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.





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.





Editing Your Own Films

14 03 2008

Occasionally I like to veer off the path of this blog and head into media reviews. Just because I can. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.

One of my pet peeves, as an editor, is the director who decides to cut his or her own film. I rarely see that work. Most of my students at USC do it because “only I can really understand what I want for my film.” There’s so much wrong with that statement. On almost every level.

First, that word understand. I’ve worked with directors who can’t understand their own films on levels that differ from their original conceptions. But the key to having the film accessible to many people, as opposed to a masturbatory self-involved work, is to realize that the best films appeal to people on multiple levels — levels beyond their author’s original conceptions. In order to do that, the filmmaker needs to be challenged. He or she needs to be helped to see other points of view. In classical terms, it’s the thesis/antithesis/synthesis flow. An original thesis, when challenged by an antithesis, creates an idea which is better than either one individually — a synthesis of ideas that can bring the film to a higher level.

Peter John Ross, over at sonnyboo.com, wrote a piece in American Movieworks which tackled this issue and started with this introduction:

If you are one of those director that can look at the raw footage, or even edit a scene together, look at it in the context of the movie & make a decision to cut out one of the best moments the actor gave because you realize that the scene is erroneous THEN SKIP THIS ARTICLE. Or if you have what you thought was one of the funniest jokes on paper, and even if it’s not 100% great delivery, but you choose to use it anyway because it “might” be good, then please READ ON.

I could argue that John Sayles’ best movies are those in which he did not edit. I think that James Cameron is a better director of editing than he is an editor (when I worked with Milos Forman I was always impressed with his editing acumen, but equally impressed that he worked with other editors to get the best picture). I certainly feel that Robert Rodriguez has long needed an editor (and a cinematographer, but I’ll let people better versed in that art to take up this arguement).

And, even though I really liked the film NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, I continue to feel that the Coen Brothers would have done better work if they had had someone to work with.

Now, I’ve never felt the strong pull that most people feel towards the Coen brothers’ films. I have enjoyed a few of them — BARTON FINK and THE BIG LEBOWSKI — but I normally found them too clever by half and, even in FARGO, more distanced from their characters than involving. I’ve enjoyed the laser penetration of Peter Stormare in FARGO, but I can’t say that I found any of the characters in their films worth spending much time with, aside from John Turturro’s tortured writer character in FINK, and the fun of The Dude in LEBOWSKI.

Now, NO COUNTRY comes along and I’m almost ready to jump over to their side, thanks to some amazing performances completely in tune with the story and filmmaking of the piece. But there is enough holding the film back that I doubt that I’ll ever jump over to the side of director/editors.

The shape of the lead characters in NO COUNTRY is particularly fine. Javier Bardem, well-deserving of his Academy Award, plays a character who is consistently driven, but seems well-understood by the filmmakers. Josh Brolin, while much more enigmatic and slightly drawn, manages to build a steady, interesting performance, even against Bardem’s juggernaut of a role.

I’m less entranced by Woody Harrelson’s and Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, however. I don’t believe that I need to have everything explained to me in order to like a film. Far from it. But I like to have characters who, in the words of a director I once worked with, “earn their moments.” To put it in another way, I want a character’s behavior in a film to grow out of what we know about him or her, not just because it says so in a script.

But that is one of the hardest things for writer/directors to do. They live inside their characters heads for so long, and have had so much discussion and interaction with the actors playing those characters, that it is extremely to see connections when they don’t really exist. It is way too easy to ascribe more to a look or a body movement then a normal audience would.

Even editors are prone to falling into this trap, though it’s one that we train ourselves to fight. In order to freshen our view of our films we use preview screenings. They help to ground us. When I worked on the movie HAIR, we had a screening in which someone, in the discussion group afterwards (we didn’t call them “focus groups” back then, and we didn’t have NRG Research to run them for us), mentioned that he “really like the part where Claude’s sister watched Treat Williams dance on the table.”

The problem was that Claude didn’t have a sister in the film. This audience member was confused. And while we’d never recut a movie based on one comment, if enough people can’t follow plot or character, then it’s time to look at what we know about our film.

The real problem for writer/director/editors is that there is precious little opportunity to have someone say “Wha??” There is less day-to-day input from the world outside the director’s mind.

And, even with some preview screenings and good producers (Scott Rudin may be the most interesting producer in the world today, along with Christine Vachon, in terms of the variety of projects he brings to the screen), the world of filmmaking just gets too insulated. Where was the person who asked the Coen Brothers to step back and see if Harrelson’s character went for caricature and plot, instead of real contrast to Bardem’s? Where was the person who discussed the shaping of the Brolin death scene, and how it impacted the rest of the film’s energy and emotion?

[As an aside, even though I didn’t like the choice, I’m not going to fault the film for its choice to hand off the film from Brolin to Jones two-thirds of the way through. But I am going to note that, the way in which was done, replaced one character’s more interesting search with another less developed one. It was an imbalance that the film never recovered from.]

In the best of all worlds, who would have been able to ask those and other questions about the choices being made? Who would have advocated for the audience’s side?

It would have had to been an editor. And that is what a good, honest, direct editor can bring to a project, that a director cannot. Not possible, not even close. Even with really really great directors.