Senna and the Art of Film-Making: On Building Digital Capacity

This week, a lot of people who work in the arts will be thinking about “Producing and commissioning digital content”. And it’s in the nature of the beast that a lot of those people will be thinking about making films.

For some reason, everyone in the arts loves a film. It’s not yet entirely clear whether everyone in the audience loves a film (in lots of cases, the answer is “not really – this is a bit boring and badly made, and I can’t quite tell what it’s about”), but certainly – lots of the people doing the commissioning and making are quite clear on the wondrous benefits of committing everything to YouTube or Vimeo. It makes them feel good about themselves. But because most of these films don’t feature either cats or naked ladies, not many people watch them.

Now, by and large, people are busy. If you make a film, you have to market the film. Unless, of course, it involves cats and naked ladies – in which case it will sell itself. But if it doesn’t involve cats and naked ladies, then you need to tell everyone about your film. But sometimes your film will be so bad that it will actually do the opposite, and put people off the thing they came to your website/YouTube channel to find out about.

If you were a gallery or a performing arts company, you wouldn’t hang an exhibition or put a show on your stage that you felt was ‘alright’. You would try to make it as good as you possibly could. And if you were the marketing department, commissioning a poster, you would make it sell as hard as you could – make it look as attractive and glossy as possible. But for some reason, that doesn’t apply to films. Films are allowed to be bad.

The corollary to Everyone Loves a Film is that they also get Even More Excited About Cinema.

Plays and operas and ballets in cinemas are one of those things that are definitely okay. Everyone feels good about them, despite the fact that sometimes, they aren’t very good. For some reason, some of the commissioners think, “Oh, we don’t need to make this as good as a real film – it can be a bit badly directed and lit, and the trailers can be a bit boring, because it’s ART so it’s BRILLIANT.”

This might be the case now – while all the nice middle-class old people who can’t see quite as well as they could before and don’t want to make it to Zone 1 on a Wednesday night – are very keen to go to their local cinema to see a bit of Bryn Terfel or Zoe Wanamaker. But it won’t last.

People will tire of inappropriate close-ups and bad sound and talking head interval footage, because it’s not what the cinema was made for. They will, essentially, want to go and see X-Men First Class because, despite being a bit silly, it looks and sounds extraordinary and everyone in it is really good looking. And I’m sorry about the good looking bit, but it’s true, especially now everything’s in HD.

If I had programmed this week’s Building Digital Capacity seminar, I would send everyone who attends to see Senna. It’s a film about (of all things) motor-racing that could teach every single arts commissioner a thing or two.

Given that it’s a documentary, playing into cinemas, about the world’s most boring sport and featuring voiceover by Nigel Mansell, you would say that the odds aren’t exactly in its favour. But it’s an astonishing piece of film-making. There’s a hero, a girl, a goal, a nemesis, truckloads of jeopardy and scenes of great skill and heroism. And even though you know how it ends, it still makes you cry.

If one arts organisation makes a film that’s half as good as Senna this year, then we’ll have come a long way. They probably won’t, however, because they won’t have the skills, the time or the budget. And I don’t mean to be miserable about this, just realistic. Making good films is hard. Writing, directing, producing, lighting and filming them are all skills that command serious fees in the wider world, and just because you have a first violinist in your company who can turn on a Z3, it doesn’t mean you’re Wong Kar-Wei.

Asif Kapadia says he had one cut of the film that was £5m over budget because he’d used so much archive footage. There’s not one talking head in his film – not one cheap shot. It’s a great movie that – despite costing more money than many NPOs are ever going to see – could teach us all a thing about producing and commissioning digital content.

So I would suggest, before you commission the next film for your website, you go and see Senna and think, “What would Asif Kapadia do?” If the answer is, “He wouldn’t make this film” then I suggest you do the same.

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7 thoughts on “Senna and the Art of Film-Making: On Building Digital Capacity

  1. Great post. I definitely agree with the importance of getting video content online when it comes to arts organizations. However, like you said, it is very expensive and requires a lot of work. A recent study conducted by Theater Bay Area showed that Youtube channels that posted very high quality content a few times a year and those who posted shorter or less detailed information very frequently had similar results when it comes to audience involvement.

    All that being said, I can’t wait to see the dance film, Pina. I recently wrote a blog post about it! Sad that it came after Pina Bausch’s death but it is amazing to see what a dance company can do with some high tech cameras and a large budget!

  2. Your argument for quality is really welcome. Though of course, quality doesn’t always equal glossy. In my main area of interest, visual arts, art is sometimes presented as fashion and ideas glossed over. I could speculate on why that is but that’s probably a question for another time… I think the focus on quality should first be on the editorial content, with style and presentation following naturally. A small budget will never get you big-budget results, but if there is care and attention from the outset, poor results are less likely to be tolerated when it comes to pushing content out to the audience.

    When it comes to ballet and opera shown on screen, that’s a different matter – all the stops should be pulled out to produce something that lives up to the stage version.

    1. Hi Jared – I think you’re right. I’m not a fan of shininess per se – just a bit tired of, er, crapness. When I was at the ROH, I always used to try to make sure the “essential” qualities of everything that happened on stage (and elsewhere in the building) were echoed in the digital work: just like the heaviness of the champagne glass, the thickness of the carpet, the amazingness of the productions on stage, so the films etc should at least aspire to be the best of their kind. Of course, whether they were or not is another matter, but we certainly learnt a great deal about how to make better films.

      Also, a small budget and ingenuity is not to be sniffed at. I’m not saying that everything has to be big budget – certainly not – but that it should aspire to be as good as it can be!

  3. Agreed, and fantastic to hear him talk about the film and the processes. Lots of the same issues as for the arts sector around access, rights clearances etc. What’s especially good is that is works for a much broader audience than simply F1 fans, though it does that, too, impeccably. I’d love to be sitting in a packed cinema with an enthusiastic audience watching the arts equivalent of Senna. What might it be?

    1. Thanks for the comment! As you can tell, I thought Senna was quite extraordinary. I hope there are lots of productive ideas that come out of tomorrow – so I can’t be there – but will be following it on the Twitter stream.

  4. I’ll make sure to ask the audience how many have seen Senna at the start of tomorrow’s session 🙂 I think your point about the current situation that ‘it won’t last. People will tire of inappropriate close-ups and bad sound and talking head interval footage, because it’s not what the cinema was made for’ is absolutely right, and what performing arts organisations and galleries engaging with video need to think of is not what works today but what will work tomorrow… and I hope we can get some idea in Newcastle. See you in Tyneside…

    1. Hello! Sadly I didn’t make it in the sign-up scrum for the session tomorrow, hence sticking my oar in virtually now. Really looking forward to seeing what comes out of the day though; am sure you’ll be very provoking and challenging!

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