Amateur filmmaking is the art of creating a film or series of videos with low-budget casting, effects, and equipment. Originally these films were created for the purpose of pleasure or passion as opposed to business. However, thanks to the internet and student film festivals, it is much easier to turn a profit from such a venture. Amateur filmmaking commonly crosses over with independent filmmaking, as the later can often be produced for a very small budget (which is almost always the case for amateur creations).
Amateur film initially started as various methods to circumvent patents on 35mm film held by Thomas Edison and Eastman Kodak. This mainly involved creating new types of film and cameras, an expensive process that isolated individuals from each other and prevented them from competing with professionals on a level playing field. Multiple inventors from various countries worked on new camera designs and improvements on the Edison model and patented everything they could in order to avoid a monopoly by Edison. In 1906 camera repairman Albert Howell and equipment entrepreneur Don Bell met and formed Bell and Howell in order to manufacture motion picture equipment. Their standard clients were independent filmmakers, as the duo were trying to work around patents. From 1909-1911, Howell created and patented several improvements on the motion-picture camera that gave it a vast improvement on the Edison model. This patent-dodging lasted until approximately 1915; by then both the Edison Trust and the Motion Picture Patents Company had had their patents cancelled.
The hobby continued to grow slowly during the 1920s and 30s, during which it emerged beyond a technological definition and became more recognized as the desire to create real art during ones leisure time. Eventually it spawned a derivative in the form of home movies, which became very popular thanks to the advent of small and compact cameras after World War II. It slowly gained popularity around the time the Super8 film format was introduced, coinciding with the creation of battery-operated cameras and an increase in plastic bodies rather than metal. With millions of ordinary people purchasing cameras thanks to their relative cheapness, many people were attracted to the possibility of creating their own true film. In the late fifties and early sixties, cameras could be purchased for $1000 new and as low as $30-$25 used. Camcorders which could record VHS tapes, the first being the Betamovie BMC-100P produced by Sony in 1983, also created an increase in amateur filmmakers. However, producing a film independently was still very difficult, as was obtaining the proper equipment on such a small budget.
Many of these problems were solved when computers and digital camcorders became widely available. Most VHS recorders came with the ability to automatically widen, tighten, and focus a shot; normally this would require the use of different lenses or a trained eye. Digital cameras enhanced this capability by making cameras which could focus automatically, detect faces, and apply different filters to the footage. Originally, the choice between making a film in monochrome or color would be based on what kind of film you had; with digital cameras this can be changed with the press of a button. Digital cameras also give moviemakers the capability to edit on the fly, and review a scene they have shot to determine whether it is up to par.
By the far the biggest advance in filmmaking technology for the amateur community was the conversion of film recording to digital recording lifted a large boon off of producers of amateur film. With video being recorded digitally instead of on film, video editing software began to be produced for public use, making editing far less difficult. Prior to this, the filmmaker would have to cut and recut the individual films strips, and would be unable to watch the altered footage until the entire process was complete. If the footage was unusable, the entire shoot would have to be redone. During this period, it would take a very long time for a single person or small group of people to put together a movie without a professional editing studio and copious amount of spare film. Using modern editing software, however, the filmmaker can reorganize the footage they have in any order they like, as well as undo any errors. Systems like these also meant that the filmmaker could edit together an entire film on their own, which alleviated strains on both time and money. Digital camcorders also removed the need for physical film, which would also put a large strain on the budget of a production if the film had to be continuously purchased for every shoot.
Another money-saving technique applied by amateur producers is to fill all other roles of the production staff, including director, writer, cinematographer, and editor, as well as being the sole star of the production and playing several different characters in an episode or series. This is much more common in the internet age and has proven successful for acts such as The Nostalgia critic, where each episode is intercut with footage from the film being reviewed, and Shane Dawson, who appears multiple times in each episode as a different characters .
In the early days of amateur filmmaking, the lack of fiscal resources and technology meant that it was difficult for an amateur film to be distributed across it’s own country. The best method to spread one’s work was to send it in to film competitions for it to be judged alongside other amateur works. Film festivals such as the one in Cannes, France, were created to showcase amateur films. As these films became more mainstream and common in the America, the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival were created in order to showcase these up and coming films and filmmakers. Many Universities worldwide also have student film festivals to support those studying film, directing, and cinematography both on and off campus. Many films popular in mainstream culture were originally produced independently and had limited releases at several festivals before an official wide release. Paranormal Activity was screened at the 2007 Screamfest Film Festival, and did not receive theatrical release until October of 2009. It was made with a budget of only $15,000 and made over $775,000 in it’s first ten days at the box office.
The basis for distribution of amateur videos and web series was profoundly changed with the creation of YouTube in February of 2005, a video sharing website that enabled users to upload videos for free. The videos range from briefs clips to complete skits to short films, and provided a platform for any amateur filmmaker to distribute their work. The process is effective enough that many web series and even some films are released exclusively online. Starting in May 2007, YouTube began the “YouTube Partnership Program”, which allowed it’s most popular users to gain revenue thanks to ads played at the beginning and end of their videos. The status was formerly exclusive to commercial content providers only (such as companies promoting products and film studios posting trailers), but includes approximately 30,000 users as of January 2012.
Another video-sharing platform commonly used by creators of web series is Blip (formerly Blip.tv). While YouTube allows any video to be posted, regardless of quality, Blip only allows the hosting of high-quality web series, offering producers a dashboard for easier distribution and profit. According to founder Mike Hudack, Blip “has built an open advertising marketplace where [the producer] can pick the video advertising company that works best for [the producer]”. Unlike YouTube, where partnerships must be earned by having a large viewer base and quality videos, Blip producers can have ads playing on their videos as soon as they join. The site is geared towards producers hoping to become more professional. While the website does not have the same viral quality as YouTube, and therefore does not aid in spreading videos through word-of-mouth, it still enables filmmakers to profit from their work easier. The site is host to several extremely popular and successful web shows, such as Red vs. Blue, The Annoying Orange, and the various producers for Channel Awesome.
Differences with Independent Filmmaking
While the terms “amateur film” and “independent film” would have been used independently in the past, their modern definitions are rather different. Independent films became much more mainstream during the 90s, and were able to find success by casting well-known Hollywood actors, encouraging audiences to see the films, and many were helmed by experienced and professional directors and crews. As they became more well known, larger companies began to acquire smaller studios so that they could profit from these independent films. While there are still many films made with very low budgets, this is not always the case. Today the term independent only refers to the distancing of the production with a famous or popular studio. Amateur film, by definition, features a very small budget and a non-professional cast and crew. Amateur films are often made by beginner filmmakers or students studying the craft. Technically, all amateur films are independent, though not all independent films are amateur.
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