Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 10 (Oct 2003)

Made for Mobile


The World's Smallest Film Festival merges state-of-the-art technology, creative video and animation, and the mobile medium.

Mobile technology is advancing at a rapid rate, and computer graphics professionals are taking full advantage of it and the audience it provides. "The market is huge, with a current market potential of a billion handset users," insists Beau Buck, CEO and founder of BigDigit Inc., a leader in the aggregation and distribution of independent mobile video and mobile animation content. In some markets, such as Mexico and Japan, more people own mobile phones than land lines, he explains.

The rapid increase in mobile phone adoption is perhaps influenced by recent advancements in phone technology. The Sony Ericsson P800, as an example, is equipped with 12MB of memory, and a memory stick can add another 128MB. Says Buck, "Basically now what you're looking at is a portable video player in your hand."

Based in Los Angeles, BigDigit produces The World's Smallest Film Festival a few times annually in major cities around the globe. Said to be the first of its kind, the competitive event showcases digital video content designed for the latest generation of mobile devices, including cell phones, personal data assistants (PDAs), and more.

When the staff of BigDigit launched The World's Smallest Film Festival in March at CTIA (Cellular Telecommuni-cations & Internet Association) Wireless 2003 in New Orleans, a community for creating content for mobile media did not yet exist. "The first time out, it definitely was a concept that no one had heard of," Buck admits. "It was really quite difficult for us to get films because people didn't know how to create for the small format. It's actually not as complicated as it seems, but we saw an opportunity to demystify and simplify the concept."

According to Buck, the process of creating mobile films requires a unique approach and is not without its challenges. "You have to consider the mobile device and its specific screen resolution, frame rate, and bit rate," he says. "You have to know the limitations of the viewing platform and work backwards." For example, the low frame rates common in a majority of today's cell phones prove problematic for films having a large number of quick cuts or lacking a fair amount of contrast. Buck recalls one submission to the London Film Festival, saying, "It was visually interesting but, because it was made up of all pale greens and yellows and smoky colors, you won't actually see anything when you put that on a phone. I'm sure when they authored it, they took great care to choose exactly those characteristics, but when it gets flattened out, and the bit rate is low, and the frame rate gets chopped up, it won't be interesting."

"You want to keep your colors as primary and as bright as possible, because it just looks better on the screen," advises Frank Chindamo, vice president of development at The Pritcher Company in Beverly Hills, California. "The difference between a subtle beige and charcoal doesn't really read on a mobile device, but using red and blue does work."

A successful writer and producer, Chindamo has an impressive track record in film. In 1988, he started the short-film company FunLittleMovies.com. Having developed interstitial programming for such networks as ShowTime, Comedy Central, PBS, CBS, and Playboy, he now is involved in the production of both features and TV shows at The Pritcher Company. One captivating commercial directed, produced, and written by Chindamo's partner, Noelle Aimee Kozoll, Hard Day at the Office, is reported to be the first commercial to play on a wireless handheld device in the US. Making its premiere at the CTIA 2003 convention, Hard Day at the Office is a comedic, digital video advertisement, which was not only originally part of a Public Service Announcement program, but also selected to be the first spot programmed onto a cell phone in the US by the CTIA president.

Frank Chindamo and his team created Oh My God!, a short mobile film that won in the Comedy category at The World's Smallest Film Festival during CTIA Wireless 2003. Oh My God! and other innovative films are featured online at www.LoveBytes.net and www




Considered a pioneer of mobile filmmaking, Chindamo took first place in the Comedy category at The World's Smallest Film Festival at CTIA 2003 for Oh My God!, a film produced by David Traub and a winner in two categories at the same event. Starring Dave Fennoy, soap-star Kevin Spirtas from "Days of our Lives," and Playboy model Rhonda Shear from "USA Up All Night," Oh My God! is but one of six films in Chindamo's Love Bytes series (available online at www.LoveBytes.net) developed for the mobile environment and for integration with the Web-date service from People2People.com. "I think comedy is the genre best suited to the mobile medium. Actually, if television is a medium, then mobile is an extra small," he says with a laugh.

Just as the nuances of subtle humor are lost in the small format, drama also is less suited to the small screen, Chindamo reasons. "How can you take a picture so small seriously? Creatively speaking, you have to be more over the top. If you look at the films on LoveBytes.net, you'll see that they're broad, silly, and zany."

Aside from a trusty digital video camera, what tools does Chindamo employ in his craft? "I used a pen—that was my favorite tool—and then a Philips screwdriver after that," he jokes. "For screenwriting, Cinovation's Scriptware is the best program. For authoring, we cut DV shorts on Apple's Final Cut Pro and everything else on Avid." In fact, Kozoll has worked as a post producer and editor for 10 years. And then for the uploads, everything was saved in QuickTime, an export format that compresses video and audio.

All things considered, Chindamo and Kozoll find it neither more nor less difficult to create compelling visual content for mobile devices, as compared to broadcast and the Web. Chindamo adds, "One isn't better or harder than another. They are just different." And he intends to continue creating mobile films. "As far as the future goes, I'm in favor of it."

Another gifted artist, Shirin Kouladjie is excited about the future of mobile media. "I have many projects in mind, and I think the Web and the mobile platform will keep me very busy in the coming years." Until The World's Smallest Film Festival made its debut, Kouladjie had not created work for the mobile medium. "The festival got me thinking more seriously about the platform and its applications in art. I have always been interested in exploring new modes of expression. Designed for private, one-to-one communications, it is a personal and intimate device with new properties that could be explored in art."

While experimenting with film and video, Kouladjie has been learning about mobile devices and the potential they hold. "One has to understand the medium, and explore its unique expressive possibilities," he advises. Kouladjie specializes in photomontage, defined on his Web site (www.photomontage.com) as "the technique of making a picture by assembling pieces of photographs, often in combination with other types of graphic material." Not purely made for mobile, his submission to the Festival—Mr. Shane, in the Experi-mental category—is a video project that was transferred to the mobile format. Following the first Festival at the CTIA event, he began work on a series of interactive made-for-mobile loops and a mobile version of his "Days of my life" projects (www.daysofmylife.org).

Edmundo Roman, too, was waiting for a format like mobile to come along. For years, he had been making outside-the-norm, live-action films ranging in length from 15 seconds to three minutes. "I have a background in conceptual art and fine art, so what I was doing as a university student didn't fit in, but now it's perfect for this kind of media. It was very difficult until a format like this came long, which suddenly seemed to fit with a lot of the ideas that I had. The Festival seemed to put it all into perspective."

With school behind him, Roman now lives an independent, underground filmmaker's life. He creates commercials and music videos for prominent companies, such as Nike and Hugo Boss, affording him the opportunity to produce his own works. "When I have the time and money, I work on my own projects, ones that I had to put on the shelf," the director and filmmaker explains. "I always have things on the go, waiting for an opportunity, an outlet, and I adapt them to whatever opportunity comes along. I like adapting to different creative challenges, such as coming up with ideas that would work on a format that demands a very different attention span."











Mr. Shane, Shirin Kouladjie's entry in the Experimental category at The World's Smallest Film Festival, combines captivating video transitions and vintage film footage.




Filmmakers are finding that the mobile medium is not just a format. It's a state of mind. Mobile films, as in the case of those highlighted in The World's Smallest Film Festival, should be designed to fit not only a small screen size, but also the on-the-go nature of wireless devices. "It's a challenge, a mental challenge, of how to deliver ideas that work on such a small device in short frames of time, as you are waiting for a bus or going up on a lift," says Roman. "The idea of making films that are going to be watched in a non-conventional way—it's something that really tickled me."

Understanding that cell phone users will be distracted by outside elements, Roman plays with viewers' attention spans, likening his work to a slap in the face. "I come in with something grabbing from the beginning and then try to maintain that level," he claims. "You have to have ideas that work immediately and that offer something original. Bring all the qualities that you want as a filmmaker, but condensed to an essence, and then expand from that point." Roman says that he turns the films inside out, rather than progressing from beginning to end.











Edmundo Roman's talent, especially in conveying motion through creative video editing, is evident in Falls, which won in the Experimental category at the first Festival.




Roman submitted four films to the Festival, one of which, Falls, won in the Experimental category at the first Festival. Although his four submissions were a combination of digital and analog film, as well as a mix of styles, the end result was always a digital video file. According to Roman, thanks to digital tools, the creative process is for him a direct and enjoyable experience, and much more immediate than ever before. Roman's typical jobs, including television commercials, involve a specific process that can take a month to complete; alternatively, he can produce a made-for-mobile film within three days. "You can afford to experiment," notes Roman. "You simply can erase the parts you don't want."

Among the digital video solutions Roman em-ploys is Apple Final Cut Pro on a Mac G4 laptop. "The technology is idiot-proof these days, so people can conceive, create, send, and publish or distribute without knowing what formats are involved," he says. "Apple made it easy enough for people like me, from the creative side, to come up with something that is creatively novel without having to worry about the technical part. And so the future in terms of mobile is very exciting. A lot of filmmakers have material ready to move into this new generation of entertainment."

Still evolving, the market for mobile content doubtless has a promising future. With luck, the work of these and other made-for-mobile content gurus will inspire other filmmakers and businesses to investigate and invest in the mobile format, and other platforms to come.

When embarking on a creative endeavor, Kouladjie recommends implementing technologies that have the best chance of standing the test of time. "I think it is important to keep in mind that the mobile platform has not stabilized yet. It is similar to the early days of the Internet; we have to think about creating a work that could be viewed on major devices now, and also propagated to future platforms."











Hard Day at the Office, a unique and entertaining made-for-mobile film from Noelle Aimee Kozoll, made its official debut at CTIA Wireless 2003 as the first commercial to play on a mobile device in the US.




Although confident that the use of imagery on phones will continue, BigDigit's Buck admits that he doesn't know what's in store for mobile content, filmmakers, and devices. "It's not going to be cozying up to the fireplace and watching Gone with the Wind on your cell phone," he says. "But it could be video greeting cards, video ringtones, or training material. Imagine how useful it would be as a job seeker to have preloaded on your phone a one-minute film on the five things you must remember when you go into a job interview. You just watch it when you're going up the elevator."

However mobile content does evolve, it's clear that we are witnessing the birth of a new era in communications. Indeed, gifted content creators are proving that advanced multimedia-enabled mobile technology no longer is simply a means of exchanging visual information, it's also the foundation of a new art form. (For more information on the roots of this movement, see "Three-Minute Movies," pg. 52.)

Courtney E. Howard is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.




Filmmakers are becoming increasingly informed about the latest mobile-filmmaking tools, techniques, and technologies. "I once received a movie that was one-minute long and compressed to 108MB," recalls BigDigit's Beau Buck. "There's no way that is going to work on a phone. But, just the other day, I received a Western and it was 2 to 3 minutes long and less than 1MB. They knew what they were doing."

Content creators have a number of authoring packages from which to choose when designing for mobile, including QuickTime, Real Media, Helix Producer Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, Packet Video, and others.

Following are a few guidelines filmmakers should keep in mind when creating animated or digital video content for mobile devices:

  • Frame rate can be as low as 5–7 FPS, so quick edits may get lost in encoding.
  • Screen size can be as small as 176x144, so close-ups and medium shots are more effective than wide shots that would work on the big screen.
  • Resolution can be quite low, so high-contrast works translate better.
  • Copious soundtracks can get lost and add significantly to file size.
  • Language-agnostic content may reach a wider audience because not everyone speaks English.


"Whether specific mobile video content can be shown on a certain phone ultimately comes down to the player installed on the device," explains Buck. And as phone and video-authoring options increase, the mobile market continues to grow and change. Although he's unsure precisely how and when, Buck is certain that the mobile media phenomenon will change the landscape that has been established to date by some of the dominant players. —CEH

The new Nokia 3650, complete with a color display, is just one of the phones upon which users can view made-for-mobile films and other content.




TOOLBOX

Apple Computer www.apple.com

Cinovation www.cinovation.com

Real Networks www.realnetworks.com

Packet Video www.packetvideo.com
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