It absolutely blew them away. As the man who would be President of the United States of America made his way through a throng of people towards the stage, mainstream media (MSM) faced a searing problem they did not know.
MSM’s innovative gear was their killer app but also their achilles heel, literally rooting them to a troubled spot. Not a problem! That’s the way it always was. Remember that saying, ‘What you don’t have you don’t miss’.
However, it hadn’t escaped news executive at the time of a beguiling dream-like notion. What if the viewer could immerse themselves in the crowd? What if the broadcast gear could capture the awe and incredible intimacy of this occasion for viewers? Wouldn’t that be something? They could only imagine.
Facts, on occasion, have an unequivocal unsettling response to fiction. Hence, as the execs wondered, fictionalising what could be, one man was about to pull of the steal of the decade in revolutionising filmmaking. In under a minute he would record the money shot that would go down in the pantheon of factual films and contribute the overall film’s selection to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress.
Picture it in slow mo. Everyone’s looking on at the would-be president. A figure readies his camera. He fleetingly gestures to his colleagues. They know something the rest of the msm’s multi-billion industry do not, so they afford slight smiles — they’re about to make history. The cameraman boldly holding his camera aloft, snugly tucks himself into his subject’s slip stream.
In one unbroken 20 plus second shot, he [F**%$ swear word] nails it. I mean, he nails it like you’ve never seen before. This is the dreams of virtual reality realised in true reality in one unthinkable moment in time. This. Is. It.
The shot transitions from one excitable environment to another. Finally, it culminates with the unbroken reverse shot with the viewer metaphorically on stage where a gathered crowd in the arena are clapping to the rafters.
Soon after, the shot fixates on the next @fotus’ hands fidgeting. Perfect. How could anyone wish for anything more? The explicit and the allegorical diametrically morphed into one sequence.
Like a 12-pound new born baby, mobile journalism had arrived with aplomb.
Date: It is 1960. The film, Primary.
That moment, 2.06 mins on the video above; that date; that group of friends: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D. A. Pennebaker, thereon changed everything.
Where once all cameras were the size of a small baby calf and their recording contraptions equally cumbersome and detached, *Robert Drew and friends had just burnt through a million dollars to resize a camera’s body to around 1.5x times the size of an A4 paper.
Drew, a photojournalist editor by trade, did something else that profoundly debunks the myth of latter day self-appointed scions who claim exclusive ownership of the label ‘mobile journalism’. Drew had genuinely branded a new filmic language.
‘Advances in technology allowed them to get up close and personal with the candidates and the crowds’, documents the revered cinema site Taste of Cinema. Remember this is 50 plus years before the mobile phone. Maysles’ follow-through shot was just a typical example.
So distinct was the filmic narrative, no one could fail to recognise its ingenuity in factual filmmaking and the signature of the team behind this, who would deliver on several occasions e.g. Gimme Shelter (1971). In fact MSM was so shaken, that as Robert Drew would tell me fifty four years on, they did the dirty on him. ‘They took my equipment!’, says Drew on the phone in a manner begetting schadenfreude.
Fast forward from that epochal time and you realise the powerful combo of circumstances that would contribute to today’s myth around ‘Mobile Journalism’. But who cares? Well, depends who you are and what you want.
Firstly, the radicalising of technology would outrageously and bemusingly squeeze a minuscule camera into a mobile phone. Wow! Secondly, corporate technologists, not one to let an opportunity go by to rake in millions, worked their PR machine overtime. Coming second doesn’t guarantee you sales to the public. Thirdly, our own predilection for innovation and creativity meant we would succumb to the inevitable of professionals. If they said Mobile Journalism was a new art form, who were we to argue? Indeed, critics have weighed in but you’re more likely to find them in academic journals than the popular press.
The rolling stone then gathered social media moss. A new industry and a new journalism was descending from the wilderness to deliver a new way of seeing the world. It’s a perennial merry go round with pundits and influencers trying to claim top podium. Several practitioners, myself who have a history of using different cameras and being disruptive asked, was the phone a continuum in narrativity or something else? And if we’re solidifying our understanding of visual expressive language, isn’t lens dynamics and different filmic textures a major feature, negating the use of one device fits all occasions.
Meanwhile in their homes, no one bothered to ask the gang of four from yesteryear as this new seducing narrative unthreaded.
Yet, history can’t be erased. ‘Mobile’, ‘intimate’, ‘immersive’, ‘cinematic’ — scratch the surface of film knowledge and authors such as: P.J. O’Connell, Peter Wintonick, Jill Drew, and Brian Winston lay out the case. We’ve been here before, it’s just we have short memories. ‘I don’t think much has changed since the 1960s in styles say Professor Winston, an Emmy winner and prodigious author of books. ‘…but I could be wrong’, he adds hesitantly.
Yesterday in a room of avid filmmakers wanting to learn the art of 21st century journalism on a mobile, we put on an experiment and hands-on practice to test this theory. You could also play this game. I show the delegates a 2 min of six videos (I have posted below eight seconds to illustrate its educational use) and ask if they could categorically pick out the films that were shot on mobile. I’ve listed the videos and links at the end of this post.
Some get one or two, but the consensus is a degree of uncertainty. Perhaps, I have handicapped the group by failing to show them exemplars which make the point more firmly about mobile phones’ exclusive styles. However, these are indeed exemplars. Thus far, I make the assumption, there is no universal or general lingua franca that the mobile phone, as a convenient camera, has spawned.
However, there are pockets of cleverness distinctly showing its uniqueness. In a granular deconstruction of Philip Bromwell’s film by delegates, one picks out the coffee bean shot at 1.23. Bromwell places his camera in a pot, with Elvis, his subject, pouring coffee beans on top. Few cameras e.g. Go Pro Sony W800, could capture the same aesthetic.
They also pick out an aesthetic quality. Bromwell’s use of what in the business is known as the FBCU. In the 1990s at Janet Street Porter’s ground breaking Reportage producer Hardeep Singh Kholi, a producer of mine back then, would ask for a FBCU, translated ‘bleep’ big close up. In 1928 Carl Theodor Dreyer’ s Joan of Arc publicly got there first. But perhaps by using the wide shot sparingly and more FCBUs we could be moving into a new framing ontology.
And for trainers swearing by the mobile phone’s exclusive intimacy. Er, caution! In Salesman, a hard hitting seminal doc about Bible salesman in the US, there are several scenes that will have you likely describe as intimate. As the late Roger Ebert expressed:
The newer technology dovetailed with Direct Cinema’s philosophy of caring more about intimacy and immediacy than classical storytelling and slickness.
In fact if you cut to the shot showing the filmmakers at work, it may alarm you to see a cameraman and soundman (the Maysles brothers) taking up a prominent space in the corner.
Intimacy, as a unique feature was talked about in great detail in Betacam use, Hi-8, Camcorders, Digi-cams and DSLR to the point, it became obvious the camera was a contributing factor but a lot more was going on.
The verdict? Mobile phone journalism today as a movement that attempts to furrow an indelible stylistic path, different from predecessors, is still wide open — still in its infancy.
In Moscow, Oksana, the Lynda.com of the region, uses her mobile attached to a selfie stick to invade personal spaces, where the presence of the filmmaker would make things awkward. The camera is thrown around as the selfie stick gives rise to a crane-like effect.
All this is not to say journalism using a mobile phone has had little to offer. What has been marvellous has been its equivalence — it‘s ’like having an army swiss knife to crack open a high security building.
How an innocent small piece of tech could perform near the thresh hold of a professional cameras put us all in awe. Then obviously edit, post, app, share on multiple platforms and view on the same device the fruits of one’s labour — all of which make today’s mobile journalism a viable, low cost option to film making. That is its USP.
While US shows like Modern Family have given mobile phone use a fillip. It was deployed to film an entire show, mirroring the innovation of 24 with Kiefer Sutherland when they used DSLRs, when given a sizeable budget mobile filmmakers are prone to opt for cameras like the Arri and Red.
And unless you’re having to post every hour to keep up with Jones’ news outlets, or you feel the need to Frankestein your mobile phone with accessories to look like a professional camera — when the latter might well have done the job — the idea that mobile phone journalism narrative is unique should be treated with some caution. Yes, some snapchat docs using intense edit ‘jump cut’ continuity or AJ+ video intertextual title card styles glimpse a future, but we’re still journeying.
MojonCon — a coming together of experts in Ireland by Glen Mulcahy, RTÉ’s Head of Innovation and founder and the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia are good places to observe how practitioners are pushing at the edges, as well as hearing counter debates.
Typically in shedding ‘cause and effect’ narratives from conventional video making, and allowing native mobile phone users free to experiment or engender a philosophy that interrogates, even unknowingly, some of the deeper epistemes of filmmaking, these may also go somewhere in truly revolutionising the form.
Yesterday our mobile phone seminar was an attempt to let attendants find their own sweet spot, using our previous knowledge to facilitate free associations, while occasionally nudging here and there for results.
But that approach is also about acknowleding failures and debating research findings, which has become a principle at the newly launched digital and interactive storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster.
In a world where content, of a kind covered mercilessly, is becoming common place, what the film maker in mobile or otherwise brings matters intensely in a bid to be different. Like the 1960s could pioneers truly herald a new era.
We’ve borrowed a well stated formula that attempts to capture this essence.
The entropy or entertainment value of mobile/innovation derives from constant content multiplied by the one variable that is becoming critical on the delivery spectrum, ‘M’ — you the person — Me.
With VR on the landscape ready to steal mobile’s ‘attention thunder’ , is it time to be truly blown away again?
*As Robert Drew was revolutionising the camera so were the Canadians, and French in Jean Rouch
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is part of the disLAB, a multidisciplinary course on innovation, storytelling and critical research. You can find more about the course from this below promo shot on a mobile and here
- 1 Base Culture Research — shot on iPhone with archive from beta etc. Shot by David Dunkley Gyimah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0l6nGgjR3is
- 2. Mobile Film Festival 2017 — Trailer shot using a mobile https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-2CCDF42A8
- 3. The Time Fixer (3 min. version for MFF2012) by Conrad Mess. Shot on mobile. https://vimeo.com/66014759
- 4. The King of Coffee from Philip Bromwell. Shot on mobile. https://vimeo.com/95273884
- 5. Crisis in Darfur Expands: Testimonials from Travis Fox. Not shot on mobile.
- 6. People & Power — Syria: Songs of Defiance Al Jazeera English Shot on Mobile. First major documentary by a broadcaster shot exclusively on mobile https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnvPXspjLtU