Stills from Onodera short videos.
Movies in miniature
by Midi Onodera
I have been making mobile content since 2006 with mass-produced toy cameras that have a very low screen (280 x 240) and video (320 x 240) resolution. [open endnote in new window] My main camera was the Hasbro/Tiger VCam Now launched in 2005 with a 1.3 Megapixel sensor. Since that time I have made almost five hundred shorts that range between thirty seconds and one minute. As an artist with an experimental film background, the Structural/Materialist films of the 1970s and feminist New Narrative cinema of the 1980s have informed my work.
In this paper I will argue that mobile videos are a specific medium and that this field of media art, although informed by cinema and television theories and practices, needs to be positioned differently. I will concentrate on mobile videos that have been produced and are screened on a mobile device rather than mobile videos that are transplanted to the large screen. I am interested in framing this essay through a feminist lens because mobile videos have the potential to expand story-telling conventions and can empower disenfranchised voices through financially viable productions and the ubiquity of mobile video devices (distribution). The formal aspects of mobile video creation are similar to film and video in reference to aesthetics, recording and viewing practices and distribution, yet I will show that each of these distinct elements is specifically shaped by the mobile medium.
There has been very little written about video cameras embedded in mobile phones but there have been several research studies and academic papers on the use of the still camera feature. My practice involves both still and moving image capturing and through the creation of mobile video content these two disciplines become cohesively unified through one device. Therefore I am using some of the conclusions about still camera phones and applying them to the video function.
With the proliferation of so many different types of cameras, the aesthetics of each image-capturing device is crucial to the creative process. I will focus specifically on the iPhone since this is the device I currently use in my work. When first released in 2009 the iPhone 3GS featured a screen size of 3.5 inches with a resolution of 480 x 320. The 3 Megapixel camera captured video at 30fps with a resolution of 640 x 480. Since the resolution was so low, video captured on the iPhone 3GS appeared highly pixelated when viewed on a screen larger than the mobile phone. Already an era of high definition video, consumers did not view the low resolution of videos shot with the iPhone favorably, and the ability to share video files through email was limited to approximately one minute due to the large file size. Aesthetically, I viewed the low-resolution standard and file size limitation as a creative restriction, similar to the grainy qualities of a three minute Super 8 film cartridge. The technical specifications of mobile devices with cameras continue to evolve and with these transformations new creative challenges emerge.
The ubiquity of mobile phones with still and video recording capabilities has shifted the photographic practice from one that reserved image taking for special occasions to an every day practice. As stated by Carole Rivière in her essay, "Mobile Camera Phones: A New Form of 'Being Together' in Daily Interpersonal Communication":
This observation is reinforced by Kato, et. al in their analysis of the most common subjects people record with their mobile camera phones and in Daisuke Okabe’s paper, Social practice of Camera Phone in Japan. The common subjects recorded with camera phones are: friends, family, pets and interesting or “unusual things in everyday life.” Specifically the transition from using a video camera for recording special occasions to shooting everyday subject matter with a mobile phone is noted in David Kirk’s, et al. conference paper, Understanding Videowork. Although this 2007 paper examined the home movie-making behavior of twelve UK families, the results can be extended to a wider demographic given the pervasiveness of the technology in the past five years and observations on my own practice. When considering the habits of the teenagers, the researchers noted that, “they spontaneously used their (mobile) cameras at any and all times, and not so to speak, at ‘special times.’” (65)
Similar to the casual or amateur practitioner, the subject matter of my mobile videos consists of everyday occurrences or mundane scenes. I look for the punctum of the moment and if it’s still apparent by the time I am ready to edit, the post-production work enhances or plays with this element. According to Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, punctum “is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.” I apply this term to video, something Barthes claims he cannot do to moving images:
Technically restricted by the rudimentary video features of the iPhone, I find myself drawn to moments of stillness, fractures in the frenetic pace of the everyday. In order for me to take my camera phone out, I must be struck by the sight before me. I must be compelled to stop mid-step and be willing to have a dialogue with my subject. Yet, this brief encounter is a mere primer to the video footage. Only later, perhaps weeks, sometimes years later, as I look through the eyes of the spectator, do I effortlessly recall the impulse to record and observe it anew. Based on this second viewing, I draw on different editing techniques to hopefully enrich the footage and create the final mobile video. Since most audiences listen to audio through headphones, sound plays an important role in the construction of the mobile videos. I frequently use sound files found online through sites such as Freesound.org or self-created remixed music tracks. The titles I choose often reference popular culture, creating a familiar association that provide an introduction or context for the work. What I have described is admittedly rare, but when these crystallized moments occur the creative gratification is so irresistible that it fuels my desire to taste that sensation again.
Unlike film and video, mobile video allows for a spontaneity and immediacy that can be prohibitive in the time-consuming and costly production stages of film and video. Yet I do not see mobile video as a replacement for film or video, rather it is an addition to my image-making practice. I employ mobile video rather than film or video because of its’ succinctness, the intimate relationship with the viewer, the cost-effectiveness of the medium in production and distribution and because of its’ minimalistic poetic form. As Anne Jarrigeon states: “like a haiku, it allows us to transfigure the everyday through calculation and spontaneity…” (31).
Most mobile video phones like their photographic counterparts are limited by their fixed lens, small aperture and autofocus function. A fixed lens means that if the user desires a close-up they must physically move closer to their subject. This reduction of physical space can create a more intimate bond between the camera operator and his/her subject, however it also highlights the action of recording and hence the subject may alter their behavior knowing that they are being photographed. The fixed lens can be perceived as a deterrent to the consumer who is accustomed to zoom lenses commonly built into digital cameras. However, I view this limitation as an aesthetic of mobile video recording. Since I am interested in unscripted moments in everyday life, I tend to frame in wide shots and include people as anonymous subjects rather than focus on their individuality.
Without the assistance of camera accessories, in order to create movement within the frame, such as a zoom, pan or tilt, the mobile camera and operator must act in concert with each other to create the recorded action. The smooth flow of this action depends on the steadiness of the operator and can be difficult to achieve depending on the situation. In a sense the camera operator must treat the mobile phone as an extension of his/her body, envisioning the camera as a prosthetic. But generally the fixed lens encourages the aesthetic of a static camera.
This visual trait can be traced back to the early days of cinema when motion picture cameras were first developed with fixed lenses. In terms of the technical development of mobile video phones, the fixed lens can be seen as an important stage in the evolution of the device and can be compared with different cinematic developments. As stated by Eric Faden, “…with each major technological transition in film history, we find a temporary return to static framing” (61). For example, the reappearance of the static camera was seen in the early days of sound recording when both the actors and the camera had to remain stationary in order to accommodate the recording equipment. The static camera resurfaced again with the development of Cinerama and the early period of computer generated imagery, both due to the limitations of the new technology. In terms of this stage in the development of the mobile video, the days of the static camera may soon be over with the recent release of the Noika 808 PureView camera phone which houses a zoom lens and 41 Megapixel sensor or the much-anticipated release of the iOS7 for the iPhone which allows zooming while video recording.
Considering shot construction for the mobile screen, Max Dawson gives a succinct overview of the difference between shooting for television and shooting for the mobile screen:
Further, Dawson states: “spectacle, depth, and detail are sacrificed; however color, contrast and visual rhythms are concentrated.” Although these guidelines may not apply to artist-created mobile videos, this references the hardware limitations that all mobile video producers are forced to consider such as bandwidth and downloading speed, limited memory capacity, video compression and battery life.
Despite these technical limitations, it is important to acknowledge the vast array of different software applications that can transform the traditional eye of the camera. For the iPhone, these apps range from simple textural and colour filters to stop motion animation and time-lapse capabilities to tilt shift functions. It is now possible to record video and audio, edit and upload finished mobile videos on one device within a collapsed production, exhibition and distribution chain. These diverse tasks realized through one device, financially reduce the expense of image making, broaden the makers’ community and disrupt conventional screening opportunities.
Since the advent of digital video and photography, cameras now commonly have screens that allow the operator to frame their shots without looking through a viewfinder. This shift in technology has created a change in how we consider image capturing, now the screen is between the operator and subject. Or as John Ellis states, in "What are we expected to feel? Witness, Textuality and the audiovisual," "(t)he live image is always already framed and screened on the digital viewfinder. The image-object, the document, is visible at the moment of its creation” (67). The screen on a mobile phone not only acts as a viewfinder in the process of recording, but it can also be the screen on which recorded videos are viewed. This mobile screen is different from other screens in cinema, video and computers. In the latter, the screens project images that transport our imaginations and alter our spatial and temporal senses, through what Anne Friedberg has termed, the “virtual gaze.” When looking at a mobile screen either to frame a shot or to watch a video, other elements come into play that are not applicable to larger screens.
The mobile spectator may be viewing a video in a changing landscape such as in a train or waiting for a bus and his/her surroundings can impact the content of the video. Mobile videos can be easily accessed through QR codes that instantly link video content on the mobile device to the physical location of the QR code or they can utilize built-in GPS systems and connect the video with the material space of the viewer. In this manner, mobile videos can become locative whereas film and video are perpetually linked to their specialized viewing environments.
Since 2006, I have focused on an annual mobile video project that is disseminated online. For 2013, I have launched the mobile website, vidoodles.com, in conjunction with a series of twelve videos for “The Classifieds” project. Drawing on real online classified ads, I create mobile movies that visualize the chosen ad. For instance, the first video produced in this series, was inspired by an ad for a free bottle of bath oil. Twice a month, I place a new classified ad, listed under the same category as the original inspirational ad, and post it on nine classified sites in fifty-six cities across North America. Each ad contains a combination of an URL link and/or QR code to the Vidoodles website, a brief description and a video still. On the mobile website there is no explanation for the video or link to myself as the author. However on my own website, Midionodera.com, I have summarized each month with various viewing statistics, an example of the Vidoodles classified ad and comments on the subject of the video. This project combines social media, mobile video consumption, and consumer advertising.