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Telephones and Microdocs
A microessay on the mobile micromovie

by Markku Flink

The "micro-documentary" film is a broad concept, and still defining itself. In this short essay, I'll attempt to offer some guidelines for this specific sub-genre, which could be called "low budget mobile micro documentary film", or just "microdocs" for short. To begin with: What is this new form? What's unique about it?

First a bit of background: My own experience with microdocs begins with my job as Executive Director of Finland's POEM Northern Film and Media Centre. POEM is involved in the development of filmic content for emerging distribution technologies, partly in connection with a project called Mobiart, which explores the development of moving picture content for mobile devices. In short, developing "micromovies for mobile devices" is part of POEM's mandate.

The term "micromovies", in accordance with the definition tendered by the m.i.c.r.o.m.o.v.i.e.s competition at Finland's Tampere Film Festival, will be taken here to indicate very short (ie, under three minutes) digital movies made to be compatible with mobile devices. The term "microdocs", then, will refer to micromovies that span the territory of non-fiction documentary storytelling.

In 2002, POEM began experimenting with short films for mobile devices. We asked certain filmmakers if they would like to make micromovies instead of short films for TV distribution. Their answer was an enthusiastic "yes". We invited two such groups to develop a short series of three-minute serial stories suitable for distribution on PDAs and 3G mobile phones.

Typical constraints on the micromovie form hinge on its mobile distribution format, which favours small download times and bite-sized content made for people on the move. For example, when POEM set about exploring the possibilities of different distribution channels - digital TV, Web, PDA, and mobile phone - to see how pictures and sound survived the different formats, we discovered that due to the low resolution of most of these channels there was no room in this storytelling format for rich textures, camera movements, or small details that transmitted important information or carried narrative. Our filmmakers were forced to compress and simplify their way of telling the story, and to rely more on close-ups, pacing, and finding the right flow of images. Documentary-makers needed to re-adapt their ways of storytelling to the "microdoc" form.

In the end it worked out - we found out that micromovies can communicate moving emotions, even through the petite frame! As most filmmakers realize, where new tools are concerned, everything depends on how you use them. Good films are good films, regardless of the technique that has been used to create them. Yet the micromovie format does raise new questions for artists. Particularly: How will documentary filmmakers adapt in the long term to this distribution format? Will mobile technologies give rise to new modes of expression?

Micro Marketing
Internet micromovies circulated on the Web have become an enormously popular phenomenon: people send them to each other as email attachments, and place them on their own Web sites. This is also an ideal format for group messaging, which might explain the micromovie's popularity in countries like Japan and Korea, where community-based multimedia messaging is in high demand.

Many Internet and mobile micromovies seem to get better on repeated viewings - they need to be seen twice to be fully appreciated. They lend themselves to serialization: short, like a cigarette break, but made for chain smokers. Most of these micromovies are humorous commercials, clips from TV shows or movies, or dirty jokes. But some could easily be classified as documentaries.

So, will microdocs become just as popular as these other forms in the near future? Who might be interested in receiving short documentary videoclips on their mediaphone? What role or niche might microdocs eventually come to occupy in the mediascape?

In beginning to answer such questions, maybe we need to broaden our definition of microdocs to include news, current affairs, and other reportage. Why not? During the Iraq War we were already receiving battlefield reports from journalists calling in on mobile phones as tanks rumbled at their backs. Recent surveys show that American business professionals are currently willing to pay to have news content (business, entertainment, and general headline news) delivered to their mobile phones. And in Europe, studies are indicating that mobile content and entertainment services are becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. So, yes, there might already be a niche developing for microdocs in the area of information distibution.

But if microdocs have so much artistic potential, why are there so few filmmakers creating microdoc stories for mobile distribution at the moment? Professional mobile microdocumentary has yet to break through, and one reason for this might be the lack of widely available technology for helping producers charge for their content (where there's no money, there's no professionalism). It appears that the present gatekeepers, the teleoperators and broadcasting companies, will soon lose their keys. But who will replace them? Who are we going to pay for the privilege of sending out images via microwaves? Who will we negotiate with in order to get our piece of the cake?

If we can begin to answer such questions, and support the development of the microdoc form, it could end up reaching the biggest audience in the world. After all, one billion people carry mobile phones today worldwide.

Markku Flink is the Executive Director of Finland's POEM Northern Film and Media Centre, Coordinator of the SOURCES training program for creative European scriptwriters, and Director of Northern Scandinavia's Nordisk Panorama festival of short films and documentaries.


Tampere Film Festival

Nordisk Panorama

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