In Praise of Kitchy

Way back in the early days of non-linear editing, one could sit in front of the television and figure out the model and version of NLE used to cut the program. Each time a new effect was introduced it was quickly overused. Editors could play drinking games. Versions of After Effects and popular plug-ins were as easily identifiable. It wasn’t that editors were less creative or took more shortcuts 20 years ago. It was the novelty of being able to do something previously difficult or expensive. Eventually the novelty passed.

Manhattan from Times Square

Shot with an iPhone 4S using Hipstamatic

Today technology has advanced to the point that consumers fall prey to the same creative tendencies editors and designers did two decades ago. Instagram, Hipstamatic, and a bevy of other mobile photo apps allow users to apply all sorts of retro filters to give their snapshots an air of sentimentality with a twist of grunge. Professional photographers and videographers cringe. It’s artificial. It degrades the image. The same effect can be achieved more authentically in Photoshop.

But the fact is that few are going master Photoshop or After Effects. Few editors took up After Effects. Good enough is good enough for most.

Rather than turn our professional noses up at these apps, let’s give them their due. They make image creation and sharing fun. In doing so they encourage some to take visual design to the next level. Even more gain a greater appreciation for photography. Many looked over their reading glasses and down their noses at Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, but educators loved the books. Anything to get kids reading.

We should embrace Cinemagram and Flickr filters. Not because they help create high art, but because they help people develop their eye. I love to send students out with Hipstamatic. It teaches them to look at a scene critically and determine in real-time what lens and film combination will accentuate the emotions they want to elicit from the viewer. They don’t get to fix it in post. Like acid washed jeans and Oasis, these apps and their kitchy effects won’t have a great shelf life. But we should enjoy them while they last.

MacFarlane Redux

I didn’t watch the Oscars. I wasn’t in the mood to see the creator of Family Guy’s take on 2012’s best films. Not that I’m above crude humor. I wish I was, but I’ve come to believe laughing at poop jokes becomes involuntary in the presence of the Y chromosome. It’s something I live with… in moderation.

My reason for not watching was simple. If a night is to be a celebration of the craft of filmmaking, it should be hosted by someone who has demonstrated even the slightest understanding of that craft. MacFarlane is not that person. Someone’s who’s greatest contribution to the public discourse is sneaking Urban Dictionary references into a second rate, sophomoric cartoon series isn’t someone I want to spend an evening in my living room.

Now post-Oscars I learn I missed a real treat. I missed the validation of sexism as viable form of entertainment. Imagine if we replaced every sexist joke or skit with a racist joke or skit. MacFarlane’s career would be over.

Hollywood’s not much better than society at large in its treatment of women, but I’ve always taken pride in the role women have been allowed to play in my original craft, editing. Granted, it was only because early 20th century filmmakers thought of editing as a small step up from clerical work. By the time they realized editing was a specialized craft, women had established themselves.

Articles in the New Yorker

The Academy is supposedly a trade group, and yet it devoted its opening number to degrading a good part of its membership.

…and Salon put a proper spin on MacFarlane’s shameful performance.

Four of the films MacFarlane crooned about featured nudity during or immediately following violent depictions of rape and sexual assault, stripped of their context and played for laughs.

So what did I do Sunday night? I watched Raging Bull, edited by Thelma Shoonmaker. I wish I could say it was purposefully symbolic, but it was just a coincidence.

Rethinking Ratings

Last week the NY Times reported in its Media Decoder blog that Nielsen is rejiggering the way it tabulates ratings to include Internet connected TVs. Of course media executives are in favor of any upwards pointing tweak to the algorithm, but how much closer to reality is this making the ever dubious ratings game?

I think not much. Nielsen still isn’t counting laptops, tablets, and phones. Just big, old flat screen TVs.

The new definition “will include those households who are receiving broadband Internet and putting it onto a television set,” said Pat McDonough, the senior vice president for insights and analysis at Nielsen. Currently a “television set” is the flat-screen kind…

…just 0.6 percent of households in the United States meet the new description.

It’s a start, but for how long are advertisers going to care about the aggregate? If everyone isn’t seeing the same ads, what good is the data? And don’t we already have good numbers on ads that reach viewers via IP?

To an advertiser a ratings point equals 1.1 million or so households viewing its ad. Advertisers don’t really care about who viewing the surrounding content. In the age of the DVR, VOD, and TV over IP, that’s not just semantics. The discrepancy between eyes on the content and eyes on the ad can be significant.

According to Wikipedia, the number of homes with televisions dropped by 500,000 form the previous year. A cynic might argue that a mere 0.6% upwards adjustment was concocted to maintain the value of a rating point, not the value of the data. It’s time for a fundamental overhaul of the ratings system. Television might be the first case in the modern media era where the IP-delivered ad has greater value than the traditionally delivered ad due to targeting and mandatory viewing through technologies like fast forward disabling in VOD.

Some Oscar Night Reading

This week’s Economist features a brief article on the state of Hollywood. Though not a lot will be revelatory to those of us in the space, it does remind us of some interesting trends that many of could hardly imagine just a few years ago.

One example, rumors of television’s demise were premature.

TV is relatively stable and currently lucrative. TV networks earn money from advertising and from the fees that cable and satellite operators pay to carry their programmes. These fees amount to some $32 billion a year in America, and are growing by about 7% annually. People love watching TV, and, per hour, it is one of the cheapest forms of entertainment.

In contrast, film revenues are volatile. Attendance swings like the moods of Claire Danes’s bipolar character, Carrie Mathison, in the TV show “Homeland”. In 2011 American cinemas sold 1.28 billion tickets, the smallest number since 1995.

As studios continue to experiment with new distribution models, and companies like Netflix are getting into the content creation business, both the motion picture and television industries might be in for a period of growth.

 

From Stone Age to Phone Age

It’s high school graduation season. I’m at that age where friends, family, and colleagues are celebrating. There’s a timelessness to graduations. At every ceremony I’m reminded of my graduation. Look in the face of any kid in cap and gown and you’ll see your friends’ faces from years ago. But look down a few inches and there’s something new – the phone. It’s the all-consuming device. Kids don’t have conversations any more. They simply get together and use their phones in the same physical location.

The data streams they create and process are simply amazing. Thousands of text messages and hundreds of images per month, and perhaps dozens of videos. Like our grandparents with their Polaroid cameras, most of the images receive no further processing – point, shoot, share. No Photoshop, no iMovie. Just send. And this is where it gets interesting because now we see the rise of apps such as Hipstamatic. Many have mused that just as the cameras in our phones became capable of producing decent images, a generation of tools specializing in degrading those images emerges. Seems crazy.

Hipstamatic allowed me to set the eery mood of this swamp in the field rather than having to load it on my Mac and tweak it in Photoshop.

As a software designer for today’s content creators and an instructor to the next next generation of creators, I look at it differently. There are now creative tools that allow the artist to look at an image and decide the look to apply at the moment of capture. It’s understood that the Hipstamatic or Instagram shooter has forfeited access to a raw file to process in Photoshop, but that’s not much of a forfeiture when the image was unlikely to be processed anyway.

These tools add a degree of creativity back into the photographic process that was lost in the era of one button to Facebook simplicity. Personally, I’m enjoying these gimmicky tools, and I’m finding they often do a pretty damn good job helping me realize my vision.

 

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