The Future of Access

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Tue, 06/08/2004 - 16:00

Last week organisers from film co-operatives, media arts societies and festivals from across Canada converged on Vancouver to talk about, among other things, the future of organisations like themselves.

"Rim Shots", the Independent Media Arts Alliance's annual general meeting, was more than a bout of collective navel-gazing, it was a rare opportunity for organisers from film and video access centres across five time zones to discuss their policy, problems, hopes and fears, face to face with their peers.

These non-profit access centres share similar goals: they facilitate independent filmmakers and artists by providing access to, and training for, subsidised production and post-production facilities. It's not just about sharing the equipment, they provide a hub for indie filmmakers to meet, network and work together. They often provide workshops on editing, scriptwriting, lighting and such like.

Britain has similar access centres scattered across the country. Reviews of shorts made by filmmakers from iofilm's local access centre, Edinburgh Mediabase, feature on this site regularly.

The centres are typically sustained by a mix of public and national funding, grants, membership fees, rental fees and, often, many volunteer hours. It would be no exaggeration to say that many films, and careers, would never have been made were it not for the support that these centres provide.

Yet, there was a tone of trepidation about the future from delegates to the Vancouver conference. A major reason for fear is federal funding for the arts is far from secure under Canada's present Liberal government, and highly vulnerable if the right-wing Conservative party is winner in this month's federal election.

But there is another reason that is more universally unsettling and even divisive: how to respond to technological change.

The speed at which technology forges on means expensive high-end equipment quickly becomes obsolete and passed over by users at access centres. It can become "redundant" in just a few years, good only for more artistic or perhaps training projects. Naturally, this makes the job of purchasing equipment for an access centre particularly difficult.

Access centres can't afford to keep up with the bleeding edge technology. They often find themselves a couple of steps behind the high-end flavour of the day, although they can bridge the gap between consumer and professional.

As an indie filmmaker, you might find that just as you got used to the idea of shooting on Mini-DV, broadcasters, or whoever your intended audience is, start favouring higher resolution work. So instead of shooting on your 1-chip Mini-DV camera you choose to rent a 3-chip DV cam, or something higher end if from your local access centre has it.

Some delegates to the conference argued it didn't matter what the production values are - they would work with VHS if required. But they seemed to be in a minority.

Ironically, a good argument for being wary of "chasing production values" came from a conference delegate whose centre had invested in a high-end Avid. Here was an edit suite used widely in the broadcast industry, said the delegate, and it wasn't getting nearly as much use as anticipated because filmmakers were taking the easy, less expensive route and cutting their films on the centre's Macs and FinalCut Pro.

Another delegate lamented the fact that some members of his organisation were not even coming in to use the edit suites, they were using their centre to cover gaps in their own equipment, like lighting equipment.

Mini-DV has become the mp3 of video. Mini-DV, because it is a more compressed format than other DV formats, is easier to store, share and manipulate. It may not offer the best image quality, but the results are "good-enough" as far as many filmmakers are concerned. It offers an acceptable balance between cost, convenience and production values. And Mini-DV cameras are ubiquitous.

Delegates again seem divided on this issue. Some pointed out that while many more films are being made, quality has suffered with users even shooting first and thinking about what they are making later. Others argued that we should be celebrating more widespread access to filmmaking tools and if the quality is bad, well, everybody has to start somewhere.

There are no easy answers to these issues and organisations will survive as they have in the past by learning and adapting to their situation.

One thing is certain: technology puts up as many barriers as it brings down. As filmmakers become more self-sufficient, there is the danger that they also become more insular. Just because you have the tools, with your own camera and computer, to do everything yourself doesn't mean that you should.

Filmmaking has always been a collaborative process for the simple reason that there is so much for one person to do. Most of us also benefit from having others who are perhaps more specialised in different areas of the creative process to help us.

There will always be a place for organisations that bring their local film communities together and nurture the have-not groups that will provide fresh input and new directions. The technology debate is just a diversion, important and interesting in itself, but not the essence of what these filmmaking communities are about.