Her karma crushed his dogma

Tonight after a client meeting in Olympia I just made it back to Seattle in time to watch the end of the Oscars at Biznik’s party. It was actually the first time I’ve ever seen the show live. What a treat. Fremont Studios was certainly an awesome venue … what a glorious hi-def view in their theater.

I’ve seen Avatar twice, and frankly expected it to walk away with most of the honors. Not that I wanted it to. There’s no question it’s a technical tour de force, with amazing visuals and stunning music, but I described it as “stereotypes in stereo”.  Yes, I must go on record as admitting that the story is genuinely entertaining, and that the visual artistry is the seminal work of a certifiable genius…. but I also have to admit I’m a reluctant admirer of the movie, because my idea of a good director (which I aspire to be one day) is a collaborator and listener and above all, a storyteller — not the sort of person I perceive James Cameron to be.

I once worked with a Hollywood veteran who had been on set with Cameron in several movies, and my friend described Cameron as the most arrogant director he had ever known. He observed that Cameron seemed to take pleasure in making people crack. He would pick out a person in the crew, and would scold, taunt, and ridicule them to tears. My friend said everyone who worked around Cameron was either afraid of him or disgusted by him. Yahoo’s directorial biography documents that Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had vowed never to work with Cameron again. My friend stated that Cameron was so far over budget on Titanic that, in spite of its unprecedented commercial success, Cameron had to forego his paycheck and lost out on all the residuals he might have made, had he reigned in his artistic ego during the filming. And thus the guy who had made some of the most successful movies in history —  Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2, True Lies, and Titanic — couldn’t get a studio to back him on another movie project for over a decade.

Tonight, Cameron was the presumptive winner of best director and best movie Oscars, just as he had been with his last top-grossing epic. But to the visible surprise of Cameron, and the stunned silence of most folks at Fremont Studios tonight, his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow won both of the top prizes.

It feels like poetic justice to me.

On one hand, a woman who is praised for being a great collaborator, directs a simple but emotionally taut movie… and walks away with top honors. We watch her accept the award with dignity and humility. Anyone can see the sincerity in her thankfulness toward her crew and financiers and writers … and the people whose story she told.

Meanwhile, a man who has certainly been a collaborator in many important ways, and who in Avatar has perhaps done more to advance the cinematic arts than anyone else in the last decade … is still not a person who wins our affection.

Tonight, we watched as a guy who might be best known for burning his friends while impressing his audiences  — and who celebrated his own Oscars by holding them above his head and shouting, “I’m the King of the World” — was unmistakably upstaged by one of his ex’s.

Tonight the “last man standing” was a woman who told a three-dimensional story of courage in the midst of complex realities. In stark contrast, we saw a man who impressively used 3D to tell a one-dimensional story of courage in the midst of simplistic fantasies. It was a tale of two stories, and two storyteller value systems; and the better of both won.

When karma comes up against dogma, karma wins. Wasn’t it a good Oscar night?

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Green screen state of the art

This jaw-dropping green-screen mashup reveals the how-to (or at least the what) behind a lot of relatively normal-looking location shots. The key, of course, is the quality of the background plates…. these shots demonstrate that you can focus on your foreground action with your actors, and then assemble the other elements in a virtual world, offline.

Adding snow, helicopters, explosions, reflections, background traffic, sky shots, etc. can all be done days before or months later… although the most common scenario will simply be to shorten the day by reducing the complexity of each shot. This allows smaller tech crews to get background plates while the talent can be spared from having to do retakes simply because a car in the deep background missed its cue.

By doing some tough action shots first, directors can make note of background action that occurs just before a closeup, and be able to cut to the closeup with the action still tailing out in the background of the closeup shot. By dedicating one of the cameras to the upcoming closeup shot, the background action can thus be compressed in screen time, while the talent enjoys a much better chance of getting their take right. They don’t have to be “on” at precisely the instant something happens behind them. Safer actors, more relaxed directors, more intense time-compression in editing. (Although the whole process just makes the “authenticity” bar that much higher).

Green screen for “normal” shots also means that setups involving kids can focus on the kid shots to meet stricter day length restrictions, then embellish the action afterwards.

One particular challenge, which also has a special effects solution, is the thickness of the air or apparent sharpness between the foreground elements and background. The eye of the effects house is critical here. I felt like the Times Square shot had a little too much contrast between the foreground guy and the background… and the actor’s performance seemed a little disconnected from the “reality” that was superimposed after the fact. But these were probably first takes, and no doubt the final print was a lot more believable.

By the way, I always keep a green screen 8 foot flex backdrop in my van so that any interview we do can be superimposed over any background plate we’d like to envision.

Thanks to Jeff Morin who told @GarryTan who put it on his Posterous blog, which I follow!

Still loving stills, but appreciating the authenticity of video

Stills remain my first love … I even called my company Still Images Inc. when I founded it. But eventually I changed the name to Kindig Omnimedia and then simply Ztories as I perceived that audiences are increasingly media agnostic. All the arrows in the quiver are just tools that serve the storytelling. Note: As I move to Seattle in November, I’ll create a new LLC called either Ztories  or Ztoryteller … which do you like better? Or do you dislike them both? 🙂

But there has been a major shift in the subliminal impact of each medium upon audiences. I got to thinking about this when I responded to a very thoughtful comment by David Patton of Waggener Edstrom on the value of stills in corporate communication, especially presentations.

It seems to me that the perceptions of what’s real or authentic have shifted.  At one time high-resolution stills felt real — photo-journalistic. Then video came to the corporate market, but cameras were clumsy, lots of light was needed, everything was shot with a zoom lens on a contrasty, light-hungry chip… and the end result was that in my view, video had a show-biz air about it, while slide shows felt much more realistic, and therefore much more credible. At least, that’s what I told my clients until they forced me to use video.

Today, with available-light video cameras in most people’s pockets, I would say that video feels as immediate and real as 35mm still pictures ever did. How many people do you know who even shoot with a still camera that big? Only pros and serious amateurs use today’s digital SLRs, and they get higher resolution than large-format (2-1/4 or 4×5) film cameras ever delivered. Most folks shoot with camcorders and tiny duoformat cameras & cell phones. When disgruntled voters rioted in Iran, that’s the kind of imagery that documented it. When we see the world through our friends’ eyes on Facebook, that is the technology formed our perceptions.

In the meantime, the quality of  still cameras has evolved from merely real to sublime. Amazing lenses, timelapse options, and image editing software have now electrified high-end photography with the mediated identity that video once claimed. In most cases, a quality still image can still arrest attention, while digital snapshots and endless hours of unedited video fill our hard drives with too many shots to sort, and too much video to watch. Unless what is unfolding in front of the camera is amazing or surprising — or unless there’s a very creative editorial approach — video may enjoy a claim on credibility but it has lost the fascination it once enjoyed simply because the pictures moved.

And then there’s the “Ken Burns effect”, which once breathed new life into high resolution stills by making them move. That, too, seems to now feel a little over-used and “low-budget”, just as the banal world of video has become. The effect is cool for conveying historical weight, elegance, and clarity of focus. But even Ken Burns uses high def video/film whenever he can.

Compare his use of stills at the beginning and end of this clip

[How Yosemite Got its Name – http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/watch-video/#642)%5D

with what he did here:

[The Indian Idea of Sacredness – http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/watch-video/#755%5D

When he has a choice, Ken is going to use the incredible realism of high definition video or film to tell his story.

And these days, with these cameras, I now prefer cinematic media for that kind of storytelling, as well.

It seems to me, on balance, that well-lit, stable high-def video ought to be the medium of choice whenever a company wants to convey gravitas and photo-realistic credibility; small video cameras with edgier movement and simpler storytelling and lower production values are the best way to deliver documentary style or photo-journalistic impressions.

For dramatic and persuasive storytelling, cinema is still the king of content, and gaining ground. It’s now the only thing (except their Facebook page) that most young people are willing to give their undivided attention to for hours at a time.

But for sheer artistic impact and the crystallization of imagination or reality, still images have regained a lofty place near the center of the visual pantheon.

When you want to tell an audio-visual story about historic events that involves more than dialog and action; when you want to capture the essence of an idea or person, or disturb viewers through visual storytelling, then still images are “still” a great way to go.

Motivation, Hollywood style

Lots of my favorite movies illustrate motivation principles. Runaway JuryA Civil Action, The Insider,  The Rainmaker, Quiz Show. Among documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and Sicko.

Runaway Jury explores jury tampering. Near the climax, John Cusack’s character encourages an ex-Marine opposing him on the jury to express his view. He knows that stifling the guy’s opinion will make it stronger. So he eggs the guy on, until he’s left out on a limb and alienated from the rest of the jurors. If Cusack had directly confronted the idea, the opponent would have won the argument. And so it is when we are trying to persuade: if we foster an authentic airing of the issue, we gain power for the idea we are advocating.

This is not easy, because giving strength to the opponent can damage us, too. With The Insider and The Rainmaker, the heroes can’t win until they allow themselves to be sacrificial victims. There’s something attractive about a person who is willing to risk everything for his beliefs. That’s what these movies illustrate.

In A Civil Action, the hero never actually wins. He loses because the powerful attorney played by Robert Duvall conspires to keep the truth from reaching the jury.

And with Quiz Show, there are no heroes. Television wins, and continues to control the dialog process by holding contrary views off the air. The “communication cataclysm” that has now hit the PR/advertising world is a direct result of the failure of that kind of media power, and the ascendancy of audience power in its place.

In the documentary realm, lots of major films tend not to be good motivators.

Think back to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. Though I loved the film and agreed with it, many of my conservative friends (yes, I try to get along with Cs and Ls!) just laughed it off. I believe the reasons are two-fold: (1) by letting the director make the movie into a personal crusade, Al made it easy for conservatives to dismiss. (2) When the facts were flowing, contrary ideas were ignored or even ridiculed.

If Al had stripped out the intimate personal reflections, and instead brought in other authorities to champion his ideas, he would have sidestepped the personality issue. And if he had aired and then rebutted the contrary “evidence” with facts and logic, his movie would have packed a lot more truth, and been a lot more inconvenient to his opponents.

Michael Moore tends to make similar mistakes. In my view Sicko worked the best of any of his movies to date, because he kept his own personality out of the first half of the film. By then, the audience was bonding to those heroes of 9/11 who couldn’t get health insurance. But then the humorous stunts, the in-your-face trips to France and Cuba, ate away at the persuasive capital he had built . I didn’t mind… but my hunch is many viewers were offended. The approach dishonored the audience. Is anyone watching Sicko now, during the current health care debate? I doubt it — even though it has a lot of good things to say.

To motivate with integrity, make even one-way presentations feel like a dialog!

Dark Knight. Why so serious?

As announced by Aden Hepburn, here’s a very interesting documentary about the Cannes Grand Prix viral winner: a promotional campaign for the rollout of the Dark Knight movie which got 10 million people around the world involved in not just internet observation and virtual participation, but games, scavenger hunts, cell phone interchanges, and massive public demonstrations.

As a demonstration of the organizing power of a digital agency, it’s really, really impressive. As a display of human ingenuity and cooperation, it’s truly inspiring.

As an index of what kinds of activities are able to get 10 million people motivated enough to shout, cheer, travel, and work together … well, it’s a little scary.

“Why so serious?” you ask me?

Well, here’s the documentary… you decide.

It does prove that people love what 42 Entertainment calls “immersive”. They love to participate, solve mysteries, be surprised, be the first, make an impact, do stuff in groups.

Now, if we can only make water, energy, or the environment our great authentic, immersive quest! I was thinking more in terms of compost toilets to reduce water use, electric cars to reduce oil consumption … you know, stuff that really makes a difference in our lives and our world.

I don’t believe in Harvey Dent. And I’m still sad about the authentic story that played out as a backdrop to this imaginary promo escapade.

My stories 3: Fear the faux friend

One of my more humorous experiences with authenticity came when I was at the Disney studios in Burbank to interview Michael Eisner for Denison University. I had a couple of hours before the interview to kill so naturally I joined Michael’s entourage, as they ponderously moved from setup to setup to film “Voice of Disney” spots with Michael. It was a gorgeous sunny day but of course the 20-man crew wasn’t using sunlight; several grips held 60-foot rolls of silk overhead while giant HMI fresnels were focused on the subject. After several spots were in the can they began working on an intro for the movie Bambi. To introduce the film, the script called for a real Bambi (captive fawn), a real Thumper (bunny rabbit) and a real Flower (deflowered skunk). Eisner was to ask humans dressed up in the standard Disneyland Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy costumes who their favorite Bambi characters were. Mickey was to pet and say “Bambi!”, Minnie was to hold and say “Thumper!”, and Goofy was to hold and say “Flower!” … at which time everyone was to scatter at the sight of a skunk… with Michael delivering his final welcome line as he left the frame, leaving Goofy holding the skunk.

The rehearsals went fine, but when it was time to roll, the cartoon characters put on their heads, and then the fireworks began. Authentic Bambi took one look at Goofy, and went ballistic. I never imagined a juvenile deer could make a sound like that. We’re talking a high-pitched roar, half bellow and half shriek, while it kicked and butted and jumped like a wild horse at the rodeo. The trainer huddled with the assistant director, and produced a vial that I suppose was veterinary Vallium, from which he gave Bambi a shot in the hindquarters.

After a few minutes Bambi seemed calm … almost woozy it seemed to me. So the cameras got set, the grips at attention, the slate clapped … and again Goofy put on his head. This time Bambi went freakishly insane, screaming louder than before and opening up a 4-inch gash in the handler’s arm. The medical staff rushed over to administer first aid, and now the director and script supervisor huddled with Michael Eisner to find another approach. While Bambi was hustled away in what felt for all the world like a paddy wagon, the creative minds found a way to tell the story that did not require a live deer to coexist with Goofy.

For me, it was great fun. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the mediated part of media work. Here we have humans who can control all the elements: create their own sun, manufacture their own rain and wind. They might even be able to “guide” (?) the sensibilities of human beings. But they couldn’t overcome the hard-wired perceptions of a wild animal, no matter how many narcotics they used. The deer knew what it saw, and it knew to fear a plastic “friend” with a wolf’s jaw and two-inch teeth. The authentic nature of Goofy — his frightful appearance, not his hidden human motives — was the only visual language this natural critter understood.

And you know what? It seems to me that the more we learn about nature, and the more we get in touch with wildness in our world, the more we, too, might do well to fear our faux friends: the plastic face of progress; the factory farms, the poisoned yards, the symptom-masking meds and all the other mediated “realities” of our artificial environment. Like Goofy, they’re all scarier than they want us to think.

Make good use of it

The last words of the Paul Giammati HBO movie mini-series, John Adams, are quoted from a 1777 letter that Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:

Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.

The preservation of freedom is certainly a popular topic; ways and means are matters of debate. And just as Adams and Jefferson struggled to remain friends while taking different approaches to the challenge; so today certainty about the best means of preserving freedom remains elusive. The New York Times editorializes on the topic in response to President Obama’s speech in Cairo. When they write that in the content of Obama’s speech, “we recognized the United States”, I take it that the Times editors see in his actions a healthy balance that presses toward the good uses of freedom. I tend to agree, with provisos that are not in the scope of this article.

In the realm of public relations and marketing communications, the same principles remain open for discussion. How can we serve our clients, dispensing information in ways that benefit them, while serving the public or business audiences which we address?

The old joke that sales is the 2nd oldest profession is no longer a joke when advertising and PR practitioners earn reputations among the public near the bottom of the honesty scale, along with car salesmen and HMO managers, and worse than Congressmen and lawyers. In the 2007 study, we were down there with lobbyists, around 5 on a scale of 100. This year, it was up to 11. Lawyers are up to 18 and even journalists, that dying breed that Rush Limbaugh loves to castigate, enjoy a 26.

What advertisers and PR people need to do, it seems to me, is to play the integrity card with their clients. Instead of saying, “what do you want me to say on your behalf?” we should consistently listen to audiences, let them try products and listen to their feedback. Then translate their questions, disappointments, or ambivalence into intelligence we present to the client. We should refuse to call a sow’s ear a silk purse, even though in times past, when the consumers had little ability to impact the airwaves, we could do so with impunity. Or as Jen Houston wrote in a recent blog article, we should not put a dress on a pig. “We cannot just dress up the same old information, news, videos, and ideas and peddle it to audiences — they aren’t buying it. We owe them a new engagement paradigm — and a more authentic voice.” [Full disclosure: I hope one day to practice my trade with a team of people who hold those values.]

I would add that the value propositions have changed, and if I can continue Jen’s pork metaphor, what people want now is more bacon and less sizzle.

Content is King

Content is King

I chose to take this photo in front of some Queen Anne’s lace… [correction: Yarrow] inspired by 7th episode of HBO’s series on John Adams. He said,

I have seen a queen of France with eighteen million levers of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub. [pointing to a Yarrow flower]

That’s where our audiences are heading. And not just the senior citizens. In fact, I would say from my work with college students that the Millennial generation more than their seniors want the real McCoy. They have an ear for authenticity and they use it to discriminate against hubris, hyperbole, exaggeration. It’s as though the whole culture is collectively maturing, wanting to hear straight talk, and sick of facing curve balls, spit balls, and sliders from “advertising practitioners” or “PR people”.

Suits me fine. I’ve been an early adopter several times in my life and I feel really good about seeing the communications business endure a shakeout that practically forces us to do the right thing. Let’s covenant to resign any client that doesn’t want us to tell the whole truth, and become a servant of excellence and evolution in product design and service offerings. And are we ready to do the heavy lifting of challenging the consumption goals, planned obsolescence, and  environmentally unsound packaging approaches of our clients? How about the poisons on the grass? The time-wasting, mind-numbing impact of certain programming or games? Are we willing to say (as I once had the opportunity of saying, but bit my lip), “With all due respect, the world does not need pizza in a tube”.

One of the benefits of the downturn is a seriousness, a concern about getting things right. This was what I saw in John Adams — refusing to applaud the historical inaccuracy of the painter of that grand fictional stylization of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that hangs in the Capitol rotunda. If we want to preserve our freedom, we need to have that kind of feisty regard for the facts. And if we don’t, even in our lowly work of pounding out words, pictures, and videos, we’ll find John Adams repenting at the pains he took to make freedom of speech so easy for us to misuse.