*Originally published by Little Black Book (lbbonline.com) on May 17, 2023.
The moving image has always been a feat of technology. From Kinemacolor to green screens, through to LED volumes and previsualization, the history of film is also the history of tech breakthroughs.
So, at a time where technology feels more powerful than ever, what does this mean for the world of filmmaking - and, most importantly, how are filmmakers using modern tech most effectively? To find out, we spoke to Kirk Slawek - the founder and EP of Gear Seven, a full-service creative and production studio based in Nashville. Alongside the filmmaking expertise housed within Gear Seven, Kirk also maintains an eye over the studio’s sister companies - Arc Studios (which specializes in virtual production) and Shift Dynamics (a one-stop-shop for equipment rentals and specialty services such as robotics and car-to-car). Across that family of companies, then, it’s hard to imagine an aspect of the modern filmmaking process which Kirk’s team doesn’t touch.
It also leaves Kirk perfectly-positioned to witness the modern evolution of technology within film. And, as a result, he knows that it isn’t always the highest-profile breakthroughs which end up making the most impact. “Top-tier technology doesn’t always have to be the most expensive thing. It can be improvements on existing tech that make it more efficient or better - and it can also be a whole new product, system, or increased accessibility of a product to a larger audience”, he says.
Fittingly, then, the industry has arrived at a moment where tech-driven solutions to frustrating problems are plentiful. As a result, new creative possibilities are emerging on a frequent basis. As Kirk goes on to explain, this is an element of the filmmaking process which particularly excites him. “I have been a ‘nerd’ from the start and have always been drawn to the problem-solving aspect of utilizing various technologies and systems to create a new solution”, he says. “Using new technology to create things that weren’t possible before is such a crucial skill in our industry today”.
Above: On a recent shoot, robotics from Shift Dynamics were put to use to ensure the Gear Seven team captured every angle of a mouthwatering cocktail.
To illustrate Kirk’s point, one example is how filmmakers have been empowered by several new technologies under the umbrella of ‘virtual production’, not least high-quality LED volumes. By leaning into the tech, directors and crews are finding that they have the ability to tweak and make changes on-the-fly in order to achieve the best possible creative outcome. If anything, as Kirk explains, self-restraint is required in order to avoid getting too greedy with the abilities on-hand.
“When you are used to shooting on location, there are less variables you can change to create the end product”, he says. “But once you step into the volume, you can find yourselves going in circles the first few times with everything you can change. It’s hugely important to have your game plan finalized in pre-production - but, at the same time, the freedom you have on shoot days to tweak things as needed is an added benefit”.
Above: A filmmaking crew makes full use of an LED volume whilst shooting a music video for Lindsey Lomis.
Proving another example, Kirk looks back to Thomas Rhett’s Where We Started Radio - a project brought to life within Arc Studios. “In that instance, we had a time constraint of three hours - and the creative concept was a sunset rooftop performance topped off with a quick turn on the edit”, he recalls. “We chose to shoot it in our virtual production studio, to allow us to have sunset controlled for that length of time on the volume in Unreal Engine and capture in-camera for the edit”.
Above: Arc Studios’ virtual production tech enabled the production crew to maintain a beautiful sunset backdrop for Thomas Rhett.
Despite the flashy new toys, however, no technology - however groundbreaking - can ever be a silver bullet. Throughout our conversation, one theme continually re-emerges: that the tech you have is only as powerful as your ability to master it. On which note, Kirk and the Gear Seven team have made a habit out of reaching out to the creative community and promoting access and education for the tech they offer. Whether it's their popular recurring Directors + Donuts event or offering demos in their studio, Kirk and his team maintain an open and democratic approach.
“We offer plenty of high-tech tools from camera systems, robotics, and camera cars at Shift Dynamics and a virtual production studio at Arc Studios”, he says. “All are individually useful and unique tools, but I think the real value in what we offer is our open-door space and community-focused team. We are happy to welcome anyone that’s interested in these tools and give them access to our resources and team to learn, create, and grow”.
This approach, whilst generous-spirited, is also about Kirk’s positive vision for the industry’s future. “One of the main barriers in accessing some of this technology is probably the education factor”, he says. “Without training or the correct knowledge, the tech may seem overwhelming or hard-to-reach. The barrier has to be overcome through educating people in our industry on the tech – what it’s best used for, how to use it, and how to access it”.
Getting more into the nitty gritty, the true benefit of that education becomes apparent when considering the diversity - and the complexity - of modern filmmaking tech. For example, Motorized Precision (a motion control software company) has been making strides with an application called MP AR. The app visualizes cinema robots, products, and robot movement on an iPhone or iPad screen, giving filmmakers an unprecedented level of control and visibility over their productions. But, of course, you need to know how to use MP AR in order to get the most out of it.
“We have done a few music videos recently that, without the MP AR app, would have taken significantly more time to program the shots”, notes Kirk. “With the app, the DP/Directors have been able to map out robotic moves using an iPad and send it to the robot for efficient shots”.
Above: A behind the scenes picture taken from a recent shoot which leveraged MP AR.
And, for a more heavy-duty example of technology’s influence on the modern industry, look no further than MotoCrane. The car camera system has, as Kirk describes it, “allowed various teams and filmmakers around the world to level up their camera car / car-to-car shooting abilities”.
Above: The car-to-car capabilities of Shift Dynamics allow teams to shoot heart-pumping footage which captures the full effect of vehicles in motion.
With demand for content increasing at a seemingly exponential rate, these kinds of tech-driven solutions aren’t arriving a moment too soon. “I think it’s creating some opportunities for new types of content, and providing ways for production to answer the demand for the quantity of content that is being made”, says Kirk.
Ultimately, however, Kirk is mindful that innovation doesn’t stand still. “I think we’re currently seeing an exceptionally high amount of innovation, but there’s plenty still to figure out”, he says. “There’s room to allow for faster processing, higher frames-per-second, and better color reproduction to give just three examples”.
Crucially, all of this technological innovation needs to be directed at augmenting creative ideas. And on that point, Kirk is feeling positive. “I believe that down the line, many more tools will be developed that will actually speed up and enhance the creative process - and not replace it”.