Moving Over To A New URL

8 12 2008

Among other things I’ve been doing, is learning how to put a blog on my own servers, rather than at the WordPress site.  Ken Rutkowski has been yelling at me for six months to get the blog over to where it’s just my name that identifies it — and that makes sense to me.  I’ve just been too busy to do anything about it.

Now I have.

From now on, you can reach me at http://normanhollyn.com.

Not hard.  You’ve just got to spell my name right.





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.

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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.





Should We Make Media?

15 07 2008

Daisy Whitney, in a posting over at TV Week, says “Just Because Everyone Can Do a Video Doesn’t Mean Everyone Should” and it’s an interesting statement. And one which I’m of two minds about.

First, as a filmmaker and teacher, it makes me insane that people make media who have absolutely nothing to say, other than “Hey, I can make media.” I cannot read blogs and tweets which contribute nothing to world except the user’s location and food ingestion. Likewise, I can’t take it when people makes “hilarious” videos that do nothing for the world except add to the amount of bandwidth waster on cute pets.

Yet, as a filmmaker and teacher, I am also completely aware that not everyone has access to teachers and facilities like we have at USC. In fact, having worked in lesser advantaged areas of this country and the world, I’m aware that most people don’t have access to people who can help them get a leg up on the thought process of media creation. For them, getting a cheap camera or cell phone and shooting material is the only way to learn.

Daisy had a slightly different point, though:

Doyle Albee, president of the firm Metzger Associates, told me that he has explored whether it makes sense for his company to produce some sort of weekly webcast or Web series, sort of a “Metzger Minute.” It’s an interesting idea, he said, but right now it’s not in the cards. And that’s because there isn’t a reason to do one at the moment, he said.

I liked his response because it recognizes that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Or that you need to. Sometimes a blog is enough. Sometime a Web site is enough. And sometimes even just a phone call, memo or e-mail can convey the same point.

She makes alot of sense here (for more of Daisy’s thoughts, check out her occasional visits to the This Week In Media podcast). The real issue is not grabbing bandwidth, or people’s time. It’s about learning, however we can, which media is appropriate for each of our messages. Not everybody should be doing a podcast, and for those who are, not every issue needs to be podcast. That’s one of the issues I have with regular podcasts. While I acknowledge that regularity builds viewers and listeners — that’s a marketing idea. In terms of content, I much prefer the podcasts and blogs that publish when there is something to say. I would offer the opinion that some of the reason why I often skip over large parts of the content in some of Leo Laporte‘s podcasts nowadays (which I never would do, even six months ago) is that there is a sense of “filling up time”. The last TWiT ran almost two hours long, and it seemed that a large percentage of it was redundant jabbering, even from someone as consistently fascinating as Merlin Mann.

The great thing about the web is that, until recently, we didn’t feel that we had to create anything regularly. So readers/listeners/viewers like me didn’t get the feeling that I sometimes get on the New York Times Op-Ed pages — that the columnist had to write something, so he or she went fishing.

So, to answer Daisy Whitney’s question: no, we don’t have to make videos if we have nothing to say. But if we do it for the learning first, then we can do what we have our film students here — we don’t send those early learning attempts out into the world.

[Disclaimers: I should point out that I do a weekly column for Film Industry Bloggers, and that Daisy’s podcast New Media Minute is not scheduled — in other words, when she wants to publish it.]





Film School Diaries

11 07 2008

No, it’s not the hot and steamy version. From what my students tell me, that’s pretty much not possible (One of my students told me that she just couldn’t date while in school because she didn’t have any time to meet anyone who wasn’t at the school, and dating film school guys was just, well, in her words “Yuck!”).

No, I’m talking about a weekly podcast and blog that I’ve been following for a while now (It’s been going on since the beginning of January 2007). It’s called Video StudentGuy and it’s put together by Paul Lyzun.

Paul is a guy who has a day job working video production but, on evenings and weekends, is taking a two-year program in Boston all about Video Production. This year has has been working on two films of his own (as well as working on a slew of other people’s projects — very much like our students at USC). His final film, which he’s working on now (and which will not be done by the time he graduates — but that’s common too), is a documentary about the value of craftmaking in this era of mass-produced items.

The thing that I really like about about Paul’s podcasts (I subscribe via iTunes, but it’s also available at Libsyn) is that he’s completely honest about what he knows and doesn’t know, and how he makes mistakes. You can also see him struggling to get to the real breakthroughs which, in my humble opinion, are about how to better tell a story, not how to operate the equipment. It’s been fantastic watch him work through his thoughts about what his documentary is really about.

Along the way he talks about his abilities and his learning with the cameras (including scheduling), the editing systems, the bureaucracy of his school, the difficulties of production scheduling and commitments, as well as personal boundaries — such as when he realized that he couldn’t always say “yes” to helping out others, if it meant that his own project was going to suffer.

His latest podcast is about learning DVD Authoring.  I haven’t listened to it yet, but I just put it on my iPod and it’s going to be in my rotation for this weekend’s trips to the gym.

It’s a great listen for anyone who is trying to power through in this industry.





What Film Production Is Like

10 07 2008

So, this is what happens if you don’t take good care of your film.





The Order That Comes When You Shoot In Order

9 07 2008
How To Run A Set

How To Run A Set

One of the hardest things for beginning filmmakers to internalize is that there is a smart way to organize a shoot and a dumb way. The photo at the left, taken by a USC student — Mitsuhiro Sakai — describes the smart way.

The first item on the list is the one that nearly every one of our student crews here at USC have trouble internalizing amidst all of the craziness of shooting. Faced with vanishing time and the normal confusion on any set, they often move right to the lighting.

But any seasoned set professional will tell you that the time you spend in blocking out the entire scene — from top to bottom — in the actual location where you’re shooting, will more than make up in time savings, any time that you spend doing the blocking.

Let the actors and the director run through the scene and find their moves. It makes a huge difference in terms of prep if you discover that an actor is never going to exit through a doorway. Rather than lighting the hallway outside the door, you can use all of that saved time in extra takes, or getting more coverage. Once your sound, picture, wardrobe, production design and assistant directors see exactly where the characters will be moving, it becomes way easier to set up for the actual shooting.

During that time, only the actors and the director are actively working. Everyone else — which are generally the department keys — are watching. They are examining how the blocking of the scene will affect their work on it. If there’s a potential problem they can discuss after the actors are released to go into wardrobe, hair and makeup. Now everyone needs to shut up and watch how the scene wants to play itself out.

Occasionally there will be changes that need to be made in the blocking because of technical issues (if we shoot in that corner of the room, we’ll shoot off the side of the set; there’s no way that the lighting crew can hang that many lights out of that window, etc.). That’s cool. Everyone will decide what changes must be made, and then the director can communicate them to the actors. When everyone arrives back on set, after the lighting is done, then the rehearsal can incorporate all of those changes much easier — because everyone has worked on the original conception.

The rehearsal is also where you can do the actual fine tuning — where the edges of frame are so the boom operator doesn’t invade the frame, for instance. But spending the 15-30 minutes that it will take to block out the scene ahead of time will make each of the ensuing steps easier — including the shooting.

And everybody will be happier.

So don’t blow off the blocking. Don’t forget about it. Don’t ignore it. It can be among the most valuable minutes of your day.





Avid Editors in Lebanon

7 07 2008

When I’ve worked in the Middle East, I’ve noticed that many of their editors use Adobe Premiere. Certainly, the area is largely PC, so Final Cut isn’t really very popular (though that is changing, as Apple begins to penetrate the area a little more). But we’ve taught there, primarily because it’s what we knew and we were teaching storytelling anyway — not just technology.

Still, it’s cool to see that there is now a Facebook group titled AVID EDTIORS in Lebanon (this link won’t work right if you’re not a member of Facebook), led by Mohamad Zoghbi and Dany Abi Khalil Aljabai. Started at the end of last month, the group boasts 80 members now (including Harroot Kasparian who has a picture of Jim Morrison as his ID picture).

Exciting!