Gerbil in a Microwave


In the dark and dense forest of The Blair Witch Project—not the movie itself, but in the hype surrounding its Net-heavy publicity blitz—it’s easy to forget that there are filmmaking tactics a lot more “indie” than using handheld cameras and writing a compelling script. You could, for instance, draw a gerbil in a microwave.

As omniscient auteur, it’s your prerogative to destine your gerbil to go the way of all microwaved rodentia. The masses will adore you: AtomFilms, one of Seattle’ growing flock of Net-based “film” (film?) companies, says that Micro-Gerbil 2001 is one of its most popular titles. After that, you might produce a 30-second movie or invent a new kind of scene-transition effect or break a traditional documentary script into sections and film each in a different style.

Such is online cinema, where would-be Welleses and Kubricks (and the occasional Spielberg-in-waiting) are so close to serious money their credit-card companies can almost taste it. Four years ago a nation of art-school graduates looked at the Web and saw an avenue out of the would-you-like-fries-with-that ghetto; this time it’s the film-school crowd’s turn.

AtomFilms steps lively where other sources of funding are involved; they have deals with HBO/Cinemax, Sundance Channel, Continental Airlines, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Warner Bros. Online, @home and a bunch of other places that don’t usually come up in articles featuring exploding gerbils. is a great place to blow an afternoon. At the moment they host over 100 films free for the viewing, ranging from surreal thrillers (Grey) to animated comedy (the Oscar-nominated Canhead) to, well, Micro-Gerbil. Some of the films are created specifically for the Net; others find their way here after doing the rounds of European cinemas, cross-country flights and other short subject-friendly locales. They’re strictly shorts, with no film clocking in at over 38 minutes. Though feature-length films are available online, watching them is no one’s idea of a good time. And so AtomFilms has both its niche and its work cut out for it; it aims to be the Miramax-style short-subject distribution hub of the Net.

Joe Cartoon, creator of the infamous Micro-Gerbil, is perhaps the only filmmaker in the world to ever raise the ire of an antivirus company: Last year Symantec’s Asia Pacific division cautioned about the spread of his Frog in a Blender via email (“the programs are not malicious, although they display graphic images that may be unsettling to some”). It ain’t Siskel, it ain’t Ebert, but it ain’t hay either.

Joe Cartoon—of course it’s not his real name, and presumably his Webmaster isn’t legally named “Russ the Barbarian”—sticks with the interaction-friendly Flash format, which he picked up after starting to showcase his cartoons and T-shirt designs. He’s got a signed deal with AtomFilms for eight more movies, none of which will be, say, Cat in a Dryer: “I get requests, but I don’t give the people what they want,” he says. “I give ’em what they need.”

And how, pray tell, does this sit with film folk still using actual film? Usenet is alive with the sound of digital-video advocates bickering with film traditionalists, with video folk waving the democracy-of-access flag, film folk winning the technical elegance battle and both sides claiming high ground in the artistic vision war.

San Francisco-based affords a good view of the crossfire. A comprehensive site handling films of nearly every genre and type, iFilm carries news, columns, discussion groups, auctions, portal-type relationships with Film Threat and, and pretty much everything else an aspiring filmmaker could want in a portal-type site.

It’s all very slick, but a recent editorial from Maxie Collier, editor of weekly site zine IFILM IT, hints at the tension between the camps. Calling for détente in the debate about image quality and accessibility of the medium, Collier says folks should allow things to take their natural course: “Some of us will find an audience, some will not. And ultimately, true talent will stand out from the competition.”

With a gerbil. In a microwave.