News

MOD Films

Amy Rose, July 20th, 2006

MOD Films produces “remixable” film content and technology aimed at new cinema platforms. Through documentation and packaging of the film production, MOD helps to support future use of the films as digital video releases, in games, and as source material for online communities to play with.

Michela Ledwidge founded MOD Films in 2004 with a NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) Inventions and Innovations award. Inspired by the practice of game modding, MOD Films demonstrates how regular films could be given to the audience in a malleable form using Internet and video game technology.

Michela filmed her film Sanctuary in March 2006 – a sci-fi short about a sixteen year old girl who uses her avatar as a virtual reality superhero. All Sanctuary elements including hours of production footage, sound effects, dialogue, storyboards, concept drawings and still photos are being licensed to the public under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Licenses.

Amy “Rock and Roll” Rose of Creative Commons interviewed Michela to learn more about MOD Films and her experience in using CC licenses.

Amy Rose (“CC”): Why did you start MOD Films?

Michela Ledwidge (“ML”): There wasn’t a platform for the kind of films I wanted to make. The film industry approach to real storytelling is largely obsolete. It wastes too many resources. Filmmakers are supposed to buy into a monolithic system that tends not to do justice to their stories or their actual audience. You sell someone access to a film, and then what happens? We’re taking the opportunity to see if we can come up with a better, more sustainable, model, starting with a little film written with interactivity in mind. There have to be more ethical, ecological, and fun ways to develop, produce, distribute, and exhibit cinematic stories.

CC: What attracted you to the idea of using a Creative Commons license?

ML: It’s the most compatible framework for our aims, technically, commercially, and philosophically. Digital rights management, as opposed to digital rights enforcement, is a key part of what we do. I think the value of machine-readable licenses will be better appreciated over time. My personal interest goes well beyond the business. CC has changed the world for the better in widening the debate about how society views creativity. As an open business, we want more opportunities for people to be more creative using our stuff. We’ll survive if enough people know about and like what we do.

We’re developing a virtual studio approach using a “kitchen” analogy that fits pretty well with the “pick ‘n’ mix” CC approach. “Some Rights Reserved” licensing enables us to cook up, serve dishes, and share ingredients more widely. The opportunity to get in at the ground level and set up the kitchen with Sanctuary, ahead of the market, was an opportunity too good to refuse.

CC: Why did you choose the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license for Sanctuary?

ML: We chose a license to reflect the fact that we’re walking a fine line between open filmmaking and “All Rights Reserved” film-making. We still want our films in festivals and on retail shelves. We need to see a return for our investors if the model is to survive so we’re not simply giving material away. We’re trying to create a model that is sustainable, not just for our own livelihood but media professionals at large. Attribution is obviously essential for any credits system. The real opportunity I see here is to iteratively improve on the existing systems for attribution (e.g. how many people ACTUALLY worked on Matrix Reloaded post-production as opposed to who got a credit in the film?) and licensing by getting people to become less precious about their assets. Sanctuary is a pilot for a feature film so we’ve retained control over commercial exploitation mainly to attract producers to that larger project.

CC: Can you provide an overview of how a user might remix Sanctuary?

ML: The simplest way is to go back to the kitchen analogy I mentioned. We’re inviting the audience “inside” the production after the remixable release, after dinner so-to-speak, to play around with bits and create their own MODs. We’re trying not to pre-empt too much what these MODs might be and concentrate on making sure there are sufficient APIs and Web services available for developers to take advantage of. This is not just about video re-editing. We’re releasing EVERY asset, so who know? Most users may only ever experience remixing through existing MODs (like the DJ/VJ instrument MOD we’re developing) that they have downloaded (in the same way as more people watch YouTube videos than upload videos). But the whole point is to enable advanced use of the film’s architecture and asset library as to give people a chance to surprise us with their creativity. We’re providing the plug-in architecture and sample MODs that illustrate how to re-use the assets. We’re encouraging MOD communities to come and treat Sanctuary as a library using their existing software (e.g. Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, Web-based video mixing sites like eyespot).

Sanctuary hasn’t been released yet (still in post production) but we do have over 100 people signed to our “beta band” community on Multiply (http://remixablefilms.multiply.com) and various software developers are working in tandem with us so that there will be 3rd party applications from day one of the release. We’re encouraging MOD’ers of all kinds to congregate there and bug us for pre-release stuff and get involved. We’re making this up as we go along!

CC: In April 2004, Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) refused dispensation to allow local actors to perform in Sanctuary. Could you discuss what you understand MEAA’s concerns with the film were and whether and/or how it was resolved?

ML: MEAA’s concern was that Creative Commons licensing relinquished too much control, to us the producers, and to the audience and that this could be to the detriment of actors involved. CC was deemed bad for business. MEAA put particular emphasis on the negative impact that remixing could have on our professional actors’ careers particularly “non-commercial advertising” — such as sampling video for use in Neo-Nazi commercials, abortion campaigns and user-generated pornography (their examples, not mine!). MEAA didn’t care that MOD Films, under the Australian CC license, retained the right to disallow any derived work which “prejudices the honour or reputation of the author” and chose to interpret our long term intentions as exploiting actors. It was a really embarrassing phase of the project because general ignorance about CC was largely the problem. Australian media professionals should really be up in arms about how they are represented on the world stage.

I do understand why there were concerns but ultimately we’re talking about a 12 minute pilot funded by an Inventions award, made up of willing and experienced Internet and film professionals who care passionately about exploring the future of film and moving things forward. I am very pro-union but only as long as a union is genuinely acting on behalf of its members, rather than simply protecting its own interests by sticking its head in the sand. When you get industries blocking innovation simply because it may move the goal posts, it’s very hard to be remain sympathetic.

The issue hasn’t been resolved. If the MEAA spokesman we deal with has his way, I doubt Creative Commons licensing and professional media will ever meet up again. MEAA really needs some new blood who understand the way the world is moving and can deal with real issues in a constructive way. Unfortunately from what I understand, I live in London, the controversy over Creative Commons is still raging in Australia. We got a bit of a backlash against the MEAA decision last year, and gained some local support from the Australian Film Commission (an Australian Government agency that ensures the preservation, creation and availability of Australian screen content) so as for Sanctuary, we’ve survived. Once the AFC got involved, the actors and their agents were more comfortable about signing up against the advice of the union. Given the power MEAA has over local production, I would never have attempted to shoot without some show of support from the industry.

We rescheduled and shot the film a few months later but much of our funding was wasted on dealing with this issue over several months. The film is still in post production with volunteers working on it. We made a bit of history with our CC contract clauses and the resulting 35mm film is totally cleared for re-use as a result but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Hopefully other producers will now benefit from us having broken the ice though.

We’ve documented the correspondence and paperwork in this discussion thread for future reference. http://modfilms.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=123

CC: Audiences also had the opportunity to enjoy a preview Sanctuary at the Cannes Film Festival, what was the reaction of festival attendees to the film and the idea of film remixing?

ML: The reaction to the story itself so far has been good. All the legal mucking about tends to obscure the fact that this is a good little sci-fi story that should happily stand on its own, even without all of this remix nonsense! The Cannes Feature Film Selection Committee wrote to us asking to see the film earlier in the year. Talking to “real film-makers” out there was a wonderful morale-booster. We’re definitely exploring the future and all this buzz is over an unreleased short film. We also got interest from a couple of distributors.

The reaction to the remix idea on its own has been pretty good but we’re not overestimating how many people will actually do stuff. I think it will take a while before people start engaging fully with this paradigm. People seem genuinely excited by the idea of a new form but of course everyone just wants to sit back and watch the finished film first. As do I! The real fun begins once people know the story of the superhero, the film is playing on a disk in your living room, and MODs are being downloaded from our web platform as you’re watching. So if you can help us get to that point, get in touch!

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