Film As Cheap as Pencil and Paper

Jean Cocteau once said “Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote as I transition from butoh into film. As a butoh dancer, all I needed to do my art was my body and maybe someone to do lights the night of the show. Sometimes for outdoor performances not even a lighting person.

Of course, my performances were often more elaborate than that, but the point is that at a minimum all I needed to practice my art was myself. I didn’t need anyone’s permission .

Film, at least as it’s generally practiced, is an entirely different game. It’s expensive and takes fundraising or investors.

I’m not use to needing someone else’s permission to do my art. I don’t like that feeling.

In our bright new digital world, we haven’t quite reached the “cheap as pencil and paper” that Cocteau was dreaming about, but we’re getting closer.

Of course, one of the things that make filmmaking so expensive is that it takes a lot of people to do and artists want and deserve to be paid. I’m proud to say that everyone on the set of my first, self-funded, no-budget film received some pay, not a lot, certainly not industry standard, but something.

However, I can’t help but feel that another thing keeping us back is our holding on to an aesthetic of expensive film. We’re so used to seeing multi-million dollar productions that when we see something with a lower budget, we are somehow disappointed or see it as inferior.

So I’m thinking about a new aesthetic of film, one that’s based on the needs of people and of artists, not the marketing needs of Hollywood.

I’m looking for inspiration to silent films, and to the films of the early avante-garde. One I particularly enjoyed was “The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra.” An experimental film made in 1928 that’s available on the Kino release “Avant Garde – Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s, Vol. 1.”

Among more modern filmmakers, Guy Maddin, one of my favorite living directors, is very interesting. If you don’t know his work, I urge you to check it out, especially, “The Heart of the World”, “Brand Upon the Brain”, and “My Winnipeg.”

Also interesting was Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” which was filmed on a bare stage, with chalk outlines on the floor , a few props, and written signs representing the locations. This conceit wouldn’t work for every film, but worked well with the themes and tone of that one.

We live in an exciting time. Internet video has already primed audiences to appreciate the entertainment and even artistic values of films that reflect a hand-made aesthetic.

A couple of good resources for DIY filmmakers: John Reiss’ book “Think Outside the Box Office” is a good, thorough rundown of the tools available to today’s filmmakers interested in self-funding and self promoting.

Also the website Workbook Project is dedicated to offering independent filmmakers innovative ideas to help develop, fund and distribute their own work.