Why We Are Doomed To Watch Crap

29 04 2008

I love listening to This Week In Media, I really do. I love listening to Alex Lindsay, I love screaming at John Foster to just shut up for a second, I love learning more about media.

But one of the funniest parts of this podcast is listening a group of really educated media creators talk about how they watch media.

A few weeks ago, the group got into a discussion about how their ideal movie theatre wouldn’t allow popcorn chomping, or people getting up and down during the film, or any talking, or anything except movie viewing. While I have to say that there have been times when I’ve yelled at my movie viewing aisle mates to shut up, the TWIM people’s view of moviegoing bears very little resemblance to anything I’ve ever experienced in the real world.

Which got me to thinking about content, presentation and just how good is good enough.

Let me take a little detour here. One of the television shows that has captivated me recently is a homespun cooking show called “Lidia’s Italy” which plays on one of the very local public television stations here in Los Angeles.

The show has about the lowest production values and editing of anything that I’ve ever watched — including cable access. The half hour show is made up of the host, a joyful woman named Lidia Bastianich, who stands behind an immense kitchen counter and prepares Italian food with an occasional visit from an assortment from goofy family members and yes-men employees.

This kitchen material is intercut with footage that was shot in Italy of Lidia and her family visiting vineyards, restaurants, and food making facilities. That material looks like it was shot on the cheap — they’re stretching a week or two of shooting over the course of 26 episodes, often reusing the same shots within the same episode.

The transitions from kitchen to Italy and back are accomplished with flying picture-in-picture effects (often jerkily done) placed over a cheesy design-y background, and accompanied by one of about only five stock music cues.

The kitchen material, likewise, looks like it was edited in a rush. Large blocks of time needed to be lifted (as in any cooking show) and that is accomplished with a cutaway and a (usually) noticeable dialogue cut. The same music cues fade in and out in an attempt to bridge time, but their repetitiveness becomes onerous after a bit. Sometime a cue comes and goes in ten seconds.

In short, from a technical and editorial view, the show is total crap.

Yet I love it. In fact, I’m addicted to it. I watch it, knowing how horrible the production values are. And it doesn’t make a difference. The content is more interesting than the presentation, and that carries the day.

I’ve been saying for years that digital projection, even in its 1K ugly form, would become predominant as soon as 95% of the public couldn’t tell the difference between it and film. My guess is that that has now happened. We’ve already seen the lo-res music on iTunes become acceptable, even though its quality is far worse than that of CDs and LPs (or Amazon’s unBox). We calmly sit through the crappiest of video compression on DVDs because it’s way more convenient than going to a theater, and “it’s pretty close, isn’t it?”

And don’t even get me started on “HD” television!!

I’m not being a perfectionist here. I don’t insist, like Alex Lindsay and the TWIM folks, that we watch our movies in pristine conditions (though I’ll always insist on making them as perfect as possible) with gags on the mouths of the audience. I’m a bit more of a realist.

But the fact is that content will always outweigh quality of presentation. No one is going to watch a local kids’ AYSO soccer game on television, even if it is in HD (unless their kid is playing). But they’ll watch the Super Bowl, even if it’s on their 15″ ancient television (if that’s all they have). In the equation, compelling content beats out compelling presentation — though I’m going to have to get back to you about how 300 fits into that.

Intellectual Property – Carrot and Stick

21 04 2008

Chacocanyon imageA recent article in The Scotsman, entitled “Those Who Can, Create. Those Who Can’t, Copy,” celebrates this Saturday’s World Intellectual Property Day by noting the recent lawsuits filed by J.K. Rowling, against the writer of a Harry Potter encyclopedia written by a fan, a UK ad for Berocca Vitamins which borrows rather heavily from the famous video by Ok Go for “Here It Goes Again,” and a host of other instances of overly zealous “homage”.

Nobody is overly surprised by this, not in a world where YouTube video responses are just as popular as the original videos that inspired them (check out this response, for instance, to the above Ok Go video). When you’ve got Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Steven Ambrose doing the same over in the literary world, it takes a lot to get people to notice videos which rip off fun bands from the early 21st century. Still, when people start losing money over this sort of thing, you can expect the courts to get involved. In this case, there were apparently discussion (according to the article) with Ok Go about using their work but, when they weren’t successful, the ad agency making the Berocca commercial went ahead with their own version of it.

Another case, involving Guiness and the filmmaker Medhi Norowzian, is also discussed:

Norowzian had previously submitted a showreel to [advertising agency] Arks that included the short film “Joy,” which showed a man performing an exuberant dance on a rooftop. Arks submitted a script and storyboard based upon the film to Guinness and Norowzian was approached to direct. Unwilling to “commercialise” an existing idea, he refused and a new director was instructed to create something “with an atmosphere broadly similar to that portrayed in Joy”.

Norowzian lost his appeal against a High Court decision dismissing his copyright infringement claim, because the court decided that the film, not the dance, was the original work and Anticipation’s jump-cut editing made it substantially different.

“The important distinction,” explains Colin Hulme, a partner in the intellectual property and technology team of law firm Burness LLP, “is that copyright only protects the expression of the idea, not the idea itself.

But the really interesting example they give is with Apple. English Mac fan Nick Haley created a short commercial on his own for the iPod Touch, which Apple liked. Rather than follow its normal practice of suing the pants off of Haley, Apple actually offered to buy his idea, which they proceeded to reshoot professionally with Haley’s involvement (a New York Times article about the commercial can be found here). Haley describes the logic of that this way:

“That’s the whole point of advertising; it needs to get to the user,” Mr. Haley said. “If you get the user to make the ads, who better?”

[As an aside, the differences between Haley’s and Apple’s versions of the ad are actually very instructive in terms of the concerns of a big corporation trying to sell its products and itself at the same time.]

Those of us who create media (intellectual property, content, whatever) have a love/hate relationship with copyright laws. Sometimes it makes it harder for us to do our work, but we certainly benefit when someone want to use or abuse our own work. Apple’s admission that not all derivative works are evil seems shockingly enlightened and, to me, the way in which media creators need to work in the new world. Creative Commons, in which content creators can create various levels of allowed public usages) strikes me as a great direction as done Moby’s offer of selected free music for “independent and non-profit filmmakers, film students, and anyone in need of free music for their independent, non-profit film, video, or short.”

Not everything needs to be free or open for copying, but allowing the artist to determine the fate of his or her own art strikes me as a great acknowledgment of the power of 21st century technology, while also realizing the need of artists to control the fate and the income from their own work.

Cell Phone Content Creation

20 04 2008

Nokia phone (Courtesy letsgodigital)Tomorrow morning, I’m off to Atlanta to take part in a very very cool project with Nokia, Verizon and the Center For Disease Control (CDC) and it makes me think of Robert Scoble.

Whoa, let me explain.

At this year’s World Economic Conference in Davos, Robert Scoble took his Nokia N95 camera and combined it with qik.com software to create a live Web stream that could be seen by anyone on the web. In a discussion with John C. Dvorak on Tech5 on January 31, 2008, Scoble talks about how streaming the interviews that he did there live, at a remarkably low cost, enabled him to field questions from his web viewers that he could turn around and ask his own interviewees. He wasn’t breaking news live (though it would have been possible) but he was certainly creating more democratized interaction between the attendees at Davos and Scoble’s own viewers/listeners

That’s actually one small use for the technology. What I’m doing in Atlanta is more akin to news gathering.

I’ll be working as a remote producer with a group of students who will be out in the streets of Atlanta, creating content for a PSA (Public Service Announcement) for AIDS Awareness Day. The three students in my team (there will be five teams altogether) will have spent Tuesday in an all-day session with representatives from the CDC, as well develop a few PSAs for them to shoot on Wednesday. Then, as they shoot them, they will send them back to me and a student editor, who will begin editing them together. By 7pm that night, the hope is to have 2-3 PSAs from each of the five teams, that will be complete and ready to put onto Verizon’s network, so everyone in all of the groups can see them.

We’re calling them Personal PSAs (PPSAs) because of the intimate nature of their capture and their cell phone distribution mechanism.

Read the rest of this entry »

And reality shows are… edited!!! Fake News at 11!

18 04 2008

In a news story that should surprise absolutely no one, the Hollywood Reporter notes that this past week’s premiere of Discovery Channel‘s “Deadliest Catch” is in hot water (insert comment on terrible jokes here) for editing two pieces of film together!!

Well, of course, it’s not that simple, and the details lead us into a complex discussion of how editorial manipulation works. The show, which is called a “documentary” by the Channel and not a “reality show” (we’re trying to parse the difference here, without success), edited two shots of a storm wave and a flooded room that were shot on different days, to give the illusion that they happened together. As the Reporter explains:

Mammoth waves smash an Alaskan crab fishing boat called the Wizard, sending large swells crashing over its deck. Inside, alarmed crew members discover that their stateroom is flooding with incoming seawater.The sequence suggests that the fishermen are in danger of sinking as a violent tempest tosses huge waves against the boat.

But here’s the not-so-deadliest catch:

The boat flooded in September.

The huge storm waves were from October.

Several years ago, an ex-student of mine sent me an e-mail talking about a job he was working on — one of the MTV Real World seasons. In shocked tones he talked about a scene in which two of the contestants traded insults while using workout equipment in a gym. The thing was — the two of them had been filmed on different days. They had never been in the gym together.

Frankly, I was shocked that he was shocked (he was an editing student, after all), but the way in which footage can be manipulated for effect is quite powerful and, sometimes, surprising.

It’s an axiom that one of the things we editors do, is to create realities for the audience. We manipulate them in order to understand the feelings that the story needs to engender in them. There’s nothing terrible or evil about this manipulation usually. It’s what we need to do in order to best tell the story. (This implies that we have a story that we need to tell — though that’s a different post, one I’ll get to when we talk about The Lean Forward Moment).

In a documentary, of course, we have a responsibility to not lie to the audience about what it is they’re seeing, but the word “lie” is sometimes a tricky thing to pinpoint. We’re making choices as soon as we point the camera in one direction as opposed to another. We’re making choices as soon as we show someone’s reaction to another person’s actions or statements, and we are further refining that decision when we choose to show the reaction immediately after the line, or wait twelve more frames. We manipulate the audience as soon as we put a line of dialog or a voice over over one particular shot, as opposed to another.

Is there anyone out there who honestly believes that any filmmaking can be without choices or manipulation? If so, let me know — I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

In the case of “Deadliest Catch” the implication (as the article mentions) is that the waves caused the flooding in the stateroom. Here would be my question to the producers — was the flood caused by a storm, or was it caused by some idiot forgetting to shut a valve (for instance)? Was the water in the stateroom put there because of a storm? Because, according to the news story, that was the implication that was clear from the edit, correct?

You can see where I’m going with this, though it certainly is a slippery slope. Among other things, one of questions that we should ask ourselves when thinking about this puzzle is “How close is the implication to the truth?” What is the storytelling manipulation and how great is it? (As a side note, I’ve done expert witness testimony about a similar topic — how editing creates implied feelings and perceived facts) At the core of this, for me, is the question of just how much and what sort of choices are made in the editing.

Editing has the power to make us feel. No doubt about that. Anyone who has edited has seen that. And that is both the power and the responsibility that we have.

Avid — Negotiating Corners

17 04 2008

== And, Maybe, Turning Them

It’s really too early to tell, but I’m incredibly encouraged by what I’ve seen from Avid in the last several weeks, as they’ve pre-announced, and announced a lot of things in the weeks leading up to the NAB show, just now finishing up in Las Vegas.

There have been oodles of press coverage in the last week and a half on the latest announcements from Avid, regarding their new hardware and software. See the pieces by Phil Hodgetts and Steve Cohen, as well as this press release from Avid. I have been studiously avoiding chiming in about this, waiting for the people who know much more about this I do, to weigh in first.

But I must say that, after a few years in which Avid has forgotten how to innovate, it seems as if they are finally thinking of the future.

Let me explain a little bit about what I mean by the future.

Sure there was new hardware announced. There are a line of DX processor boxes which don’t connect through the bottleneck we’ve come to know as Firewire. For any editor who has pressed the PLAY or STOP button on the Avid and waited an excruciatingly long two seconds for the machine to respond, this is really great news. In fact, the audience at the April 8th Avid event at Universal Studios in Los Angeles cheered when Matt Feury (who does the awesome Avid filmmaker interview/podcasts) jokingly announced this as a major upgrade. To us, it is.

They also announced huge price cuts and the banishment of the Xpress Pro product line to the great NLE graveyard in the sky. To those of us who felt that Xpress Pro was, simply, Media Composer bowdlerized for profit, this is also great news.

[As an aside, this follows on Avid’s earlier announcement of a new website, forums and — best for me — a commitment to expand their efforts in educating their users.]

In fact, the greatest news about all of this is not the hardware, but the fact that the new management team seems to be paying attention to its user base again. They’re meeting with us on a regular basis, talking about bug fixes, enhancements and release plans in a way that I haven’t seen in years.

Here’s an example that, in my geeky little way, I’m pretty excited about. FilmScribe is Avid’s ancient tool to create various output lists — EDLs, Film Cut Lists, Optical Pull Lists, etc. It’s always been an amazingly effective, but amazingly clunky, tool.

Now, you can drag and drop a sequence that you’ve created onto any number of template files (in the Mac OS Finder window — and, I presume, on the PC as well). If you drop it onto an EDL template, it will create an EDL for you. If you drop a metadata file onto a template for, let’s say, an XDCAM I assume that it will create an Avid ALE file automatically.

In other words, the Avid is finally becoming modular — in the way that Final Cut is, and has been for a very long time. That means that, as new camera formats keep coming out, Avid will be able to accommodate them much faster. The lengthy wait for P2 and EX-1 card compatibility was excruciatingly difficult for users and certainly hurt Avid — as customers could much more quickly get those cameras to work in FCP.

So, yeah, I love being able to drag stacks of video tracks around on the timeline (who wouldn’t? FCP users have been doing it for years.), but what I really like about Avid’s announcements is that is bodes well for their ability to make really great future announcements.

The Internets Will Take Over Our Minds

16 04 2008

Barry Sonnenfeld, who has directed such fantastic projects as MEN IN BLACK, GET SHORTY and my favorite “I-can’t-wait-until-the-season-starts-again ” PUSHING DAISIES, (as well as the equally un-awesome RV, WILD WILD WEST, and MEN IN BLACK II), got some press today for announcing that he thinks the Internet is bad for us.

I know, I know. I don’t care what he thinks of Facebook, but apparently Reuters and The Hollywood Reporter do. And this is how they report it:

“The medium is the message, and the medium has invaded our home and taken over our minds. . . . The really scary part is how hypnotic it is. The ‘Net is so pervasive that kids are on it all day.”Sonnenfeld fears that children today will grow up with “no concept of the right to privacy and in fact not understand the need for it. Because the Facebook generation is not concerned with what people know about them . . . they will have no problem with additional governmental supervision, spying and intervention. They will be thrilled that the Internet will be able to follow their every move.

“I suspect,” he said, “we are probably looking at the last generation of Americans that exist in a democracy. Totalitarianism is not far in our future, and the next generation will go down that road happily.


It’s hard to tell if he’s kidding or just seriously loony, but he raises an interesting issue. Is it possible to get too cozy with the technology and forget that convenience sometimes means giving up something?

Audience Response

14 04 2008

Years ago, I remember there was a movie called CLUE, based on the board game. The gimmick of this movie was that there were four versions of the film distributed to theatres with different endings. The “who did it?” was dependent on which print you saw. Wikipedia says that the alternate endings were “filmed” to prevent the ending from being revealed by the press, though I remember it had a marketing spin as well.

In any case, the film stunk and dropped dead at the box office.

But I digress.

The idea of audience interaction with film has been a holy grail for some filmmakers for a long time. After all, it’s all about how we impact our audience, isn’t it?

[The side issue of how much we want the audience to control our works is another one entirely. Personally, if I never have to sit through another bogus focus group, that will suit me just fine.]

There are some who want more control by the audience than others. It’s up to the filmmakers and that’s how it should be.

Still, I’m intrigued by this article from Che-Wei Wang, entitled Feedback Playback, on his blog.

The interactive piece is basically a real time bio-feedback mechanism that use skin and heart monitoring to change the way a film is edited and presented to the audience. Here is part of Wang’s description of the experience:

In a darkened, enclosed space, the user approaches a screen and his or her rests fingertips on a pad to the right of the screen. The system establishes baseline for this users physiological response, and re-calibrates. Short, non-sequential clips of a familiar, emotionally charged film– for example, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece “The Shining” –are shown. If the user responds to slight shifts in the emotional tone of the media, the system amplifies that response and displays clips that are more violent and arousing, or calmer and more neutral. The film is re-edited, the narrative reformulated according to this user’s response to it.

In other words, if the user is excited by scenes from THE SHINING then the content is changed as well (no word on whether the cutting pace changes). If the user responds to a slow-paced scene of a landscape then, presumably, the content would be changed to reflect that. It is unclear whether positive and negative reactions are differentiated and how they might be treated differently.

It’s fascinating and, I’d imagine, could portend some interesting trends for the future. Can’t you just see automatic surfing on the Web based on links that you react positively to?

Walter Murch talks about Standing

13 04 2008

It’s well known that editor Walter Murch stands up in front of his editing station — whether it’s an Avid or Final Cut Pro. Here, in a short clip from Scoop du Jour, put together by Dorka Keehn, associated from the 2007 screening of the Edie and David Ichioka film about him (called, oddly, MURCH) he talks about a number of things, including how he would encourage anyone editing today to stand at their machine.

Thoughts on Media

12 04 2008

If you think that title is broad, wait until you hear the panel that I’m running in June at the Women in Cinematic Arts Industry Forum. It’s called “Trends in Alternative Media” and I have to say that I’m thrilled to be moderating it. There will be some very cool people on it, but I can’t say who quite yet — mostly because I’m not sure.

For now, just know that the group is running a conference on June 7th in Los Angeles, and it’s going to be very interesting.

[For an article on last year’s conference, check out this article on USC’s website.]

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some thinking about what “Trends In Alternative Media” means and I’ve come to some initial thoughts.

The primary one is that there are three ways to look at media — as a content creator, as a content distributor, and as a consumer/user of that content. There are people who do more than one of these three — and that may be where the future lies, alternative or not.

Then, we have to define “media” so we can define “alternative media.” What is alternative media anyway? Does print qualify, and if so, what kind of print? Are alternative newspapers alternative media? What if they’re books of poetry?

Is YouTube alternative? It might be an alternative distribution method because it present alternative content creators? But are videos of shocked gophers alternative? What does that word mean?

Years ago, people like Stan Brakhage (see one of his films here) or Ed Emshwiller were considered alternative and I’d venture a guess that a very tiny percentage of people have seen DOG STAR MAN, and almost no one has seen it all the way through (I can’t say that I’ve seen all of its parts). Emshwiller’s Film With Three Dancers or George Dumpson’s Place aren’t part of most people’s film going experience that I know of, despite the fact that they pioneered music videos and personal films.

But they’re old. So are they alternative? What defines alternative? And where is alternative going today?

I’ll be thinking and talking more about this as the weeks go on. I’d love to get your feedback so I can help moderate the panel better.

What Innovators Can Learn From Hollywood

11 04 2008

Scott KirsnerBoston Globe columnist Scott Kirsner (who also writes the always informative CinemaTech blog) gave a talk in March at the NERCOMP Annual Meeting entitled “What Innovators Can Learn From Hollywood.” It’s all about how anybody in the film industry who has tried to push something new through the pipe has usually found large resistance.

This talk, which takes you from George Eastman and Thomas Edison, through the introduction of sound and color, through today’s film NLE creators, and including Walter Murch and Pixar founder Ed Catmull in starring roles (and which is available at Educause) is really about how to create change in a culture which tends to want to stay the same. And, that’s most cultures.

Though Scott’s talk is mostly about corporate change, the same thing applies to individual films. How many times have you found yourself not trying a different edit because you’ve really grown to like the way you’ve already done it. I’ve heard directors complain about editors who won’t try out things, and I’ve found the same thing both with directors and with myself.

It’s important for all of us to find a way to be innovators, even in very small ways. I don’t believe in changing things just to change things (without having a plan for that change). However, if you’ve got that plan, then sometimes it’s better to change things up, just because you haven’t done it in a while. You can always put it back in the “old way,” but you’ll often find out something that you hadn’t realized the footage can do.

We are all stodgy people and innovators at the same time — we just have to push both sides of ourselves.