What'll be free next?

Publication date: 2 May 2010
Originally published 2009 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Before digital audio existed, there were plenty of musicians who wanted to give their music away for free. But there was no way for them to distribute it, without paying for duplication.

Now, it's easy for anybody with Internet access to grab a copy of arbitrary digital data from random Net-connected people on the other side of the planet. So not only can musicians who want to give their music away do so easily, but P2P users, egged on by filthy subversives, have decided to share vast amounts of other stuff, whether or not it's legal to do so.

Even if you ignore the petabytes of copyright infringement, there's still an astounding amount of free-to-download content on the Net now. To a significant extent, for instance, music really has become free.

There are free books, too. The overwhelming majority of them are old works whose copyright has expired and whose authors are long dead. Living authors tend to guard their work ferociously, or are signed up with publishing companies that do the guarding for them. But there are more and more current writers - I think, quite often, the better writers - who love the idea of being their own little digital lending library. Publishing companies are even starting to get in on the act.

(I'm not even counting the impressive array of crackpots who're delighted that BitTorrent allows them to self-publish their conspiracy theories and manifestoes for free.)

This leaves me wondering what's going to become free next.

I think it'll be movies.

On the face of it, this sounds ludicrous. Movies, after all, need actors and directors and sound people and camera people and focus pullers and grips and Best Boys and caterers and Assistants to Mister Impossible-To-Work-With Actor and drivers and animal wranglers and publicists and colorists and gaffers and set-builders and set dressers and hairstylists and makeup artists and continuity people and god in heaven it goes on and on and on.

So even a small-budget movie has a pretty darn high budget. And, unless you're a billionaire playboy making movies for fun, you have to make that budget back. Plus a bit extra, or you may have some trouble finding backers for your next project.

Result: No free movies. (Well, no legal free movies.)

But this is all because there isn't, yet, such a thing as a bedroom movie studio. The closest we've come is "machinima", which is essentially a puppet-show.

If you wanted to produce a record in 1980, you needed expensive equipment, a special studio building, many functionaries and hangers-on - oh, and musicians, too. But now, never mind mere pop music - one person can now create whole real-sounding orchestral works on their computer. On their laptop computer, for that matter.

Live-action movies are still restricted by the same sorts of things that impeded music production a few decades ago. Digital effects and Pixar-grade 3D animation are getting better and better, but you still need a ton of processing power to do them. And if your movie is live-action, you need actors who can actually act, on top of all the support personnel.

A single creator can already make a whole animated movie. Some determined souls even did it before computer technology made it possible to make more than a second of footage per day, and now one person can make a full-length animated film like Sita Sings the Blues (downloads here and here).

It took Nina Paley years to make Sita (and she didn't do absolutely everything herself, not being quite up to voicing all of the characters, for instance, and using a lot of public-domain or freely-licensed music). But that was partly because she built it up in stages, starting with a short and ending with an 82-minute film. It would have taken much, much, much longer without computer assistance (Sita was largely made in Adobe Flash).

For live-action, though, a single creator is, at the moment, still going to have a very hard time if they want to make more than a tiny little short film.

I think inexpensive computers will, not terribly many years from now, bring to moviemaking what they've already brought to audio production. You'll be able to make a movie with a cast of thousands on a PC, designing virtual actors with City-of-Heroes/Spore-like interfaces, animating them with as much or as little direct control of every twitch and quiver as you like, and setting up appearance and movement mutators if you need to create crowds.

I wouldn't even be surprised if realistic close-up facial movement will be possible without motion-capture or puppetry, or if synthesised voices take over from voice talent. We've already got software that sings, after all.

You'll even be able to set your movies in famous places, provided there isn't some Eiffel-Tower-like copy-control nonsense about all images of said place being the property of some entity.

Microsoft's remarkable Photosynth can already stitch a bunch of photos into a 3D representation of a scene or object. Apply the same tech to freely-licensed tourist photos of a location, and presto, there's your location.

You would still need to spackle over the fuzzy bits by hand. Or just never point the camera at them - the same technique that used to be used to keep TV aerials and passing Boeings out of historical epics. There's no clear line between "hiding fuzzy bits" and "manually building the whole location", by the way; "virtual backlot" technology, to seamlessly replace expensive location shots with studio greenscreen work, is already becoming commonplace in TV shows.

Thanks to desktop match-moving software, there's also now a whole genre of low-budget short films that're constructed from an inexpensive camcorder location shoot, plus a heavy coating of CGI, with fantastic results.

(After this page went up, a reader also pointed me to another excellent example of this genre, six-minute short "The Raven", yours in HD for free here.)

So one way or another, realistic locations will be available in the bedroom film studio soon enough.

At the moment, it's still impossible for a proper movie - even a short one - to be a complete labour of love, unless everybody involved is able to take time off work and still be able to pay the rent. Even little student-film sorts of things are major undertakings, by the standards of ordinary human hobbyists. Which is why fan-film instalments that were originally meant to be released on a monthly schedule can actually end up with more than three years between Chapters 1 and 2.

(And after all that effort, a cat that jumps in boxes will still get more clicks.)

Film-making is more complicated than music-making, so it's taking off slower. It really isn't practical, yet, for home hobbyists to turn out anything resembling a "real", people-pay-to-see-it movie.

But it won't stay that way.

Will computerisation of movies make live actors obsolete? Well, movies and TV haven't made theatre obsolete, so I doubt it. I think it'll be more like the situation with drum machines.

When programmable drum machines first became available, people wailed (and some other people cheered) about how they'd make a whole class of musician obsolete. But now drum machines have become a perfectly valid instrument in their own right.

Hurry up, home-movie-studio developers.

I can't be the only one who feels a burning need to give Battlestar Galactica a better ending.

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