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Werner Herzog on the future of film school, critical connectivity, and Pokémon Go

‘Unfortunately, film school is not going to go extinct. I wish it would.’

Don’t wait for the system to accept you

By Emily Yoshida. on July 28, 2016 03:25 pm

Repetition is a powerful tool for both filmmakers and teachers, and Professor Werner Herzog wants you to know two things:

1.  he doesn’t have a cell phone (later he will tell you that he does, but only for emergencies) and

2. he didn’t know movies existed until he was 11.

He’s dropped these facts both as humorous anecdotes and boastful claims at screenings of his upcoming documentary Lo and Behold, in the video lectures for his recently released online filmmaking course with MasterClass, and in our conversation two weeks ago in Los Angeles.

It’s a provocation of sorts — who would trust a man without a cell phone to direct a documentary about our connected world?

Who would trust someone who didn’t grow up dazzled by Star Wars or Spielberg to teach filmmaking?

These are questions nobody asks because this is Werner Herzog.

As a documentarian who has traveled to the furthest reaches of the indifferent wilderness to ponder humanity’s place in it, there are very few filmmakers whose perspective on our digital lives I’d be more interested in.

Lo and Behold, which was financed by a network management company, examines the myriad ways our nature as humans has adapted to, and sometimes violently resisted the constraints and freedoms of online life.

Told in short, episodic acts, the film’s subjects range from a family that was targeted by unimaginable harassment after the death of their daughter, to an internet addiction rehab facility, to the UCLA basement where the very first message was sent over a network.

Andrew Bossone shared this link. The full interview:

It’s a delight to be taught by one of our least cynical filmmakers

Herzog has become almost a meme in recent years, his signature dour voice-overs sent up by Samantha Bee and in maudlin teen movies.

But the reason he has a loyal following, and why thousands of eager filmmakers from all walks of life have signed up to access his MasterClass lectures, and applied to his more rigorous, in-person Rogue Film School, is his transcendent empathy as a filmmaker. This also makes him a great teacher.

Come for the hyperbolic throwaway lines (“I do not use a storyboard, I think it is an instrument of the cowards”), stay for the uncompromising creative pep talk.

I had doubts about how this would be conveyed through a series of videos and a PDF course book, but when I did sit down to watch Herzog’s MasterClass, suddenly the interface didn’t matter — it’s a delight to be taught by someone who, despite the surface morbidity, is one of the least cynical filmmakers currently working.

Of course, interviewing him was another matter, and I soon realized that when you’re talking to Werner Herzog, you have to throw your questions out the window. Maybe that’s how we ended up discussing the inherent violence of Pokémon Go.

You’re now the teacher of two different film courses. How would you quantify the difference between what someone gets for $1,500 at the Rogue Film School, and for $90 with your MasterClass?

The Rogue Film School is a very intense encounter, direct encounter with aspiring filmmakers. All of them are actually professionals already. I would not choose amateurs.

It’s much more about the guerrilla style filmmaking including things that go outside of the limits of legality.

Sometimes I would teach them how to forge a shooting permit in a military dictatorship, which I’ve done twice. It’s a different approach, and of course much more [focused] since it is in such direct contact with the students. They have their voice and I listen to them and they can talk about their problems and obstacles and doubts.

You see, with the Rogue Film School, everybody has to send me a written application — which I read, every single one — and everyone has to send me a film. I’m the committee who checks out the film. I watch them all, hundreds and hundreds and I would make a very tight selection of a maximum of 50 people.

Whereas the MasterClass is something where I do not have anyone in front of me with the exception of a couple of cameras.

I have to try to speak from my experience and get something across that would be helpful for those who are aspiring filmmakers. MasterClass is also meant for young people, people of any age who have not made films yet.

Have you seen any changes or shifts in the work and in the submissions over the past seven years?

There are always surprises. All of a sudden there is a film that is not really accomplished, but in the film there is a minute of utterly new unseen stuff that just makes you sit down and take a deep breath.

Those are the [filmmakers] I would invite [to Rogue Film School], those who are not following on the trodden path. The MasterClass speaks to you in the same way.

Find your own voice, do not just stupidly and blindly follow the so-called rules of storytelling in terms of screenplays, the three-act theory, all these things. Find your voice, find your own identity, don’t be afraid just to step into it.

Because today it’s fairly easy; you can make a film with a very high caliber camera that’s not expensive anymore.

You can record sound on your cell phone if you add a good microphone and you can edit your film on your laptop.

you can make a feature film for $10,000 or under. And that’s what I keep telling the students or those who watch the MasterClass: don’t wait for the system to accept you. You create your own system, create your own [budget] and make your own first feature film or your first own documentary.

More and more that DIY spirit is the dominant attitude of young filmmakers, especially those putting their work directly online. Do you think traditional film school will ever go extinct?

No, unfortunately they are not going to go completely extinct; I wish they would. I wish everybody would come out of nowhere and be self-taught by life itself, by the world itself.

No, [film school is] going to stay because there is a general demand for content, let’s say, on television. And the film industry has some sort of a permanent demand for content. Let it be like that. I do not want to challenge it. But when you look into my MasterClass you better be out for something else.

Have you seen the MasterClass?

Yes, but I haven’t seen all of it. I watched about three of the lessons and then it started getting to the assignments and I thought, “I kind of want to actually do these.” Rather than just watching the videos straight through.

No, you shouldn’t watch it all at once. That would be completely mad.

And be careful with the assignments, because sometimes I would say you do not need to follow them. Create your own assignments, be intelligent. Giving assignments, it reeks of high school and getting homework…

Some people respond to that though, some people like that.

Yes, but I always was reluctant to give any assignments. But it’s fine. Let it be as it is.

It’s part of the format and it’s part of the charm of it. When it comes to assignment I’m not the one who should be a high school principal.

Right.

I’d rather jump from Golden Gate Bridge if that happens.

I asked about film school because I graduated from a film program less than a decade ago, and already many of the technical skills I learned are outdated. And it seems the things that remain are very personal lessons that usually don’t come from the curriculum itself.

Yeah, certain things you can neither learn in film school nor let’s say the MasterClass nor in the Rogue Film School. It’s just life, raw life as it is has to give you insight and has to allow you to make the right decisions and ask the right questions and gathering enough courage to do something.

Do you think that’s harder to have those sorts of life experiences now that so much of our lives are mediated by devices?

If you are too much into the internet, yes, because it’s a parallel surrogate life. It has nothing to do with the real world or examination of the real world, if you delegate too much to your cell phone and applications.

It’s very interesting that you are releasing Lo and Behold at the same time as this completely online, digital class. What convinced you that you’d be able to get your ideas across in an online course given all the doubts you’ve expressed about the connected world?

I never knew that it was online. I always thought that you would subscribe and you would buy some Blu-rays or DVDs.

Maybe it’s even better than depending on something physical. You see, I come from a world where you touch things, like a roll of celluloid. But I have to get better accustomed to the virtual world.

It’s not only the tactile experience that’s different, it’s also the act of going to a place to learn. Setting aside specific time over the course of weeks or months where you have this curriculum that you hold yourself to, instead of fitting it in in your spare time on the train or something.

Yeah, it’s better that way, I think. Because when you look at TV series there’s such a thing as binge watching. You watch a whole series in two days or three days. Here I would advise not to do binge watching of my MasterClass.

Lo and Behold is officially being released in August, but in the meantime you’ve had the chance to screen it several times. What kinds of reactions have you gotten, especially from people who are perhaps more embedded in the “connected world” than you are?

Well, everybody has been enthusiastic so far and the buzz is enormous. I never expected it, because in the beginning I was to do some YouTube tips on texting and driving.

The financiers of the film, NETSCOUT, understood there was something much bigger and they supported me with that. The response has been totally unprecedented for me. What is also remarkable I get a lot of emails nowadays [from] 12, 14, 15-year-olds.

And that’s something really surprising because they speak a different language, the language of their age group. And yet [they are] making some very intelligent remarks.

They’ve grown up never knowing life without this constant connectivity.

Yes, and they are excited that there’s something like conceptual thinking which will create a filter and an understanding how to use the internet and how to deal with it. In other words, taking a step away from it, looking at what it does and what the possibilities are your choices.

I really enjoyed the film when I saw it earlier this year. I also felt like there should be 16 sequels.

In a way, it’s unfinished business I’d like to continue. I’d like to continue, for example, with a segment about Bitcoin.

That’s something I’m completely mystified by, a fantasy of currency, of cash, that you cannot touch and yet it exists. I’m interested how can I commit a bank robbery holding up the bank and getting away with loot of something that you cannot even touch.

And countries like Estonia, which is going completely and systematically digital now — it’s very fascinating. There are many more aspects. And NETSCOUT by the way, is not completely done with it yet.

Really?

That’s my feeling. It depends a little bit on after the release of the film; what are the big reactions and if there is still demand. If there’s still a demand, I have a couple of things I’d like to continue with.

Do you know about Pokémon Go?

No.

It’s this…

I don’t know what Pokémon Go is and what all these things are…

It’s a…

You’re talking to somebody who made his first phone call at age 17. You’re talking to someone who doesn’t have a cell phone, for example, for cultural reasons.

Right.

Tell me about Pokémon Go. What is happening on Pokémon Go?

It’s basically the first mainstream augmented reality program. It’s a game where the entire world is mapped and you walk around with the GPS on your phone. You walk around in the real world and can catch these little monsters and collect them. And everybody is playing it.

Does it tell you you’re here at San Vicente, close to Sunset Boulevard?

Yeah, it’s basically like a Google map.

But what does pokémon do at this corner here?

You might be able to catch some. It’s all completely virtual. It’s very simple, but it’s also an overlay of physically based information that now exists on top of the real world.

When two persons in search of a pokémon clash at the corner of Sunset and San Vicente is there violence? Is there murder?

They do fight, virtually.

Physically, do they fight?

No—

Do they bite each other’s hands? Do they punch each other?

The people or the…

Yes, there must be real people if it’s a real encounter with someone else.

Well, it’s been interesting because there are all these anecdotes of people who are playing the game, and they’ve never met their neighbors, for instance. And when they go outside to look for pokémon they realize they’re playing the same game, and start talking to each other.

You’d have to give me a cell phone, which I’m not going to use anyway, and I have no clue what’s going on there, but I don’t need to play the game.

No, I think it’s plenty to read about it… in the end, it does seem to be evidence of how easy it is for people to accept AR into their lives, as opposed to VR.

Yeah, but these things are very ephemeral, they come and go.

I read an interview you gave maybe a year or two ago about the potential of virtual reality for filmmaking and I wonder if you’ve seen anything else recently that’s changed your assessment.

No, nothing that has convinced me that there is clearly a type of content that we should focus on. Still, it makes me uncomfortable. You have this… how do you call it? This mask on, for more than five minutes. I feel uncomfortable, and no content whatsoever has taken this discomfort away from me.

There’s this persistent idea that virtual reality has this potential to be an “empathy machine.” That just by sitting someone virtually in another space you can convey the experience or give someone some sort of cultural epiphany.

You’d probably understand it better by reading a book about some of the phenomena out in the world. Or by traveling on foot.

I think a lot of people are “addicted” to their connectivity out of this need to understand the world, or find some kind of truth. It just speeds up the process. I’m thinking of the situation recently with the sniper in Dallas, and how in minutes, just because of social media and video, an innocent man was the target of a manhunt. But then, in another hour, he was exonerated — also through social media.

I think what is remarkable about it is that police immediately zeroed in on the real shooter, and they killed him.

With a robot.

Yes, also interesting. But they didn’t kill the wrong one. No matter what sort of false clues came via social media… it was solid, normal police work. If somebody opens fire you better shoot back when you have a clear target.

“Technology doesn’t have any qualities.”

What do you think about the use of technology in these sorts of cases? Video, and live video is becoming so integral to reporting of incidences of police violence and it’s a very powerful, perhaps unforeseen use of this technology.

Yes, in many cases it’s been very helpful, for example, for women under attack — all of a sudden you have a tool to verify what is happening. Even if, say, someone wants to assault you… if you turn on your cell phone and take photos or video of the guy he would probably be deterred.

At the same time the real atrocities are happening.

There was a case of three teenage girls going out with a young man who was something like 10 years older. He rapes one of the girls and one of the girls not under attack films it and streams it live and does not help and cannot switch off because she told police she couldn’t take her eyes off the comments.

That’s where your heart stops and you better do some hard thinking what we should do and what we should do not.

Like so many other tools, it only amplifies the highs and the lows of human nature.

Sure, and the question — is this technology good or bad? — is an incompetent question. It’s humans who are good or bad. Technology doesn’t have any qualities, it has technical qualities, yes. The internet is fast; the internet has many ramifications worldwide, and so you can quantify certain things, but you cannot endow it with qualities like good or bad.

Virtual Reality machines coming to the rescue of empathy?

How about listening attention span?

Chris Milk in March 2015 delivered this speech

Virtual reality started for me in sort of an unusual place. It was the 1970s. I got into the field very young: I was 7 years old.

And the tool that I used to access virtual reality was the Evel Knievel stunt cycle. This is a commercial for that particular item: (Video) Voice-over: What a jump! Evel’s riding the amazing stunt cycle. That gyro-power sends him over 100 feet at top speed.

 Chris Milk: So this was my joy back then. I rode this motorcycle everywhere. And I was there with Evel Knievel; we jumped the Snake River Canyon together. I wanted the rocket. I never got the rocket, I only got the motorcycle.

I felt so connected to this world. I didn’t want to be a storyteller when I grew up, I wanted to be stuntman. I was there. Evel Knievel was my friend. I had so much empathy for him.

01:09 But it didn’t work out. (Laughter) I went to art school. I started making music videos.

And this is one of the early music videos that I made: (Music: “Touch the Sky” by Kanye West) CM: You may notice some slight similarities here. (Laughter) And I got that rocket. (Laughter)

Now I’m a filmmaker, or, the beginning of a filmmaker, and I started using the tools that are available to me as a filmmaker to try to tell the most compelling stories that I can to an audience. And film is this incredible medium that allows us to feel empathy for people that are very different than us and worlds completely foreign from our own.

01:56 Unfortunately, Evel Knievel did not feel the same empathy for us that we felt for him, and he sued us for this video — (Laughter) — shortly thereafter. On the upside, the man that I worshipped as a child, the man that I wanted to become as an adult, I was finally able to get his autograph.

02:28 Let’s talk about film now. Film, it’s an incredible medium, but essentially, it’s the same now as it was then.

It’s a group of rectangles that are played in a sequence. And we’ve done incredible things with those rectangles. But I started thinking about, is there a way that I can use modern and developing technologies to tell stories in different ways and tell different kinds of stories that maybe I couldn’t tell using the traditional tools of filmmaking that we’ve been using for 100 years?

I started experimenting, and what I was trying to do was to build the ultimate empathy machine. And here’s one of the early experiments: (Music)

So this is called “The Wilderness Downtown.” It was a collaboration with Arcade Fire. It asked you to put in the address where you grew up at the beginning of it. It’s a website. And out of it starts growing these little boxes with different browser windows. And you see this teenager running down a street, and then you see Google Street View and Google Maps imagery and you realize the street he’s running down is yours.

And when he stops in front of a house, he stops in front of your house. And this was great, and I saw people having an even deeper emotional reaction to this than the things that I had made in rectangles. And I’m essentially taking a piece of your history and putting it inside the framing of the story.

 then I started thinking, okay, well that’s a part of you, but how do I put all of you inside of the frame? So to do that, I started making art installations. And this is one called “The Treachery of Sanctuary.” It’s a triptych. I’m going to show you the third panel. (Music) So now I’ve got you inside of the frame, and I saw people having even more visceral emotional reactions to this work than the previous one.

04:53 But then I started thinking about frames, and what do they represent?

And a frame is just a window. I mean, all the media that we watch — television, cinema — they’re these windows into these other worlds. And I thought, well, great. I got you in a frame. But I don’t want you in the frame, I don’t want you in the window, I want you through the window, I want you on the other side, in the world, inhabiting the world.

05:17 So that leads me back to virtual reality.

Let’s talk about virtual reality. Unfortunately, talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture. And this is actually someone dancing about architecture in virtual reality. (Laughter) So, it’s difficult to explain.

Why is it difficult to explain? It’s difficult because it’s a very experiential medium. You feel your way inside of it. It’s a machine, but inside of it, it feels like real life, it feels like truth. And you feel present in the world that you’re inside and you feel present with the people that you’re inside of it with.

05:58 So, I’m going to show you a demo of a virtual reality film: a full-screen version of all the information that we capture when we shoot virtual reality. So we’re shooting in every direction.

This is a camera system that we built that has 3D cameras that look in every direction and binaural microphones that face in every direction. We take this and we build, basically, a sphere of a world that you inhabit. So what I’m going to show you is not a view into the world, it’s basically the whole world stretched into a rectangle. So this film is called “Clouds Over Sidra,” and it was made in conjunction with our virtual reality company called VRSE and the United Nations, and a co-collaborator named Gabo Arora.

And we went to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan in December and shot the story of a 12-year-old girl there named Sidra. And she and her family fled Syria through the desert into Jordan and she’s been living in this camp for the last year and a half.

06:59 (Video) Sidra: My name is Sidra. I am 12 years old. I am in the fifth grade. I am from Syria, in the Daraa Province, Inkhil City. I have lived here in the Zaatari camp in Jordan for the last year and a half. I have a big family: three brothers, one is a baby. He cries a lot. I asked my father if I cried when I was a baby and he says I did not. I think I was a stronger baby than my brother.

07:34 CM: So, when you’re inside of the headset. you’re not seeing it like this. You’re looking around through this world. You’ll notice you see full 360 degrees, in all directions. And when you’re sitting there in her room, watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her.

When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathize with her in a deeper way.

08:10 And I think that we can change minds with this machine. And we’ve already started to try to change a few. So we took this film to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. And we showed it to a group of people whose decisions affect the lives of millions of people.

And these are people who might not otherwise be sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan. But in January, one afternoon in Switzerland, they suddenly all found themselves there.  And they were affected by it.

09:00 So we’re going to make more of them. We’re working with the United Nations right now to shoot a whole series of these films. We just finished shooting a story in Liberia.

And now, we’re going to shoot a story in India. And we’re taking these films, and we’re showing them at the United Nations to people that work there and people that are visiting there. And we’re showing them to the people that can actually change the lives of the people inside of the films.

That’s where I think we just start to scratch the surface of the true power of virtual reality. It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media.

And it can change people’s perception of each other. And that’s how I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.

So, it’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.


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