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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

That "New" Thing Called Social Media

Social media.  A new way of communicating, it’s heralded.  Changing the way the world works.  Different.  Interactive.  Earthshaking.  Gotta have it.  Gotta do it. 

This is a new medium and nothing ever like it before.  Wow.  I have a single word:  NOT!

Social media have been available since the beginning of civilization.  Cave drawings in France?  Don’t try to tell me that’s not a social medium.  If 100 people lived in the cave and Jacques did half the drawings and Vincent the other, they were socializing and passing their thoughts along visually.  Best thing was nobody had to log on and enter a password to see them.  They just walked past.

Hey, I wonder if the LWxPJ I carved in a tree on Hewitt Avenue is still there.  Definitely using social media.  And I’m pretty sure it could be called interactive because as I recall, ole PJ saw it and had her brother scratch it out.

No…the social media rage isn’t new.  Just the medium is.  And the medium makes for broader dissemination and allows more interaction.  But the emotions remain the same.  I’m sure if you posted something on the board in the post office (hey…any connection there?) back in 1490 that said, “Isabella is a witch for not giving me the money to sail,” you’d get a broad range of responses from sympathy to, well maybe one of the queen’s guards asking if anyone knows where that guy Chris lives.

So the emotions, the feelings have always been there so what else?  Brevity?  No.  Remember the tree?  Or check out a bathroom wall.  The longest I’ve seen is the 5 lines of a limerick.  How ‘bout anonymity.  Don’t think so – or police wouldn’t spend time trying to track down taggers.

It’s gotta be the immediacy and the breadth of the distribution.   My guess is that maybe 50 people knew that LW was sweet on PJ based on the number of people that walked down Hewitt Avenue and might have actually noticed.  And it probably took weeks for them all to see it – if they even did, based on PJ’s rush to eradicate the posting.

Post it on the web and it’s out there NOW.  Pretty much everywhere.  Well, isn’t that special.  The sarcasm is because I think that posters think that their words are the be all and end all…that the world hangs on them.  They love the fact that the whole world can see their thoughts instantly.  And somehow, that translates to a feeling of power.  Of influence.

Well, as I write this, I know doggoned well that these words’ll be out there all right.  But power?  I don’t think so.  Influence? Doubtful. 

And why’s that?  Well, one set of initials carved on one tree might get some attention.  Carve 100 sets of initials on every tree on the block and what you get is, “Who cares?”  And that’s where we are with social media.  

Let me suggest that if you think your friends reeeeeally care that you just sat down with a bowl of ice cream and you’re tired, you’re wrong – unless you’re sharing the ice cream with Will-i-am or Angelina.

The “Marry Me” sign behind towed an airplane gets attention.  Put one hundred of ‘em in the air (air traffic control be damned) and the meaning drops to nada.  

So we’re all screaming as loud as possible, all vying for attention.  And, given that we each have X hours a day for social activity, that means the more folks who enter the fray, the less time we have to spend with any one of them.

Let’s just take a different tack altogether.  If you’ve read Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, you may recognize some similarities between his conclusions and the use of digital social media to broaden one’s trust of others.  Yes, I can make that connection.  If I have 1000 Facebook friends (I don’t.  I once had someone offer to “friend” me because of the small number I did have), after a period of sharing info, posts and the digital equivalent of chatter, I begin to trust them and they begin to trust me.  AND, I can weed out the ones that don’t live up to my expectations/needs or violate my trust.

Aha!  Now we arrive at a reasonable explanation for the success of digital social media – building one’s circle of trust.  That makes sense, certainly more sense than using the medium to outshout others on the topic de jour.  An expansion of trust.  An extension of the herd.  McLuhan would be proud.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

George Eastman - Where Are You When We Need You

George Eastman
There are eras and then there are eras.  One of the latter has come to an end as, apparently, the Great Yellow Father’s suicide note prophesized…”My work is done, why wait?”

George Eastman’s short note speaks volumes about Eastman Kodak and its role in imaging today.

Here was a company continually on the cutting edge.  Partly through shrewd vision on the part of its founder and his successors and partly from being pushed by industry demands, Kodak was the crusader for higher quality images.

Under George Eastman and folks like C. Kenneth Mees, films became faster and sharper on a regular basis, almost according to Andy Grove’s law.  Anyone remember the fanfare behind Double-X and 4-X?  (No, that doesn’t refer to adult films that may or not have been made on it).  Tri-X?  Plus-X?  Panatomic-X?  Kodachrome (the last roll of which was recently shot by Steve McCurry.  And, by the way, that wasn’t Kodachrome 10.)  Mr. and Mrs. Ektachrome and all their kids?  Kodacolor and Ektacolor? The C22 and C41 processes that made that made those films possible and put processing everywhere and anywhere, including the basement darkroom.  

And the about when 5247 and 7247 were introduced? They revolutionized low light motion pictures. Add in 7250 400T for TV newsgathering.  It turned coverage on its head while getting rid of the talking head anchors.  Or the whole CRI (color reversal intermediate) concept that 5249 brought, eliminating one, two, or even three generations between camera negative and release print?

Eastman Kodak brought it all.  And cameras, too.  From the Brownie to Hawkeye on through the Retina series and the Ektra – which made Leitz’ Leica look like a toy in comparison, Kodak led the way.

Unfortunately, the world has changed.  I’m talking about the business world.  Entrepreneurs – the visionaries – get to run a company just long enough for the VC’s to pull the plug on them if they veer off the business plan they funded.  George Eastman probably wouldn’t have made it if he started today.  However, if he were alive  today and still running the company, I’d bet you a bag full of 828 Verichrome Pan it’d be a different operation.
  • Eastman probably would have embraced Edwin H. Land and his instant photography process.  Land once said, “It's not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.”  That’s right up Eastman’s alley.  As important, Land also said, “The most important thing about power is to make sure you don't have to use it.”  Maybe the Kodak of recent times should have noted that.  Interesting to note that Kodak did do business with Land and Polaroid, well before Land’s invention of the Polaroid Land camera…but they didn’t embrace the instant photography concept.  At least not until…
  • They violated 10 or more major Polaroid patents when they finally did get into the business.  George Eastman would have known his patents inside out and would not have gotten hammered by the Polaroid suit which cost Kodak hundreds of millions of dollars and shut them out of instant photography after they spent other hundreds of millions getting in
  • Xerography was known about in the 30’s but the chest-thumpers in Rochester didn’t embrace that, either, choosing to pursue the Verifax photo method of copying instead.  Sad when people tell you there’s another solution out there – that a selenium drum and some carbon can replace silver in imaging – especially when you just bought a bunch of silver mines.
  • He would have teamed up with others, as he did with Edison to pursue digital imaging and would have been a leader instead of foundering in right field trying to play catch-up ball.
Kinda hard to do when you have to make the “Q” every three months and stockholders big and small are waving their certificates clamoring for more.  Just as hard when you’re so full of yourself, so arrogant, that you think you’re untouchable.

Remember that little company called Fuji?  Kodak brushed them off until Fuji made significant inroads into both still and professional motion picture photography.  Ilford and Agfa?  Same thing.  Even Ciba and Ansco, known more for their commercial dyes, made inroads though it’s probable that Kodak’s thinking was that keeping them around would keep the anti-trust wolves away.

But Kodak1 really stepped in it with digital.  You have to ask, was it arrogance?  Did they think that brute force would keep the silver-based imaging world alive?  Relying on Chinon rather than its own development people, Kodak got caught flat-footed as Canon and Nikon sensor development compounded quality.  Over and over Kodak's “new models” were Canon and Nikon's “last year’s.  Consumers – discriminate and non – well, got the picture.  (Pun intended).

On the professional side, Nikon and Canon already had the market saturated with lenses and accessories for its film SLR’s.  It made digital bodies easier to sell.  After all, if you have 4 lenses, an array of filters, bellows or closeup lenses, integrated flash systems and the like, the upgrade to digital was a heckuva lot less than starting from scratch with a camera whose mount wouldn’t accept your current lenses.

Once they stepped in it there wasn’t a road to recovery.  So their reward was the bankruptcy they entered this past week, even though they tried to sell off 1100 (count ‘em!) patents in the digital world.  Sure.  They held a bunch of them.  But they held them too long and the value just wasn’t there. 

And what are they looking at now?  High end ink jet printers.  It’s catch up ball, once again.  I hope they’re successful.  I really do.  A lot folks are in it and Epson’s really good at it.  As for you and me, it’s unlikely we’ll be buying anything with the Kodak logo unless it’s the backprinting on a huge inkjet print we order from someone else.  Maybe Eastman's work really is [finally] done.

1 It’s nobody’s name.  It’s the sound George Eastman thought the first shutter made.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Production Values

I’ve been giving presentations to various clients, organizations and civic groups for a number of years.  When I talk about content, my stunner – the one I hope is the takeaway for attendees is – “Nobody cares what kind of car brings their pizza.  They care about the taste of the pizza.”

And the translation?  Pretty simple.  Content is still king.  Delivery method doesn’t matter.  It’s that simple.  But, just for a second, I want to take it one step further.  I want to tie content to emotion.  I’m kidding, right? 

I can’t imagine why you’d think that.  Content usually begets emotion.  You see a news report about a theft or kidnapping and it evokes emotions.  Will kisses Alicia in the office and you have feelings about it.  Chris Rock lays a one-liner out there and everyone watching laughs.  Content brings emotion.  Uh, it’s not a McLuhanism.  It just is a fact.

Please!  Take one step backward and ask, as a producer/director/writer, what’s the goal?  To tell a story and trigger the desired emotional response(s)?  It’s true of fiction.  True in a lot of other places, too.  Not sports?  You bet, it is.  The excitement of a runback or two base hit into the vines; inbounding for a three-pointer with seconds left on the clock – all immediately generate feelings in the listener or viewer. 

In fact, sometimes it’s all about emotion.  I recall one sportscaster who couldn’t see Stuart Appleby on the screen without dredging up the tragedy that he experienced in his wife’s death.  That went on for years.

However, what a lot of folks don’t realize is that it takes a lot of elements working together to bring about the intended feelings…and a number of things get in the way.  Top of the list?   Production values.

Aw, Len, you’ve got to be kidding.  Just objectively tell the story and let the feelings generate themselves.  Oh yeah.  Right.  Just like pro sports expansions, the proliferation of video tools to just about everyone has diluted the production gene pool.

Now who’s kidding whom?  Telling the story is an art and the sum total of the aural and visual content generates the feeling.  Remember Mom or Dad telling a Halloween story…and their eyes got bigger, their voice became more urgent as the monster got closer? 

Well, by and large, production values have been forsaken.  Or have they just never been learned.  When the cost of entry to the production world was high and therefore limited the number of producers, directors, editors, scorers and the rest, there was commitment to telling the story.   The limited number of stories, then, meant a higher number of viewers/users of any single show/film/event.  Don’t agree?  Just look at the difference in the definition of a network “hit” in 1992 and twenty years later.  A six rating wouldn’t have lasted to the second commercial break in ’92.

The point here is that is that the fewer number of programs and greater number of viewers for each generated – or paid back – more production dollars.  That, in turn allowed for better production values.  NOT!  The values are still around.  They may be built into the switcher or step printer or the faders of an audio board.  The problem is the paucity of people who know coax those values out of the gear.  And that IS caused by the low cost of entry.

Anyone with a few, and I mean really few bucks can get a video camera of sorts and become a producer.  With and, you’re even a distributor.  But, by and large, you’re really not a producer.   You’re a, uh, let’s call you an “objective content generator.”  Your camera looks at a scene or person and you press a button to capture it.  The scene tells the story as best it can, with no help from you.   But you’re not creating or encouraging any emotions.  You’re letting the field-of-view do that.  And you’re doing nothing to help out.

Look.  If you’re a news stringer, pay no attention to what I just said.  We need more reporters who let the camera tell the story and don’t try to shoehorn in a political, religious or other emotional point of view.  Tell the damn story with facts.  Of course, even that can be tampered with.  In the distant past of grad school, a partner and I took footage of a major riot and cut it two ways…one pro-police and one pro-demonstrator.  Both were totally plausible and would have easily been broadcast as actualities.  Both were lies. 

And it’s troubling when I read quotes like SVP at Associated Press Daisy Veerasingham saying, “We are getting onto story-telling.  Just turning the camera doesn’t work in the 21st century.  Our subscribers and their viewers want informed narrative--and we will provide it.” What’s an informed narrative?  Does that mean a slant, angle, or coloration?  That’s for another blog.

Back to production values…I’ve seen a gang of content in the last couple of years.  A lot of it, decent.   Some really good.  The greatest percentage was just plain poor.

How so?  Well, start with framing and camera moves.  Let me be brief:

• What’s the center of interest?  Make it the center of interest!
• Effects for effects’ sake?  Why?  Don’t you have a story to tell?
• Lighting has, by and large, become available light.  Throw in the occasional LED on-camera lamp (don’t use the balancing filter indoors…it’s way too much fun watching someone’s face turn from red to blue as they move from the camera luminaire into the coverage of a house lamp) and you’re done.
• Enuf with the verite`.  Handheld to be cool really isn’t.  If it’s important to the situation, great but usually it’s not.
• Transitions?  At least make them fit what you’re trying to do.  Psychologically, a dissolve really does translate to a passage of time.  Argue that it’s conditioning if you’d like, but it works.


Center of interest?  I frame everything just the way I want it.  Center of interest doesn’t just mean framing.  It’s contextual.  From a framing standpoint, of course center of interest means to include what you want the audience to see in order to tell the visual story you want to tell.  There’s more to center of interest.  New Year’s Eve.  The center of interest?  C’mon.  It ain’t tough.  What’s the center of interest? 

How ‘bout the countdown to the new year.  Yet at least one production – a BIG one – dumped the countdown most of the time, choosing instead to show full screen promotions for their owned properties…vacation spots, television shows…plush animals…you name it.  Between those and commercials, the countdown was on screen for less than seven minutes from 11:30 to Midnight.  (Yeah – I put a clock on it.  Don’t DVR’s really honk you off?)  Oops.  They missed the point of why they were there.

But I don’t have time for transitions.  NFL playoff game.  Fast cutting to keep up with the plays, the players, action on the sidelines.  Suddenly, after a touchdown, there’s a closeup on the football resting on the tee.  In a fast but absolutely beautiful move, there’s a defocus and dissolve to an MCU of the placekicker.  It was perfect.  Told a great story.  More importantly, I didn’t even realize it.  I was another 30 seconds into the game before I told myself that I needed to go back and look at it.  A production element that added to the excitement and tension of the game, didn’t get in the way of it, and was executed under about as much production pressure as you’ll find.

Audio: I’ve long given up on a seamless network rejoin or backtimed audio up to the hour.  Same with commercial breaks.  Up- and down-cutting is now de rigueur and, I suppose advertisers understand. Maybe they just build it into the buy.  They must because they’re allowing it to happen.  Silly me – I think about the emotional carryover (wait…now he’s REALLY BSing me) of a down-cut.  Does anyone think less of the Vegematic® because the spot was down cut?  Maybe not.  Does anyone think less of an expensive washer or dryer or automobile?  Underneath it all, maybe!  Hello, Kenmore…are you listening?  And, apparently they accept loss of lip sync, too, though if they did any research on how loss of sync affects credibility, they’d be crowing to every network ops manager in the business.

And when was the last time the VU meter hit zero?  I mean the “zero” on the left, not 0dBm.  I watched a radio program guy fool with his automation system for over an hour trying to butt up his network news join with the local ID.  He finally succeeded in smashing them together, no breaths, no nothing.  A different PD gave me an explanation – they use so much heavy compression that if there’s any dead air (to him a few milliseconds was dead air) the recovery would bring the noise level up to unacceptable levels.  Anyone else see the problem here?

Remember as you employ any of these that the production values you approve may get in the way of what you’re trying to say.  That hurts advertisers.  It may drive listeners or viewers away.  That hurts YOU.  And, more importantly, at least give passing thought to production values at all levels.  Even with that little handicam, it’s possible to reposition, reframe or reblock and tell a better (meaning one that’s more like the one you want to tell) story.  Move a light or turn one on…or off!  It might just get your point across in a stronger way and to more of your viewers.  Isn’t that what you’re after?