Almost as soon as the film industry shut down, discussions began about how to restart it. Judging from the plans that have been passed around by insiders, the future of movie-making in a COVID-19 world could involve quarantined crews, frequent temperature checks, state-of-the-art hand-washing stations, prepackaged catering, a complete absence of on-location shooting and extras, and perhaps a ban on kissing and sex scenes.
But until people are comfortable congregating less than two metres from one another, all of Hollywood’s grand and increasingly creative plans – what if we treated a soundstage like a hermetically sealed bio-dome? – are just that: plans. We can wait for the COVID-19 curve to flatten or even until a vaccine arrives in a year or two or three, but movies as we traditionally know them just won’t be made. Which is why, in the meantime, we might see an entirely different kind of film emerge.
Timur Bekmambetov is the current king of tweaking, stretching, breaking and reshaping our expectations of what a movie is or can be. The Russian filmmaker, best known in North America for his dizzying and hyperviolent 2009 Angelina Jolie thriller Wanted, and his never-completed Night Watch fantasy trilogy, has made a new name for himself over the past decade through his company Bazelevs, which produces films that don’t require the resources of a traditional cast and crew.
The most interesting thing in our life happens on the screens of our gadgets.— Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov
Bazelevs’s Screenlife technology – which creates movies that take place almost entirely within the frame of characters’ computer screens or smartphones – was instrumental in filming the Unfriended horror franchise, the 2019 John Cho-led thriller Searching and Bekmambetov’s 2018 political thriller Profile. Bekmambetov also completed his latest film, the Second World War drama V2. Escape from Hell, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in an entirely virtual manner: He placed his lead actor inside a prop cockpit on a sparsely manned St. Petersburg sound stage, surrounded it with LED screens displaying video-game footage of aerial dogfights produced by off-site players, and directed it all from his home 1,200 kilometres away in Kazan, Tatarstan.
“For the past seven years, we have been patiently biding our time with Screenlife, and the time is now,” Bekmambetov says in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “I’ve long been convincing my partners that the most interesting thing in our life happens on the screens of our gadgets. But they objected, saying that real life and the real world are more significant. What is happening in the world now has cut that back – the world of screens is now our main world. It’s obvious that we need to tell stories about today’s problems, dreams, joys and misfortunes, and to tell them on our screens.”
Bekmambetov, whose next Screenlife project is the crowd-sourced anthology film Tales from the Quarantine, is naturally bullish on his technology. It not only limits the number of crew members needed, but also lowers a film’s budget; Searching and the Unfriended films cost only around US$1-million each. “I am positive that Screenlife will be one of the main media forms for the next 10 years,” he says, but concedes that this means filmmakers will have to adapt to new ways of working on and thinking about film.
“Filmmaking and film critique have always been conservative and dismissive of new technological solutions. All these people appreciate the traditional way of making movies – they studied at film schools, climbed the career ladder from assistants to producers. It means a lot for them to sit in an actual director’s chair and shout, ‘Action!’” he says. “But what happened to all of us with the pandemic, it cut off that road. And now, no matter whether you want it or not, you will have to learn new formats. The cinema that we know so far will never be the same. I’m not saying that the whole movie industry will be like that. But it will get transformed.”
Yet, not everyone’s idea of entertainment is to watch someone else’s computer screen for two hours. And despite the potentially high return of a Screenlife movie (Searching earned US$75-million, with the two Unfriended instalments bringing in almost US$100-million), production is not exactly tailor-made for the current pandemic age, either.
“It’s funny, because I’ve seen a lot on Twitter lately about how easy it would be to make a computer-screen movie right now, and I don’t want to say that couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s pretty far from the truth,” says Aneesh Chaganty, director of Searching. “It’s probably very easy to make something low-fi, but Searching as a whole wasn’t. Even when we were shooting John [Cho]’s face, there’s a crew of people making that day work. You still need an actor, director, makeup, sound person, script supervisor all in one space.”
“It’s a bit of a cynical opinion,” he adds, “but I’m only sharing this because it’s what we’re talking about now every day, in the process of making Searching 2. It sounds nice that a ‘screen’ movie may be able to help, but I’m pretty sure that the entire industry is screwed right now.”
Filmmakers could cozy up, though, to another option, albeit one that’s equally polarizing: the digital backlot. In 2004, first-time director Kerry Conran teamed up with veteran producer Jon Avnet to make Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a sci-fi adventure that was filmed without physical sets. Instead, actors including Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow performed on barren sound stages against blue-screen backdrops, with the surrounding action digitally composed afterward.
The film was a more time-crunched and technically challenging effort than Conran anticipated, and its outre aesthetics were not widely adopted afterward, with the exception of one-off genre films such as 300 and the Sin City movies. (A more extensive, and expensive, evolution of the concept can be found in director Jon Favreau’s “live-action” Disney reboots: The Jungle Book and last year’s The Lion King.) But today’s technology and physical-distancing restrictions could combine to bring the concept back in fashion.
“So much has changed since we made Sky Captain, especially in terms of internet speed and technology, so I do think it’s a possibility for filmmakers now,” says Marsha Oglesby, one of the movie’s producers. “You wouldn’t need a big crew on set and, apart from the actors, you would probably be able to shoot using social distancing. The real issue would be just the process of creating the ‘digital’ film crew, because it’s so unlike a traditional crew in that everyone is working at a computer instead of on an actual set, but, again, great for social distancing.”
Though the US$70-million Sky Captain didn’t set the world on fire – earning just US$57.9-million globally, with Conran yet to make a second feature – it could be a temporary solution. Or offer elements of one.
“For 2004, Sky Captain was an amazing accomplishment. The limit of what can be done is the limit of the filmmaker. The bottom line is that this technology is available, it’s usable," says Avnet, who continues to keep in touch with the press-shy Conran. “But if history is any lesson, it teaches me that I’m not a great predictor. It won’t be the workaround for all the issues of the pandemic, but it can clearly be a workaround for some of the issues in the interim.”
There is always the one genre which necessitates zero in-person human interaction at all: animation. Since the pandemic broke, Canada’s Thunderbird Entertainment content studio has transitioned its 1,000-plus team to remote work. And unlike most furlough-hit production companies, Thunderbird has bulked up, “virtually onboarding” new staff in Vancouver and Los Angeles to help ensure the company’s animated production pipeline remains undisturbed.
“I give full credit to our IT department, who came to me in February and said, ‘We’re watching what’s happening in Asia, so let’s plan for the worst and hope for the best.’ We got a new firewall, began testing VPN ports, delivered equipment to people’s houses curbside, and everybody is up and functioning,” says Jennifer Twiner McCarron, chief executive of Thunderbird. “It’s also a good time for animation, because people need family-friendly content.”
Thunderbird has made all its deadlines so far and has been approached by producers looking to make adult-oriented animation, and even animate what were once intended as live-action commercials. “Anecdotally I’m seeing that people are thinking of this as a medium that can still work,” McCarron adds.
If none of these options appeal to not only filmmakers, but audiences, too, then Bekmambetov has another, more apocalypse-ready vision. “I don’t know, maybe the screens will disappear altogether,” he muses, “and we’ll receive information directly to the brain.” Godspeed, cinema.
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