Guest Post by Josh Sikora
We live in a world of media convergence, where we expect everything to be multi-platform, multi-format, and interconnected. Successful storytellers are learning how to spread their stories across books, films, TV series, web series, video games, comic books, social media—the list seems to get longer every year. It’s an exciting time to be a storyteller—ripe for innovation and experimentation, with opportunities for success that continue to get wider, more diverse, and more accessible for everyone.
Yet as storytelling proliferates across all of these unique platforms, there is a distinct danger that we will lose something valuable in the process. While the storyteller may be becoming king, he also runs the risk of becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none.
I see this happen in my medium of choice all the time. I’m a filmmaker and I teach the art of cinema to students at Houston Baptist University. Cinema is a powerful and unique art with limitless potential—but it must be harnessed correctly to be used effectively. All too often, cinema is reduced to a sort of melting pot. Rather than having its own particular qualities, it’s treated as simply a vessel for delivering stories and theatrical performances. Hollywood falls into this trap all of the time—how often have you seen a film that seems to have a great script, great actors, great cinematography and music—and yet even though all the pieces seem to be there, the movie just doesn’t work?
This happens when the medium is forgotten. In this case, when the cinema is forgotten. Andrey Tarkovsky, a brilliant Russian filmmaker and theorist warns of this in his definitive book, Sculpting in Time:
“Cinema is said to be a composite art, based on the involvement of a number of neighbour art forms: drama, prose, acting, painting, music. […] In fact the ‘involvement’ of these art forms can, as it turns out, impinge so heavily on cinema as to reduce it to a kind of mishmash, or — at best — to mere semblance of harmony in which the heart of cinema is not to be found.”
Instead of seeing cinema as a melting pot for other artistic mediums, Tarkovsky argues that cinema is its own distinct art form with particular qualities and purposes. He describes it as the act of “sculpting in time”—a clever image of the filmmaker gathering raw “lumps of time” and shaping these individual moments into an elegant, meaningful final shape.
This notion of capturing time itself is often neglected, but it’s at the very heart of what makes cinema unique. I liken it sometimes to a time machine, like the TARDIS from Doctor Who. Movies have a transportive power to take you anywhere in time or space — forward, backward, around the globe, the farthest reaches of our galaxy, or even fantastical parallel dimensions. Movies bring these times and these places to life. It’s one thing to read about ancient Rome and it’s another thing to immersively and viscerally experience it (or at least an interpretation of it). Cinema can take us anywhere, and when used wisely, that’s powerful.
Cinema can also preserve a moment just like a photograph, except that cinema brings that moment to life. Consider our ability to revisit our favorite actors’ performances, even long after they’ve aged or passed away. Before the invention of cinema, that was impossible. As digital cameras end up in all of our pockets, we intuitively find ourselves using cinema to chronicle our own lives—capturing all of those special experiences we don’t want to forget, whether it’s a child’s first steps or a roller coaster ride. Cinema has preserved the last century of world events with such detail that the work of historians from here on out will forever be changed.
Cinema is a visual medium, although because it moves it actually has as much in common with a medium like dance as it does with photography and painting. Motion captures our attention and supersedes our ability to process a shot simply as an image. The cinematic frame acts more like a window, allowing us to peer into another world.
Finally, cinema is a temporal experience. Like music, it operates very rigidly in time. Scenes act like distinct movements in a symphony, moving us emotionally through an abstract journey. In this way, narrative is no more critical to cinema than it is to music. Narrative can certainly be layered onto the medium (like an opera), but we can also experience cinema more purely—consider the non-narrative work of filmmakers like Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) or Ron Fricke (Samsara).
Stick around for Part 2, where Josh Sikora helps us find balance within the medium!
Joshua Sikora is the founder and director of the Cinema & New Media Arts program at Houston Baptist University. An award-winning filmmaker and new media entrepreneur, Sikora has written, produced, or directed more than a dozen productions including feature films, TV series, and documentaries. Committed to high-quality, low-budget filmmaking, he has a passion for the freedom and creativity that independent cinema offers. Before joining HBU, Sikora founded New Renaissance Pictures and WebSerials.com, partnering with Hulu and YouTube for a variety of popular web-based productions.