It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us
I’ve chosen a Charles Dickens quote for the title of this article, which I thought was quite fitting (albeit pretentious, not least because I’ve never read the book). I’m preparing my Master’s thesis at the moment, which I intend to make more personal than any of my previous papers or my Bachelor’s thesis was. The topic, as precisely as I can pinpoint it at this early stage, will deal with filmmakers like myself or at the very least with the cultural, economical, and techonological context we find ourselves in. However, being so close to leaving university for good and finally being at the point in my life where I should start drafting job applications, I find some of the results of my research somewhat troubling.
I just finished reading (or perhaps skimming) an article titled “The mixed blessing of autonomy in digital cultural production: A study on filmmaking, press photography and architecture in Austria” by Regina Sperlich, an Austrian researcher. The text highlights the amazing benefits of technological advancement and the digital revolution: Everything is cheaper, faster, better, and easier. Or is it? The downsides to the democratization of production and easier access to cultural authorship is also increased competition. This holds true whether your interests are purely artistical or also financial in nature. There are simply more musicians, more filmmakers, more photographers, more anything out there. The music industry may blame their decreasing sales on piracy, but there is also much more to listen to nowadays and a lot of it is free as well (and legally so).
Of course, I knew all that before I read the article. It is also true that skill, creativity, and individual ‘genius’ or ‘authorship’ or whatever you want to call it still matter. But it does give me pause to ponder the fact that while I think of myself as a particularly creative and skilled person, I am also a drop in the ocean. It also causes me to reassess how creative and skilled I really am in a realistic (or perhaps self-conscious?) manner. I never went to film school and barely have any formal training in that respect. My other skills are varied but also a hodge-podge of somewhat unrelated abilities. Today my ‘dream jobs’ are usually low-paid, unless you belong to a very select few. Entry-level salaries in the media industry are often quite low because of the amount of available talent and the fierce economic pressure on media producers. Is there nothing positive here?
Well, let’s see: As a child I did not have access to a film camera and using analog video cameras without the means of post-production seemed very cumbersome and futile to my young self (and to be fair, to my older self as well). I was creative, but I was also lazy. I also did not get much encouragement to be more creative. Although my parents usually supported me in everything I wanted to try, there just was not much of a possibility to try anything besides drawing and writing (both of which I am not particularly talented in or fond of, I might add). Sure, I did record audio dramas on analog voice recorders and played around with video cameras but I always felt terribly limited.
However, as I wrote elsewhere on this blog I vividly remember seeing the CGI work in Jurassic Park and coming into contact with digital technology that finally enabled me to become, for lack of a better word, an artist. From filmmaking software for children to 3D rendering and animation packages, digital cameras, and editing software. All these things enabled me not only to create but also to get interested in creating. Without their ease of use, without the malleability of digital data, and most of all, without their almost universal availability, there is a decent chance I never would have found an interest in filmmaking (and most of the other stuff I do). I do not know if this makes me a lesser filmmaker, but I do know that the easy access to the means of production have helped me become one in the first place.
So what is the lesson here? I suppose it is this: It is the best of times, it is the worst of times…
tl;dr: Digital media democratize access to the means of production but also create more competition. It may be a zero-sum situation but I for one have already gained more by becoming a filmmaker than I could ever lose.