement by planting unexpected bits of information on the internet that in effect expanded the world of the film to include new communities of fans and curious participants. Monello, a co-creator of the film and the guerrilla/viral campaign around it, spoke at a New York Film Festival Panel discussion that I attended – and not surprisingly he has embraced the concept of finding new ways to tell and to support stories (i.e. the development of “fan culture”). Monello has started a marketing company called Campfire and is responsible for some very interesting and extremely interactive campaigns, including for the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Part 2 – New Media Concepts in a University Setting

What are the practical goals of a new media curriculum? To enable students for the best chances at career success, we must help them learn to think critically by giving them specific skills that support their creativity and help to make them marketable in their chosen fields. New Media (and Transmedia) are not a fringe discipline. Like many traditional filmmakers I was put off when, about 15 years ago, the concept of interactive storytelling was being floated as an improvement over “traditional” storytelling. It’s now clear that interactivity is not a replacement for the way we have told stories for the last 100 years or so. New Media is an addition that can support and enhance the narrative, documentary and journalism experiences.

1) Career paths for the New Media student:

Just like the traditional storytellers, there are two basic career paths that the New Media student can follow – and they will usually overlap. They are:

A) The Originator

The originator becomes a producer of his/her own programming, via webcasts, podcasts, games, interactive narrative, etc. The work can be self-distributed using new media/transmedia grass roots techniques or can be distributed through more conventional channels.

B) The Technical/Creative Consultant

The Consultant makes a living with his/her New Media skills helping other people develop their own projects. He/she uses technical skills and creative abilities to support the work of others – and is well paid for doing so.

2) Familiarity with a wide range of digital tools

A distinct goal for New Media Students is the familiarity and mastery of a wide range of digital tools and developing creative approach to using them: New Media fluency supports all “conventional” mediums, and opens the door to many that are still in the development stage. For instance, the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism asks a simple question concerning curriculum: What happens as distinctions between print and broadcast media fade away and a single reporter must combine video, audio, text and images to tell a story?

The answer: …all incoming students are taught to report using all facets of multimedia, we immerse students in multimedia reporting so they gain the expertise needed for any reporting environment.

In a sense, New Media can be thought of as Multimedia on digital steroids. Although the tools become very expensive and complex as one works their way up the professional ladder, for academic purposes there are inexpensive, often open-source software models which work. Besides the software and hardware that Adelphi already uses (Macs, Adobe Suite, Final Cut Pro) there are numerous other ways to put inexpensive or free software into the hands of students: WordPress for blog/web creation (open source), Flash for 2D animation (part of the Adobe package that Adelphi owns), Blender for 3D animation creation (open-source), Audacity for audio editing (Open source).

3) Encouragement and Inspiration through student research and analysis.

The New Media classes can inspire by pointing the students to outstanding models that already exist. The Pine Point example, mentioned earlier. The Dark Night “Why so serious?” campaign.  The New York Times web page (which includes numerous interactive examples). Students can study an outstanding 3D Multi-user online educational game such as Quest Atlantis,  a form of Transformational play, which is backed by the Bill and Linda Gates foundation and has been used in progressive classrooms world wide.

4) Creating original and complex work.

After thorough analysis and discussion students can greatly benefit by constructing their own imaginary New Media constructs, using the skills and their imaginations. After completing satisfactory designs on paper (and digitally using programs such as photoshop, indesign and illustrator) students will “graduate” to more advanced tools and put their concepts into practical and interactive models – as web sites, basic interactive 3D game models, interactive video models (for instance stories with parallel and multiple narrative choices) or even transmedia marketing campaigns that consider ways to develop “fan communities” via interactive methods.

5) Meeting Professionals in the Industry

Most Media professionals enjoy sharing their experiences with students, given the opportunity. I have deep interest and various levels of experience in every phase of new media. But I believe it is my passion and skill as a professor and ability to deliver complex ideas in a clear and precise way that makes me most valuable to students. I also have extensive experience in one-on-one interview and dialogue settings with leading professionals in arts and business. I have done Question and Answer sessions with over fifty filmmakers, actors and writers – including Oliver Stone, Harvey Weinstein, Jessica Chastain, Robert Duvall, Pedro Almodovar, Sissy Spacek and many others. Successful business men and women in the film industry have come to my film classes, including leaders in film financing, distribution, producing and exhibition. I believe that it is extremely important for students to meet, learn from, and have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the professionals who they one day wish to emulate. Given the opportunity I would work with the department at Adelphi to design a number of guest lectures – and field trips – involving successful and creative members of the new media industry.

Addendum:

The NMC Horizon Report /2012 Higher Education Edition was released in the summer of 2012. Here is a link to the report in pdf form:

http://www.nmc.org/pdf/2012-horizon-report-HE.pdf

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less
Tablet Computing

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years
Game-Based Learning
Learning Analytics 

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years
Gesture-Based Computing
Internet of Things

 

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