V-Pods - Video iPods and the Indie Filmmaker

By Patrick Jones, posted 1 February 2006

Given how the iPod, alongside the music store iTunes which recently sold its 500 millionth song, has defined a new culture in music mobility; it is only right that some thought is given to that possible impact Apple could have on the world of film. Particularly for a company whose decision to pack Avid-style functionality into a sub-£1000 box with Final Cut Pro helped kick start the desktop edit DV indie film renaissance.

Apple have been shaking up industries for several decades now. Long before Windows and even DOS, Apple brought out the world’s first mass produced desktop computer, the Apple II, in 1977. The company, founded in a garage by uni drop outs Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak soon went onto become the fastest growing company in American history, and with the launch of the Macintosh in 1984 briefly look set to knock big blue (as IBM was then known) off the throne of personal computing. But things went a little wrong and – to cut a long story short – they failed. Steve Jobs was thrown out of the company he founded and Apple became the Tim Henman of PCs with less than 5% of the market.

Fast forward a few years and Steve Jobs has been busy transforming George Lucas's old computer graphics division into Pixar, and with John Lasseter building the Most Successful Film Studio in History (six films, six hits, and a market valuation bigger than MGM). Jobs is eventually lured back into Apple with an "iCEO" title and follows an attention grabbing "Think Different" campaign with the lollypop coloured iMacs, and suddenly, Apple is cool again. In 2001 with little fanfare and much scepticism comes the iPod, and the rest is history. Four years on, and there are 13m iPods sold worldwide, Apple's revenues and computer sales skyrocketing, while the iTunes music store has bitten off a monstrous 80% of the legal download music market.

From here the move into video is a logical next step. Part of what impresses business analysts about the iPod is that hard disk drives (the iPod is basically a very small portable hard disc with a screen) are always falling in price – but by offering ever larger storage capacities (5,000 songs, 10,000 songs) Apple can keep the prices of the top end models roughly static while encouraging iPod users to upgrade and replace their units. But as people only have so many songs, the leap to video – which uses much more storage space - will require newer models with bigger drives (though, there should be nothing to stop existing colour screen models to play video, the iPod software allows for it already according to reports on Slashdot.net.

But what does this mean? Will this really have any impact on filmmakers? People have been heralding 3G for mobile phones as the saviour of short films, yet, so far little has happened beyond heavily promoted content such as Aardman's Angry Kid. Likewise broadband downloads of full movies hasn’t yet exploded as pundits hoped, and watching a feature on an iPod screen is hardly as attractive as a DVD on a portable player or laptop. As Jobs himself said as Pixar CEO in a May stockholder conference call: "So far there really hasn't been a successful portable video device other than those that play industry standard DVDs, and that we participate in just because we sell DVDs. So who knows what's down the road?"

Who knows indeed. According to reports in the Wall Street Journal, Apple has been in discussions with all four record majors (Warner Music, Universal, EMI and Sony BMG) to offer music videos via the iTunes store for $1.99 (twice the price of a song without a video).

Great, you think, those lucky enough to have a major record label music video under their belt might get a royalty check. And so they might. But what of the hundreds of thousands of tracks in the iTunes library without music videos or visuals associated with them. If Apple and the labels play their cards right there is a fantastic opportunity here for a huge amount of old content to be brought to life ("repurposed" as its known in the world of digital rights management) with new visuals. The indie film and animation sectors, overflowing with un-used talent could come to life illustrating the back catalogues of some of the greatest acts and artists – with the possibility of earning something for the efforts, given the huge economies of scale that a global store such as iTunes employs. A filmmaker decides to cut a video to Pink Floyd's Great Gig in the Sky, or a Chet Baker album (presumably using Apple’s Final Cut Pro, iMovie or Shake), uploads it to iTunes, or a similar service, and video-Pod owners can download it with a little cutback to the filmmaker.

It also moves the AVJ movement forward – AVJs are somewhere between a DJ and VJ in that they mix club visuals and music together – artists like Hexstatic and Eclectic Method lead the field. With video enabled iPods (vPods) downloading full videos, an AVJ set would no longer need a precarious laptop / external hard drive set up, or pricey DVD-decks (yes you can get scratchable DVD decks from Pioneer), but just a couple of pods and a mixer. In five years from now fully synched club music and visuals could be the norm for any self respecting club, and the vPod could set the trend.

It could also bring the music and film industries closer together in a way that – ignoring S Club 7 – hasn't really been seen since Tommy and a Hard Days Night. Think about it. The iTunes store sells music videos for twice the price of straight audio tracks. So in turn record companies become more motivated to incorporate visuals with the sound from the earliest stage.

And in this perhaps we may start to see the emergence of artists who combine the two from the beginning. As Radiohead had almost as good a reputation for its videos as its music, and Gorillaz is a band known only by their animated avatars, how long before the talented musicians who also make films, or the filmmakers who compose, begin to release visual singles, or ‘vingles’ where both visual and audio elements are equally important parts of the whole.

Another area that could change the way those of us who don’t have a direct line to a commissioning editor of financier get their work out there, could be in the video form of the Podcasts. Podcasts are like audio Blogs, radio shows that can be downloaded and listened to on an iPod and have exploded in 2005, and are now available as free downloads via iTunes. While vlogs or video logs have been mulling around for a while, video podcasts, there has not yet emerged a simple and stable platform to view and receive these.

Easily accessible video casts where literally anyone can create regular broadcasts that can be viewed on a vPod en route to work, could really shake things up. While, like Blogs, much of the work will be worth deleting, also like Blogs, with the potential there for anyone to break through, ultimately the most original, creative and committed will end up – as has been seen in the US – rivalling commercial newscasters and pundits for influence, particularly for those in at an early stage. Want to screen a daily Lego soap opera, or a weekly review of 1970s Japanese movies on DVD - open video-casting supported and pushed by Apple would help fully realise the web's potential as media leveller, a place where anyone with access to a computer and net connection can have their thoughts, words, sounds, images and video published and accessible to a fair chunk of the world’s population.

There are a myriad of possibilities, and as with any new technology it will only be when people start playing with it that most of these reveal themselves as feasible and fun or clumsy and chaotic. Few would have anticipated at the iPod's launch it would spawn club nights and HiFi systems. Maybe its main impact on film will be as a way for cast or crew to view rushes on set when it suits them. Maybe it will simply herald the start of legal movie downloads which you can then take with you in your back pocket and plug into a TV. Maybe it will be a lot of hot air. But it should be interesting. So long as Apple keeps thinking different, it should shake things in the industry up a little. And with cinema admissions plummeting in the US and across Europe, maybe that's needed right now.

Nicol Wistreich

» For more on this subject, see the Wall Street Journal

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