Three Things Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold Can Teach Moviemakers About Changing Technologies

Werner Herzog doesn’t own a cell phone, but that doesn’t make him a technophobe.

At first glance, the poster for his documentary on the vast void of the digital age, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, reeks of existential ennui: layers of entangled wires form a head attached to a human body that stands against the dark clouds swallowing up a city skyline. But while Herzog the man appears to dread the “repulsive” corridors of the birthplace of the internet (for the layperson, a hallway in UCLA) in Lo and Behold’s opening moments, Herzog the moviemaker spends much of the doc’s running time appealing to the revolutionary aspirations humans can possess when equipped with the right tools and vision.

Don’t get it twisted—Herzog and his interview subjects (among them, billionaire Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss) still offer plenty of unnerving speculations on addiction and warfare in cyberspace, and artificial intelligence evolving into an entity beyond human control. But in the spirit of Herzog’s exploratory futurism, we turn to three things Lo and Behold can bring to light for indie moviemakers seeking to break rules and new ground in our new media landscape.

Theatrical one-sheet for Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

1. Cash in, but don’t sell out: Online branded content could pave the road to a feature.

The unique origin of Lo and Behold is perhaps a metaphor for the film itself. Just as Herzog’s innate curiosity steers his doc through 10 expansive chapters on internet evolution, so did the film start as a small but novel project—a marketing campaign proposed by cybersecurity brand Netscout and its ad agency, Pereira O’Dell New York—that progressed to a creation of grand scale. Riffing on Netscout’s slogan, “Guardians of the Connected World,” the agency proposed producing a web series that would examine interconnectivity, with Herzog at the helm. When Herzog, once attached, told Netscout chief marketing officer Jim McNeil that the web series he began shooting was quickly turning into a much larger beast, McNeil managed to convince Netscout’s “literal engineer types” to invest seven figures into a feature-length story that dwarfed the company’s initial objective to raise brand awareness. The end result: a critically acclaimed and commercially viable Sundance smash with a likelihood of strong VOD sales performance after its theatrical run.

The tale of how Lo and Behold came to fruition suggests new opportunities for web-savvy moviemakers and creative marketers alike. But what if you’re not a brand of your own, like Herzog? How can you expect to have any potential investor, be it a film studio or an online brand, to take a risk on your idea?

Fear not: In fact, it was the director’s YouTube-aired, short anti-texting-and-driving doc for AT&T, “From One Second to the Next,” that served as his calling card when he was offered the job to make what eventually became Lo and Behold. The aspects of the auteur’s filmography that cinephiles idolize him for, on the other hand, were what almost sent Netscout running for the hills. (”It’s a big challenge when you hire a man who’s been called a Director of Dread to help position your company in the industry,” McNeil told Fast to Create).

Moviemakers: Designate brands with short video-based marketing campaigns as targets in your job search. Your chances of graduating from directing commercial work, online branded content or web series to features are increased by the growing demands of the digital marketplace.

2. If one day the internet will be invisible, moviemakers can be, too.

It has long been a mission of moviemakers to remove the perceived barrier between spectators and what’s on screen. From the introduction of 3-D film in the early 1920s, the autobiographical essay films of Ross McElwee, and nature films shot in IMAX, to “found footage” horror cinema, helmet-mounted Go-Pro cameras, Google Glass and Virtual Reality, we’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to make people forget the “tricks” of cinema and accept it as something entirely “real.”

In Lo and Behold’s final chapter, UCLA computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock tells Herzog that eventually the internet “will become a pervasive global nervous system. Everywhere you go the internet will be available, and it will be invisible. You walk into a room, the room will know you’re there. You can talk to the room and it will respond. The internet will disappear into the infrastructure just the way the electricity has disappeared into the walls.” How can moviemakers plan for and adapt to such a world—one on the verge of permanently erasing age-old human/technology boundaries?

Dr. Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA in Lo and Behold. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The answer for some may lie in a clean, or at least temporary, break from traditional camera equipment and film language. Efforts are currently being made by those working with VR, for instance, to deliver 360-degree viewing and both 180-degree and 360-physical movement as staples of their audiences’ experience. Should the Oculus Rift, Samsung’s VR Gear and Google’s Cardboard and Jump become as ubiquitous as video game consoles, users’ ability to program and download stories that heighten empathy and consciousness may be cinema’s “disappearing into the walls” moment.

Straight-outta-film school independents: Set aside time to make adjustments from a medium of the old school to one of the new. Today’s tech experiment may be tomorrow’s step toward moviemaking invisibility.

3. Even in the “Digital Dark Age,” we can dream of a bright future.

Silicon Valley pioneer Danny Hillis tells Herzog in the film that we are likely living in what historians will come to know as the “Digital Dark Age”—an era in which we struggle to define and maintain reliable records of our immense discoveries and technological innovation. Should some chaotic event destroy what we have thus far stored on servers, clouds and devices, paper evidence for experts to turn to would be in short supply.

There are pragmatic moviemaking implications to Hillis’ theory. You can take stock in an expert opinion which suggests that even the most meticulous of data back-ups may be in danger of evaporating into thin air. While we’re not advocating Y2K levels of paranoia, a commitment to creating a paper trail of documentation to trace back to each of your projects and legal bindings can help you sleep better (if Herzog’s voice of impending doom decides to creep back into your psyche late at night).

Buddhist monks with smartphones in Lo and Behold. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Lo and Behold leaves its subjects and audiences to ponder: “Does the internet dream of itself?” For a man so adamantly analog, Herzog’s question is profoundly in touch with the grand ideas that techies have been wrestling with throughout their entire careers. For moviemakers, the next logical question might be: How do we dream of ourselves in a digitized film landscape? To broaden our understanding of what constitutes “moving pictures,” we must loosen our grip on traditional technology to advance storytelling capabilities. Catch up to multimedia and if possible, master it—don’t let it tighten its grip on you. MM

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World opened in theaters and On Demand August 19, 2016, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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