Monday, June 25, 2007

Online Video Usage Increasing

The NY Times ran a tiny piece in the Sunday paper and online about a new comScore report showing that 71% of all internet users watch online video. As Scott Kirsner has pointed out, many of these are watching news, or short clips, but its interesting that so many people are watching anything at all - this wasn't the case not too long ago, and is sure to keep growing.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Film Essay and Visual Scholarship

Awhile back, I posted on a short film called the Fair(y) Use Tale by a professor named Eric Faden. A couple days ago, we met online when he emailed to tell me about some of his other projects. I took a look, expecting more of the same - something about copyright or policy. Surprise. Eric makes other great films that while definitely using fair use, aren't about it as a concept.

One of his new films, Tracking Theory, is pretty unique. To find it click here, and then follow through the prompts to the index where you'll find his film (there is no direct link). Tracking Theory is about the connections between trains, cinema and perception. It's also an attempt to make a film essay and to practice visual scholarship. What he calls a "media stylo." As Eric puts it:

I also liked the video essay's refiguring of artist and audience relationship. While the idea of "interactive" media has been much hyped in recent years, it seems to me the "essay" film has long existed as an interactive form. Unlike traditional Hollywood narrative and its more homogenous, disposable, and formulaic approach, the essay film intentionally invites the audience to probe, re-view, and question the film's content and style. For me, much of today's interactive media design requires interactivity of hands and mouse but not necessarily the brain. I wanted to use a familiar, perhaps even dated, media form (the movies) but in a different way (the essay). emphasis added (because its a great quote)

This is in-line with what Greg Ulmer calls electracy, which I have posted about here. Oddly enough, we talked, and we both studied with Ulmer - him more than I, which is probably why he made this film and I made this blog. Anyway, watch the film, its more interesting than it sounds here. It's also just interesting as a film - cool visuals and a somewhat hidden conceit that you can learn about if you click on the "background notes" section attached to the film.

What Eric is proposing with the film is that film studies, and actually any scholarship, can be integrated into a visual essay and be just as effective as the written word. It can be entertaining and theoretical, and it can push visual boundaries - all at the same time. He also succeeds at making an interactive essay film, one found online but not dependent on web 2.0 to get your brain working. He's doing more than just this, but that's a start.

By the way, the journal this film is in is called Vectors Journal of Culture and Technology. Its pretty theory heavy, but a good read for anyone interested in this stuff.

Kirsner on Online Distribution

Scott Kirsner is a smart guy, and he's doing a great job of letting people know about online distribution. I look at his blog pretty often, and he just featured a slideshow presentation he gave in San Francisco. The slideshow is great, but I was just as impressed with the tool he used to post it, as I could have used this for years. Anyway, here's his presentation:

Reframe and digital delivery

Just yesterday, we launched a new website for a project we're launching at Renew Media. The project, Reframe, is going to be pretty cool - but I'm biased because I created it with the help of a lot of our staff. While the "real" Reframe website won't launch until this Fall, I think people who read this blog will find the interim site pretty interesting.

Reframe is bringing together content from multiple sources - filmmakers, distributors, archives and others - and digitizing these works for free, on a nonexclusive basis to help make them available to the public. Through a partnership with Amazon, we'll be digitizing and offering these films as DVD on Demand, Digital Download to Own and Digital Download to Rent. Full details are on the new website, and the site will soon have all terms, the technical requirements, and everything else people will need to get their content in the system.

Around September, the website will launch, and it will feature all of the films we've aggregated, easy tools to buy them and lots of social networking features to build communities around these films. The current site will feature lots of great things before September - guest bloggers writing about digital distribution trends and concerns, curators talking about things like transitioning avant-garde films to the web and more. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

IPod and the death of creativity

Ok, this title is purposefully over-the-top, but bear with me. I held out on buying an IPod for years. I was ridiculed by friends, perhaps more because of the fact that I still don’t have cable even though I write about Second Life. Part of the reason for my IPod less-ness was philosophical; part that I don’t like to listen to music while walking, still have vinyl records and was too cheap. I finally gave in and bought the IPod, but my conscience kept bothering me, and I continue to have major issues with the IPod, and also with TiVo and some other gadgets that most people think are the second coming.

Why? Because they defy the possibilities inherent in new technologies, and actually make computers more like toasters – something good at a certain function, but not good at experimental, user-generated upgrade. I think this also has serious implications for the net, for our society and most of all for creativity. I think filmmakers should care about it, but to most people it is counterintuitive to give these products any negativity, so I’m sure this view won’t be popular.

While in Sonoma for a conference, I read a great article called “Saving the Internet,” by Jonathan Zittrain in the Harvard Business Review on the subject, and it got me thinking about this some more. (Note - HBR isn't very generative, so you may have to sign in, but the article is free). Zittrain argues that what makes the internet interesting, innovative and creative is its generativity. As he describes it:

The expediently selected, almost accidentally generative properties of the Internet—its technical openness, ease of access and mastery, and adaptability—have combined, especially when coupled with those of the PC, to produce an unsurpassed environment for innovative experiment.

In other words, the ability for anyone to make new applications, to build new systems, to adapt old models into new models – to create, to innovate – is precisely what has been important about the PC and the web. These technologies are created to “generate” new ideas and new platforms. Yes, it may be easier for someone to develop a computer that only lets you do certain things – like find music, buy it and play it – but this is much less interesting than a computer that one could adapt to also do other things, or do these same things better.

Zittrain goes on to show that the same things that make generative computing work so well are precisely the same things that allow for mischief, such as hacking and piracy. As he describes it:

Those same properties, however, also make the Internet hospitable to various forms of wickedness: hacking, porn, spam, fraud, theft, predation, and attacks on the network itself. As these undesirable phenomena proliferate, business, government, and many users find common cause for locking down Internet and PC architecture in the interests of security and order.

So, because someone could create a malicious hack that would cripple the IPod, or because of piracy concerns, Apple says “we’re taking away these properties which could confuse you or be harmful.” I’m not exaggerating. Like everyone else, I can’t wait for the IPhone, but Steve Jobs has already been quoted saying that the IPhone will not be an open platform, similar to the IPod because people don’t need or want this. Who is he to day, and why does this matter? Think about how cellphones are today - As Zittrain puts it, “Most mobile phones are similarly constrained: They are smart, and many can access the Internet, but the access is channeled through browsers provided and controlled by the phone-service vendor.” Cellphones are usually locked so that you can’t use them on networks other than your provider (a big problem for travelers), not open to reprogramming – not generative. Imagine what great things could be made for the IPod or the IPhone if they were more open – like Firefox, for example, or like other open platforms.

The IPhone will not be a generative device. Why? One, so that they can control the experience – they don’t want you to download music from outside their system where someone else makes money, but they also don’t want you to download a program that could harm your phone. Most consumers don’t want this either, and we want a cool phone, so we accept this trade off pretty readily. In doing so, however, we perpetuate the move towards making our generative computers more like appliances - less innovative and less room for actual creativity.

Zittrain isn’t saying anything new – lots of tech people talk about this, and Larry Lessig has covered similar ground quite well in discussions about the difference between the Read/Write and Read Only paradigms. He too aligns the IPod with this problem. To Lessig, the Read/Write paradigm is quite similar to generative computing – technology that you can use to both read and write – to be a passive consumer or an active creator – whatever floats your boat. Read Only technology – the IPod – just lets you consume, not create. Read-Write encourages creativity, innovation and, he argues – actually encourages more economic growth, due to this constant innovation. In essence, by embracing read-only, less generative models, we are killing the goose that laid the golden egg – and early in this technology’s development.

Both authors are getting at this for different reasons, but both note the possible effects on creativity. This is what I’d like to explore further in my next post, as I think it merits more thought. Other technologies started as more “Read/Write” and became more “Read Only” over time – cinema, radio, television all moved from systems for which people could easily create content to ones in which most people just received content. The creative possibilities for filmmakers –and the distribution possibilities – will become less as we move away from generative computing to the internet and the computer as an appliance. I’m not saying to throw away your IPod, but I do think that as creative types, filmmakers should pay attention to this change and push for more open models.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Learning from business mags

While in Sonoma, I was working, but my trip did give me the opportunity to sit down and catch up on some reading. Again, this being Sonoma, the reading was on a patio overlooking a stream while drinking some Jade Mountain Mourvedre (excellent, buy some). I didn’t relax with a book, but rather the latest issue of Harvard Business Review.

Ok, if you didn’t just puke from the sad thought of me taking time to read work related stuff in the middle of one of the anti-work capitols of America, bear with me. I’ve always liked trade journals – give me “Beverage Industry Daily,” “Plastic Form Applicators Today” or “Ship-Hull Repairers Weekly” and I am happy as a dental patient with a rack o’ People or a pedophile with TeenBeat. I just love learning minutiae about obscure industries. My first intro to HBR was through my dad – a management type who reads magazines like “Janes” the industry bible for the defense industry (real headline – “Northrop Grumman makes laser that can melt closet liberals”) as well as management mags like HBR, and I read it like just another trade journal but for those in white collar. Swear to god, I picked this up thinking it was just more industry porn, but it actually had some articles relevant to my life. It was uncanny the way that I could read about something boring like supply chain management (I still don’t know what that is actually, but it’s a real thing that people apparently get paid for) and find something that applied to video distribution, film production or funding creativity. I stole my dad’s copies often enough that he made me get my own subscription. Note that the last sentence has never, ever been written when not referring to Playboy or Sports Illustrated. I may have just developed a new genre of bad nonfiction writing or at least sparked an infringement case.

Anyway, there are at least ten things I can say on a regular basis to crowds of people and get the Socrates look – you know, as if you just said something brilliant – when all I’ve done was change some nouns while quoting some business professor in the HBR talking about marketing soap to Indonesia. I could turn this into a bad consulting business if I had no morals, but I really do learn some things from it, and I want to share them with you. Why? Because I actually think that these concepts have relevance to what we care about – making films and getting them seen and appreciated – and doubt anyone else will take the time to translate these business professors into the English language they so abhor. So here we go, with my next post on (long anticipatory pause….) generative computing. Nope, I didn’t make that term up either.

More soon, but I guess my bottom line point is that filmmakers and other in this industry who want to truly be creative and innovate would do well to read a lot of things outside our particular industry and apply this knowledge to what we do day to day. You probably won’t learn much new from Filmmaker or Variety, but you might learn a lot about working with egos, read actors, from Warren E. Buffett or the writers in the HBR. Believe it or not.

New Day Films Convening

Just back from Sonoma, where I joined the New Day Films conference after a brief day at Silverdocs. This was a strange trip for me – I had to cut short my time at a great film festival, to visit a resort town, but only for two days, so just enough time to meet some people, have some good conversations and dinner – and this being Sonoma, try some great wine – but not enough time to really turn either trip into one of those almost-vacations that can be so great.

My colleagues laughed at me when I checked in and gave them my type-A Sonoma update – driving like a madman to the Russian River Valley to taste and buy a bottle of wine from Rochioli Vineyards (go there – it rocks) on my way to the conference I was in town for, like some obsessed madman instead of the leisurely wine-taster you typically find in this part of the country. I nearly killed myself trying to email from my phone while driving the winding roads (there’s a reason I live near subways instead of owning a car), and the winery must have loved my ability to select, taste and buy two types of wine whilst texting and emailing my office. They would’ve killed me if they had time between the bridal showers. Whatever – I did my work, my speech and tasted some superb wine all within a matter of hours. It was a great mix of my favorite things – technology, wine, food, discovering new places and talking.

I was speaking at the annual meeting of New Day Films. They are a great collaborative/collective model for the educational distribution of independent films. One which I think is even more relevant today. Being smart folks, they all meet in this great little camp resort with great food, a pool, hot-tub and beautiful surroundings. I presented a long presentation on the future of online video delivery and how it relates to a project we are launching to help digitize and deliver important content. I’ll post more about that soon. The conference was great – I think I can un-facetiously say that people liked the presentation, and I know I learned a lot from their questions. It was clear that everyone is thinking about what’s next, and many people – even those who don’t use new technologies daily, are ready to address change. It was a refreshing meeting with a great group of folks.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Galapagos to DUMBO

Awhile back I reported on efforts at Galapagos to keep NY a creative capital. Now, they've announced that they will be leaving Williamsburg for DUMBO because their rent was increasing by 30%, and this was after it had increased by $10,000 a month back in 2005. Galapagos was one of the pioneers of Williamsburg, so its sad to see them go. It's also odd that they are hitting Dumbo, because if I lived there (which I did a year ago), then its definitely not pioneering anything. That said, they could make Dumbo a bit more hip, and I'm glad to see them working with a developer that cares about keeping good art in NYC.

Robert Elmes, the director of Galapagos, is doing his best to keep artists and some edge in NYC. The city needs more people like him.

More on the Galapagos site.

FCC B.tch Slapped

The FCC got its a.. kicked yesterday by the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. The Court said that the FCC's indecency stance - what it calls the "fleeting expletives" rules - were arbitrary and capricious. That's court speak for saying the rules were just plain dumb. The Court even went so far as to say that they doubt the FCC can come up with any regulation that wouldn't violate the Constitution.

Marjorie Heins, formerly of the Free Expression Policy Project, sums up the importance of the case:

The most important part of today's decision in Fox Television Stations v. FCC, however, was lengthy "dicta" (that is, statements not necessary to the result in the case). Warning the FCC not to simply invent additional rationales for its rules against "indecency" and "profanity" in broadcasting, Judges Rosemary Pooler and Peter Hall opined that the agency's entire censorship scheme is likely unconstitutional: its standards are too discretionary; and, given the pervasiveness of the words "fuck" and "shit," and their many variants, in contemporary society, it would not likely be able to show a "compelling state interest" in censoring them.

This is great news for creative types, as the FCC's rules and the recent increase of FCC fines to over $300,000 had serious self-censorship reprecussions. While it affected Fox, NBC and the majors the most, it was also stifling Ken Burns, PBS and others.

Heins' closing paragraphs in her summation are pretty funny:

In a perhaps unintentionally comic footnote, Judge Leval took issue with the FCC's determination that uses of the word "shit" are necessarily indecent. Since, "for children, excrement is a main preoccupation of their early years," he said, "there is surely no thought that children are harmed by hearing references to excrement." While Judge Leval evidently assumed that children would be harmed by hearing references to sex, with regard to excrement, he thought, "the Commission's prohibitions are not justified at all by the risk of harm to children but only by concern for good manners."

Despite these apparently trivial quibbles over whether children are harmed by hearing a word such as "shit," the decision in Fox v. FCC is monumentally important. It fully exposes the irrationality, and the excesses, of the FCC's censorship regime. But it will be a long while yet before we are fully rid of this constitutional anomaly.

The FCC is run by a right-wing zealot from North Carolina named Kenneth Martin, and he said he plans to appeal, but its doubtful he'll get far. Hot damn.