Are Christians Ready for the Coming Film Revolution?

Quick Thoughts Jun 23, 2020

Christians have always been early adopters to new broadcast technologies.

When the Printing press was invented, the Bible went into print and there's even an argument that Christians were some of the first to use codices instead of scrolls (See Michael Kurger's lecture, "The Artifacts of Canon: Manuscripts as a Window into the Development of the New Testament").

When radio started to take over the world, Christians were right there with evangelistic programming. Then recording technology become readily available and every church in the country had a "tape ministry" that then grew into a "CD ministry" that then grew into a podcast.

Most notably, when broadcast TV started finding bigger audiences, Christians rushed in with their very own network and as web broadcasting became more accessible, we started streaming church services, too. And when I say "we", I mean almost 1 one four churches polled by FaithLife said they were already livestreaming prior to the quarantine. After the quarantine, that number jumped to 2/3.

The same thing happened with Computer Aided Research (CAR). As soon as CAR was possible, Christians were applying the new technology to Biblical studies --in some cases, providing the resources free of charge. Then we had the rise of the internet and search engines and, again, Christians were right there with sites chalk full of searchable information.

The reason I do what I do is is because, in large part, I feel like I've inherited a legacy of finding the intersection of technology and the church. And that brings us to our problem: new technologies are about to make a sweeping, industry-exploding change and I don't think the church is anywhere near as ready to use them effectively as we have been in the past.

I'm talking about the coming film revolution.

What Happened to the Music Industry

Before we talk about the film industry, we need talk about the music industry.

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, the music industry was in full flower. Money was abundant and anybody who could get signed was signed. It was a fevered disaster (Reply All has a great episode about this era).

The music stopped when Napster wasn't the end of the story. Napster lost it's landmark intellectual property case, of course, but Apple saw the opening and not only took advantage of the digital music revolution, they capitalized on it by making the purchase of individual songs both legal and cost effective.

But as more and more people turned to streaming,  (streaming services went from 5% share to 80% in the course of the last 10 years), making it big in music has become more and more difficult because, well, everybody can do it.

Music Making Today

As Andrew Schepps (who has produced more top selling artists than I've listened to) put it in his presentation to Music faculty at Oxford University:

...for the last probably fifty years the recording business was just printing money so it all became about printing money and how can you do that.

You always had artists within it (and some of them would be successful and some wouldn't), but now you're at a point where every artists can put their product out into the world, right? It's not just the ones who happen to get some money from a record label and go into a studio. Every laptop is a studio; every room is a live room. And you can make a record anywhere in the world and put it out the next day, whether it's on YouTube or you go through a distributor and it's on all the digital things that people can listen to it on.

So I think it's a really great time to sort of remember about the thousands of years of music that was there before recording existed. (0:01:47-0:03:06)

And he's right. Because of astounding advances in digital music making, anyone can make incredible sounding music on their laptop. As in, you can sit at home and make things like this. Or, you know, just perform the whole thing live, because I guess sometimes the gods of talent give with both fists.

And, honesty, virtual instruments are just recordings of real instruments. Companies (like Spitfire) will do the recording for you and let you buy, say, a virtual choir to play on a keyboard. The results are extraordinary.

Why this history lesson? Because the simply nature of digital music (compared to digital film, anyway) tends to be about 10 years ahead of digital film. The film industry (which has been on a record-breaking revenue spree over the last five years) is about to take it's own everybody-can-make-it-at-home turn.

The Future of Feature Film

It seems the whole country saw the "live action" remake of The Lion King that Jon Favreau directed. If you didn't, here's the trailer:

Nothing in that trailer is real. Not the landscapes, not the characters, not the cameras. The entire movie was filmed inside virtual reality, that is, the entire film --including the equipment used to film it, was made inside computers.

To be fair, a lot of the Lion King process was used in the Favreau-directed, "live action" Jungle Book, but that film still had a live elements that were then composited into the virtual world. The Lion King, on the other hand, was 100% totally virtual.

It's a little bit difficult to explain, so here's the breakdown:

As the video explains, this all started with games.

How Computer Games Went to Film Production

High end computer games have been gigantic money makers for a while and they have been on a quest to make photorealistic computer game experiences (if you haven't seen computer games in a while, check out this trailer and this trailer, and this one, and this demo here about virtual lighting).

Computer games have been fast approaching cinematic quality and they've just about arrived.

Of course, film industry insiders who themselves have been trying to find faster and cheaper ways of making films, have integrated with that technology.

So you start with a computer game engine-like virtual reality (with lots of technical adjustments to make it suitable for filming), film the movie inside the virtual reality, then add a ton more work in post production, and voila! You have, basically, a cartoon that looks like real life.

The dream that was hoped for in early 2000s with films like George Lucas's The Phantom Menace (1999), Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Zak Snyder's 300 (2006), and the Wichowski's Speed Racer (2008) --a dream to make movies virtually-- has become a reality.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Film?

This means, over the next 10 years, cinematic quality, feature film making is going to be as accessible and affordable as music making is today.

We're already in a golden age of indie film making where people are shooting on cheap but high quality cameras and editing on their laptops, but the next step will be fully digital shooting that will only require the laptop.

Some key leaders on The Lion King VFX team (Rob Legato, Adam Valdez, Ben Grossmann) did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Towards the end, Ben Legato gave his assessment of the future of the industry:

You just think about it like what Rob basically just said, which was, if it costs $200,000 a day to have a fully functioning movie set with all the equipment. Well imagine if you can get that for free in your mom's basement with [virtual reality] and you can take any, young aspiring filmmaker throw them onto a movie set and say, "here's all the ingredients for success, just bring your ideas and you can operate any of this equipment." Now what would happen?  

And that's a pretty cool transformation where people no longer feel like they have to fit into a specific discipline, like, "Oh, I only know how to do this thing." or "I only know how to do that thing." You're like, "I have a story to tell, these are the tools at my disposal, and I can use any of them that I choose. (49:33-50:09)

He is exactly correct and, to me, it means we are standing right on the edge of a giant leap in media technology that is historically indistinguishable from the transformation that hit music industry over the last 20 years. And I'm not sure Christians are ready for it.  

Christians and our Terrible Relationship with Narrative Art

The truth is, it has never been easier to make a feature film. The indie film scene is thriving and access to equipment is at rock bottom prices. But even with the explosion of accessibility, Christian film makers have found themselves doing more documentary work than narrative work.

On the other hand, the narrative work that's being done is with features like, God's Not Dead (2014), War Room (2015) Miracles from Heaven (2016), and The Shack (2017). The broad consensus of our community seems to be that that Christians are pretty crap at making movies for anyone other than white, middle class women between the ages of 55-65.

"But David!" comes the objection, "Box office numbers don't lie! They have huge turnout."

Agreed, and I'll grant I don't know much about the cynical, vertically integrated Nashville distributors. But I do know the people who get their churches to go see these movies. You know who it is in your church and so do I. And she's great. And she's also a white, middle class woman between the ages of 55 and 65.

I honestly have no problem with making movies for that (arguably underserved) demographic, but aren't there other people who need stories, too?

Also, as a community, we have this weird aversion to making fiction as a genre. For example, Christians can't make A Star is Born-y story about the music industry, it has to be the true story of I Can Only Imagine (2018).

There might also be a latent suspicion of fiction as a genre because of 19th century battles over the historicity of the Biblical record. In my opinion, the conservative side (of which I am a proud member) maybe tried to pull the Overton window too far to our side. I mean, we know God writes fiction because Jesus did. But maybe there's a broken trinitarian theology where we think the Son is allowed to tell stories but the Spirit isn't?

Whatever the reason, this generation of American Christians has lost our story telling ability and we're about to be in a world with the greatest story telling technology in the history of the world.

Future Film Makers

But maybe I'm being too pessimistic. Maybe new technological advances in film making, just like with music making, will be the catalyst that encourages a new generation of film makers to take up the craft. Maybe ubiquitous access to film making tools will be the spark that reanimates our cultural making impulses.

Maybe a generation educated in the humanities will finally find an accessible outlet for their formal education.

Maybe a shattering of the gates and dispersal of the gate keepers will unleash a flood of creativity.

Maybe.

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