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

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

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…

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


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
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

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
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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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
letitripple.org 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

Thank you!

Stay in touch with us / join our lively daily discussions at:

twitter & instagram: @tiffanyshlain




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