Mass transit: The Disposable Film Festival celebrates work made with nonprofessional and one-time-use equipment with a "bike-in" screening Wednesday.

Ideas that Last at the Disposable Film Festival

Adam Hartzell May 11, 2010

It’s the drive-in movie that’s been disposed of, but it was the Disposable Film Festival which last year popularized (or perhaps debuted) the "bike-in movie," the drive-in’s timely replacement in the peak oil era. In fact, the idea is not a disposable one at all, but a repeatable experiment in audience agency and participation. This Wednesday, May 12, the day before Bike to Work Day, the bike-in tradition continues as the folks behind the Disposable Film Festival return to vicinity of the Good Hotel to screen winners from DFF’s 2010 Competitive Shorts program from 8-10 p.m. In preparation for this event, I sat down for a chat with DFF Festival Director and cofounder Carlton Evans, Art Director Rebecca Bortman, and Jessica Meek, project coordinator for one of the sponsors of this year’s DFF, Globe Bikes.

SF360: How did the Disposable Film Festival begin? Where did you see a need for this?

Carlton Evans: It started about four years ago when I met the co-founder, Eric Slatkin, [and] he showed me what was literally this disposable digital video camera that had just come out on the market. It was $20, you shoot 20 minutes of video, you take it [and] process it onto a DVD, and you have 20 minutes of footage. And this just seemed like a revolution in filmmaking because it really seemed to lower the bar for everyone to make footage. Now that these cameras were so cheap, not only could everyone afford them, you could afford to destroy it in the making of the film. It seemed to lend itself to all kinds of shots and filmmaking techniques that hadn’t existed before because you weren’t going to take your $100,000 camera and throw it off a building or send it up in an air balloon.

SF360: And that’s one of the things I wanted to touch on. With these video-capturing devices, what have you found they allow for, like, how have people appropriated them to create steady-cams and things like that?

Evans: There’s sort of a secondary market of homemade, like you said, steady-cams and all kinds of ways of creating dolly shots and all sorts of ways to replicate more professional filmmaking techniques. But what we’ve found is that soon after this one-time-use digital video camera came out, video cameras became ubiquitous in cell phones, webcams were built into laptops. These cameras were literally popping up everywhere. And there were all types of options in terms of how to make a film. What we started to notice was that a kind of vocabulary was developing. The disposable cameras lent themselves very well to more kinetic filmmaking. People like throwing it, tossing it around, putting it on their skateboard, or whatever. [Whereas] a webcam has this incredibly intimate sensibility. When you’re watching someone on a webcam you get a sense that you’re in the midst of a confessional mode of filmmaking. Someone’s telling me their deepest thoughts or they’re communicating a very intimate message because it’s a one-to-one relationship over an often very far distance. And point-and-shoot cameras lend themselves to a more voyeuristic kind of filmmaking because they are literally camouflaged. It’s a cell phone. People don’t realize that they’re shooting . . .

SF360: That’s also something I definitely wanted to discuss. I’ll start with the voyeurism. These video-capturing devices have a slight ‘taint’ to them, the surveillance aspect and the lecherous aspect with, for example, sexting. How do you see the Disposable Film Festival either ‘cleansing’ that taint or confronting it head-on?

Evans: I wouldn’t think of it as cleansing it or confronting. I would actually think of it as things that are built into the medium. Film has always been associated with sex. Photography was immediately associated with pornography, same with film. When 3-D film came into being, the reason why they stopped making 3-D films was it became so associated with porn that you couldn’t really market a 3-D film that was, like, a legit film. And then with the video revolution in the ’80s, all the porn theatres shut down because of that new distribution system. Even now, with the digital video that we see on the web, time and time again, the innovations are in the porn industry. So the association with commercial sex and film has always been there. If anything, it’s almost a marker of the innovation of these technologies.

SF360: So what about the surveillance aspect, the ethics of consent?

Evans: I think that’s a much larger issue. I think our whole society is being transformed by the fact that we’re constantly being [watched]. Not just by video cameras, but every time we use a bank card or a credit card, or all these transactions that we do. You can literally trace somebody’s travels through their financial transactions. I think disposable media is very much about that zeitgeist. I don’t really see it as a problem. There’s always consent issues with all this stuff. . . . So it’s a much, much larger thing about our society than just surveillance cameras and having your cell phone video that’s on a public bus . . . I think those practices speak to that reality.

SF360: What sort of aesthetics have arisen from this type of technology?

Rebecca Bortman: It goes beyond someone just duct-taping their camera to a skateboard and going. It’s the artistic vision that comes from that. Anyone can film an evacuation from a hurricane-warning area. But how do they make that into an interesting film that people would want to see after the hurricane has passed? Certainly we don’t want to dictate what the overall voice should be or what the overall style should look like of all the films we show, but I think it is starting to develop as a more sophisticated medium. And that’s what we want to showcase.

SF360: Carlton mentioned ‘The Confessional’ style afforded by webcam technology. Do you have any other examples of genres that are emerging from these technologies? The skateboarding example Rebecca just gave is really interesting, because skateboards have enabled dolly-like movement for filmmakers who can’t afford dollies. What other genres are emerging from this?

Bortman: It kinda changes from year to year. The previous year, travel videos were huge. So we got a ton of submissions, but there were a couple gems within that volume that took the form beyond just filming out the window of your car into a more artistic film.

Evans: It’s clear people are taking them with them on trips and creating travelogues, but this year, one thing that we’ve seen more than anything else, and to some really, really interesting effects, is photo-motion. It’s really a genre that has emerged as a result of these technologies. Point-and-shoot cameras generally have a function where they take one photo per minute or one photo every 15 seconds and you can sort of stitch that together into a film. Actually, this year’s grand prize winner is a film called Lucia from Chile.

Bortman: It’s incredible.

Evans: It’s this beautiful nightmarish film–we’ll be showing it at the Bike-In–that is entirely done with photo-motion and wall-drawings, showing the transformation of this room as recorded through photo-motion.

SF360: How did the synergy around the Bike-In happen?

Bortman: Carlton loves bikes. [Everyone laughs.]

Evans: We were sort of brainstorming alternative ways of showing our programs. Part of what we wanted to do was to bring the theater experience back in to it. We’re used to seeing these things on [different Internet video platforms], but it’s a totally different experience when you’re in a theatre with a full sound system, full projection. It completely transforms the videos. They seem monumental.

So we were playing around with different ideas of alternative screenings and we were kind of toying with the idea of doing a drive-in, but we didn’t really want to do a drive-in. As Rebecca said, I love bikes. We decided to pull this thing together that would be more like a drive-in for the new millennium, a bike-in. There’s something about the whole DIY aesthetic of the Disposable Film Festival and the experience of biking that just seems to mesh, something about how you’re always improvising when you’re biking. You’re living in this world that’s designed for cars and you’re on a bike and you have to figure out your way, like, how to do this and not get killed. [That parallels how] the world is not designed to make low budget films but somehow you’re given a few tools and there’s something you can pull together there that’s starting to transform how we see the world.

Jessica Meek: You don’t need a car. You don’t need a ton of money to have freedom in transportation, especially in a city. To me, it’s true, it’s hard to describe how bikes and [the film festival] tie together, but it’s definitely this do-it-yourself [aesthetic] and how you don’t need a ton of money to be creative and get around. It’s liberating.

SF360: Do you know where the first bike-in was done?

Evans: The first one ever? I don’t know. I’m sure it’s happened elsewhere, but we’d never really heard of it. We’ve had to work out a few technological kinks before last year’s events.

Bortman: It was very scary before last year’s event. We were like ‘Is this going to work?!’ Just getting permission from the building owner that we’re projecting the movies onto . . .

Evans: The biggest thing was sound actually. Last year we partnered with this group that does DIY drive-ins. They were handling the projection. They’d always done sound by sending out a low frequency FM signal. People would literally tune in on their car radios. But if they’re not gonna have car radios, how are we going to get the sound on?

Bortman: Everyone bring their radio? Who has a radio?

Evans: It suddenly occurred to me that there’s this San Francisco celebrity, everyone knows him, named Deep, who has a Trike-asaurus . . . You are probably familiar with him. This adult tricycle that has this huge sound system mounted on it.

SF360: He’s at all the Sunday Streets.

Meek and Evans in unison: At everything bike-related, he’s there! [Laughter all around.]

Evans: So, I had a few connections to him, I just got in touch with him, and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.’ And he showed up, I’ll never forget it, seeing him ride down 7th street blasting Michael Jackson, as we’re setting up for the event. It just worked beautifully. The sound was great.

Bortman: The only scary part was when there was gunshot noise in one of the films. And a couple of the neighbors opened their windows. [Everyone laughs.]

SF360: Is there any outreach to the neighborhood to let them know this is going on?

Bortman: Well, everything’s over by 10 p.m.

Evans: There’s a noise ordinance that kicks in at 10 p.m. At 8 o’clock, the sun goes down, so it gives us a good two hours to do the show.

Bortman: Surrounded by hotels, [the neighborhood residents are] probably excited by an event happening outside their window.

Evans: Around here in SOMA, they’re probably used to events happening outside their windows. [Laughter.]

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