Film Society

Rootclip.com puts collaborative moviemaking right where you most expected it: online

More than anything else, Steve Jobs has the uncanny ability of harnessing his powers of prescient hyperbole and getting us excited about things we wouldn't have even thought twice about before. Back in 1999, he launched a consumer app called iMovie (for OS 8!) and promised that we would all soon become amateur filmmakers. It came bundled with the iMac DV—which was loaded for bear with a whopping 13 gigabytes of hard drive space and 128 MB of RAM. The revolution took a while.

But nearly 10 years later, it's apparent (once again) that Steve Was Right. As digital cameras and hard drives have gotten progressively cheaper, we've become a nation of videographers, not only documenting the daily magic of baby dribble, but also taking our own stabs at the auteur theory with short films, fan extensions of genre films, and full-on features. And Rootclip.com, created by a couple of guys here in Knoxville, takes that digital lifestyle trend to its next step: virtual collaboration on short films, conducted online.

The concept is one of those "I shoulda thought of that!" strokes of Web 2.0 obviousness that torments us lazy bystanders: The site posts a "rootclip" to start a new story arc; users have 10 days to submit their scenes for the next two-minute segment; the online community and a judges' panel vote on the entries. The clip with the most votes becomes the official new chapter—and the process begins again for the next chapter. Eventually, a 12-minute film results, created by people around the country. Each chapter winner gets $250 and the chance to compete in the final chapter round—and that winner gets $2,000.

Launched on May 1, Rootclip was conceived by Kevin Antoine and Erik Luchauer—both employees of Scripps' online newspaper group. (The site is also owned by E.W. Scripps, the same media empire that owns Metro Pulse—but the site's genuinely interesting, I swear.) The first completed story is entitled Good Luck, and concerns the mistaken delivery of a mysterious suitcase to the wrong man.

For those just viewing the clips rather than making them, the pleasure lies in seeing how each filmmaker takes the story in a sudden, new direction; what starts as a Hitchcockian spy set-up, complete with suitcase mcguffin, takes a wild turn to The X-Files with a dash of The Matrix thrown in for good measure. Whether they pull it off depends on your patience with amateur filmmaking; but it's definitely worth watching for anyone who's considered trying to make a movie themselves. It might even pique your interest enough to get involved.

Of course, the Achilles' heel of any user-generated content site is the possibility of not actually gathering enough users to participate. When Antoine and Luchauer flipped on the switch, they weren't sure if Rootclip would actually gain any traction with the intended audience. "Starting a website, especially with an idea like ours that hasn't really been tried before, is a little scary," admits Antoine in an e-mail. "We had absolutely no expectations right from the beginning. We were elated when we'd get one submission to continue the story."

But with a little social networking and some inroads at film schools (as well as getting blog attention at Wired.com and USAToday.com), submissions have increased both in volume and quality. And traffic has been increasing each month. Since Rootclip.com also features community comments (usually at least 100 per clip), that means there can be some spirited discourse about the art of filmmaking among the would-be collaborators. But flame wars (especially clever ones) are half the fun of an online community.

("I don't understand why everyone sucks up to you and wants you wiener so badly," declares manbearpig of Good Luck's grand-prize winner, killerrobotninja. "You have an expensive camera yes, but I don't see any continuity in your stories, just trying to show that you know how to make flashy lights." Gauntlet thrown, killerrobotninja replies: "lol @ manbearpig and ing. It sounds like you guys are very new to cinema, so let me tell you about this cool new thing. It's called a TWIST.")

"It seems as though the commenters and submitters are both interested in making the films better, not necessarily running people off the site because their work is poor," writes Antoine. "The site is very competitive—submitters don't like to lose, which naturally steps up the quality of the submissions."

This week, Rootclip launched its latest story, Doctor Frank, a riff on a certain other online video phenomenon, Dr. Horrible. Only this mad scientist has an even worse apartment, and is apparently amenable to product placement. It ends with Doctor Frank about to flip a power switch that looks suspiciously similar to a regular light switch, but that may engage some other, amazing device. What could it be? Well, you'll have to tune in next week... or get cracking with your own video camera.