One of the most important days in challenging how I think about work was in graduate school when I visited an adjunct professor at his consulting office on K St. in Washington, DC. He asked me what I did for work, and I told him that I was working at night as an Assistant Editor. His immediate response was, “Wow, I imagine that the level of frustration in your field is very high, because the jobs that are interesting probably don’t pay the bills, and the jobs that pay the bills probably aren’t very interesting.”
At this moment in time I’m very fortunate to have a job that’s engaging, interesting; and pays the bills! But this hasn’t been the norm for large portions of my career. And I don’t think I’m alone. One of the most common complaints I hear when I work with people on their resumes is how dissatisfied they are on their current show.
I believe that some of these frustrations are just an innate part of the entertainment industry. But perhaps there are ways we can learn to think about our jobs to help restore a sense of balance and value in our work.
The website FilmToolKit recently posted an infographic: Simple Ways to be the Best PA on Set. Number three is crushing:
Despite how much I hate this advice with every cell in my body I know that it is absolutely true. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to has seen someone less intelligent or less hardworking get ahead of them because of luck, and who they know. Hollywood is the place that invented the term ‘failing up’ afterall.
The fact of the matter is that Hollywood utilizes very little data in its decision-making process. Sure we track box office receipts or nightly viewers, but we don’t actually know why one show succeeds while another fails. I believe that this lack of data on the production process itself creates an environment where irrational decision-making is the only decision-making available, therefore people defer to their ‘gut’ and are lead by perception. This is all another way of saying the old adage:
“In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.”William Goldman
I think there is also an element of self selection at play. Research has started to suggest that people who need consistency; where it is clear how promotion occurs and when the next paycheck will arrive, tend to gravitate towards stable fields such as civil service. While people who work in the cultural industries have a different set criteria for measuring job satisfaction and may even thrive due to the volatility a life in the arts is certain to entail.
“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”Hunter S. Thompson
Having a good sense of humor is probably the best way to thrive in the business. But failing wit, a more meditative approach might have more to offer the rest of us. The School of Life has written an assortment of articles about work. I highly recommend starting with this one on: The Creative Itch. Learning to identify which aspects of my job bring me the most joy has helped guide me towards new opportunities. It’s also given me insight into what I should steer clear of too!
You can also check out the The Sorrows of Work. This extended essay on the subject of work reminds us that our struggles are not unique, but a plight shared by the entire working class. There are no perfect jobs, because we work within an imperfect system.
I’m looking for feedback on this idea I have for a data science experiment. I think it could be one of the first experiments run in unscripted television production. If you are a data scientist who would be interested in partnering up, feel free to reach out to me on twitter: @lowbudgetfun
Unscripted television production generates a lot of waste in the form of unused scenes. Scenes that are recorded and edited, but ultimately end up on the cutting room floor. These unused scenes represent wasted resources (time & money) and should be minimized. However, the creative process is mysterious and often requires playful exploration (trial & error), which is fundamentally at odds with the goal of minimizing waste. While eliminating waste completely is impossible, perhaps it is possible to reduce production waste by bringing certain trends to the attention of the story team during the planning process of subsequent seasons.
I hypothesize that by categorizing and analyzing all of the scenes that make it into a show, and comparing them to the scenes that are left out, trends could be identified that would enable Production Companies to avoid shooting similarly wasteful scenes in the future. In addition, I think that analyzing scene story summaries with a tool like Google’s Cloud Natural Language Sentiment Analysis could provide additional insight into why some scenes work, while others do it.
What is a Beat Board?
If you’ve visited a writing room you might have noticed a corkboard with lots of index cards on it. Informally known as a Beat Board; it is a tool writers utilize to help them visualize the structure and flow of the story they are trying to tell. Each index card represents one scene or story beat. By rearranging the cards on the board writers are able to quickly experiment with alternative story opportunities.
I first came up with the idea for this experiment after reading Lean Startup and learning about this methodology’s relentless pursuit of reducing waste:
The critical first question for any lean transformation is: which activities create value and which are a form of waste?
It was around that time when I walked into the EP’s office and observed that the number of cards representing scenes that didn’t make it into the show almost out numbered the cards of scenes that made it in. After chatting with colleagues on other shows, I anecdotally confirmed that this is not out of the ordinary.
What are Story Summaries?
This idea really clicked into place for when I learned about the influence data science is having on the humanities and I realized that many unscripted productions generate their own large body of textual material.
After a Reality Television crew records a scene for the day, a Field Producer will summarize, in writing, what happened. Story summaries can range from being a relatively objective description of an event, to impassioned prose about the cast’s feelings.
Since the gap between when a scene was shot and when it begins editing can be several months, Story Producers will review a the story summary before they start the post production process of creating a Cutdown to handoff to the editor. Therefore, the value of good story summaries is also an underappreciated practice on many unscripted productions.
In order to maximize the utility of this experiment, I think it will necessary to develop a system of scene categorization. Broadly, scenes can be separated into internal (Int.’s) and external (Ext.’s) locations. Scenes can also be organized by the number of cast members in them (1 – 7) and any additional people who appear on screen (family members or show ‘friends’). Scenes can also be categorized by their technical or production aspects, such as: cameraperson, field producer(s), or camera type (ENG or Car Camera, etc). A full taxonomy will be expanded upon in a future post.
Developing a Framework
The goal of this experiment is to develop a tool for unscripted story teams to use during pre-production while planning a season’s scenes. My hypothesis is that certain elements cause scenes to become unusable, but these elements are currently unknown. By identifying similarities between used and unused scenes, story teams will be able to reduce waste by avoiding things that won’t work.
A few years ago I wrote about my experience working on a competition show and manually digging through the sequences and budgets to uncover the cost of Loading, Grouping, and Storing the show’s car camera footage for the entire season was approximately thirty thousand dollars. And yet only one car scene made it into the entire twelve episode season. I’m not saying that eliminating the car cameras was the right decision. But I believe that it should have been discussed. Perhaps eliminating the car cameras would have freed up money for an additional challenge. Or an additional camera operator to gain additional coverage of the events. Or perhaps the savings could have been spent on an additional editorial team. These are all options that have vast creative implications.
We are on the cusp of having these trends brought to our attention with minimum friction. As we become more familiar with these types of analysis, our resistance lessens and we become empowered to make smarter decisions. I’d like to build the tools that enable these conversations.
My colleague wrote a thoughtful comparison of; Roland Barthes’ analysis of Professional Wrestling, and her observations of Reality Television.
Her commentary on the topic is so thought provoking because it stands in stark contrast to the typical argument that “reality television is lowbrow because it isn’t challenging” best embodied by one of my favorite essays on the subject: Dance Moms and the broken promise of reality television.
My colleague’s commentary on the meta-conversation that take place on Twitter by viewers is also an engaging position. As someone who works in the business I enjoy reading audience commentary. Especially when they pickup on something that may not have been intentional in the first place.
Recently, I had cause to revisit Roland Barthes’ 1957 book of essays, Mythologies, a study of signifiers and the underlying ideology that such signifiers refer to; and despite the passage of time, his approach still applies today. In his first essay, “The World of Wrestling,” Barthes says that wrestling is not a sport but a spectacle and that “[t]he public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not.” Not only is that still true of wrestling, but also Reality TV. Regardless of articleafterarticle “revealing” that Reality isn’t – well – real, audiences just keep watching. In fact, it is quite possible to extend Barthes’ wrestling analysis even further in terms of Reality TV and, in light of the fact that I’m presently unemployed, that is precisely what I intend to do in this piece – specifically by applying Barthes analysis to VH1’s new…
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Great interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg on Variety’s Strictly Business podcast. Readers of this blog know I’ve been following and writing about his newest venture for a while, so I was pleased to learn more about Quibi.
However, if I’m skeptical about one thing (besides the name … I mean, Quibi?) it’s what Katzenberg says about bundling their short form content into traditional long form mediums after two years on their platform.
If Quibi is going to succeed, the stories for it need to be tailor made for this new medium. Taking Game of Thrones and cutting it up into ten minute pieces isn’t going to cut it. The entire vernacular is different.