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Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Creativity, in our business is all about collaboration. Camera and Sound. Producer and Editor. Director and Actor. And so it goes. Collaboration can be bliss or chaos. Sometimes both. When two conflicting visions vie for a voice, sometimes the result is glorious harmony. Say, as in the work of Leiber and Stoller, whose book details how they came up with some of Motown's greatest hits. What was it like? Here's an inside view of their approach to working together: "I can't remember if it's Mike or Jerry who describes their relationship as a 50-year-old argument," says David Ritz, who ghostwrote Leiber and Stoller's joint memoir. In their words, it was "long, long years of stepping on each other's words and toes and sentences."
And then there's the dynamic duo, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. In Keith's new book, Life, he describes yet another turbulent collaboration, but a winning partnership too. And that dichotomy is also the subject of a recent NPR story on the powerful energy unleashed by polar opposites.

For me, the key to a successful collaboration in music or any other creative effort is to find a way to harness that energy. I think it's normal, even predictable to have different approaches, different points of view. That's part of the creative process. But then it's about listening, hashing it out, exploring and synthesizing. You can travel parallel paths, zig and zag, but eventually you have to come together. And when you do, you can really rock and roll.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

DBA and the Age of Anxiety

Given all the Holiday gear newly acquired in all our households, it's now time we prepare for that electrifying malady known as DBA. What's DBA, you ask? With DBA we're talking the latest viral video ploy: Dead Battery Anxiety, as created by a Charleston, South Carolina firm Slant Media for Philips Electronics.

Yes, it's a little stupid, which is what makes it funny. And yes, it conjures all those TV ads touting the drug of the day. So there's that familiar strain about it. And it's a little self-conscious too, which seems to play fine on the Web. And there's that "hey, we're in on the goof, cause we're as cool as you" hipster attitude. If you strike the right tone, it works well with the genre. And I think this one has appeal.

The ads are simply shot and edited (good for the Web). Fun punch lines. My favorite is "Plug Hawk Tazed at Airport" because it just relies on physical action and that funky consumer camera look. You can watch them all at the DBA website.

The NYT wrote about the campaign in Stuart Elliot's advertising column. We learn that consumers "worry about power" constantly, since smart phones are kinda dumb about how much power they use. And the campaign was designed for the online world, because Philips and Slant think their consumers have pulled the plug on TV and print.
So there you have it. If you want to follow their rules for a viral campaign, hang on to a style everyone already knows, add some humor, keep it simple, make your point and get out of the way, and don't try to be too slick. That's my take away.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Radioactive, the Book

A new "graphic novel" biography of the Curies, Marie and Pierre, is getting rave reviews. The Press Release:

To create the visuals for the book, she combines vibrant backgrounds captured on photographic paper via the rays of the sun and her stylized line drawings. And she is a powerful storyteller, as her work is described in this NYT review: "... it’s a deeply unusual and forceful thing to have in your hands. Ms. Redniss’s text is long, literate and supple." The review continues: "The electricity in “Radioactive,” however, derives from the friction between Ms. Redniss’s text and her ambitious and spooky art. Her text runs across and over these freewheeling pages, the boundaries between word and image constantly blurring. Her drawings are both vivid and ethereal."

Here's two examples from her book

Like all powerful artists, she offers a new way of seeing and thereby new insight into the world we live in. Not to mention that the Curies themselves make a fascinating story. And coupling her distinctive visuals with a talent for language should put Radioactive high on anyone's reading list. And, hey, the cover glows in the dark.

Just Joe and a Great Idea

Any one working in our business knows its hallmark is collaboration. Yeah, we hear about the Director as Auteur and the Client as King. But nothing happens without a bunch of people working together. One-man-bands only work on street corners. So here's a new approach to an old concept. Maybe brilliant. Maybe unworkable. But like any new idea, it's worth a closer look. And if what you see is any example of what may be, then it could be a definer for how we creatives will come together to play in the web sandbox in the next decade.

Joe Gordon-Levitt is the proud creator of HitREcord.org which is a site for many people to work on a project as each contributes and/or reforms the work. It could be as simple as a remix or as complicated as a grand production with Joe as the Director/Prime Mover. Joe's concept explainer video is here. And a fantastical collaboration video, inspired perhaps by his great work in the (500) Days of Summer can be seen in the fanciful Morgan and Destiny's Eleventeenth Date - The Zeppelin Zoo. Check out the language. That in itself is worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

One Man Makes a Difference

An essential part of America's mythos is that one person can make a difference. We celebrate those that do and encourage others to follow their example. Today NPR ran a story about one such person, Bernie Marcus. Upset about so many of our troops returning with brain damage, he wanted to help. Funded a program to do so and pitched it to the VA, saying he would help finance it. According to the NPR story, the VA said thanks and did nothing. Bernie, a co-founder of Home Depot, went ahead on his own to set up Project Share, and the results of his philanthropy are documented in the story.

A number of years ago I worked for the VA on a biography of Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, noted heart surgeon. What I learned from that experience was that DeBakey served in WWII, learned about medical trauma, developed the concept of the MASH unit to provide immediate attention to wounded troops and successfully fought the military bureaucracy in order to institute it during the Korean War. He also helped create a system to track surgical outcomes, trained hundreds of surgeons and continued to work closely with the VA to insure quality of care. That was a time when the VA was a proud institution.

I think the NPR story is a good example of how big organizations can become tone deaf to their original mission. And in the process lose touch with the needs of the people they were set up to serve. It's a process that seems to repeat itself over and over again. Making the NPR story an excellent example of what good journalism can accomplish.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Both Sides Now

Lt. Col. David Richardson makes his home within two worlds that often collide. Sometimes he's an abstract artist. Other times a marine. Fascinating that he can keep the two facets of himself compartmentalized. But understandable as well. I know nothing about his service in the Marine Corps. But I very much like his art. It's bold and yet inviting. The work seems to take you on a journey, and within the splashes of color you can get lost in its checkered landscape or invigorated by unraveling the fabric of some unknown army off to war. I think he's found a way to envision his own symbols of territory, might and power. Much of his work at a local gallery in Washington, DC is inspired by the Trojan war. Fitting, right?
To rise to the rank he now holds, he has to have a mind that's orderly; that deals with systems, evaluation and logic. To work as an abstract painter, he has to have a mind that's creative, open to experience, in touch with an emotional landscape. I find the contradictions fascinating and empowering.
Because to understand how to communicate effectively, and to work successfully in our business, you need to be able to flow freely between those two worlds. You should possess all the evaluative and creative qualities evidenced in the two lives of Lt. Col. Richardson. And, given how separate those two lives must need be, I admire that he gives voice to both. That definitely takes commitment and courage.
And why does he do it? Here's a quote from a NYT article: I was never interested in painting ugly paintings,” Colonel Richardson said. “We often say to the general, ‘Here is the bottom line up front.’ My bottom line up front is I want to create something beautiful. To me there are enough disturbing and ironic things in life.”

Making it Real

Sound in a video or movie is the "making it real" part of the puzzle. We think about the images and often those are what stick in our mind. But it is sound that brings it all to life.
Imagine a beautiful landscape and the sound of birds. Sets you up for a good feeling. Now imagine the same landscape and the sound of approaching helicopters. Could be trouble coming.
Same picture, different realities, thanks to sound. And creating a sound scape for video or film can be enormously satisfying. A long long time ago I was hired to do sound design for a USDA film, "Day of the Killer Tornados." I know, sounds like a joke. But this was a long time ago. And while a dramatic story was told about the Government's tornado early warning system, most of the images had no sound whatsoever, just narration and a few moments of dialogue. It was my job to find and sometimes create the missing sounds. As one of my first jobs as an editor, it was a great lesson for me in how sound can bring the story to life.

NPR recently ran a piece entitled the Sounds of Star Wars. It talks about sound effects and how they found signature sounds for those movies. And created R2D2's memorable character in the process.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What’s with those new discs?

We don’t normally spend a lot of time talking about equipment, but we’ve been working with Sony’s XDCAM system for a little over a year, and it deserves a few kind words.

XDCAM started as a disc-based field recording system for standard NTSC. The camcorders now shoot gorgeous HDTV images on discs that use technology similar to Blu-ray DVDs. The real difference is that the video is recorded as individual files, rather than as a continuous stream on a videotape. Each file is recorded twice; you get both a low-res “proxy” file to view or edit and a high-res HDTV file to finish your program with.

The proxy files are easy to put on a disc for screening on a PC, and you can quickly load them into the Avid for editing. In fact, they load so quickly that it offsets a good bit of the extra cost of shooting in HD. As the video is recorded directly on a disc, you have a piece of physical media with your original footage that you can keep on your shelf.

While this may seem trivial, a lot of digital video is now recorded on reusable memory cards and then transferred to portable hard drives for storage. I’ve never been comfortable with this. It’s not unusual for video to be transferred incorrectly and the mistake not noticed until the original memory cards have been reused. Then you’re out of luck. That won’t happen when you record directly to an XDCAM disc. It’s a much more robust solution.

XDCAM is great for mastering, too. While it’s essential to keep a master copy of each project, videotape masters are obsolete. Our solution is to archive projects on XDCAM discs. Not only do we put a hi-res digital copy of the finished video on the disc, we put all the files related to the project on the same disc: the Avid project file, files for a DVD, a video file for the Internet, raw graphics files, etc. So you have everything you need in one place if you need to change the video down the road.

Over the years, I’ve found that it’s good to be skeptical about the never-ending stream of new formats that come along. XDCAM was worth waiting for.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Introducing Budrus, A Powerful Documentary

Feature documentaries are difficult to make. They take time, money, an unflagging commitment to work through numerous obstacles and grit. And with all of that, you often run the risk of sinking into a predictable and one-sided conversation on a complex issue. The documentary, "Budrus" is none of that. It is a compelling portrayal of the power of an idea, namely using non-violent protest to effect change in the war-torn Middle East. It shows how one person can make a difference. And it is made with the kind of skill that plunges the viewer right in the middle of the action. I found it very moving and informative. It's made by an international organization, Just Vision, dedicated to promoting non-violent solutions. The woman who directed and edited it, Julia Bacha, was an editor of another great documentary, "Control Room," her first film effort. She's very talented and I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fiona Tan at the Sackler

There's a fascinating video exhibit at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery. Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall presents the first major presentation of her work in America. Tan uses video to explore identity, memory, our place in the world and how we might understand and experience another person. Fiona Tan was born in Indonesia, grew up in Australia, her father is Chinese and she lives in Amsterdam. Her struggle to understand her own identity is a jumping off point for her art. More to the point, her work is unlike any video presentation we're familiar with. She pushes the realm of portraiture into uncharted territory. Yet her work inspires me to see things differently.

One piece, Rise and Fall, compares two women, one younger, the other older. They seem to be musing on their lives, on each other. Are they the same person, encountered at two stages of their lives? Is the older woman remembering the past? Or the younger imaging her future? Tan's languid images are striking in their simplicity. She has a wonderful eye for composition, often inspired by the Dutch masters. Each moment unfolds with a sense of mystery, while building a strong connection between the two women. It is quite a meaningful experience, yet no words come between us and the powerful images.

Another work, Provenance, explores portraiture as a fluid construct. We meet a person; see the artifacts of their life that surround and define them. Again, each person is presented without words, yet the profiles have a surprising sense of intimacy. The images are stylized, feel more like paintings than video, and are an example of her effort to create a new way of capturing identity.
Her pieces reveal themselves slowly, almost hypnotically. Go when you have some time to give to the experience. There are many unexpected pleasures that await. The exhibit runs through Jan. 16th at the Sackler Gallery.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Vision Thing

Sometimes David Brooks makes me mad. Other times, I think he's absolutely brilliant. Like other columnists I read, he makes me think. Can't ask for much more than that. And not too long ago he wrote about America's economic future. I liked what he had to say and so I'm sharing it here. His column, "The Crossroads Nation," appeared in the NYT this November. And he lays out an optimistic vision for what kind of nation we could be. I suggest you read the whole column. But here's an excerpt:

"... economic power in the 21st century is not going to look like economic power in the 20th century. The crucial fact about the new epoch is that creativity needs hubs. Information networks need junction points. The nation that can make itself the crossroads to the world will have tremendous economic and political power."

Too often we get so caught up with the issue of the day we lose sight of the big picture. Where are we going and how are we going to get there? I think we'd all like our leaders to spend a little more time developing "that vision thing." Because, without a road map for where we want to go, we're more likely to stumble around in the wilderness...

NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts

Radio's great. You get to paint your own pictures and no place provides a broader canvas than NPR. But not too long ago I stumbled upon their Tiny Desk Concert and loved it. First of all, finding a venue for new music is not easy. The old independent radio stations are pretty much a thing of the past.

Into the breech steps NPR. And not only with music, but with video too. Like this one, featuring Lost in the Trees. NPR's concept: bring the performers into a corner of the office, move away the desks to create a little space and shoot it simply, focusing on the music. The resulting performance has a lovely, intimate quality. Watching it, you feel like you're one of the NPR staffers just out of frame, hanging out to listen. And the musical variety is broad and stimulating. You also have a front row view of the performers, you can feel their connection as they play together; see how they listen and play off each other. Really watch the creative process unfold as you listen to their work. Also, because it's an acoustic experience, there are no electronics for the performers to hide behind. And the video makes it clear, it's all about the music. The variety of performers mixes the old with the new. You can link to the series, which started in March of this year. The old ones are archived. A great, innovative use of video for a radio network. And something to brighten your work week.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The High Line - Why I Love New York 2

We walked the High Line a few weeks ago. It's like the boardwalk with the city playing the part of ocean. All around was the bustle of urban life ebbing and flowing 50 feet below. Yet above the fray we could relax, ponder, sit, observe, chat, view, read, photograph, admireand exclaim in the company of hundreds of fellow city surfers. All of this taking place from an aerial vantage point hovering above the flow. Surrounded by plantings and such elegance of design. Design that incorporates the remnants of its original mission: providing rail freight to the West Side's meat packing and industrial enterprises. And taking fanciful flight, with an amphitheater complete with viewing window of the street, benches that rise right out of the walkway like waves, wooden lounge seats that roll on tracks, and a plentitude of artifacts, all preserved in homage to its rail yard past. And an instant creator of community. Amazing outcome for a project slated for demolition.
These photos may give you a little of the flavor.Good Magazine's first issue featured a video about the High Line's history that is a great background piece. Andthe New York Times has a whole section on it in their archives, including slide shows, multimedia and a piece on the people who perform for the high line strollers.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Underbelly Project - Why I love New York Pt 1

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? If over 100 street artists create intriguing, original work that no one can see, is it there? How about work created in a secret underground location known only to the artists and a select few. A never finished subway station, long abandoned, then rediscovered and tagged with intriguing images, then abandoned to the stuff of urban legend. This is The Underbelly Project. And it models a vision right out of the work of William Gibson where part of the plot of the second book in his latest trilogy focuses on virtual art only visible to a select few.

In The Underbelly Project, an abandoned subway station in the bowels of New York City serves as the exhibit site. And an excellent article in the New York Times describes the event and how it came about. The exhibit celebrates the punk sensibility of street art. In another era, it would be the surrealist or the dada sensibility. You could say the process of making the art makes its own statement - it's Art for Art's sake.
So why am I writing about this? I like the sheer audacity that they did it. I like that two street artist/curators saw the opportunity and went for it. And that 100 artists saw the elegant irony of their vision and went for it, too. That they did it for the fun and exuberance of it. And then to be thrust instantly into the mists of urban legend. And the best work, as you'll see in the slide show and video that accompanies the article, conjures the mystery of the unseen and unknown. And in an almost perverse way, it celebrates the vibrancy of America's greatest city. A city where anything seems possible.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Natalie Tran

YouTube has introduced me to a number of people who've found their calling as video bloggers. My latest fascination is Australian Natalie Tran, who goes by the name Community Channel. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about her:

Natalie Tran
is a digital media student and a second-generation Vietnamese Australian with
more than 720,000 subscribers and more than 268 million views.
As of July 2010, there are 238 videos available on her YouTube channel and she's the most-subscribed of all-time in Australia and the 22nd-most subscribed of all-time on YouTube.
Here's Forbes. Yes, Forbes the business magazine:

Natalie Tran isn’t just some 22-year-old who lives in her parent’s house, makes look-at-me videos and posts them on YouTube for kicks.
OK, she is.
But her clips on Community Channel have also made her one of 10 global independent YouTube stars who have earned more than $100,000 in the past year.

She's funny, has a great sense of the absurd, talks about the daily flotsam and jetsum of her life with a wry sense of humor. And she brings in her cultural heritage to the mix, which gives her life commentary and observations all the more flavor. And every video ends with her responding to comments from her viewers. Making you feel like one of the Community Channel posse. Her self-effacing attitude makes the whole experience fun. And then you go on to screen the next one.

So she gets to share the world of Natalie with all her video viewers and get paid for it too. Not a bad gig.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Getting it Right

Bob James, aka
The Mighty Copywriter, writes an informative and stimulating blog, Copy Points exploring issues around marketing, communications and the art of effective writing. I've read a number of his pieces with interest, and his latest touched a nerve. Entitled "Is it Real or is it Sominex" he talks about how advances in technology are enabling the budget-challenged corporation to produce "business casual video." In other words, a do-it-yourself approach to producing corporate video.

But the typical amateur, as Bob blogs, creates amateurish work:
"That's because technologyin the hands of amateurscannot compensate for amateurism. Cheap technology, moreover, only encourages amateurism to spread,like a plague."

Well, of course I agree. But there's another part of the story I'd like to talk about. Because, for me, the issue is not just about advances in technology reducing the professional's "advantage". Amateur work is usually amateurish for a reason. Because a professional in our business has the ability to understand where the audience is coming from. How they think and what they value. And professionals enjoy a creative expertise honed by years of crafting messages.

Too often, corporate communication from an insider's point of view is just that: written from the "insider" point of view. They don't see the company as others do, who live outside their corporate silo. Again, that's what the professional has to offer. We understand how to shape a message so it reaches people "where they live." And what I learned from all those years doing political media is this: how you frame the issue and ideas defines how people respond and understand what you are trying to say.

The essence of amateurism misses all of this. It is high on enthusiasm and energy, which is great and really connects, up to a point. And that, to be fair, is some of its appeal; as insider corporate communications are so often deadly and boring.

But that's usually where it ends. Amateurs lack the professional's dispassion and insight. They go for the obvious, lack subtlety, and rarely employ the power of well-chosen images and evocative music. And they are not phrase makers. I've watched one nationally-recognized political consultant routinely spend hours trying out different variations of a phrase until he found the most potent combination for his client. And I've seen how the media picks up that concept as their own and runs with it. Because he spends all that time and creative power to get it right. And that's the bottom line, really. Getting it right.
As they say, you can have it quick, cheap or good. Pick any two.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Voice in the Wilderness

We are so visually oriented, but music is another way of sharing and perceiving and, I suspect, is universal to all cultures. Music offers a wide range of emotions and composers shape their sounds to create pictures in the mind. But where do they find inspiration? And how does one create a work of substance? Well, sometimes, you need to listen to the silence. For me, I often need to block out the "background noise" before I can find the inspiration I'm looking for. So I was very tuned into the story of contemporary American composer, Robert Kyr as broadcast recently on NPR. Kyr journeys to a remote monastery in New Mexico to seek the silence of the desert. And I found this story on he finds his muse very moving.

And if you'd like to explore his music further, here's a link to one of his CDs.

Monday, July 12, 2010

It's a Wrap

Introducing the Sniper Twins, two hiphop pals creating their own brand of viral videos for the corporate world. Barry Flanagan and Dax Martinez-Vargas, former high School buddies, attended the same film school and eventually found their way to MTV, making on air promos. But their claim to fame, such as it is, has come from doing the corporate video thing, only, doing it their way.

Their first big effort, "Computer Friends" (over 700,000 plays on Youtube) was a spec project they eventually "sold" to Seagate Technology. According to one article, "payment" was in the form of hard drives. Okay, but they clearly had a good time making the video and it's fun to watch them do a send up of office geekdom as they revel in the bits and bytes of their computer rap.
Their next effort, "Chocolate Shoppe," shows them rapping and prancing through a Hershey Chocolate Factory, plopping on their chairs doing the "chocolate drop." Sweet. And I suppose they got a lot of lettuce for their video praising the virtue of salads. And so it goes.
While I applaud their efforts, using the trappings of rap to brand a corporate image or market a product is, let's face it, a bit of a stretch. Although, given their enthusiasm, they almost pull it off. But the corporate thing gets lost in the funky egoism of their rap. It's hard to wag your finger around a coherent message and they wrap each video with the Sniper Twins logo. So dudes, what are you really branding?
I checked the Seagate Website to see how the video was being used and failed to find it. Oh well.
But kudos to them for taking the leap. And given the in-your-face flavor of new media, I'm sure we'll be hearing more from the Sniper Twins.
As a PS, check out the video they did for Reese's, Flippo's BIG Stunt. Perfect.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A very creative site

Stuart Elliott, who writes on advertising for the New York Times, describes an innovative website and marketing campaign for a brand of gin. The website, full of whimsy, nostalgia for a bygone era, and a clever pastiche of images is worth a gander.

Mr. Elliott writes: The Web site, billed as the Curiositorium, is a digital curio cabinet, stuffed with all manner of offbeat, oddball sights and sounds that are intended to bring to life the brand’s promises that it is “a most unusual gin” and “it’s not for everyone.”

Best yet, the product it touts actually came on the scene just a few years old, but then, who's counting? The creative team designed their product and site to look like something alive and well in Edwardian England. Full of fanciful images, perusing their site is fun and inviting. They even invite you to become part of their exclusive little club. And of course you'll want to try their product.

But for me, the site is a great case study for how creative minds can transform something as mundane as a bottle of gin into a nostalgic celebration full of romance and feats of derring do.