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Tiffany Shlain Explains How and Why Non-Profits and Others Can Crowdsource Film Production for Free

Indiewire By Tiffany Shlain | Indiewire May 6, 2013 at 11:1AM

Tiffany Shlain, who has been a player in the Bay Area tech scene for over a decade and who directed the 2011 Sundance film "Connected," is currently promoting her cloud filmmaking project, a way for organizations and others to get filmmakers all over the world to contribute to collaborative film projects on specific topics. Shlain also recently announced that she would be creating a web series, "The Future Starts Here," about connected life, for AOL

Tiffany Shlain, who has been a player in the Bay Area tech scene for over a decade and who directed the 2011 Sundance film "Connected," is currently promoting her cloud filmmaking project, a way for organizations and others to get filmmakers all over the world to contribute to collaborative film projects on specific topics.  Shlain also recently announced that she would be creating a web series, "The Future Starts Here," about connected life, for AOL

Here is the full transcript of filmmaker Tiffany Shlain’s keynote address “The Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto” delivered at Tribeca Film Festival’s Interactive Day 2013 in New York on April 20th.

One of my favorite sayings is, "Go as far as you can see and when you get there, you'll be able to see further."

I want to thank Ingrid Kopp and her terrific team at Tribeca have created a wonderful day today letting us go as far as we can see. That’s what I really think about when I think about Cloud Filmmaking, which is this new experiment in filmmaking we’re doing that in a lot of ways explores that potential.

How many of you know who William Gibson is, the writer? He coined the term “Cyberspace.”  I recently saw him speaking and he said if you want to know where technology is headed, just look at what the artists or the criminals are doing.  So today you’re in a room full of artists who are all experimenting, and I think you’re going to see where a lot of things are headed.

I thought I’d start off with our Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto, which describes this new way of making films. I want to show you a cloud film, but before I start I wanted to ask you what I asked people to do all over the world over Facebook, Twitter and email. Close your eyes and put your hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat? Really think about, what does your heartbeat mean to you...

That’s all we asked people to do and we just did it over the Internet. We put that little message out into the ether and saw what would happen. This is the two minute cloud film that resulted...

Watch Engage here

That’s one of our cloud films and we have been able to make free customized versions of that film for over 200 nonprofits, ranging from The American Heart Association to a small nonprofit in India that gives funding for girl’s education. It’s been so exciting to us to help solve a problem that nonprofits all over the world have. They do the important work of the world and they often don’t have films/media that match the quality of what they’re doing. They’re not filmmakers, so what we do is make films about the highest level of humanity that can speak to all of us and scale it so that we could very easily make free versions for them.

So I’m going to give you the principles for cloud filmmaking that in our office we have on the wall because they guide us in this process. 

Principle #1:

To use the cloud to collaboratively create films with people from all over the world.

Principle #2:

To create films about ideas that speak to the most universal qualities of human life, focusing on what connects us, rather than what divides us.

Principle #3:

To give back as much as is received, by offering free customized films to organizations around the world to further their message.

Principle #4:

To use the cloud to translate films into as many languages as possible.

Principle #5:

To push the boundaries of both filmmaking and distribution by combining the newest collaborative tools available online with the potential of all the people in the world.

First, when I say “the cloud” I mean the Internet, anything that connects us. So principal #1 is to use the cloud collaboratively with people from all over the world. Second, create films about the universal things that connect us. There’s enough stuff in the world about the things that divide us so let’s focus on what connects us. Third, give back to the cloud as much as we receive. Fourth, translate them into as many languages as possible because that’s really how we reach and impact the most people and places. Fifth, with every film, whatever new technology is out there, we always ask, “what can we do with it? Anything that’s new on the scene “how can we use it to push the boundaries and incorporate this into cloud filmmaking.” 

Cloud filmmaking in a lot of ways really combines two major strands in my life -- the Internet and filmmaking. And there are exponential possibilities that happen from this intersection. So in the first half of the talk, I'm going to talk about the background with my career because you’re going to see the seeds of Cloud Filmmaking. And then in the second half of my talk, I’ll show you more examples of Cloud Filmmaking and what we have been able to do with it.

All of my work comes from asking questions like “What’s the history of our connectedness and our co-evolution with technology?” People talk about technology as if it’s this other thing, but it’s just an extension of us. When we couldn’t see far enough we invented a telescope, when we wanted to talk to people in other parts of the world, we invented the telephone, and now when we want to combine ideas from all over the world, we’re all creating the Internet together. So what is the potential of this superpower that we have? This new extension of connecting us.

But I’m also really interested in the other side, I’m not like, “oh everything’s fabulous, technology’s going to save the world.” I’m interested in the good, the bad, and the potential of all of this connectedness in the 21st century.

I need to take you back to the 70’s - Northern California to be specific. My mom’s a psychologist and my father was a surgeon and also a writer. Both of my parents were very interested in the mind and the brain - my mother more from the heart, my father biologically - he even brought a real brain to my classroom in 4th grade. And I was supposed to be a doctor. I was given the book, “The Making of a Woman Surgeon” on four separate occasions growing up. And I was very interested in the brain as you can imagine with that DNA, but really my first love was filmmaking.

Every Sunday night growing up we went to the movies. These are some of my favorite movies from the 70’s this was my family’s focal point of discussion, using films as a discussion point for conversation. So we would go to the movies, and go to Chinese food afterwards and break it down -- like traditional Judaism, breaking it down, analyzing everything, only the old bearded men would be Coppola and Vincente Minelli --that was our temple.

Even when my parents got divorced, it was the one tradition that stayed. It would be with separate parents, but it always happened. We used the movies as a trigger for conversation, a trigger to talk about what it means to be human, what are the morals of society. They were all these really interesting portals into the important issues of our day.

The other big event, I told you my parents got divorced, which totally sucked, but I was given an Apple iie. How many had an Apple iie? Then I was given a Mac in 1984. I want you to remember this was before the web. It’s really interesting to just look at what the world used to be like before the web. I want to take you back to that framework.

You know if you feel alone today, you have the web. But I was an unhappy, insecure teenager in high school, my parents had just gotten divorced, and I was alone alone. And then I got this Mac. This Mac was literally like my lifeline. I got to connect, not to people because then it was literally 1984 but I got to connect to libraries in other parts of the world which was like hugely exciting for me.

It was the 80’s and my family was from the Soviet Union (Russian Jews) and of course my best friend in high school’s family was from Iran. We were both really into these computers and from enemy countries and we thought, “what if we could create a program, where students all over the world could connect over the computer and we could talk about how we’re not so different.” We wrote this one-page proposal and we sent it to Barbara Boxer, who was a congresswoman at the time. The name of our proposal was Uniting Nations in Telecommunications Software (UNITAS).  From that proposal, I actually got invited to be a student ambassador to The Soviet Union in 1988. I was desperately searching for my roots, so I thought I’d find my family -and my identity. But, I went to the Soviet Union and it was the 80’s, it was very depressing, and they did not have personal computers, they did not even have enough food. But that whole trip was the beginning of my yearning for some kind of technology, a framework that would connect people all over the world.

Then I went onto UC Berkeley. I was supposed to be a doctor, you all remember that? I took a lot of sciences, which I was really interested in, but then I took a film elective class, not thinking I would ever be able to be a filmmaker. I took The History of Film and I had one of those professors who had this crazy excitement and she was that teacher that just lit the fire under my tush. Her name was Marilyn Fabe. She talked about the reason you could see a moving image and the science behind that, called the Threshold of Flicker Fusion, which is the illusion of making you see things in your mind even though they’re not really there.

She talked about how inventions in film would radically change how we recorded reality, radically change culture and the way we share ideas. I was totally hooked! So I was like, “I am going to be a filmmaker!” and my father was like, “I am not paying for you to go to college to watch Woody Allen movies!” And I’m like, “Dad, at least I’m not dating Woody Allen!” And it went back and forth, and fighting, fighting, fighting, and it was my first time standing up to him.

The one problem at UCBerkeley was that there was no film production. That was all at UCLA. So I was constantly looking for ways to make movies. What I would do is look for footage and equipment outside of the film studies department. There was a city planning department that had a flatbed editing table. I don’t know how many of you remember a flatbed editing table? And I would find old film footage from anthropology and other departments and I would edit together old movies to tell some story about society. So I got to re-contextualize. A lot of people ask me today, why do you use so much found footage in your films and I think the most creative moments come when you have constraints. I didn’t have any equipment so I learned how to tell stories through old films that I’d find. Remixing out of necessity.

But I did end up going to NYU for this 6 week crash course called Sight and Sound, where I learned to shoot and edit in film. Then I came back to Berkeley. Spike Lee had just done “Do the Right Thing” and I thought, “I’m going to make my first feature.” I started a film company, whatever that meant, called Flicker Fusion Film, and I was going to make my first film that imagined a world inside of the brain. As I told you, I was really into the brain. It was called “Zoli’s Brain.”  This is footage of me very young, not even in my 20’s (left) with a way too ambitious film that took place inside of a sculptor’s brain and with this cast of hundreds. We had so many extras, we shot on Alcatraz, where forbidden thoughts are imprisoned. Your first film is supposed to be like four actors in an apartment and this was like way too big. I kept running out of money on multiple occasions and over a 3-year period I was $30,000 in debt, I was sleeping on a friend’s couch, I had too much pride to go back to my family, and I realized I had to stop the film.

I felt like a total failure, I felt like I had let everybody down in my life that believed in me. I got really depressed and it was one of those moments I’m sure we’ve all had in our early 20’s when you’re like, “What am I doing? How am I going to make a living?”

But really, this was one of the more important times in my career. I often think that resumes would be infinitely more interesting if you listed all of your accomplishments and then there was a special section that was like, “Big things I tried that I failed at and what I learned from them.” Because I think about that time all the time even today. I think it taught me how to be a good boss. I had hundreds of people working for free. I learned what I didn’t know and what I needed to work at. So it was a really good experience.

After that, the way I crawled out of debt was by working in CDROMs. Anyone remember CDROMs? I was working on a CDROM about the artist Sting and I was at the library doing research and someone said to me, “You have to see this thing called The Web! There’s a Website, and basically all these people from around the world that like Sting’s music are talking about it on a website.” And I was like, “this is that thing!”

I moved back to San Francisco and was given the opportunity to found The Webby Awards- from scratch. It was a crazy time. San Francisco in the 90’s was kind of like the 60’s, but instead of free love it was a lot of free Internet and young people. But the same kind of energy and Mayor Giulliani tried to bring the Webby’s to New York but we kept it in San Francisco and it was just all a wild time. Google had only been alive for a couple of months and The Google Guys won their first Webby and roller-bladed onto the stage in front of a 3,000 person, sold-out theater with press from everywhere. This was a surreal 10-year period of my life.

The cool thing about doing the Webby’s was honoring people, which is such a gift. So many people, their parents never said, ‘you did a good job.’ So what we got to do with the Webby’s was in a really big, dramatic way say, ‘Good job,’ and then you keep pushing the standards of the web. We could hold up this standard of excellence and it was like we were saying “now push against this.”  It was a really exciting wonderful period of my life.

At the same time I would introduce each of the Webby’s with some 3 to 5 min film that felt like a music video of ideas about technology and the Internet, so I got to practice making movies with a budget. If you think about cloud filmmaking, technology and filmmaking were side by side at this time, but they were not intertwined.

The scene at the 2000 Webbys, directed by Shlain

Then 9/11 happened and I think everyone can attest to how much soul searching everybody did. I decided I really wanted to give back to society more. Bush had just come into power and the first thing he did was take away funding for women’s family planning all over the world. So I approached Planned Parenthood with a co-writer, who’s in the audience, my best friend, and we approached them and we said, “we want to make a hip short film for you with archival footage, ironic like my style, about reproductive choice and get it in for the election to engage our generation.” So they were like, ‘great we would love the help, we don’t have anything like that.’

So we made this film and it got into Sundance. It started playing around the world and Planned Parenthoods got to use it at their 30 year anniversary of Roe v Wade. It was this real ‘aha!’ moment for me, realizing that I can help nonprofits with film, combined with the power of the web, to make a true impact.

Also, I wanted to be a mom. So during the Webby’s I was working 100 hour weeks, I had just gotten married, and I’m like, how do I do this and be a good mom? How do I work less and have more impact? That was really something I was struggling with. At the Webby’s, not only was I work 100 hour weeks, every year you have to one-up yourself the next year. And here I made this film and it took 4 months and to this day, in 2013, that film still plays at reproductive rights events around the country. That is so much more of an efficient use of my creative energy to make an impact in the world.

I think a lot of women here can attest to that, it’s a real challenge. How do you contribute to society and be a very present mother? The Internet is what the feminists all over the world needed to be able to do both.

So I promptly got pregnant. We sold The Webby Awards to good people in New York and I stayed with it for two more years while it transitioned here in New York. Then I also started The Moxie Institute, to use film and the web to promote change in the world.

The other big development that was happening in that period, 2004/2006, was YouTube. So suddenly videos were available anywhere you had the Internet. It really changed the way that I made movies too. Before this, if I wanted to find a shot of a woman from the 50’s I would have to go through all these old dusty closets of reels to find that shot. Now, I go on the Internet and type in, ‘1950’s car, woman’ and I don’t even finish the word ‘waving’ and I have 30 shots to choose from. I was like a kid in a candy store, making movies with all this archival footage, it was so exciting to me.

I finally wanted to tackle a feature film again and I wanted to look at connectedness, I’d spent all this time on the Webbys and how technology is changing us, I wanted to go back to the Big Bang to the Industrial Revolution and where it’s taking us.

A few things were different for me making a film this time. Remember when I was younger and we used films as such a trigger of conversation? Well all of our films at The Moxie Institute come with these kits (right) because we view films as a moveable feast.

I want you guys to have the tools to have your own conversations that I used to have growing up. We develop these as we’re making the film, we provide discussion cards and all this stuff that makes the experience more rich. The film is the appetizer and the discussion you have is the main course.

The other thing I started working on, I didn’t want to shoot again, I told you from Zoli’s Brain that was a traumatic experience for me, but I wanted to express complicated ideas without going out on these big shoots. I spent a lot of time with great animators to develop these ideas, like how do I show innovation.

We spent 2 years on that animation. It was really fun for me and my team to think of ideas and try to visualize them.

The other thing was that my father finally came around to the idea of me being a filmmaker, and I actually invited him to co-write this movie, and my co-writer’s in the audience, Sawyer Steele, and I said, “Dad, you know you wrote about the history of connectedness, write a movie with us!”

We were in the middle of this big movie about connectedness in all of civilization and looking at where this connectedness came from and why we have such a desire to be texting and emailing all of the time. Where does that come from? Why are we doing this so much? That was my big question.

In the middle of production, my father was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer and given 9 months to live. The same week, I found out I was pregnant. Suddenly, I was thinking about connectedness on a whole different level and I realized our film did not have anything to do with emotional connectedness. I realized, it was my 8th film, that I had to enter the film. Because to look at why we were texting and emailing, it’s all about our desire to feel connected. And where do we learn how to feel connected? It’s from our parents. Whether it was good or bad, that’s how we learn. All of this technology is about this oxytocin rush and feeling loved and connected. So we took apart the film and weaved back and forth between the history of humanity and my own story of connectedness. Here is the trailer for that film:

In a lot of ways, Cloud Filmmaking really came from putting the ideas of Connected into action. In the film there is an emotional climax and then there’s an intellectual climax which come together around the question, “What is the world going to look like when everyone’s connected online?” It’s not that far away, that everyone’s going to have access. What can we do with that?

So at The Moxie Institute, we thought, lets make a movie with all the people that we can. The last line of the film was, “perhaps it’s time to declare our interdependence.” So we went to a visionary funder and I say that because it was such a hunch, it had not been proven. And I said, ‘we have a hunch that we could try to make a movie with people from all over the world and here’s our experiment,’ and they beautifully supported us. We wrote a 1 page script and this is what it was...

We put the script out on Twitter and Facebook and asked people to record themselves reading it. We also worked with the artist community at Talenthouse and asked them to illustrate the words/sections of the script. We got entries from Haiti, Africa, India and more. It was so exciting.  Here is the 4 minute film that resulted from this. This was our first experiment in Cloud Filmmaking...

Link to A Declaration of Interdependence.

So that was our first cloud film. We were so excited by this, it was like the whole world opened up to us. Then we worked with dotSUB and we said, “Lets invite the world to help us translate this movie.” Within 6 weeks we had it translated into 65 different languages by volunteer translators through dotSUB. I had a short film that had played at Tribeca and a lot of other festivals, and maybe it got translated into 5 languages over 10 years. So to have all of this happen and go so wide in 6 weeks, it was so beautiful.

The last part of of what we call Cloud Films, is to help more nonprofits on a wider scale. If this film was about the highest level, who couldn’t agree with this idea that we’re all interdependent? So we sent the word out to nonprofits that we would change the ending of this movie to their call to action, put their logo and their URL, and we would make a free film for them. They would be able to use it at events, in newsletters, on Facebook, on websites, or however they wanted.

Here’s an example from Hope Phones, we just changed the ending to say, “declare your interdependence by...donating your old cell phone,” and added their logo. We spend a lot of time working with the nonprofits finding what their call to action is and suddenly they have this movie that looks like it’s their movie. For this movie we were able to make a hundred free customized versions in just a year. We’re a small team, but it was so exciting to be able to help so many more nonprofits all over the world and the important work that they do.

We are planning to make 12-15 of these films, about all the things that connect us as humans; generosity, power, money, death, wisdom, happiness, gratitude and so on. We’re going to cover the whole gamut.

I have to tell you that at The Moxie Institute, in addition to making these films and Connected, we also look at the absurdity of our connectedness. I’m going to show you a 1.5 min film that has nothing to do with a cloud film, but you seem like the perfect audience to show you about the absurdity of where all this connectedness could lead.

Now, back to Cloud Filmmaking. The next cloud film we made was about a very complex important issue, on how to best nurture children’s brains. We had all this very exciting research out of Harvard and The University of Washington of how to best nurture children’s brains. And who doesn’t want a better world for their child? This time we asked a lot more of our audience to experiment on this with us. We asked people to send from their cell phones video of their kids running into their arms. It’s a ten minute film and this time we really started to put the cloud filmmaking process into the film itself.

The other thing that happened is, while we were working on the script, is the TED conference approached me to do a book and I thought this would be a really great way to contextualize all  of this research we did on the film and go a little deeper.

So it was kind of backwards with writing my first book, I had a script and I used that as an outline and then showed all the research that was used to create that one line. It was a really interesting process that I had never done. TEDbooks are for the ipad so that allowed us to really stretch adding videos into the text linking out. We also now have a printed version.

It was interesting to think about 20 years later: Remember Zoli’s Brain. That film was made with heavy equipment, I was trying to do it by myself, we had one film, it was 80 minutes, and one language. Twenty years later, Brain Power was made using light collaborative tools, there are hundreds of versions, there was still a cast of hundreds, but they were shooting themselves in their own great locations, they were their own crew, they sent in their beautiful footage.  It was like we were able to direct them from our studio in SF to people located all over the world. It was a shorter film and it will be in 65 languages and it’s also a book.

It’s so interesting how the whole storytelling subject was the same, but how it just evolved in such a way with Cloud Filmmaking.

We’re working on a film right now, The Science of Character that is all about how character strengths are shapeable, malleable and teachable and we’ll be finishing that soon. You can see that movie soon through our site.

If you’re interested in how we make them, we engage a lot of our community.  We would love to have you join us. This is just an example: we were working on The Science of Character film and we were on Facebook one night working on the film, and we asked, “what are ways to strengthen optimism?” We had so many - we have almost 20,000 people on our Facebook page and through Twitter and I encourage you all if you’re interested in making films this way to play with us because it’s very fun, the give and take. We get such creative juice from our community and now at this point everyone knows what we’re doing. It was very hard to explain what we were trying to do so it’s really fun for us.

In just a year and a half, with our small team of 4 people, we’ve been able to make nearly 500 of these free films for the nonprofits and what’s exciting to us is to now show how they’re connected. All the nonprofits in all the different areas, ‘look at all these different people working in these different areas, you’re all interdependent. How can you work together?’ We’re just building this on our website, we have their call to actions on there and how they can communicate. So eventually we will do something with all of them.

Some insights I’d like to share with you about cloud filmmaking...

1. You have to sometimes experiment with your requests. Sometimes we’ve asked questions of our community that were way too complicated. Like once we asked, “what do you think the future’s going to hold?” and we got no responses. So it’s really interesting, you’re always experimenting.

2. Also, it takes a lot more time than you think. We spend a lot of time with the nonprofits catering their message. We also want to make sure we are representing people from around the world. If we don’t get footage from enough places, or we feel like this area isn’t represented, we’ll really work hard to find filmmakers to get footage from that place.

3. A lot of the nonprofits still think there’s a catch. We tell them we want to make a free film for them to further their work. They’re like, “What do you want from me?” I really can’t believe that we got this beautiful grant to do it and it’s so much fun to be say, “Nope, you really just get it.”

4. Lastly, all of you in this room [on the web], if you want to experiment in this, you all have a community. Your email list, your Facebook group... Everyone wants to participate in something larger than themselves. That’s been the biggest lesson from this whole process.

One of the hardest things for us has been to explain what we’re doing so I’m really excited to premiere for you today, a two minute film about Cloud Filmmaking. We hope that this will explain what we’re doing to help more nonprofits and we’ll get a lot more people involved and we’re loving expanding it.

Here it is...

So to go back to my college film professor, Marilyn Fabe, remember how excited she got about every new technology? There is so much more potential and accessibility with new technologies today. The one I’m most excited about is when the iPhone put that little button that allowed you to film yourself. There’s a rawness and authenticity that I could never capture when I was filming people before. When people are like this, filming themselves, it is so raw and I think that that is the magic of these films.

Abraham Maslow once said, “If you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.” and I’ll add to that if you have a camera in your hand, everything tells a story, and there has never been a more exciting time to tell stories today.

Thank you!

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This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Technology, Filmmaker Toolkit, Documentary, Crowd Sourcing, Crowd Funding, Kickstarter , IndieGoGo