Pixar co-founder John Lasseter says the next big thing for movies is the iPhone, the GoPro, and the other tiny cameras that we're all carrying around. He even expects to see award-winning feature films made with them some day. "People will tell you, 'That’s not going to work,' but yeah, that’s going to work," Lasseter said during a panel on modern film audiences at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, according to Variety. "But the reason they say that is because it’s not what they are used to." There's good reason to trust Lasseter when it comes to disruptive film technologies: as the director of Toy Story, he pretty much proved the value of computer-animated movies.
iPhones have already been used for amazing films
Of course, Lasseter's predictions are really already here, at least to a small extent. One of the buzzier films at Sundance this year, Tangerine, was shot almost entirely using an iPhone 5S; Park Chan-wook, the director of Oldboy, shot a short film using an iPhone 4 several years back; and GoPro is already operating an online channel of videos — including short films — shot on its cameras. Those films may not be the type of award-winning features that Lasseter expects to see, but it's already proof that filmmakers are picking up these new tools and creating some incredible work with them.
What's most interesting about Lasseter's prediction is that he doesn't just think the iPhone is going to replace the 35mm movie camera (or even the digital movie camera or the DSLR). He thinks that these new tools are going to bring about a change in the way films work. "[The iPhone and GoPro] give a vibrancy you have never been able to have before … I think a new film grammar is going to come with these things," Lasseter said, according to Variety.
The "vibrancy" Lasseter speaks of may be how personal the films made with these tools can feel. GoPros, in particular, can really convey the intensity of what they're recording because of their first-person perspective. As with prior advances in film, Lasseter expects people to view the adoption and spread of these tools as unnecessary or impossible, but in reality, the tools being discussed are already here, he says.
In an example of how filmmakers need to adapt to new tools, Lasseter explained how the "plastic" look of computer-generated characters at the time was part of the reason Pixar decided to make a movie featuring characters that were made out of plastic. "It's one of the reasons we leaned into making toys the subject of our feature film, Toy Story," he said.
How will filmmaking change to work with these tools?
However, for the moment, filmmakers are largely using low-budget cameras to imitate professional cameras, which isn't necessarily what Lasseter is talking about. DSLRs caught on, in part, because they can provide that cinematic depth of field. Smartphones can catch on because they're ubiquitous, but filmmakers are also using add-on lenses, grips, and so on to make their phones into better tools.
On the other hand, you can look at the bigger picture: digital has also brought the rise of improvisation and new editing techniques, and consumer cameras have also brought about the found footage craze. We're also now seeing original series on Snapchat, even shot in the — much-derided by traditionalists — portrait format. Perhaps that's a better example of what Lasseter means when he says that filmmakers need to rapidly improve their stories and adapt their techniques. Snapchat may not be the obvious location for an award-winning film to show up, but perhaps Lasseter is still stuck using language that the Academy understands when he speaks of success in terms of a feature.