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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.