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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Seeing is Believing

What we observe is different than what we see. Because it's all about context. Walking down the street, for example, we notice someone's face. And we immediately recognize, yes, that face belongs to another person walking down the street. But within that moment of perceiving, we also often sense or create a context. People give off clues about themselves and we respond to those clues -- here's a business person, a student, an artist, a tourist, someone who's happy, sad, whatever. If we stop to think about how we respond to what we see, then there's a lot of additional information that kind of hangs around whatever it is that we are looking at. We only have to pay attention to how our thoughts are interpreting what we are observing.

A good example of what I'm talking about can be found in Jeff Scher's short animated video, "The Parade" Here's how Jeff describes his work in The Animated Life section of the New York Times website: We can’t help it. We are fascinated by faces and bodies alike. Every face tells a story, and the story is a mystery. The clues abound and we read them instinctively in the blink of an eye. Jeff is a painter and experimental filmmaker who sometimes uses his dreamy watercolors to animate his films. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts and at NYU Tisch School of the Arts

I like his work, it's playful, mysterious and insightful. And it reminds about how context operates like a shell around content. So you could say, seeing is believing. But the opposite is true too, believing is constantly shaping what we are seeing.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Little Learning Goes A Long Way

I went to Yale University this afternoon to audit an American Lit class on one of my favorite writers, J.D. Salinger and his book, Franny and Zooey. As I listened to Professor Amy Hungerford plunge into the text to find deeper meaning in the story, I thought again about Salinger's terse style and his unique way of telling a story. And the really cool thing was that I didn't have to travel, or register or anything. I just listened to her lecture online, courtesy of an educational website, Academic Earth and their web video collection. Their site lists "thousands of lectures from the world's top scholars." And it's free! Prof. Hungerford's contribution is 25 lectures on the American Novel since 1945. What a great idea, placing all that knowledge and expertise online for for anyone who has a yen for learning.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Letter to Michelle McNally

(Michelle McNally oversees photography for the New York Times)

Michelle, I wanted to say how much I enjoy the photography and video on your website. I've worked professionally in the film and video world for over 35 years, primarily as a writer and editor, and think what you guys are doing is the best video work on the web, by far. I include not only the emotionally-rich work of Todd Heisler in the wonderful series One in 8 Million, but the Lens blog, the Vows series and especially the work of Chang Lee, who’s eye for the telling moment is helping him create a new style of story telling. Of course, the news pieces are great, but I would expect that. It's the wide-ranging variety of work outside of news that brings a richness and vibrancy to the site that distinguishes it from all others. And it’s exciting to see what video on the web can be, in the hands of experienced and talented people. So I just wanted to say, I’m a big fan of what you and your staff have accomplished and look forward to all the good pieces still to come.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A New Way of Seeing

New York Times staffer Chang W. Lee is a master photographer. His beautifully composed images are regularly featured in the NYT website. If you follow the link above to visit his profile site, you'll see some striking international feature pieces that will make it immediately obvious why he's won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography. But as a still photographer, he's stayed away from working with moving images until a recent profile of jazz singer Deanna Kirk -- featured on the NYT Lens site.
I found his approach to creating her video profile fascinating. In one sense, I could describe his piece as a sequence of captured moments; a collection of images, some frozen and others unfolding. Just what you might expect, you could say, from a still photographer.

But I think he's accomplished much more than that. In a sense, he's presenting what amounts to almost a new way of seeing by stripping down everything to its' essence. With his approach to storytelling, he's moved away from the traditional tools of video shooting and editing. No zooms, pans, or cutting within a scene from wide shot to closeup or medium shot or what ever. And while he certainly moves his camera around as he shoots from a wonderful variety of angles, he uses just about every image to create its' own scene. (The traditional way depicts an event from a variety of angles and edits them together to build a scene with a beginning, middle and end.)

And with an artist's eye for the telling moment, his freeze frames and video moments work together to create a sophisticated and intimate portrait of a modern woman, jazz performer and engaged mother. Through his gently-paced images, we see Deanna as she tries to recapture the career she put on hold when her son was born and embrace the music that was her first love. And we hang out with her as she shares some of her hard-won truths about being a single mother caring for her young son. And as the stream of her words wash over us, the video images fade in and out or pause to heighten the impact and suggest a deeper exploration of the thoughts, gestures and moments that make up a life. In all, an innovative and stimulating approach to telling a story. And a very creative way of showing a life in flux.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Old guys like me will still be calling it television"

If anyone has a crystal ball about the future of television, it's John Malone. Recently, at the All Things Digital conference he was interviewed by technology guru Walter Mossberg. They talked, of course, about money and how the web and TV are merging. I think we're really at that point of convergence that everyone was talking about a few years ago. And it's the iphone and its' imitators that bring me to that conclusion. Will we all be walking around with one little device that can do what ever strikes us? Sooner rather than later. Anyway, when asked about the future of television, Malone said: "Probably in five years old guys like me will still be calling it television, but I think it will come from anywhere... it's everything, everywhere, in increasing quality, increasing quantity and lower cost. That's been the whole trend."
And as far as the money thing, he talks about why cable has done so well -- because, in the viewers mind, cable was providing content by charging for connectivity. And, Malone says, in the future, people will pay for content if it connects with quality and convenience. And who will be providing that? Meet the Aggregators. Companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. And maybe Liberty Media, Malone's company, too.
Okay, that's pretty much the future of the media and video world from one man's vantage point. But one thing I certainly agree with, is that quality matters. And putting quality work on all those everywhere devices will make it stand out above everything else.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jeff Zucker on the Future of Broadcast

All Things Digital (a wonderfully informative website, if you don't know it) recently held a symposium on the future of video for broadcast and the internet. Two interviews stuck out, one with Jeff Zucker, President and CEO of NBC Universal and the other with John Malone (which I'll take up in the next blog). As you would expect, much of the focus was on money, but then again, that's what makes the televised world go around, right? So from Zucker's point of view, what works for television these days is the big event or the big drama or comedy series. But the programming "middle" is a muddle. Too much competition from other places, including the web. And, as far as the future goes, the the big issue is revenue. Zucker was quoted some time ago as saying that the media companies are replacing analog dollars with digital pennies. (Meaning the web advertising revenue streams are a trickle compared to what used to pour into the broadcast pond. Now, he thinks with Hulu and the like, they're swimming in digital dimes and he's looking forward to the day of digital quarters. So you can see the problem. And where will all the money come for programming? There's also a longer interview on the All Things Digital Website.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Now What is it Exactly That You Do?

Unsung heroes in the film and video world, editors are the interface between ideas and action. Still, it's hard to explain what we do. Ralph Rosenblum wrote a book, years ago, "When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins." He worked with Woody Allen, among others and has great dramatic films on his list of credits. I liked it, and it was a great introduction to innovative thinking and the creative moment in feature film making. And a quick check at Amazon lists hundreds of books about the subject. But the feature film world always has a plot, characters and a story. The documentary editor has to find a different way to create a story. It's an elusive goal and a good documentary editor does a lot more than just put a bunch of sound and images together.
Recently a BBC editor, Bill McKenna, was named "Editor of the Year" by the White House News Photographers Association. He put together a short video, The Power of the Picture Editor, to explain what it is, exactly that he does.