Students call on new video skills

The cameras capture the young man walking down the stairs, reciting a monologue about the three things people should know about him: His favorite movie is Gone with the Wind, he loves roller coasters, and he hates when people don’t take him seriously.

The shot is complicated and takes several attempts to perfect. But there’s no big camera equipment, no expert sound system, and no reels of film to capture the moment.

Instead, everyone involved, from the three cameramen and the sound guy to the extras, is producing the miniature movie with–and for–cell phones.

The exercise is part of a new Boston University class created through a unique partnership with cellular company Amp’d Mobile and taught by director Jan Egleson. During the semester, the students will produce a series of short episodes that eventually will be distributed by the company for its cellular customers. The students have challenged each other to shoot it using only the phones, despite obstacles surrounding sound and video quality.

The class, which the university believes is the only one of its kind in the country, offers students credit and a chance to be part of the new media culture–where anyone, anywhere, can create, distribute, and view entertainment using a variety of emerging technologies. Amp’d benefits by getting mobile content created by one of its targeted audiences: young, tech-savvy adults.

Amp’d, whose backers include Qualcomm Inc. and Viacom Inc., is trying to compete with mainstream cellular players like Cingular Wireless by branding itself as a youth-oriented company offering more than just phone service. It sells comedy clips, cartoons, and music videos for subscribers to watch on cell phones for prices that start at 45 cents for a single download to $20 for unlimited access.

Most content is geared toward people ages 18 to 35.

“They’re all about anywhere, anytime,” said Seth Cummings, Amp’d Mobile’s senior vice president for content, who helped start the program at his alma mater. “They want to be able to take their media with them.”

Amp’d has hired established writers to create original content, but Cummings said the company decided to work with BU to target budding artists.

“I know that when I was there, there was this stuff that we’d create that there was no outlet [for],” Cummings said. “There’s a real outlet here.”

The medium is so new, the students and Egleson spent some time in a recent class debating what to call their work. Options included mobisodes (mobile episodes), mobilettes, or cellenovelas (cellular telenovelas).

“We’re on the cutting edge of a new era of film medium,” said Mark DiCristofaro, a 21-year-old BU film student. “Why not get on board early?”

And because anyone with a cell phone can make a video and upload it to the internet to watch on computers or phones, the students said they felt a greater opportunity to get people to see their work. Television production graduate student Chris Miller said cell phones give young filmmakers a new way to distribute their work.

“It’s so hard to get the studios to really pay attention, especially to beginning filmmakers,” Miller said.

In some respects, Egleson’s film class is like any other. In the first hour, he guides the students through a discussion of editing, graphics, music, and tone. They work on their series, centered on a group of diverse students who each harbor a secret.

“The bottom line is always that if it’s a good story and you get involved, it doesn’t matter what format it is,” said Egleson, who has directed films and television shows.

Other times, though, the students and teacher run into challenges unique to working with their black, shiny cell phones provided by Amp’d:

•The phones film for just 15 seconds at a time. For longer scenes, such as the monologue in the stairwell, multiple phones are used.

•The phones don’t pick up sound well. During this class, the students try putting a phone in an actor’s pocket or using a makeshift boom created with a tiny microphone and a bendable, green stick.

•In some scenes, camera operators can be seen in the shots. So when they finish filming, they quickly put their cameras to their ears and become extras casually chatting on the phone.

The picture quality isn’t as good as film, either, because the phone’s camera records 15 frames per second, compared with the typical 24 to 30 frames per second in movies or on television.

“I wish I could tell you I’ve done this a million times,” Egleson tells the class as they watch him upload their footage stored on the phone’s memory cards onto his laptop, done by connecting the phone to the computer with a USB cable.

Miller said the students also have to adapt their filmmaking style for the small–very small–screen. Scenes are shorter, cuts are quicker, and visuals are larger. Nobody is trying to make a Saving Private Ryan-type epic, and the students refuse to edit out the quirks, saying they want to create videos average phone users could make themselves.

“It’s not quite as clean as what you’d expect from television. It’s a little more raw,” Miller said. “It’s not your Everybody Loves Raymond sitcom.”

On the other hand, Egleson said, the phones give the camera operators more flexibility, because they aren’t lugging around large equipment and can easily whip a phone out of their pocket for spontaneous scenes. And Egleson expects the phone technology to improve quickly.

The BU students aren’t the first to experiment with cell-phone movies. Earlier this year, Ithaca College invited high school and college students from across America to submit a 30-second student film shot entirely with a camera cell phone (see story: Student film festival’s goal: Think small).

And Paris recently held its second film festival devoted exclusively to movies shot with cell phones. But it’s too early to say how popular mobile programming will become in the United States, said Linda Barrabee, an analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research firm.

Although cell phones are ubiquitous, a much smaller percentage of people own phones with the technology to watch videos or subscribe to services to do so.

Current trends, she said, lean toward people being most interested short programming, such as sketches or sports highlights, that they can watch in line at the store or on the subway.

“For the most part, what we’re talking about is snacking,” she said.

But Barrabee wouldn’t rule out feature films watched in segments–or even attracting older people, who have more buying power than young adults.

Despite the challenges and uncertain future, a wave of enthusiasm traveled through a recent three-hour BU class, from the experimental filming to the writing session.

“I feel like I should pay $7 for this,” one student said as the class crowded around cell phones and computers to watch their edited footage.

Which is exactly what Amp’d Mobile wants to hear.


Boston University

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at