Students and filmmakers experiment with maker movement and virtual reality technologies that are poised to change movie making and viewing experiences.
Ahead of the televised 2016 Oscars, the Academy Awards for Scientific and Technical Achievement honored innovators using new technologies to advance the movie making process.
This year, Brian McLean and Martin Meunier won for their innovative use of 3D printing, which has advanced character animation in stop-motion filmmaking. Next year, it could be virtual reality (VR) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that win big. These new visual experiences already made a big splash at CES, the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and live sporting events.
Gear like 360-degree cameras, drones and other IoT filmmaking tools give today’s artists more visual depth and latitude for emotional storytelling than ever before.
“Movies are a technology-based medium invented more than 100 years ago, and since then, it’s seen a string of innovations,” said Stephen Mamber, a film theorist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
He gave breakthrough innovations like the development of sound, color, widescreen, 3D, digital projection, computer graphics, special effects and animation as examples.
“Now we’re getting into augmented reality, 360 and the Internet of Things,” he added, saying that it’s important for students to be familiar and closely involved with these technologies. They may lead to significant advancements for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Mamber teaches at UCLA’s Film, Television and Digital Media department, the alma mater of Oscar-winning filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Rob Reiner, along with actors such as Ben Stiller, Jack Black and George Takei. As a pioneer in digital video making who created a mobile app for video makers called ClipNotes, he has a good sense of what’s to come.
In his IoT-focused seminar, Mamber teamed up with the Intel Software Academic Program to give creative students hands-on experience with programmable internet technologies that support the maker movement, like Galileo and Arduino microcontrollers. He believes familiarity with hardware tinkering and software coding is essential for future filmmakers.
“A DIY mentality is a great way to approach cinema, and programming skills are an important part of media literacy,” he said “The directors of the future will very likely come from the tinkerers and budding artists of today.”
Mamber also believes film students today should understand how home automation, drones and personal robots could be used for storytelling.
“Tools are at their disposal today that just 10 years ago would have required too much money for anybody to get their hands on,” he said. Nowadays, a filmmaker can design and 3D print a rig to mount up to a dozen cameras on a mono or tripod to capture 360-degree video.
As IoT technologies and VR spread beyond Silicon Valley into the mainstream, Mamber sees these innovations raising expectations for media experiences. He’s not alone.
“VR is the first technology that I’ve ever seen that’s had such dramatic impact on people after they see it for the first time,” said Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS Insight, where he closely follows smartphone, wearables and VR technologies.
“VR absolutely blows people’s minds when they first try it, and now it’s utterly accessible,” he said.
VR is a prime example of the newly available tools filmmakers must adapt to.
“This didn’t exist before, so we’re also creating the language that will be used to make VR films,” said Jessica Brillhart, principal filmmaker for VR at Google during a sneak peak of Kaleidoscope Virtual Reality Showcase touring this summer.
Part of that new language is tied to digital technologies that capture, stitch and distribute new immersive video. Mamber is leading students to think about how technologies such as sensors and controllers could be used on sets or during movie viewing experiences.
Mamber was a film student at U.C. Berkeley in the 1970s. Every decade since, he‘s seen film and information technologies converge. These collisions spark innovation.
“I probably did the first course at UCLA in multimedia at a time when the IBM PCs had just come out,” he said. “They had limitations, but they brought progress.”
In recent years, he noticed the dividing line between people who make media and those who watch blurring faster than ever.
“Cell phones are a great example,” he said. “We’re not just using it to consume other people’s media but creating it ourselves. Then comes the desire to modify those videos in some way.”
Mamber sees the current IoT trend–things built with circuitry and sensors feed data and can be controlled via the internet–as a chance for students to bring new technical skills to the art of moviemaking. Last summer, he gave his students Arduino development boards, sensors and an Intel RealSense depth sensing camera. He asked students how they would put these things to use.
One group of students designed the technology to help track the reaction of movie viewers.
“We decided to measure humor by making a video of them and using the sensors to record their pulse, brainwaves and how wide they opened their mouths to smile or laugh while they watched videos on the internet,” said Bowan Hesslegrave, a Design Media Arts major.
This project gave students like Samantha Hong, a project member who’s getting her degree in philosophy with a minor in digital humanities, her first opportunities to tinker with computer technology.
“I don’t write code, but now I can communicate with someone who does,” said Hong. “This could be extremely beneficial for any discipline.”
Mamber said he was proud of how his students bent IoT filmmaking technologies to achieve their vision.
“I think that’s a powerful way to learn with these technologies,” he said. “You create the software, you modify the existing things.”