The iPad, Film Editing, My Book and Delays

10 02 2010

My book sitting quietly in a Barnes and Noble bookshelf

Long time readers of this blog will realize that it has been a long time — since I’ve posted. There are some very good reasons for that, not the least of which is that my new book was being written, rewritten, rewritten again, and published — all of which required a time sucking amount of work.  All of which I’m thrilled about.

This is the fourth edition of my ancient book on editing room workflow, written originally back before anyone knew what the word “workflow” meant. It is a total page one rewrite and, because I’m not an assistant editor any longer, I had to do a ton of research with assistants (those that are left). I learned a tremendous amount about what assistant editors do today and much of that shows up in the new book. I’ll be dropping some of that on you in the weeks ahead.

Of course, I want each and everyone of you to go out and buy 50 copies each of the book.  But that’s not what I’m interested in talking about today. So, let me go on.

Another reason why this latest posting has been inordinately delayed is that I’ve been editing one or two films. One of them is a great comedy road movie that follows a self-destructive screenwriter as he drives across country accompanied by the young kid who’s been assigned by the film producers to babysit the guy . The film is, I think, going to be loads of fun, but what’s really interesting about it for me is that I’m editing it long distance. My co-editor is in Massachusetts and my director is in Rhode Island.

That means that the three of us are going to spend lots of time shooting copies of our Avid bins back and forth to each other so we can see what each of us are doing. This excites me a lot, but that may be because I’m slightly crazy about the future. A conversation I had a little while back, showed me that not everybody shares this mania.

Last summer, when Final Cut Pro 7 (or whatever they’re calling it) came out, I remember enthusiastically talking to a friend about the iChat Theater function, which allows the editor to play out anything in FCP over an iChat video conference, simply by pointing to it. It’s an easy way to play dailies or your sequence to any of your collaborators. It doesn’t have any of the real interactive functions that would make it a true shared editing platform (I’ll be looking at Fuze soon, which promises much more), but it certainly is a start to long distance communication in the editing process and I was telling my friend about it.

He looked at me horrified and said “I’ve got one word for you — outsourcing.” He was worried about his job going overseas.

“But you’ve got to look at it from the other side,” I told him. “You’re an accomplished Hollywood feature and television editor. There will be plenty of people around the world who would love to work with you. But they haven’t been able to because you live here in Los Angeles and they don’t.”

He agreed that this was possible but then said “A lowering tide lowers all boats. Even if I could get those jobs, my salary is going to go down. Way down.”

Hard to disagree with that.  Welcome to the 21st century. With the collapse of television syndication and the advertising market, the days of 10 month guaranteed jobs for tv editors are going away. As Hollywood moves more and more to large tentpole films, the number of mid-range films is also disappearing and, along with them, a sizable number of cushy mid-level jobs. Those of us who live off of these types of projects are going to have to get used to the fact that our incomes are going to go down, unless we adapt to the new markets.

And, miraculously, those markets are all over the world. What my friend, and all of us, are going to have to do, is to learn to juggle multiple jobs across multiple time zones. Some of us are doing that already. It’s really only the larger job markets that haven’t been doing it. No producer is going to share his/her editor’s time with someone across the globe. But if that same producer is hiring his/her editor for a few months, laying them off, bringing them back on again for a month or two, and then laying them off again — well, they’re going to have to get used to sharing them with the rest of the world.

So working long-distance is going to be a smart thing to learn how to do. And somehow I’ve stumbled right into it.

Apple's new iPad

Then, enter the iPad. I’ve been asked endlessly whether I’m ready to rush out and buy one. Honestly, not really. I’ll wait until the device matures a bit more (just like I waited for the iPhone 3G and am thrilled that I did). However, the possibilities that this new device gives us in the vertical market that is filmmaking are thrilling.

Imagine a producer pitching a project to a studio. Right now they send a script and, perhaps, some accompanying materials, to the studio where (if their readers like it) it is sent home with 50 or so executives to be read over the weekend. This is called, in a predictable burst of studio originality, the “weekend read.” Many studios have moved the weekend read from paper to the Kindle, which saves paper but does nothing to brighten the experience for those poor junior executives.

Now, imagine if you will, that the producer has loaded the script onto an iPad and that there are embedded links within the script to location photos, audition tapes, CAD drawings of sets, and 3D mockups of the worlds that are only hinted at in the script. That is going to be a clearer, more interesting vision of the story for every single one of those bored-to-tears weekend readers. It’s also going to be more helpful to me, when I read a script before an interview, or to an art director as he/she tries to figure out what’s inside of the director’s mind.

And that’s just one single use for this device. If you take a look at the dozens of applications for filmmakers available on the iPhone (Taz Goldstein has a great list, adapted from his recent Supermeet talk, up at his site Handheld Hollywood and, by the way, the Supermeet was a great event, even if I did have to watch it streamed on Ustream — you should go and look at it right now). There are slates galore, some of which even will help you import your footage into your NLE. There’s a very cool application to allow you to remotely control your f-stop settings on your camera. There are director’s viewfinders, storyboard creators, teleprompters and research tools. And that’s for the iPhone.

Imagine what we’ll be able to get with a 10″ screen.

Here’s my point. For years we’ve been on the cusp of something really new and exciting in the filmmaking world. We’ve gone all digital — from capture through editing. We’ve also seen the world of distribution change — so the need to print film for theaters is fast disappearing, and we will be easily distributing to each of the four screens that people watch their entertainment on (see an earlier post of mine about Four Play).

What’s been missing is the ease of getting from this digital creation, to the digital consumption in any way that resembles a realistic viewing format.

The iPad is more than a hint into that future, it’s the door ajar (not fully open yet, but not closed).

A Great Example of Crowd Sourcing

24 08 2009

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a great example of a crowd sourced music video which popped up on the web at the beginning of the summer. I meant to mention it then but… I don’t know… life intervened.

Shot for the Japanese band Sour’s song “Hibi no Neiro” (which means something like “Everyday Tone”) this is a great example of how you can make something incredibly creative with very little money and involve your fans in the process. Their fans are much more likely to be involved and support Sour after something like this.

SOUR ‘日々の音色 (Hibi no neiro)’

Collaboration, The Sequel — And A Contest

23 08 2009

Daisy Whitney, host of New Media Minute

Daisy Whitney, host of New Media Minute

Seems like just yesterday that I finished writing about collaboration (it wasn’t, it was actually two days ago) and I’ve just watched Daisy Whitney’s latest episode of New Media Minute which is all about collaboration.  (Daisy is one of the most informed, entertaining, correspondents on the media area, hosting This Week In Media as well as writing for a slew of magazines and web sites.). She talks about new technology which is enabling people to collaborate across great distances including Wiredrive, web conference software Adobe ConnectNow and sites like video hiring hall Spidvid and online collaborative amateur site Pixorial.

Along the way, Daisy also mentions a project that I was involved in earlier this year — Mass Animation’s “Live Music”.  This was a Facebook application in which animators from across the globe were able to download a trial copy of Maya, and use it to create individual shots in an animated short that is going to be released at the top of Sony’s fall film PLANET 51. There were weekly contests, polls and judged competitions. I was one of a panel of judges that looked at individual sections of the films, gave feedback to the worldwide animators, and awarded badges to the shots we judged the best. It was a fantastic experience and created a much better film than it would have been without that diverse input.

Daisy also announced a contest for web videomakers that I want you all to know about. To dovetail with the publication of a friend’s book (Alison Winscott’s “The Time of My Life”) she has asked animators to create and post a short 10-15 second video based on the idea of “The Time of My Life”. Send her the link and, after judging, the winner will run on her popular show along with a featured interview. Sounds worth it to me. Also, a good chance to learn more about yourself.

The contest (read more details about it on Daisy’s blog for New Media Minute) has no announced final date but, as usual in life, earlier is better. So get those videos shot, edited and in.

How Animation is Leading The Way For Our Filmmaking

10 08 2009

I just got back from a week-long conference on teaching media, about which I’d love to talk more and more.  And I will.  You know I will.

You know journalist A.J. Liebling‘s old expression — “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” For a long time the same has been true for much of filmmaking and the cooler aspects of animation, including the sort of motion capture technology previously available only to those who could afford it.

But there is a fascinating project going on in Hungary, called Kitchen Budapest, which is creating a place for a myriad of arts and technology projects spearheaded by Hungarian artists. There is one, called Animata, which (if I understand correctly) will make motion capture much more accessible to the average computer geek (I doubt that Mom and Pop will be using it anytime soon, but that’s probably a good thing all around). Here is how they describe it:

In contrast with the traditional 3D animation programs, creating characters in Animata is quite simple and takes only a few minutes. On the basis of the still images, which serve as the skeleton of the puppets, we produce a network of triangles, some parts of which we link with a bony structure. The bones’ movement is based on a physical model, which allows the characters to be easily moved.

Check out a dancing figure in the following piece, which has an inset of the person who is controlling it.

Reverse Shadow Theatre from gabor papp on Vimeo.

And then, take a look at how you can get much more complex, using multiple figures and musical instruments.

Animata Jazz Pub from gabor papp on Vimeo.

Now, I have no idea how flexible this is. But, if it is as accessible as it looks, this bodes well for projects well behind artsy animation films. Just think how this could work with instructional videos (one of the largest and most successful areas for Internet video) and demo films.

Let me take a little sidetrip here. I remember years ago, there was an incredibly talented post-production sound mixer named Dick Vorisek in New York who created so much mystery about what he did that it seemed like no one could ever mix a film except for him. A little while later, another mixer (named Lee Dichter) started mixing in a much more open way. I began to feel that mixing wasn’t a huge mystery, but that no one could mix quite as well as Lee could.

This paradigm has now moved into the entire filmmaking process. We all can edit and do sound work much more easily than before. We can now afford to shoot as well. And we can color correct and do visual effects. Most of us aren’t doing those things very well but we’re beginning to understand and participate in the process much better than before. Now we’re beginning to see the light in terms of motion capture and bridging animation and live action.

This bodes for a vastly more interesting world out there. Link on over to Animata, and stay tuned for the future.

Cell phone bills and media makers

3 02 2009

It’s hard to know exactly what these numbers mean, but someone recently sent a long some statistics on the change in cell phone spending since the beginning of the decade.

The numbers below are pretty interesting, especially when you look at the younger demographics and their percentage of total telephone services spent on cell phone service.  These numbers of from the Bureau of Labor, show that spending on cell phone service increased tremendously from 2001 to 2007.  Somewhere in 2006, we started spending more on cell than on landlines. And that’s across all age groups, even the landline-bound Over 64 group, whose percentage of cell phone spending nearly tripled over that time. About one-third of these people are now spending more on cell phones.

That, to me, is an even more awesome statistic than the fact that about 3/4 of people under 25 are doing the same thing.

Cell phone usage has increased tremendously since 2001

Cell phone usage has increased tremendously since 2001

The article goes on to say,

In 2001, the ratio of spending on residential phone services to spending on cellular phone services was greater than 3 to 1. In 2007, cellular phone expenditures accounted for 55 percent of total telephone expenditures compared to 43 percent for residential phone expenditures.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) show that cellular phone expenditures increased rapidly from 2001 through 2007. Cellular phone expenditures surpassed spending on residential landline phone services beginning in 2007. Chart 1 shows that annual expenditures for cellular phone services per consumer unit increased from $210 in 2001 to $608 in 2007, an increase of 190 percent. Expenditures for residential phone services per consumer unit decreased from $686 to $482 over that period, a decrease of 30 percent.

There are obvious reasons that this might be so, including large cel phone bills — I don’t think that my landline (which I still keep going — my cel service in my own home being less reliable than the cel service I experienced in the Jordanian desert several years ago) accounts for more than 20% of my total monthly phone bill.  I’ve got a lot of services hanging off of it — including my miserable DSL service (more on that in another post).

But it’s clear that, with manhy people jettisoning their landlines in favor of cel service, that a sizable chunk of money (and our expectations) is going into cel phones.  Worldwide as well as in the United States.

If you ask me, this is great news for those of us who make media. As I told a class today, for those of us who love the idea of making media for screens above and beyond the television and the Big Silver, we’ve got a great expanse of wild and wooliness out there.  It will be necessary for the phone companies to compete with each other in even stronger ways, once it’s clear that their landline business is going away. Between business VoIP (like Skype and Avaya) and residential cel service, they’re going to want to shore up their cel services.

And that is going to mean providing additional content for the smart phones of the future.

If I were you, I’d start learning Big Time about puting media that you want to create, onto someone else’s cel phones. Then, after the dust settles, if you’re in there, you’re going to make some money.

iPhones, Sundance and the Loss of Rabbit Ears

28 01 2009

One thing that seemed to be epidemic at Sundance this year was not the famous Sundance cough, but the iPhone cough.

This isn’t really an earthshaking technology point I’m making here (and those of you looking for trenchant analysis can skip down a paragraph or two), but for the first day or two up at Sundance, when thousands of Cool-Groovy-Industry-Types flooded Park City, iPhone 3G service came crashing down.  People with the original iPhones could get service — phone and data — but the rest of us had trouble getting phone signals and had horribly erratic, mostly non-existent, data/web access.  Blackberrys weren’t affected. Neither were old crappy AT&T phones.

I guess it took AT&T a day or two to get additional cel sites up and running, and the problem eventually was solved.  But this technological hiccup once again raises the point about adoption of broadband into areas that aren’t early adopters.

We all know that a large percentage of the American population still watches television over rabbit ears (6.5 million homes) and that moving some people off of dial-up is a painful process (a recent article in Ars Technica says that 19 percent of dial-up users say that “nothing” would get them to upgrade, not even lower prices) . Yet these are exactly the audiences who watch large amounts of television. That’s why we’ve seen Comcast give free cable to these households — you can’t leave that audience behind (too many advertisting-ready households), even if they see no reason to jump ahead.

Yet, at a recent get-together, I was talking with some friends about the various web video sites and what each one offers.  One of the people there made the point that no one is making any money off of video on the web — especially User Generated Content. And he is probably rights about that and it’s that reality, compounded by the large number of people who don’t know or can’t be bothered to make the switch to digital television, that will ultimately make it much harder to attain the much vaulted web-based delivery of media.

I like plugging my computer into my television and watching high quality shows from Hulu (when my DVR refused to record the second night’s worth of 24 it was no big deal — since it was on that web site the next day). I regularly download and pay for shows from the iTunes store. It’s easy and fits within my budget (the day when teachers pay moves into the area when we can actually afford to live in Los Angeles doesn’t look in sight right now). Many people, like Daisy Whitney, have dropped their cable altogether and watch everything from the Web. But the advertising is never going to come over to sites like Hulu en masse until the rabbit-ears people do.

So, how do we get that to happen?

I have to admit, I’ve got nothing when it comes to that. But it isn’t going to happen until the experience feels like our “real” televisions. That means we’re going to have to be able to switch on our Apple-TV’s and not wait at all for the program to start. We’re going to have to watch without stopping for “buffering.” And it’s going to have to be as easy as turning to a channel and hitting the POWER button. (My wife still complains about all of the remotes we’ve got lying around the house.) When all of that happens, then Mom and Grandpa might move over to Daisy Whitney’s virtual television neighborhood.

I’m not suggesting that everyone out there is going to switch to iPhones and that every town needs to figure out how to get themselves out of the Park City Problem. But I’m close.  If we want to get to the goal of ubiquitous broadband the way Ken Rutkowski talks about South Korea or Alex Lindsay talks about Japan, we’re going to have to have better wireless, better wired, and better experiences than I did in Sundance.

Electronic Media — Speed Pays

20 01 2009

President=Elect Barack Obama became President Obama today and gave his inauguration speech.  It ended at approximately 12:25.  About one minute later, or so, the following post went up at Zach Holmquist’s blog.

It’s a Wordle tag cloud, which lists every word in the speech — the more often the word is used, the bigger the word.

Tag Cloud - Inaugration Speech

Tag Cloud - Inaugration Speech

Social Networking — Does It Network?

28 12 2008

One of the hardest things to teach people involved in the arts is how important connections are to their success. Hell, if I’d have learned that way back when you might have heard about me way before now — like when I accepted an Oscar or gave a speech at the White House. But networking is hard, especially for people in the arts. I find that many of us can’t speak proudly of work that we’ve done without being prompted.  It feels too much like boasting. So what takes its place — among us socially inept people?


They say that, in Hollywood (and, by that, they mean Big Filmmaking), it’s who you know that helps you get ahead. And while I’ve seen too many well connected people who don’t get work because they can’t do the work when they do get it, it is true that having connections is better than not having them. The way that I describe it is that, since there are 100 people out there for every job, you have to differentiate yourself from the next person. That could be that you’ve won an Oscar — that’s different. Or it could be that you speak Swahili and the film has a section in Swahili — that makes you different.

Or it could be that one of your parents is head of post production for a major studio. That also makes you different.

But most of us don’t have parents who are highly connected like that, so what we have to do is to win an Oscar, learn Swahili or find someone who can help us in lieu of the Influential Parent thing.

That’s where networking comes in, and it’s the positive side of the “it’s-who-youy-know” coin.

Filmmaking is hard hard hard work. It’s not easy being trapped in a small editing room for five months with someone if you don’t really like spending time with them. So, honestly, one of the requirements of a good editor (or of any crucial job on a film — and most of them are critical)  is the ability to get a long with people. And that’s really hard to judge in a 30 minute interview.  So that’s why it’s a great idea to get to know someone in another setting before you have to meet them in an interview. Now, this kind of thing can’t be forced. It doesn’t do any good to attend parties, hoping to meet that director who you’d like to work with. But I’ve met some amazing people in social situations, a few of whom turned out to be working buddies later. I met them at soccer games (well… my daughter’s soccer games to be honest), museum functions, book groups and — now — online. Anyone who doesn’t have a Facebook account in 2009 might as well retire from the industry right now, before we reach 2009 (if you’re reading this after 2008 went away, well… sorry about that, give up now).

These thoughts came to mind after listening to a recent podcast of Net at Night, from Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur, where they interviewed Ming Yeow Ng, one of the founders of a service called Mr. Tweet. Mr. Tweet is an identity on Twitter, the microblogging service which is better defined in Wikipedia than on their own site, as a web and cel phone text messaging site which “allows its users to send and read other users’ updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length.” For those of you who aren’t on the service (and there’s really no pressing need for many of you to get on right now, I’m sure) the idea is that you post short messages which go out to everyone who has chosen to “follow” you. Initially, these messages tended to be stupefyingly dull (“I”m driving over to Joe’s house now.”). At SxSW last year, however, people started to use it as a meet-up tool (“I’m in the back of so-and-so’s panel where he’s talking complete gibberish. Who else is here?”). It has now evolved to a rather interesting means of passing information along. People like Guy Kawasaki, Robert Scoble, and Ken Rutkowski use it to push out information and links for items that they find interesting. And because each of those three people are interesting, the links are worth following.

So, it’d be great to find people who can help you learn new things about the world, and the industry, in which we live and work. The question is — how do you find them?

Enter Mr. Tweet. This service takes a look at the people who are in your circle of followers (that is, the people who you follow and the people who follow you — those don’t have to be the same) and figures out the people who you are NOT following who you should be following. Mr. Tweet (no word on whether there is a Ms. Tweet as well) divides them into two groups — the people who follow you, and the people who are not in your circle at all. The algorithm that they use to do this isn’t easy, and Leo, Amber and Ming discussed this a bit in Net at Nite (it is further discussed on the site’s blog) but it basically takes a look at how much respected bloggers respect your tweets (which are what your individual twitter postings would be called if you actually did them). The definition of “respected” seems to come from how valued your own tweets are to large groups of people.  Obviously, the more people in the system, the better this system works — you join the system by following “mrtweet” on Twitter. (As an aside, the two founders of Mr. Tweet, have put together an interesting PowerPoint entitled “Discovery Is The New Cocaine” which gives a lot of the basis for the reasons behind social networking usefulness. It’s worth a look at Slideshare.)

But this leads to a great conclusion about social networking in general — how can you find intriguing, interesting and valuable people with who you can network. One bit of advice that I got seveal years ago from Mark Hortsman and Michael Auzenne over at Manager Tools (a great site and fascinating podcast for those of you who want to learn how to manage) is to never volunteer for something expecting to get something in return. The best way to be helped by people, is to help them out selflessly. That means opening up your rolodex when it’s appropriate. That means answering emails from people you don’t know, even if it’s just a short response, to answer their questions. That means volunteering on a project without expecting a trade. And it means prying ourselves out of our shells a little more than we may be comfortable doing.

Knowing the latest cameras and editing software is important in the new world of work in our industries, but so is knowing how to make contacts in that world so you and your work can get out there. It goes beyond cocktail parties, through the world of user groups and emails, and into many of the social networking tools. Putting your films out on YouTube doesn’t do you a bit of good if you can’t get anyone to watch them. So, one more skill that we need to acquire today, is the ability to use the social networking tools of the time.

Now, you can go out and join Twitter.

By the way, if you’d like to follow me on Twitter (and I’m just learning how to do it right, you can click the Twitter logo at the top of this post).

Cool and Hot Media, and Me

13 10 2008

There has been a decided lack of activity on this blog in the last two months as I’ve been in the home stretch on a few projects–all of which seemed to come together at once. One of them, my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, is about finished (the last big chapter went out this past Saturday) and I’ve begun to stick my head up and look around at the roiling landscape.

With the crumbling stock market, you’d think I’d take a look at that. But, the reality is for me is that (since I’m just an editor and a teacher) I don’t have millions in equity and, therefore, it’s all paper money for me. In other words, what interests me most right now is not what’s happening right now, but what’s going to be happen in a few years — when the rest of the world decides they want to start spending some money again.

The major studios are betting the bank on several things, all of which involve technology, so that’s not bad for people like us, who get it. As they did back in the Good Old Days when television threatened, they are looking for the flashy baubles to interest the audience into coming into the theaters. For now, they’ve decided on 3-D, which has me checking the calendars to see if we’ve flown back into the Fifties.

I’m not going to disagree with those people who actually have the ability to influence the direction of these major companies, by dint of their being on the board of directors. They obviously think they know where they’re going. But I see 3-D as a mere way station along the way to immersive entertainment.

Remember Marshall McLuhan — cool and warm media? McLuhan, a media theorist from the 60s and 50s, described in his book Understanding Media, the concept that some media are inherently more focussed than others. If I remember my theory correctly, film, he said, provides a more complete experience and, therefore, demands less involvement from its audience than others, like comics, which demand that the reader fill in more information. The media which demands less of you is said to be “hot” and comics would be “cool” .  It has to do with the amount of sensory perception that is required of an audience.

3-D is an interesting attempt to force the audience to participate more in a visceral way, but it’s nowhere near as complete as a complete immersive experience, such as a VR booth, or even a simple Game Boy.

I sat in on a class the other day, at USC’s Interactive Media division. I had spoken there several weeks ago about shaping story, in a linear sort of way. The students went out and shot a film, which they assembled in the traditional straight-line form. Then, after getting a critique, they had to reassemble it and introduce the elements of game-playing to the story. Many of the students created simple trees — at a certain time you could choose between having the character do one action or another. In one case, the lead character could wake to his alarm, or press the snooze button and go back to sleep.

You get the idea.

By far, the most interesting re-construction involved a story about a young woman who, depending on the order that you made your choices, left her apartment with a toy under her arm, met a man on the street who was drawing a boat, was either followed by him or not, walked past another woman who was sitting in a park, or was passed by that other woman on another street. The material was, often, introduced by quotes that crawled across the screen, or by the young filmmaker herself who shot herself in a bathtub (the theme of the piece was water, I should say) saying the quotes.

There was more to it, but one of the thoughts that I had coming out of the screening was that this was a complete example of cool media, using McLuhan’s vernacular. My mind kept on making associations between each decision tree there. It hungered to create connections and ranged over a wide range of them as I thought, processed, accepted or rejected them. The face of the woman, as she stopped to take a phone call, seemed different when I didn’t know that the second woman was around the side of the park building, compared to when I had already seen that other woman. Was the performance different, or did I just feel that?

I began to pay attention (to “lean forward” to use my vernacular) in different ways, and I got involved.

Many of the other films simply repackaged the linear content and paused, old PC game style, at places to allow us to make a binary choice. The works that involved me more, were the ones that did not try and tell a linear story in a non-linear way.

So, how does this overlap with the 3-D issue? Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Simply making a movie in a cool and groovy three dimensional process is only going to hold my interest if 1) the story is good enough so it would have worked in 2-D or 3-D, or 2) it uses 3-D in a way that sucks me in differently than I could have in 2-D. If I want to reach out and push aside a bush that’s blocking my view of a crucial plot point, that’s pretty cool. If the bush is simply placed there to give me a sense of three dimensional depth… well, good cinematographers (and photographers and painters, for that matter) have been doing that forever without the need for a third dimension.

In other words, if 3-D is a gimmick, like it was in the 60s, then we’re going to move on really fast.

In the home, for much the same reason, the studios still think that Blu-ray is a cool idea, even though the marketplace still doesn’t see enough of a difference to make them move over. Even if the players come down under $200, from their initial thousand-buck range, it’s still a non-starter if the audience doesn’t see any reason to switch. What is going to be better about Blu-Ray than standard definition DVD, other than a slightly better picture quality (and tell me how many parents are going to give a rat’s ass about that, if they’re using DVD as a baby sitter?).  Some people will like the increase in disk capacity because it gives the opportunity to put more stuff on the DVD. Assuming that the studios give us that.

But that’s going to cost more money in content creation, so I don’t imagine we’re going to see too much of that soon. Some people, like the Peter Jacksons of the world, will be able to give us lots of cool stuff. But every LORD OF THE RINGS set of DVDs came with tons of extra content anyway. I can’t imagine that many more people are going to gravitate to paying the extra money if it’s on one or two disks as opposed to seven.

No, the real game changers in the world of entertainment are going to be changing the experience of the viewer. That might mean immersive and interactive play (and it’s why the coolest work here at USC is probably going to be coming from the Interactive Division for a while), or it might mean rapid delivery of regular ordinary movies from a streaming or downloading server, minutes after I’ve made the decision that I want it to watch it now. That’s faster than going to a movie theater, or snapping up a disk at Rocket Video.

One of the biggest time and money drains on the iPhone is the ability to buy its applications (or download the free ones) as soon as you see it on that very iPhone. Hey, I think, I wonder if there’s an app for keeping track of the presidential polls. I do a quick search (which I can do, because I’m in a 3G city), find one and press INSTALL. Voila. I’ve bought it.  Almost no thought involved.

And that’s part of the future of our entertainment industry as well. It’s not that it’s all about impulse buying. But it’s about changing the way that I do the buying — fulfilling my needs better. 3-D would work if it gave me a cooler (McLuhan’s term, there, not mine) experience, rather than just a mild titillation.

The really successful storytellers of the near future, are going to be the ones who figure out how to give us that new kind of experience, in this new package.


Oh, by the way, until I finish with the cut of my documentary in mid-November, I’m still going to be a bit erratic. To catch my lucid prose (or incoherent, it depends on how I’m feeling) you can get me every Friday — more or less — over at Film Industry Bloggers.

Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008

Gemini Division (image courtesy of

Gemini Division (image courtesy of

When I was growing up, long ago in the dark ages (read the 1970s) there was one thing that we could always rely on. When the mainstream media, usually Time or Newsweek magazines, had an article on a rising trend, it was always dead by about a year. The media was always a year or two behind, and by the time their editors figured out what was “hip” and could safely be reported on, it was time for the rest of us to move on.

I remember reading an article about “youth speak” which purportedly described the “lingo” that we “younger generation” actually talked in.  The article got passed around at school, usually at parties when we could bearly see straight and needed something to laugh at. No one, of course, had ever heard of most of the “hip lingo” and those terms that were vaguely familiar had been dumped years ago.

And this was before the Internet.

So, it is with a major grain of salt that I bring up an article in today’s New York Times by Mike Hale entitled “Television Keeps a Hand in the Online Game With Serialized Shows“. In it, Hale talks about several shows that the mainstream media is producing in an attempt to get viewership on the web. Shows such as “Gemini Division” the Rosario Dawson starring vehicle that seems to have learned none of the real lessons of lonelygirl15, and presents its form without its content.  A few weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan, in the Times’ Sunday Magazine attempted to compare the failure of many web serials to television and radio shows like “The Shadow” and “24”, somewhat missing the point. In one section of the article, entitled “Serial Killers” she says:

Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

Now, I’ve written about Internet memes several times already, so I like pontificating on the subject as much as Heffernan does, but she doesn’t seem to get the difference between web serials and memes. To compare a series like “Satacracy 88″ to “Chocolate Rain” is about as misguided as comparing the Ed Sullivan Show to a Beatles concert (to keep the 60s/70s thing going).

Still, both Hale and Heffernan score a few points as they talk about how nobody seems to know what to do with web video. Talking about the web series “Steven King’s N.” (which comes from King’s publisher and is meant to attract interest in King’s new short story collection, coming this fall). Hale says:

What “N.” really demonstrates is that the Internet could use more Stephen King. The story, involving therapy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an evil presence trapped in a New England field, is C-grade King. (It was adapted for the serial by Marc Guggenheim, a creator of “Eli Stone.”) But it still has enough narrative pull to drag you from snippet to snippet, even when there’s less than a minute of new material.

The emphasis on the word “narrative” is mine, and completely shows my point of view.  I create content and firmly believe that you cannot divorce story from the economic equation of what will work for audiences.

What is interesting about these shows is not the content themselves, but the advertising and business model behind them.  Frankly, I almost gave up on Gemini Division because it seemed so-much watered down network television.  It’s bad cinema — with too much narration and not enough visuals. There has been a lot of discussion in content creation circles about just what the new rules of content should be — are wider shots not viewable on mobile phones?  Is faster cutting too much for the compression and bandwidth? Are three minute episodes too long?  How long should the pre-rolls be? NBC is, obviously, still experimenting.

The results — if Gemini is to be believed — are to take properties destined for wider distribution, create cheap pilots for them (as opposed to the standard dictum, which is to spend loads more time and money on the pilot than they’ll ever be able to put into the actual pattern budgets of the shows) and flush them out on the web.  Looking at lonelygirl15 without understanding the mindset behind it, leads to static “talk to the webcam/phone” shows which might as well be radio. They’re copying form here, not content.

The King series is more interesting — it is a trailer for the book, in some ways.  An expansion of the market outwards, rather than a contraction simply as a pilot.

I’m far more interested in web series like “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy88” which focus on a single character in bite-sized bits, but present those bits in interesting, cinematic ways (even if the cinema is on a small screen). I can watch these series on my iPhone without losing anything, largely because they don’t talk down to me. There is a real arc of character in their episodes, other characters that don’t seem paper thin, and plenty of story places for the audience to explore. It’s not handed out in prescribed dosages. It also helps that they work in genres that lend themselves to introspection and, therefore, storytelling closeups.

So, what are the major companies doing in my opinion? When I worked over at Universal Music Group, I remember an exec there saying that since no one knew anything about the web, they would just keep throwing ideas against a wall to see what stuck. That’s not a terrible strategy, I suppose. It’s the sibling of the strategy of buying every company you can find/afford and seeing which ones survive. The basic problem is that the MET space needs a combination of technologists with ideas, entrepreneurs with commitment, and artists with energy and passion and stories that they need to tell.

Simply putting Rosario Dawson in front of a camera, plastering Microsoft and Cisco logos all over the place to spread the financial exposure around, isn’t a real content strategy.  It’s more of a safe business strategy, one in which no one is going to win in the long run. It also violates everything we know about storytelling, especially in bite-sized pieces.  We know that we need to grab them early with your concept, not slowly. We need to suck them in with something interesting, not voice-over dialogue that happens to be spoken on camera.

They’ll keep trying.  They’ve got the money for it and that will certainly help (the Steven King series benefited from money, along with an interesting idea, though I lost interest after a few episodes because of its stilted format).  But, right now, the more interesting work is still being done in the independent, unsupported market.  I can’t wait for the two sides to meet.

Phew, I didn’t mean to go on for that long. Remind me to tell you about what Cisco is doing on our campus here to develop their own content.

[TRUTH IN ADVERTISING DEPARTMENT: My upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, uses both “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy 88″ as examples and I’ve contacted both filmmakers about that usage. So, I guess you can say that I “know” them, in a 21st Century, Webby kind of way. But I’m using both series here for the same reason I used them in the book — I think they’re great examples of the form.]