Media Theory Reviews

2019 Existentially Reviewed

I originally wrote this in early January but decided to shelve it because this post felt too personal and off-topic for a blog (mostly) about post production. What a difference eleven weeks can make, right? I don’t have anything to say about the ongoing global pandemic, but something about this post feels of the moment and worth sharing now.

In 2019 my wife gave birth to our second child and I became a father again. Parenthood is amazing, and beautiful. But that’s not what this post is about, because being a parent is also an endeavor filled with an existential anxiety best expressed by a quote from Elizabeth Stone:

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It is through this lens of existential anxiety brought on by parenthood that I want to share with you my three favorite pieces of media from 2019: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, Inside Bill’s Brain by David Guggenheim, and Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang.

“Forget your hopes. They are what brought you here.”

— Clive James translating Dante

If you think you know what Wallace-Well’s book is about without having read it, you’re wrong! The Uninhabitable Earth is to climate change, as The Omnivore’s Dilemma was to food: a framework to think about its respective topic and a survey of the best thinking in the field.

Just as Michael Pollan set out to explore the complex multi-faceted ways in which we grow and consume food from fast-food to farm-to-table; David Wallace-Well examines all of the ways our climate is changing (rising sea-levels, reduced air quality, more extreme weather, etc) and more importantly, how we as a species are coping with it. His chapter on how Cognitive Biases prevent us from effectively grasping the problem is a worthwhile reason to read this book.

I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that my children may very well live to see a world where humans abandon coastal cities like Miami and Venice. But neither do I know how to reconcile how much I love my kids with how much I dislike people. Humans aren’t good at much, but we are certainly good at holding opposing values as equally true.

“Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

David Guggenheim frames his wonderful portrait of the brilliant Bill Gates through the work he and his wife, Melinda, are accomplishing through their foundation. Let’s just get this out of the way: Guggenheim tries to paint Gates as complex, but his documentary series is really an indictment against the rest of us. Bill and Melinda Gates want to give us clean water and eradicate polio, and they are willing to spend Billions of dollars to do it, but people just can’t stop being people. We reject the vaccines and the cheap clean energy and good money continually gets thrown after bad.

Watching the Netflix documentary series made me feel two things: firstly, Bill Gates was born a genius and was given every opportunity to succeed. His success doesn’t feel like much of an achievement as it does an inevitability; it would have been reprehensible had his life turned out any other way.

Secondly, that most all of humanity has relinquished so much power to so few makes me feel sad for the future. We, the people, no longer believe that government can do something like eradicate polio through smart public policy, so instead we wait for billionaire overlords to hand out a disease free future when they feel like it. Because as much as Bill Gates wants to help humanity, he’d prefer not to pay more taxes.

“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”

— Seneca

The wisest of us know that if there is any comfort to be found in this world, it is to be found in art. Ted Chiang’s recently published collection of short stories Exhalation are transcendent. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” are beautiful explorations of regret and the triumph over it.

But in my opinion, the best of Chiang’s short stories is, “The Great Silence,” about the parrots who live next to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and lamet humanity’s inability to see what’s right under their nose. It’s heartrendingly beautiful and is the perfect coda to a post about existential dread. If you only read one of my links, go to Electric Lit and read his story here.

Media Theory

Why is the Demand for Quality Video so High?

Sam Mestman wrote a post at that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Ostensibly it’s career advice for people just getting out of film school, but without meaning to do so Mestman touches on a profound question:

Small businesses have no idea how to market themselves through video, they all have small budgets for marketing that they waste on hideous content that doesn’t work, and there’s a big market in just about every town for someone who makes great, affordable web and social media video for businesses. [Emphasis mine]

If the demand for “great, affordable web and social media video” is so high, then why is that demand going unmet? Could it be that the difficulty of creating great video is orders of magnitude more than what’s affordable for small businesses.

Let’s consider three different methods of nonfiction storytelling: writing, podcasting, and documentary. When you consider the amount of time, effort, and skill required to make a great article, versus a great podcast, versus a great documentary; the difference is probably logarithmic.

Think about the standard sit down interview common to all forms of nonfiction storytelling. When a reporter talks to his subject, from the moment the interview starts until it ends, the reporter is able to use whatever they’ve observed.

When a podcaster conducts an interview they have to consider the overall sound quality and the temporal nature of audio recording itself. If the subject says something brilliant, but the recording wasn’t running in that moment, then it might as well not have happened. Ditto if the sound quality is poor. The podcaster has multiple dimensions of difficulty that the reporter can blissfully ignore.

The documentarian has all of the reporter’s and podcaster’s problems, in addition to all of the problems that come with adding image (camera equipment, lighting, composing, etc). Because there are so many considerations, the documentary often requires a crew of specialists, adding personnel management and financial components to the challenges.

We can consider each medium’s difficulties with the following table:

Getting the Interview– the Interview
– Sound Quality
– Temporal Recording
– Interview
– Sound Quality
– Temporal Recording
– Image Quality
– Image Composition
– Crew Coordination

To be clear: I’m not saying that someone like the documentarian Alex Gibney is more skilled than the writer Susan Orlean. What I am saying is that creating a documentary for HBO is cumulatively probably more difficult than writing an article for the New Yorker.

This isn’t meant to be scientific, but over the next few posts, let’s keep this idea in mind as we explore what makes video production unique.

Media Theory

The Soul of Nonlinear Editing

I keep thinking about Tom Ohanian’s series on the State of Digital Nonlinear Editing. Specifically these paragraphs in Part 10:

Content that is recorded will then be processed by a variety of AI application suites. Each suite will provide different functionality (e.g. tonal analysis, speech-to-text, etc.) based on the characteristics of the content. … Very rich, detailed, and comprehensive metadata about that content will result without the large number of humans currently associated with these tasks.

At that point, the user will be presented with the text associated with the content. Each word, with exact reference to its precise positioning within the data stream, will be indexed. Manipulation of text (e.g. cut, copy, paste), will, in effect, be the method of editing that content. Picture and sound will follow along. [Emphasis mine]

Readers of my blog know that I think machine learning is going to revolutionize the edit suite; mainly by reducing the need for Assistant Editors to perform ‘mechanical’ tasks like Ingesting, Sync-ing, and Grouping. But I don’t agree with Ohanian here. And I think his point of view, that editing is basically mechanical, represents one of the problems we face when trying to discuss the future of nonlinear editing.

Editing is a visceral experience. Full stop.

Editing will never be as easy as cutting and pasting text because what’s being said is often secondary to how something’s said. Think about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. You could read transcripts all day long, but his anger is what left its lasting impact.

The primacy of subtext is applicable to all genres of editing, from the biggest tentpole blockbuster to most corporate HR training video. Anyone who’s listened to multiple reads of Voice Over will know firsthand that the same words spoken differently feel very different each and every time. What makes every editor unique is how these subtle differences inform their creative process.

The source/record metaphor is probably a dated way to interact with audio/video media; and smarter tools that assist the editor in finding and selecting media are needed. But I think “Marking IN and Marking OUT to create edit points” is going to be with us for a while because Marking IN and Marking OUT is editing. The problem isn’t the model, it’s that we need to expand our definition of literacy to include video.

Media Theory

Recorder. A perfect Machine Learning use case.

Atlas Obscura and the New Yorker report on a new documentary about a remarkable woman, Marion Stokes, who recorded 70,000 (!!) hours of television on VHS tapes from 1975 until 2012.

Marion Stokes was secretly recording television twenty-four hours a day for thirty years. It started in 1979 with the Iranian Hostage Crisis at the dawn of the twenty-four hour news cycle. It ended on December 14, 2012 while the Sandy Hook massacre played on television as Marion passed away. In between, Marion recorded on 70,000 VHS tapes, capturing revolutions, lies, wars, triumphs, catastrophes, bloopers, talk shows, and commercials that tell us who we were, and show how television shaped the world of today. 

From the documentary’s website “RECORDER: The Marion Stokes Project”.

The 70,000 VHS tapes are currently awaiting digitization by the Internet Archive to be made available to the public. But these tapes also represent the ideal use case for Machine Learning technology like Google Vision to make it all searchable.

This also clearly demonstrates the need for a new editing metaphor, something like Tom Ohanian wrote about on his excellent State of Digital Nonlinear Editing series on LinkedIn.

Because a massive amount of people can read. And if they interact with content not first and foremost via video and audio, but with words, manipulation of content becomes really easy and very accessible. And it will / should work along these lines: Content that is recorded will then be processed by a variety of AI application suites. Each suite will provide different functionality (e.g. tonal analysis, speech-to-text, etc.) based on the characteristics of the content. When a live or recorded stream of content is digitized, it will be subjected to a variety of these suites.

At that point, the user will be presented with the text associated with the content. Each word, with exact reference to its precise positioning within the data stream, will be indexed. Manipulation of text (e.g. cut, copy, paste), will, in effect, be the method of editing that content. Picture and sound will follow along.

Tom Ohanian’s State of Digital Nonlinear Editing and Digital Media 10

(Note: Linkedin’s poor formatting makes these articles more difficult to read than necessary, but stick with it, his series is very insightful and thought provoking.)

Media Theory

look at the data — but not too much

Great interview with AMC’s Josh Sapan at Recode about the benefits and limitations of using data in the creative process:

This mirrors what I’ve been saying about using data to inform the creative process, not decide. Too bad we don’t have the tools we need yet.

Further reading: