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?

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!

Marketing to women begins after the sale

I wish I had said that. I found it in a great blog I just discovered by Holly Buchanan.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After reflecting on the Super Bowl ads this year, I was struck with how dumb so many of them were. One of the dumbest, by the way, was the Inferno video game ad… featuring a breathtakingly beautiful woman who seduces a would-be rescuer, who then swirls to the depths of the inferno to defend her. Guy bait. The original final tag, which probably got voted out by a couple of sensible women on the committee, was “Go to Hell.”

In my own comments on the Dodge Charger ad , I mentioned how insulting that whole spot was to women… and really to men as well. What, I’m supposed to feel henpecked because I eat healthy, shave, listen to my wife, or carry her lip balm (not that she’s ever asked me to). Give me a break. What I learned from living with 5 women (one wife and 4 intelligent, sensitive daughters) is that women want shared understanding. They like to express themselves, and they aren’t satisfied unless they feel heard. Here’s an example of the daily tutelage I gained:

or, native male stupidity on the female need for understanding

This is an iPhoto snapshot of a photo I keep framed  in my office. We were having our picture taken, and some direction I had offered to Lydia, my youngest had struck her as a tad insulting. Something like that. So Shelley, her bigger sister, is giving “that look” … “How could you be so insensitive, dad?” Meanwhile Emily, Becky, and Beth are saying to themselves, “He really IS from Mars, isn’t he?”

So back to Holly and her article on marketing to women. She points out that “women have a more deliberate decision-making process.” Boys are simple. Sex and cars. (please don’t flame me for exaggerating) 🙂  Women often want to know what we’re doing to make the world better. (please don’t flame me for stereotyping!) 🙂 But seriously, as Holly Buchanan points out, women are more risk averse, more cautious, I would say more practical and more empathetic. They are better at thinking through how this thing we’re considering would work for them, for their children, and yes, for the man of the house too. They’ll also consider its impact for good or ill on the neighbors. Women are wired for empathy, and men need a lifelong relationship with a woman or two to even start thinking that way.

While I could get in trouble for making impulsiveness a gender issue, my experience makes me think that it is. My gut says that men tend to go with either the high or low bidder out of ego-driven impulses. It follows the economic wiring of the guy: is he the type who is proud of how much he paid, or proud of how little he paid? Either way, it’s an ego thing. I’m sure some women have similar tendencies… but their reasons tend to be more complicated than simply the prestige of price or the satisfaction of savings. They want to know how it will wear, how versatile it is, whether there’s a place for it in the garage.

Shopping for me has always been something I prefer to do alone, rather than run the gauntlet of my wife and kids’ questioning of every buy. They are all terrific shoppers … value conscious, frugal, and with tremendous delayed-gratification instincts. They can thank me for that, of course… I’ve never provided enough for them to get to splurge. I’m the one who is much more likely to drown his sorrows in a shopping spree. Always had pretty much the camera I wanted or the computer I “needed”. And I suspect that I’m not the only guy in the forest who acts that way.

Another distinction I think Holly correctly makes is that women tend to value transparency more than men. She says, “One of the most important things that defines your brand in the eyes of women is how you handle mistakes and address concerns/objections.” An example from my business experience: when my first business failed after 9 years, the guy who was running it had not admitted any fault … and he wanted me to sign a non-compete before he would agree to buy the video assets at a discount.

It was weird, really. I hired him for fiscal management; he runs it into the ground without telling me. Yet he doesn’t trust me when I offer to let him buy the assets in a fire sale. Bottom line, I still trusted him; my wife and (female) bookkeeper did not. They saw that his lack of transparency was evidence of lack of trustworthiness on his part.

In hindsight I was suffering from a common male problem: I couldn’t admit that my judgment had been bad all along. By agreeing to his “deal”, and disregarding my wife’s correct intuition, I put our family through the greatest trial of all our lives … because sure enough, he defaulted on the purchase and other promises, and I was left with all the debt that had been run up under his management. It took me 7 long years to emerge solvent again.

But I did gain one thing: I learned to trust feminine intuition … the fair sex’s demand for transparency in all business dealings, and their nose for who to trust and who to walk away from.

And then there’s the issue of loyalty. As Holly points out, women are much more tuned to the faithfulness of a brand. The character behind the claims. I can’t improve on what she says:

Loyalty is a two-way street for women.    The best way for you to show your loyalty to her is in your behavior AFTER the sale.

I love my dentist for many reasons, but one of the main ones is that he genuinely cares.   I had some oral surgery – and that night he called me at 9 pm to see how I was doing.  Not an assistant -him – the owner of  the practice.   He was clearly at home, but wanted to check in on me.  We will be together until I”m in dentures.

My cleaning service calls once a month to ask specific questions about the performance of their employees and my satisfaction with the service.

My favorite clothing store regularly invites me to special nights open to loyal customers only where I get to enjoy a special reception, see the brand new styles and get a valued customer discount not available to the regular public.  Once, when I was in there, the clerk told me to hold off buying the blouse I wanted until the next day because it was going to go on sale for half-price.  How cool was that!

Degrees of empathy, impulsiveness, loyalty, feature-shopping rigor, desire for transparency. These are the major fault-lines where distinctions can be observed between men and women in the marketplace.

Best of the Pre-released Super Bowl spots – 2

This Cars.com spot has a series of stunning precocious victories in the life of Timothy Richmond… and then links it to the fear we all have when trying to find and buy a car. Well produced, nice humor combined with pathos, holds attention until the branding statement … and then leaves a strong connection between the brand and the idea behind the spot. Like the Hyundai paint spot, it works great IMHO.

Best of the Pre-released Super Bowl spots – 1

I love this Hyundai Sonata ad… strong visuals and music that create a question that holds our attention until the payoff punch. And very well written, with a strong branding statement about quality.

Bad videos lack authenticity, relevance

This one just came across one of my linked-in groups… a really bad video done by a firm in London to promote something called “City Gateway”. I frankly don’t have any idea what they do or why it’s significant, but they obviously spent some money and wrote a script and thought they would get the word out through the video medium.

Directorially, it makes a number of mistakes which make it almost unwatchable.

First, there’s an arrow fetish which assumes the viewer is feeling informed or enlightened by the animated arrows. What are they? What do they mean?

Second there’s a bunch of “testimonials” that are obviously scripted… you can even see the double takes in people’s eyes that reveal they’re getting told what to say and when to say it. The words come out but the face says, “I’m just saying what they told me to say.” There is absolutely zero credibility in any of those statements, and no context for understanding them. In fact, most of them are unintelligible because the music is mixed way too loud and the words are not enunciated by the speakers.

Third, it feels like some sort of committee decided on the shoot list and the “interviewee” list. There is no story at all, no personality… just “OK, we got the Indian woman, check. We got the young guy, check.”

There can be no authenticity without personality… surprise … free expression of whatever folks believe and experience.

And even if there is authenticity, it’s useless unless the piece also rings the “so-what” bell — relevance — in the heart of the viewer. You can’t get me to care by playing a catchy piece of music or including words by people from my demographic group. It has to touch me as a listener with something that makes me empathize with the storytellers.

Good production values do not guarantee good videos. Stories that are authentic, and relevant to the viewer, are the only worthwhile test of good video communication. Everything else is fail video — and not the funny kind.

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.