Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Most Intimate Medium

It is three o'clock in the morning. I'm laying awake, calculating the hours left before I might reasonably rise, and the options I have to get myself back to sleep. After laying there a few minutes, the detritus of the day running through my increasingly wakeful head, I reach for my iPod and dial up one of those wonderful Radiolab episodes I've been catching lately.

Within a few moments, I've got Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich talking, the stereo earbuds creating the illusion of sound emerging from the inside of my head. This episode happens to be about the deep neurology of moral choice; about the nature of morality itself, or at least the moral feelings we experience and where they might come from. It's a particularly thoughtful program, produced in a layered, conversational style with occasional sound effects to underscore the material.

Laying there, it occurs to me, this is perhaps the deepest penetration of something externally created one can experience...

Monday, September 04, 2006

Sawatsky on the interview

How should we interview? As a corporate producer, I've always been a soft-baller, learning to gently tease content out of my subjects, usually for the sake of promoting the company line. Unlike investigative journalists who need to perennially critical of their subject's responses, we corporate communicators don't get paid to look under the rug for scandal, or prompting our interview subjects into making iconoclastic revelations. The premise for quizzing our bosses, employees, customers, or consultants on camera, is an ostensibly friendly one (even though it could be considered an exploitive one as well).We're just happy with coherent statements. If we can get a genuine emotion, or a story, neatly told, we are elated.

But maybe we can learn a thing or two from our meat-eating cousins in the broadcast media. Canadian investigative reporter John Sawatsky thinks most journalists have got interviewing all wrong. It's not about the question, he claims, but the answer. In an age when politicos and corporate flacks get coaching on how to duck unwanted questions, side step negatives and spin their way along a desired "message track", Sawatsky has taken us back to the basics. We got away from that, he says, when interviewers became stars and tried to be part of the story themselves. He likes to harpoon show-off interviewers who try long-winded, stunt questions only to get a "yes" or "no" answer from the subject. Instead, he says, dump the "dialogue" and get back to interrogation.

Sawatsky's technique is akin to non-directive counseling. The point is to get to what the subject knows and feels, not to have a conversation in the tradional sense. Disciplined questions make for better and more illuminating answers, even when the relationship between the subject and interviewer is potentially hostile. The less interpretive and additive the questioning, the less opportunity you give to the respondent to spin. Sawatsky's gotten some street cred for his efforts. He's been hired by ESPN to train their reporters to work less at being "stars" themselves and harder at getting the story.

No problem there, we very humble corporate communicators are already all about answers, right? Don't we typically edit the final program entirely from subjects answers anyway, with our stuff winding up on the "cutting room floor"? What can we learn from this guy?

For one, I think we can learn to be more spirited in our questioning, and more genuinely curious. In the corporate world, we are conditioned not to ask too much; we learn not to dig for motive, seek clarification, or pull out subtleties in people's thinking. We tend to take statements at face value. Anything but conflict, hunh? Being a tad more investigative need not be a bad thing. Perhaps we can do that without being unfriendly, or even un-conversational.

Perhaps too, corporate communicators can be more than merely the trigger for prepared "comments". Maybe we can start getting our subjects to think and feel more spontaneously about the subject matter. The fact is that most people don't know what they are going to say about anything until they are asked. That's why the method of conversation can sometimes yield unexpected treasures of feeling and even a fresh insight, even if it is about the company's extended leave policy or the performance envelope of that new plane we are selling to the Chinese. So ask, and ask better.

Here's a quick Sawatsky primer on how to ask better questions:
  • Know your stuff. Prepare questions in advance. This does not mean knowing what the subject will say, it means stoking your curiosity.

  • Ask open-ended questions. Frame them to get facts and content back. Sawatsky urges us to be "inputters", saying as little as possible to get the subject to say as much as possible.

  • Don't stack up questions into two or three-parters. This is where preparedness helps. Ask one item at a time.

  • Don't grandstand your opinions or try to impress the subject with YOUR expertise. It's about her(him).

  • Keep the questions neutral in tone. Don't presume what your subject might say or how she might feel. The "friendly" interviewer can communicate warmth and curiousity
    without anticipating with or agreeing with everyhting the subject says. respectful interest is enough. Don't patronize the subject by "rewarding" good answers.

  • Transcribe your next interview and look it over. What's the ratio of your talk to the subjects? The steeper the ratio in the subject's favor the better.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Shallow DOF

Lately I've noticed a lot of commercial and even journalistic photography using extremely shallow depth-of-field, in many cases, intentionally placing large areas of subject matter outside of crirical focus. It is a powerful technique for separating the figure and ground, thus controlling the attention of the audience. It reminds us that depth of field (DoF) has had a bumpy history.

To begin with, WE have shallow depth-of field imagers, called EYES. Our foveal (sharp image) area is only within about 4 degrees of the center of the visual field. It's up to our brains, and the rapidly-scanning saccadic movements of the eyes to put together the visual experience of a virtually unlimited DoF. In this regard, you might say our "stills" are shallow, but our "movies" are deep.

Of course, room-sized camera obscura, the grandaddies of all photography, rendered extremely deep-focus images, because image field was so huge compared to aperture. The problem with the camera obscura was that it had no way to capture the image (...this reminds us too that the camera obscura (hidden room) was a movie).

Once we learned how to capture a slice of visual time and feeze it chemically, we inherited shallow DoF again along with the technology. Before film, images were captured on large format plates. These early emulsions were relatively slow, so camera designs required either unbearably long exposure times or huge aperatures and huge lenses that could gather a lot of light fast. Perhaps the the most famous Daguerrotype of all showed about 1/4 inch of Abe Lincoln's nose in tight focus, with his ears way out there in blurryville. As film arrived in large medium formats, lens and emulsion technology made deeper DoF possible, when we wanted it.

The irony is that the "arty" look once imposed by the limitations of technology is hard to come by with today's super-deep focus digital cameras. These too, carry limitations imposed by the technology: the small size of the imaging area relative to aperture. Now folk seem to be adding the "old" look in post, with Photoshop.

One cute new DoF device for the digital still camera is the lensbabies device . It's been compared to the super-cheap Holga medium format camera, known for unpredictable accidents in camera, only without the "accident" part.

On the motion side, we are still a long way from the shallow DoF or "35 mm" look, mainly because of the imaging area available on a 1/3 inch chip. Even the top-end cameras like the Cine Alta and the Viper have only 2/3" imaging areas. HD movies, such as Collateral (2004) made the most of the deep focus and high light sensitivity capabilities of the digital camera.

But artists will still prefer the film-like, "soft" image aesthetic for many projects. We are already seeing a lot of DoF play in post-work, in movies as well as stills alluded to above. The upcoming Red camera's mysterium chip will boast an imaging field larger than that of a 35 mm film camera, so we may see the blurry background look arrive in digital movies at last.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Compleat DV Single-Hander

Travels with me in a Pelican case:
Panasonic DVX 100A Camcorder
Sennheiser Wireless Audio Kit (base and remote body mic)
Batteries, charger and AC adapter
Digital Still Camera, two lenses
Remote control
Hard-wired lavalier for quick interviews

Fed-Ex or Xtra Baggage:
Sticks with fluid head
Soft key light (Lowell)
Stand for light
Extra lamps, AA batteries
Extension cord
Blank tape stock
External LCD monitor
Second soft key or baby
Second light stand
Flex fill

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Singlehanding It

I decided I would finally do it: after 20 or so years of running field interviews as a director/writer/producer, I would go out on a shoot, a serious assignment, shooting the video entirely on my own.

This may not seem like a big deal to soldiers in the army of free-lance producers out there who never do it any other way. But for one from a corporate culture and grounded in the notion of specialization, going it alone is counter-intuitive.

I did so with some trepidation. Even though I've shot enough of my own, home video with the same gear (Panasonic DVX100), taking the plunge on a REAL job meant over-riding a little voice in my head that said, "Better watch it, you'll screw up. You'll forget to roll, or you'll get flustered and record over an entire tape, or you'll get so caught up in the technicalities that you'll be flat for the interview.", and so on.

Customarily, I go out alone and meet up with a local crew we book through an agency. They are carefully vetted; competent and well-equipped. Since we started using services like Crews Control over a decade ago, I have seldom come back with anything but usable video under my arm. There is a downside to this very convenient kind of production however—the constantly shifting camera/audio specs along with subtle differences in style, framing, and lighting to be found among video professionals. More subtle is the cost of one’s having to direct and monitor a perennially “new” crew to make sure you sure getting something approaching what you want. This distracts you from your focus on the talent and the content, which should be the center focus for you.

So for a while, I’ve wanted to just do it myself, and this seemed to be the time to give it a try. I faced a two-city, three-day tour to collect a series of sit-down interviews for a number of new video projects. All were "low risk" situations, where, if I got less than stellar material, no deadlines would be missed, and no client would be there to watch me crash and burn. Easy-to-shoot DV would be an acceptable medium for these projects, and we already owned the necessary gear.

The big plus was saving over three thousand dollars of crew fees and rentals. But a deeper reason was my own need for freedom. After years of working with video that was all over the map in terms of lighting, composition and recording parameters, I wanted to start imposing a more consistent style on the work. Shooting solo, I reasoned I'd be directly engaged in seeing and making the content, not having to direct a stranger. It was the auteur in me, wanting to get out, I guess. My own production manger discouraged me, diplomatically, pointing out the extra burden on me, avoiding saying something like: “you are not a pro shooter and you should stick to your knitting”, yet meaning just that.

This is moving against the grain, but I’ve long since lost any remaining desire to be surrounded by underlings. In many situations in our industry it is necessary to collaborate and delegate, of course. But for many processes, especially artistic ones, I’d begun to feel that people can get in the way. I was ready, after years of depending on others, to wander off and go it alone.

The question was, of course, could I deliver the goods? After many years of still photography experience, and watching countless video operators set up and shoot, I figured knew what to look for in terms of proper exposure, white-balance, and composition. I knew how to light for a portrait with a strong key and a fill source. I knew how to place a lavalier mic and set audio levels.

Actually, I had been assembling a solo capability for a while. Over the past two years, I had acquired a great little pro-sumer camera, the Panasonic DVX 100, and had picked up a Sennheiser wireless mic system designed just for it. In pro shooters’ hands, we’d already gotten usable video with this unit. With its large, flip-out viewfinder and an array of auto functions and presets, the DVX 100 goes a long way to de-mystify the process of getting “professional” video. With the technical issues thus minimized and pushed to the background, it seemed to me I could reasonably expect myself to light and set a shot, roll the camera, and be free from that point forward to concentrate almost entirely on content.

So off I have gone on my first solo. Notwithstanding a few lapses on the basics, like entirely forgetting to hit “record’ for one extended (and wonderful) take on my second major interview, and a few near-misses on starting up the remote mic, I can honestly report the results have been good.

Most gratifying has been the release from that awkward process of managing a third party to “see” the shot for me. Even in performing something as simple as a seated interview, I did not realize until now how much energy goes into directing others—especially a pick-up crew. In the beginning, you have to give as much or more attention getting to know your operator and sound man as you do your subject. Just getting names right takes some effort at first. Common courtesy always seems to require a little bit of “who have you worked with?, or “what kind of camera is that?” kind of smalltalk with a fellow professional, even when time with a subject may be squeezed. During the interview, you still have to communicate with crew to compose, tweak, “roll” and “cut”, and so forth. While you may not be touching all the technics directly, you still have to manage a social setting apart from the interview itself.

Taking the management of the tools upon myself was going to use up some attention of course. I figured part of this could be addressed by building in some set-up time alone, with just the gear to unpack and lights to set, before the subject arrived. I did this on my first solo, and enjoyed the luxury of attending entirely to my tools for an hour beforehand, and methodically wrapping out only after the subject was gone. Over time, I can see how I might become so familiar with the gear and setup protocols that they become transparent, as they have for me with still camera.

I’ve found a kind of intimacy can be achieved by working alone with a subject. Being interviewed with a crew present may be reassuring to some subjects, but it’s also true that having others watching and (presumably) listening also creates an “audience” for both of us to play to. While I’ve experienced the boost that a crew/audience can give to performers playing scripted or ensemble performances, in the interview setting at least, I’ve found my self-awareness increased. The connection with the subject suffers to that extent. This new approach may help move us back to something closer to a one-on-one conversation with the subject.

Portrait painters typically work alone with their subjects in the intimacy of the studio, their paints and brushes having become an automatic extension of their faculty for seeing. Perhaps the ideal setting for the video interviewer is the same, with the electronics and optics having been subordinated during a private conversation, only later to become a public performance.

Going solo, at least for the interview, has worked. I now know I can save thousands of dollars, most of which will go to the bottom line, and some of which can be invested in an improved single-hand kit. But it has helped me discover something even bigger: the value of self-reliance. There may be slips and misses along the way from here, but I doubt that I will ever feel anything but compromised by having to shoot with a crew again. The way for me now seems clear: to fully master the technics and continue to build a style.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

e-Learning rules

Thanks in large part to our colleague Sara Jalali, here is what we had been using as a "bible" for our writers and developers for e-learning:

1. Text should be the standard delivery format. (People have to read the stuff.) A manuscript should always be accompanied by a breakdown of core concepts and processes to be learned.

2. Writing style should be friendly and suited to the small screen. Write sparely for scan-reading, but don't over use bullets. Training should be fun, engaging, not boring. Use "voice" and the vernacular wherever possible.

3. Visual media (Illustrations/diagrams/animations and action video clips) should be employed to support and enhance text. Visuals are crucial instructional aids and not just pretty pictures. Illustrations can provide examples and modeling of key behaviors. “Story” clips can convey key emotional content.

4. We should design backwards from the desired outcomes -- The goal of all training is to improve performance. Each course should have clear organizational goals stated as outcomes. Then learning objectives should be written in behavioral terms (such as "plan a den meeting using all seven steps," rather than "know the parts of a den meeting.") The objectives should be stated at the beginning of the course and/or the beginning of each section or module and reviewed at the end (Safe Swim). Everything in the course should be closely related to learning objectives, especially all interactions and test questions.

5. Adopt a "semi-linear" course structure to provide learner choices and personalize the experience. Offer a clear path that the user will follow if he/she just uses the "next" button to progress through the course. But also offer a menu the learner can use to step off the path to find information quickly for reference.

6. We should provide interactions -- Each course should include frequent, meaningful interactions that require at least a little thought. Interactions should not be fancy "next" buttons. Much of the learning that takes place in the course happens through interactions -- as in the old adage, people remember most what they do. But interactions should respect the intelligence of adult learners and should help them practice and apply crucial information. They should reflect real-world context and help learners approximate what they will need to do in their jobs. Interactions should use visual analogies and illustrations whenever possible rather than just text (see Visual Analogies and Illustrations below).

7. We should use Stories wherever possible. A storyline can run throughout the course to tie all the elements together, provides real-world context and modeling, while adding interest. A story brings the information out of the abstract world of principles and procedures and allows users to identify with characters in situations they can relate to.

- A variant of this idea is the use of scenarios one of our earlier courses starts out with a scenario of Scouts on a hike who jump into a river to swim and cool off. The user is asked to identify the most important principles that are being violated before those principles are presented. This allows the user to make a prediction, think about what he/she is going to learn, and creates a sense of suspense about the course material. At the end of the course, the same scenario can be revisited with a different outcome. A scenario at the beginning of a course is a good way to draw users in immediately.

-Another variant of this is the "Guiding Character -- Safe Swim uses a tongue-in-cheek guiding character called Qualified Supervisor. He guides the user through the course and fits with the light tone of the course. A guiding character also serves to pull the user into the course and adds interest.

8. Use Humor -- The Safe Swim course uses light humor throughout and a cartoon visual style, although the course is clearly aimed at adults. This combination allows for a fun course experience and helps with retention while respecting adult learners.

9. Use visual analogies -- Both VFS and Safe Swim use visual analogies, such as the kayak scene in VFS to illustrate Venturing Methods, and the desk scene with steps of organizing a Venturing crew. Safe Swim uses a sandwich metaphor for the safety principles. These visual analogies are used both to present information and then in exercises and games. Visual analogies help with retention and add interest to what can otherwise be dry lists of principles or policies.

10. Provide performance support tools -- If it is feasible and applicable, it's great to provide useful tools for users, such as the PCI survey tool and the program planning calendar in VFS. This not only helps users practice crucial skills within the course but gives them tools that they can take away and use to help them later in their jobs.

Following my exposure to Dave Allen in his very fine ASTD certification for E-learning, I think I have a better understanding of e-learning. Here's what I'm playing around with now:

E-learning is not about presentations, but about interactions.
These are media objects that are responsive, that change when acted upon and can be played with by the user open-endedly. An interaction is not an assertion, but a problem. It relates to a didactic concept called "active learning" or "problem-based learning" commonly used in more progressive elementary/secondary education. The defining characteristics of PBL are:
(a) learning is driven by open-ended problems,
(b) students work in small collaborative groups, and
(c) 'teachers' per se are not required, as the process places them backstage as 'facilitators' of learning. In e-learning, the role of the teacher is the design of the object.
Advocates of PBL claim it can be used to enhance content knowledge and foster the development of communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning skill. This is all cousin to constructivism which views learning as a process in which one actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge. Constructivist learning is a very personal endeavor, whereby internalized concepts, rules, and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world context.

Ultimately, learning is not a relpication of an idea, but a personal and novel effort to cope with the universe. According to Jerome Bruner and other constructivists, the teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems, usually in collaboration with others. This collaboration is also known as knowledge construction as a social process. Collaboration is what the more progressive schools (and all successful creative endeavors) do. In E-learning, however, at least as we define it today we are still stuck with the single-user computer interface paradigm which leaves the user alone with the learning object. As we develop haptic and gestural interfaces for the PC, we may see collaboration finally arrive on the scene for e-learning too.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Documentary Rules

Two basic rules come flooding back into my memory, both from my mentor on film-making, Tom Doades:

1. Know your footage!
He was right. Don't just set aside time for the shoot---but an equal amount of time after the shoot to review and take notes on the footage. If you shoot 3 days, take 3 days in post-production just to know what you have--only then will something begin to take shape organically.

2. Mess with it a lot before settling on a cutting plan (edit).
There are many tropes. Here's one very usable one:
Build a piece with Interrogative structure: Find the implicit question. Set it as a hook. Open with that big question based on an impressive fact, or incident; set up the rest with questions you'd want answered, then knock them down with actual answers, embodied in actualities.

A few more specific notes from this HDV project:

When shooting on a long form project, make sure to use sequential time code hours for every roll across locations and shooters. HDV has problems with this, or at least today's cameras do.

16 x 9 is a beautiful format, but it can't be crowded. When acquiring in HD but using in SD, closeups can be, um, scary. Too much!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Understanding Genres

We encounter genre throughout the arts. It pops up in everything from Elvis' velvet paintings, to the cross-dressing conceits Shakespeare used in his comedies, to the action-scene-every seven-minutes formula currently dominating Hollywood movies.

One wonders why.

A guess: Fundamentally, humans like patterns. For us, some level of predictability is good, even though we readily tire of exact repetition. Maybe pattern-finding worked, somewhere in the archaic struggle for survival. Our evolving brains glommed on to marginally efficient sorting routines for any environmental clues leading to safe food, likely sex, or just another day away of escape from being eaten .

Art, another survival strategy, probably balanced novelty with the familiar from the get-go. Evolutionary theorists say that art (singing, dancing, making interesting smears on the cave wall) was a sexual strategy, a means of differentiating oneself from the others. You got the girls (or the guys) by getting a little bit more attention. But pure novelty was never enough. There had to be, in any artistic gesture, enough that was familiar for the others in the clan to know what you were up to. "Ok, what Grogg is doing over there is a song, not just some random warbling", or "I get it, he's
showing us what that mammoth looked like, not just making muddy streaks on the wall".

So it was that our brains evolved with a taste for art. And so it is that were are all on a sliding scale of just how much novelty we can tolerate. The lovers of Elvis paintings or re-runs of Gilligan's Island are only marginally different from the avant-garde. We have to know "it's a painting", or "it's a comedy" before we can appreciate the stuff that's different in it.

Genre boils down to rules.

Rule-finding, and rule-bending then, become the deliberate pastimes of the producer.

The rule/pattern finding below is related to the "media map", but is more contemporary and focuses on current mass media tropes (for instance, medieval mystery plays are not included, but "Lost" is).

(see article)

Multipart Documenary (This American Life)
Set-Chat (The Tonight Show) var.: Sofa Chat(Good Morning Am)
Sketch comedy (SNL)
Newsroom/Anchor Desk/standup field report
Music Video
Drama (sub-genres: limbo studio, 3-wall, cinematic, on location)
Ernie Kovacs (unique)
2-Camera Sitcom(Honeymooners)
3-Camera Sitcom (All In The Family)
"Diary" driven drama
Self-contained drama
(ascendant genres)
Multi-Threaded Drama
1 on 1 interview (Charlie Rose)
Spectator Sport(sub generes/tropes: the stadium booth, the locker room intrerview, the sideline standup, play-by-play and color announcers, etc.)
Set Game
Staged sport (Gong Show, Fear Factor)
Reality (Real Life, Survivor)


Standalone audio
Radio Documentary (see film documentary)
Studio Chat (Stern)
Interview w/POV (Open Source)
Essay (ThisAmLfe)

Challenge to corporate producers: why not make use of more than just a few of these to package our messages and gain audience attention? ....the "Jeopardy" set game to teach employees about benefit options?....the "Tonight" show set to interview the big boss? This does not mean making a self-conscious knock-off of an existing show, nor should it mean trying to meet the creative finish or production values of a broadcast original. The tropes work for some deeper reason. Understanding the working device and applying it, is where we as the producers come in. Our job is to engage latent audience curiosity to make use of the talent and messages available. As we rake among the leaves of successful and unsuccessful mass media vehicles, we can find prototypes to adapt to our purposes.