Some sermonizing from Daniel Robin (aka: db rabinowitz)

Back in the day, circa 2000, whenever I got into a conversation with other filmmakers about what I was doing, I felt as if I was up on my soapbox, evangelizing spirit in tow, urging them to embrace the burgeoning new medium, web video. It just seemed so obvious to me. But my efforts to enlighten were in vain, which in many ways led me into a sort of self-imposed exile from the San Francisco film community I was so rooted in. Here’s a few experts from a journal I kept during those formative years, 9/20/2000: “…These last few months have been a flurry of emotions: self-doubt, exhilaration, joy, sorrow. How much longer can I continue my chronicles? ...This is a revolutionary time in the world of filmmaking (independent that is). I believe I’m on the cusp and the rest must catch up.” 12/14/2000: “ Week 23 of the valet chronicles…right now I feel as if I have no allies. I know this is a continuous thread in these entries, but it’s how I feel, isolated.” Somehow I kept posting 3-4 minute episodes (1 a week) of my first series, the valet chronicles, and ended up with 37 in 8 months. I also make short films for festivals, but I had never experienced this type of filmmaking, where within a week’s time you make a film, distribute it, and get heartfelt feedback, via email, from all over the world. And now, 8 years later, perhaps the soapbox isn’t necessary, but what is the state of original web video content? Have any of those filmmakers I was sermonizing to, whose work I know and love, taken that digital step into the new frontier? Are critics critiquing web video from a substantial place of insight? And, perhaps, most importantly, how is the content that is being offered shaping viewers’ tastes and expectations of what’s to come?

It’s 2008, I’ve made four more series, with a fifth coming soon, and there’s a brave new world of web video content bursting at the seams. Well perhaps it’s not all that brave, but there’s a whole lot of it bursting. The thing is, back in 2000 I searched and searched for web video that would inspire me, like when I go to the movies for solace and reverie, but pop culture wasn’t quite ready yet, so it was somewhat slim-pickins. And guess what, I’m still searching. Aside from the pervasiveness of content so loaded with and reliant on comedy, what else is there to choose from?

My web video work is, for the most part, a continuation of my super-8 and 16mm shorts, personal documentary films I make about myself and the people in my life. I gave a lot of thought as to why I was getting, at times, 2000 hits a day. Perhaps it’s the nature of the viewing experience, a person, probably at work, looking for distraction from the daily weight of work-environment monotony, finds a (Quicktime) window that transports them into an unknown, or even familiar neighborhood/place rife with atmosphere and engaging characters. It’s free and only demands a few minutes of their precious time. It’s real life unmediated by corporations and advertisements. It’s a celebration of the mundane packaged with a love for people and cinema. But then there are the naysayers.

According to the New York Times web video critic, Virginia Heffernan, my personal documentary approach isn’t suitable for the web: “But. And I want to be dogmatic about this. Online video is not right for verité, just as it’s not right, really, for stories. There’s no time. Not because those stories don’t look good when you play them on your Avid for your friends, but because in this context they’re too hard to process. At this screen size — and when the video plays amid Word docs and annoying email and open Technorati links — we don’t want quiet rolling stories, we want our minds to be SEIZED. To this end, we need iconic images.” (Entire blog here:

Really Virginia?

Not only does Ms. Heffernan dismiss documentary stories, she dismisses telling online video stories, period. Though I disagree with her narrow views, I do have issues with what has been offered, to date, in terms of online narrative content. The problem is that the majority of what’s being created mirrors the aesthetic and structure of traditional television, or they’re one-off films that aren’t really taking advantage of the medium. The filmmakers are not considering that watching original narrative content online is a different viewing experience from other mediums. Think about it, when we watch TV, a DVD, or for that matter go to the cinema, we have made a conscious decision to bask in the glory of images and sound for an extended amount of time. We are not at work in a swirling chaos of responsibilities; we are on a couch lounging or in a theater, hopefully entranced. Watching online video, which occurs a lot when folks are at work, is a brief interaction between the viewer and the medium. I’m not saying that we can’t be entranced by web video; it just has to be measured in relation to the viewing environment. There’s also the problem with time. When we watch conventional narrative films/TV we come with a shared history of expectation. Not just production values, but how characters are developed over time, how a story unfolds over time through pacing, etc. How to do all of this successfully, within a very short window of time, is a slippery task.

With that said there have been attempts at the narrative approach. In late 2006, there was the clever, but not my-cup-of-tea, Lonelygirl15 series I say clever because the creators realized that the best way to engage an online audience with fiction was to give the episodes the allure of non-fiction. It worked. Earlier this year the first semi-studio attempt came to fruition, Quarterlife; six 20-something men and women navigating their way through life. This is the perfect example of mirroring the aesthetic and atmosphere of a TV series (the show got picked up by NBC for a hot minute and failed miserably), and whether it’s good or not is dependent on taste. I don’t think it works because it strives to be something it’s not supposed to be. I believe there is a place for online narrative filmmaking, but it must be conceptualized for a different viewing experience then TV, and without trying to piggyback on television’s familiar models. Besides, are we really looking to supplement our television viewing experiences with web video? Is that all there is?

Though the computer is, in itself, a cold, impersonal apparatus, online video does have the potential to transport a person to unknown regions that may become catalysts for introspection, a sense of community, and even inspiration. As discussed above I make use of the documentary form, which others have tapped into, but many of the online documentaries I’ve seen fall short because they are one-off films. Show these at film festivals, but make a series for the web. Depending on what a documentary is about, in many cases the ideas circulate around community, people and places. We all know that the Internet is fertile ground for building community, so why not utilize this commonality, which can only attract more returning viewers. Isn’t that the point, to get as many people as possible to watch your films? There’s also a scent of voyeurism that is inherent in online documentaries (which the creators of Lonelygirl15 were aware of) and lends itself to engaging viewers by allowing them to peer into a private world they would have otherwise not been privileged to.

An example of this can be seen in my fourth series, kinoland. The series is a window into the last year of the MFA film program I went through. It’s representative of how I approach using a personal documentary form specifically for an online audience. It’s a no frills brand of filmmaking, just me, my camera and the people that find their way in front of my lens. If you compare this series with my other 3 series you’ll see similar aesthetic choices, but for each series a new relationship is formed with the neighborhood at hand. My definition of a neighborhood, in the context of my website, is somewhat open. When I begin each series I set the geographical parameters and only shoot there so as to give the viewer a sense of place and the ability to become familiar with the people who congregate within that space. I also have created a manifesto of sorts, for both myself and for others who would like to put their neighborhood series on my site. (This is an invitation by the way) I only shoot with existing light and the only crew is myself. The reason being is that I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the place I’m telling stories from. Film crews and production apparatus have an impact that I don’t want, and the neighborhood doesn’t need. Additionally I only use diegetic sound. Music and any other sound heard in the episodes were recorded on site during production.

I really believe it’s the filmmakers who are responsible for how the ever-blossoming web video viewing audience will form their perceptions and expectations of original content. Well, perhaps that’s a bit idealistic on my part. Now that pop culture has finally embraced web video, corporations and advertising money are going to have a huge impact on what we will consume. So perhaps this is a plea for filmmakers to embrace the web as a viable venue to be creative in. My longtime friend Gabriel recently proclaimed that the success of my current film, my olympic summer, which I made specifically for festival screenings, had revived me. (I’ve concentrated on web video series for the past 7 years) I understood what he meant, that, for a filmmaker like me top tier festival screenings and winning awards is the barometer for success. I told him he was wrong, that for me, it’s about discovering new ways to tell stories, with evolving technologies, and having these stories seen by as many people possible, which web video has offered me.

Still sermonizing. I guess I never got off my soapbox.