Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thinking About Flash

As I learn the basics of Flash animation, I’ve been looking around to see what people have been able to do with it. I returned to, a goofy cartoon website I used to like years ago, before I knew what Flash was or that it was the program that was used to make this and so many other cartoons circulating around on the internet.

The piece I looked at was part of a series of cartoons featuring a character named Strong Bad, a sort of macho-voiced goofball in who wears boxing gloves but can somehow still type on a keyboard (if ever there was a reason to love cartoons, this is it).

Strong Bad sits behind a computer screen and reads off an email from a “fan” who asks him if he can videotape his wedding. We see him from behind, and as he reads, we can see the back of his head move with the words he says and his reflection in the computer screen he sits in front of acts like a mirror.

Later, we see a series of vignettes that basically satirize the bad job this character would do if he got the job as a wedding videographer. Fairly simple green and blue backgrounds are used to show grass or sky and help accent the cartoonish feel of this other world. It’s an interesting way of making fun of very real-life phenomena in the context of a world where everything is silly and clearly fabricated and off-base.

Documentary Production Notes

Making a movie can be a serendipitous affair.


In a lot of ways, this is how I look back on the process of making the short documentary “NYC in One Word” with Diana Wong this semester. Not because we didn’t do a lot of planning in advance. It was serendipitous because a lot of unexpected, unsolicited and unusual things happened when we went out to shoot—including the very content our project would be built around.

We set out with one basic idea: we should ask people to describe New York City, in just one word. We went around the Hunter College campus and fanned out around the Upper East Side. Many people (maybe a majority) refused to answer the question on camera. This is one of the unpredictable things about making this kind of documentary. We took it in stride. But the people who did answer the question gave us some rich answers and took the project in a direction we wouldn’t have even considered.

One student decided to go on and on, ruminating about how hard it was to come up with a single word (I counted 211 words), before giving us an entirely made-up word to describe the city. What we ended up doing was intercutting between his long-winded diatribe and the many more concise offerings we got. I wasn’t sure what we would do with such a long ramble; it was at odds with what we’d initially set out to do. But when we got back to the editing room, two essential truths about documentary filmmaking finally hit home. First, be flexible; what you end up with might be better than what you originally envisioned. And second, more than anything else, the real art of this reified art form is the sculpting of raw materials (footage) into a real work (an edited piece).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Look at Editing in a Contemporary Music Video

Jay-Z’s new music video “Empire State of Mind” says just as much with its editing the song does with its lyrics. It opens with a series of still photos form various New York Neighborhoods rapidly flashing across the screen. We get glimpses of street signs in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and various views Manhattan streets. These shots are cut in a precise, yet frenetic way to match exactly on beat as the bass drops before the rest of the audio track.

As the video goes on, there’s a sharp contrast between gracefully moving helicopter and crane shots and statically-framed shots of Jay-Z rapping in various locales throughout the city. The diversity of the city is among the things highlighted by the various sides of the city that we see and the contrast between night and day, motion and stillness, close-ups and wide shots.

The shots also often synch up with shots of part of the city that Jay-Z raps about. At one point, he talks about being in Tribeca at a moment when someone who knows New York well, would recognize that he’s in Tribeca.

This video is a particularly meaningful, dynamic and living example of an editing convention that has risen to prominence in the modern music video: you can be anywhere. Continuity is deliberately done away with and throughout the course of one song whose audio track plays seamlessly throughout the video, the performer (who we maintain an illusion of as performing while we watch) appears in five different outfits, and in at least eight different parts of the city.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How I Use The Internet

I have a fairly “flat” relationship with the internet. But that I mean, I’m not the type of user of the internet who is constantly monitoring and exploring new sites and new ways of utilizing cyberspace. I have the places I go on the net, and I; usually (mainly) stick to them. I’m not saying that because I think that’s how things ought to remain forever; I wish they wouldn’t.

But at this point, I have a regular round I make daily when I use the internet, which includes checking the weather, email, facebook and various news websites. I someone sends me a link to a video on YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll often check it out, and sometimes that leads to bouts of an hour or so, looking at other videos that the site lumps together with the ones being displayed at any given time. I also write a blog (other than this one).

I consume a lot of other peoples’ user-generated content every time I browse the status messages of my friends on Facebook or look at a video on YouTube. And I produce my own when I post a status message or make a posting on my blog.

For someone with a relatively unimaginative sense of what can be done with the internet, I still find ways of contributing to what can be found on it. Take that as a testament to how entwined our lives now are in this young and ubiquitous medium of communication, consumption, entertainment, information—and, really, just about everything else there is. Except smell or taste. But I bet somebody’s out there working on that.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The human rights group Amnesty International has used a dynamic, yet functional design for its website. The home page has a frequently-updated “news” feature prominently displayed, with a series of vertically-arranged numbers (1 through 5) toward the left-hand side of the “news” panel. These Numbers correspond to particular items in the news that relate to human rights, at intervals of a few seconds, the number that’s highlighted will change, and its corresponding picture will be displayed to the right. It’s a kinetic, active way of drawing attention to a particularly important feature of the site, and, from a topical standpoint, shows us what’s most important to know about the organization: not that you donate via Paypal (though they do have a feature for this); not the various papers they’ve published on particular human rights abuses (though they do have links to these on the home page). What they are about, and want you to know first and foremost that they’re about, is combating real-life human rights abuses, which are happening all the time. The way the “news” panel is arranged helps convey this.

It’s a “busy” site; there are over 50 links to follow, just from the home page. But there is simplicity within the complexity; the most important links on the left-hand panel (“Donate,” “Join,” and “Take Action”) are included in their own panel, and are written in a plain-looking typeface, yet in a dynamic way (when you mouse-over any of these links, the text becomes back-on-yellow, instead of its usual white-on-black; it’s very visually compelling). There are also links toward the top of the site (again, in black-on-yellow, as-plain-as-possible typeface) to view the site in three additional languages, besides English. This not only conveys ease of use for more people globally, but is an expression in terms of design, of the type of site and organization they intend to be: a global one. Each of these factors combine to give a sense that the site both “has a lot going on,” and that it isn’t so overloaded and busy that it makes you want to give up on it.

Midtown Sound Walk

New York City just may have the most rich array of sounds of any built environment in the world. Spending an hour walking around New York and making note only of what you hear is harder than you'd think. To isolate sounds and discern roughly how far away their source is, and even just what they are, takes some real concentration.

I decided to mix it up by starting in the most bustling, chaotic part of town I could think of—Midtown (the corner of 48th and 6th Avenue, to be precise)--and end up in the most “natural” environment I could think of within walking distance: Central Park (specifically, near the Bethesda Fountain, which is roughly in the middle of the park, east-west, and at about 77th Street).

One sound that New York offers up with almost staggering ubiquity is a very particular sound of screachy brakes: bus brakes. There's high-pitched grinding that the bus brakes make—I guess as a result of the constant stop-start rhythm of Manhattan traffic. I've spent time in a of of cities around the U.S. and the world, and nowhere else have I heard this sound with anything like the frequency I hear it in New York.

If you really stop and listen, you hear people talk. Well, Duh. But listen a little harder. I noticed no fewer than 7 languages being spoken as I paused on the corner of 54th and 6th for about 6 minutes. I recognized Spanish; Chinese (though I don't know which of its many dialects I was hearing); English; Urdu; Arabic; and an Eastern European language whose identity I wasn't sure of (Russian? Romanian? Polish?).

When I reached the park, I wasn't greeted with the kind of wall of natural sounds I was expecting. There were at least two different kinds of birds chirping. There was the rustling on a squirrel in the woodchips off the walking paths. But mostly what I could hear were the same sounds I was hearing before—but through a kind of auditorily distorted prism that funneled them through canyons of skyscrapers and over acres of wooded land. The sounds were more faint, sure. But they also came at you as one thing, almost indescernible. I was no doubt hearing screaching brakes and honking horns on the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Midtown, all at once. Maybe even up in Harlem, too; who knows?

Everyone should try this sometime. It helps you develop a disciplined ear and learn to isloate sounds. Without a sense of what you're hearing, it would be hard or maybe even impossible to accurately represent the auditory environment in any storytelling medium. What does the city really sound like? You can't know until you get out there and listen to it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I recently got a chance to take a tour through some of the exhibits at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens' Astir neighborhood. The museum is a multi-level former movie studio which was once part of the still-functioning Kaufman Astir studios. The museum focuses on relics from the history of three media: film, television, and video games.

The guide took us first through the museum's second floor, which featured exhibits paying homage to important figures in cinematic history as well as showcasing some artifacts that were used in famous films. There was a wall full of pictures of stars of yesteryear, but many of them were tough to recognize because they weren't in dressed up with the kind of makeup and clothing we've come to associate with their most well-known screen characters. One of the most striking examples of this was a portrait of mustache-less Charlie Chapman, dressed in casual 1940s attire, looking very much like any good-looking male movie star and nothing like the famous charicatures he became famous playing, mostly in silent cinema. They also had (get this): the original Chubacca mask from the Star Wars trilogy. That was one of my favorite things to see. Upstairs on the third floor, the emphasis was on the technology used to make motion pictures over the years. There was a wooden movie camera made before film gages and frame rates were standardized. They had a giant camera from the earliest days of television when the technology didn't yet exist to record video, so shows could only be broadcast live. We got a demonstration of the kind of sound layering that happens in post-production for modern Hollywood blockbusters. And there was even a hands-on game where participants could make a short animated cartoon using a primitive and once-common method.

It's cool to know that there are people out there who make it their business to preserve and make public relics from the rich history of the great 20th (and 21st!) Century medium. Ten or twenty years from now, it'll be interesting to go back and see what movies that in 2009 haven't even been made yet, end up end up achieving classic status and end up having props and the like put on display by the museum.

Basquiat (1996)

Director Julian Schnabel set out for a film ruled by contrasts. Plain, white, pure and refined Soho art galleries where art aficionados schmooze with Andy Warhol and drop half a million dolloars on original paintings, versus grafitti-covered New York streetscapes filled with wild youth whose raw creativity literally sprays onto walls. The eccentric, unkempt lead character versus hoity-toity conisuers of high art. A number of tracking shots, following characters in the film along sidewalks with street art in blazing colors, interspersed with intimate close-ups of characters dining in the finest restaurants in town, help give a sense of this contrast.

One medium shot, during the film's opening sequence, is framed so that we see the young art promoter who would later “discover” Basquiat, reading on a bench in a park, as Basquiat emerges, out of focus and in the background, from a cardboard box which for some time he called home. Framing the shot this way may have been a way to visually capture the emergence “from nothing” or an art icon.

There are a number of scenes in this film that take place in art galleries. In several of those scenes, the young Jean Michel Basquiat is emerging as an important figure in an art world that is much bigger (literally and figuratively) than he is. A relatively wide angle lens is used to exaggerate the distance between Jean Michel and heavyweights of the New York art world who are in the room with him, as well as to make the large, cavernous space of the galleries appear more immense and imposing than it really is.

Saturday, March 7, 2009