To Code or not to Code?

It’s safe to say that today’s audiovisual creators, filmmakers and producers have mastered the writing, image and sound components of their craft. Now they’re starting to harness the incredible potential of data as well. So where does code fit in with all of this? Has it become the new must-have skill for anyone wanting to become a digital storyteller? Are coders the new rock stars of filmmaking?

They are. At least that’s what several of the newly updated analyses and data books are saying now that the 2013 edition of the South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals has come to an end. With some 27,000 registered participants, the interactive component of the event attracted more people than the film and music components did.

As MIPCube is going full swing in Cannes, one can’t help but notice that computer literacy is becoming embedded – either willingly or otherwise – in the DNA and editorial style of creators, production houses and broadcasters. It’s also progressively changing “traditional” relationships within production teams, between partners working on the same project and between producers and distributors as well.

Coders are obviously pillars of the broadcaster/producer community when it comes to pure players like YouTube and Netflix. These “geeks” are now actively seeking to develop new and very promising digital projects that go beyond the typical audience and cross-media interactions that have been done on every possible platform over the last ten years.

Creators are also getting onboard the code train by reinventing the storytelling process. Radio-Canada has its own interactive show, France Télévisions has prospective and new writingdepartments, and the well-established transmedia divisions at Canal+ and Arte are in full production mode.

In Canada, the National Film Board has been on the cutting edge of digital content production since 2009 when it started creating and broadcasting major interactive works, including a few co-productions with Arte and France Télévisions.

So should learning to code become a priority in our industry? And what about for Aboriginal producers and independent filmmakers? Many think tanks and production labs, including RCLab, are now giving these questions serious thought because they address a current issue.

Regardless of what others may think, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston seems to believe code and movies are meant for each other since its Open Documentary Labbrings aspiring filmmakers and veteran hackers, also known as “code virtuosos,” together under one roof.

In an effort to make coding more accessible, Mitch Resnick, one of the professors at the MIT Media Lab, created Scratch, an intuitive computer programming language intended for children 8 years of age and older that enables them to create and share interactive content such as stories and games.

And as far as asking “Should filmmakers learn to code?” that is a question being addressed on a regular basis these days. Filmmaker Magazine, in collaboration with the OpenDocLab, recently started posting a series of interviews with digital storytellers as they discuss the issues surrounding movie-making and coding.

“What became obvious is that the barrier to entry to digital storytelling was not about someone’s ability to code. It was about the ability to work with someone who codes. How do you find a technologist? What is the process of working with them? What skills do you need? How much programming do you need to know? Where is the funding?”  source

And another thought:

“Questions abound. How can filmmakers and technologists access the financial, technical, and artistic resources to push the field forward?”  source

The latest interview posted on the Filmmaker website is with NFB executive producer of interactive production, Hugues Sweeney. Throughout the exchange he clearly summarizes the new 360 approaches in documentary production and explains the coder’s “revamped” role within the filmmaking team:

Sweeney: “[…] In classic documentary, the director is the conductor and the first violin at the same time. In digital production, 99% of the times the director is the conductor and in front of him there are 30 directors. I often say that the creator is a team. Most of the projects I produce are the craft of a collective effort – all at the same level. Makes my job harder though. And that’s the challenge: to put together people that ignored each other’s existence and empower them with a project and have them cross-pollinate.”

So do filmmakers have to learn to code? Maybe not just yet. Whether they work in fiction or documentary, creative coders are now key players in the filmmaking process since they hold a hybrid position that will lead them to become mediators between the audience and the story. And now that traditionally hierarchical dynamics are disappearing, as Sweeney said, we have to focus on learning everything there is to know about the coding culture.

Suzanne Lortie
Suzanne Lortie holds a diploma in production from the National Theatre School of Canada as well as a MBA from HEC Montreal. She became a professor at Université du Québec à Montreal in July 2012. She has also worked as a production manager and line producer for television since 1992 (major variety and cultural series that won several Gémeaux and ADISQ awards, documentaries) and is a consultant in new media strategies.
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