Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Design Process: Tinker Hatfield, Chuck Lorre and Pixar's Ed Catmull and Brad Bird

Design process from a number of different disciplines: writing, shoe design, architecture, animation and filmmaking.

Chuck Lorre (creator of Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory) on the writing process for television:
"I came up, I was taught... you break a story, you have an outline and you send the writer off for 10 days, 2 weeks, to write the script and they bring it back and the executive producer throws it out. That's how television gets made."

"The rewriting process is generally a sustained argument with the guy who wrote the first draft and the executive producer. Everybody is miserable, everybody hates one another, "you're ruining my work!"... or you're secretly thinking, oh, they're making it better, "thats even worse!", I'm no good, I'm not worthy, I'm a fraud... either way you're not happy."

Nike's Tinker Hatfield, originally trained as an architect, on the design of the Air Max and George Pompidou Center in Paris.

I've repeatedly stated that the biggest problems interactive agencies had during the 1.0 days wasn't with talent and people but the integration of all of those diverse talents and personality types. Even in leadership positions (and especially there at times) many people believed that their part of the process was THE most important part of the process.

The reason so little innovative digital work comes out of traditional advertising agencies is not a result of a lack in the development of capabilities, it's that they've never understood and embraced tech/geek culture. The people and sensibilities that live and create within the digital/interactive space were, and still are, seen as production people and not integrated into the "creative process". There are some great lessons to be learned on fostering creativity and managing multi-disciplinary processes from these two articles on Pixar.

The McKinsey Quarterly: Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird. (You'll need to register to read this but it's a painless process and a good read.)

From The Harvard Business Review: How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. (This one you'll have to pay for to read or talk to me, I might be able to help you find it.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Postmodernity Now

Lately, I find myself revisiting the ideas of the books I read on literary criticism and post-structuralist philosophy (authors like Barthes, Derrida, Foucault. Terry Eagleton's "Literary Theory" is a great starting point) in the late 80s and early 90s quite frequently. The idea of the meaning as unfixed and unstable and "the text" as being a creation formed from the connections between author, reader and other "texts" seem particularly relevant in contemporary, digital pop-culture.

The most peculiar piece of recent pop postmodernity has to be the Burger King "Spongebob" television ads. The ad features the resurrected, retro-nostalgic "king" mascot performing a musical incantation that mashes the worlds of hip-hop and and children's television. There is a 2 minute version but I find the short, 15 second version the most interesting. Has anyone ever packed more fractured meaning and references into 15 seconds? The spot plays like a kaleidoscope of referential shards. (It's awesome and you know it.)

I watched JCVD, a French film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself, a broke, has-been actor who gets caught up in a post office robbery. It's very good and oddly, fascinating. Towards the end of the film he floats up to the ceiling and engages the audience directly in a lengthy monologue about himself and his persona. Clever, French, excellently shot, SUBTITLED, crime film, starring Van Damme, playing himself... not much else needs to be said.

The blur between reality and fiction is now a normative feature of the pop-culture landscape. The retrograde glamour that accompanies the unspoken subtext on the lives of the actors in films like The Wrester, Balboa, and Rambo (and Michael Jackson's comeback, if it happens) is a large part of the spectacle and appeal. The twists of fate shown in these faces are arresting stories unto themselves. I like to them as visual press releases.

I was at the bookstore and I picked up a copy of Michel Foucault's book "This is Not a Pipe". The book itself is about signs and meaning. The image on the cover is a painting by Magritte. It features a painting of a pipe and painted text blowing which reads, in french, "This is Not a Pipe". A staff member must have placed a Post-it on the cover to resolve questions and uncertainties about what the book is about and what category it properly belonged to.

I thought it was funny.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

History of the Boombox , Composer Steve Reich, Clapping Songs, Read/Write Culture

An assortment of things that I'm looking at and thinking about this morning as I relax and digest the amazing breakfast I had. An interesting assortment of links and pieces on music, participation/community, rhythm, repetition and pattern.

History of the Boombox
The boombox enabled youth culture to take music to the street, to enjoy it publicly and in some respects launch a pop culture assault. The portable and read/write nature of the cassette tape further enabled the sharing and community aspects that powered the growth of hip hop music. This great short documents and celebrates the "ghetto blaster".

The social function was the analog equivalent and precursor to what happens now digitally. Hip hop music was very much "user-generated" and hip hop culture arose emergently from its community.

From NPR: A great profile on minimalist composer Steve Reich and his piece "drumming". The development of his work and thinking is fascinating, particularly the use of phased tape loops is very cool. The early pieces like "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain" are mesmerizing. I didn't realize until listening to this profile that Reich, like Philip Glass, drove a cab to support himself. (The work of both involve intense uses of repetition.)

Steve Reich was just awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his piece Double Sextet.

There is a strong connection between Reich shifting patterns with African polyrhythm. I love "The Clapping Song" by Shirley Ellis. A great combination of African call and response, clapping games and FUN.

Amusing/interesting video showing clapping patterns.

Larry Lessig touches gives a good historical perspective on read/write culture and music in his TED talk.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Passion Pit "The Reeling"

Director John Hobbs is sick. He's a friend of mine, from art school days in Detroit. His latest project: directing the video for Passion Pit's "The Reeling". Every time I see a new project from him I'm blown away. He has a tendency to come up really ambitious, painfully scary ideas who's descriptions make me queasy. After they shot the footage for this new video he and his partners printed out every frame, thousands, manipulating/distressing them then glued them into thick bricks. They then built custom animation stands so they could rip/tear/animate the transitions etc., reshooting frame by frame then reimporting it all.

This is amazing. It's a great track too.

The quality is a bit better on the version found on Humble's website (production company).

Last year John shot those spots for Ikea where they shot the stop-action construction of NY landmarks like the Brooklyn bridge out of Ikea boxes. I was in the loft just after all the boxes were delivered and construction began. It was frightening to see what they had bitten off for themselves. But they pulled it off.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Weary of "The Conversation"

I was really caught off guard to learn that Google will lose $470 million on YouTube this year.

Social and new media pundits — and there are so so many these days — smugly track and announce the failings of the newspaper, media and advertising industries. Rightly so. Those "models" aren't working and there is a lot at stake with their quickening demise. What increasingly disappoints me is how little critical thinking, interesting ideas and action are coming out of the social media sphere. Don't get me wrong, there are some brilliant minds out there and I still read a lot of blogs and listen to many podcasts but the signal to noise ratio has me cutting way back.

The numbers on YouTube are an indication to me that the promises of social media and digital aren't playing out like many of us thought it would. I thought we would have seen more stable materialization of business models by now. Google's online advertising model is showing signs of weakness. Yesterday I read this: Display ads just as effective as search, says Google... Really? I find that so unsettling.

There is actually a very good reason not to listen to social media pundits and tech evangelists. Almost no one is ever right, at all, when it comes to predicting the course of technology and the social and economic impacts. The history of technology is a history of "got it wrongs" and "didn't see it coming". No one saw Twittermania coming and no one can still be really certain what it means or how it matters. Whether is more resembles The Beatles or the hula hoop is still up for grabs.

In the nascent days of web 2.0 and social media there was a lot to be excited about. There was a small community of people doing interesting things that were really worth paying attention to. The people getting attention now are people that talk and speculate. The biggest business model to emerge is that of the pundit/consultant. Tacky cottage-industry entrepreneurs who's overly optimistic views of new media and sideline, cheap-shot criticisms of old media are little more that ham-handed pitches for consulting fees. The emergent social model is meta-conversation (talking about people talking) which is revealed so clearly with the "number of followers" obsession.

All this talk about "the conversation" is wrecking my new media buzz. We need a little less conversation, a little more action.

I have to close this post with an ironic YouTube embed. While I still can.

Our frank and open. Deep conversations. They get me nowhere. They bring me down, so. Give it a rest, won't you? Give me a cigarette. God give me patience. Just no more conversation. — Morrissey "Our Frank"

From Slate: Do You Think Bandwidth Grows on Trees?: According a recent report by analysts at the financial-services company Credit Suisse, Google will lose $470 million on the video-sharing site this year alone. To put it another way, the Boston Globe, which is on track to lose $85 million in 2009, is five times more profitable—or, rather, less unprofitable—than YouTube.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This is a Liquidation Sale

The social function of Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice can best be described as a liquidation sale.

I write about the concept of value a lot on this blog, usually in the context of culture and pop-culture. I use the word in a general sense. Value as in socially transferrable or exchangeable "meaning" or "significance". I find it more useful, and interesting to remove assumptions of "importance" — the prejudices of taste and class etc — and look at what people actually spent time doing and paying attention to.

Celebrity is perhaps the best example of something that violates many sophisticated senses of taste yet has, like it or not, an undeniable power and presence within this culture. It has high social exchange value. The value of celebrity, like more traditionally recognizable commodities does not have a fixed worth. It fluctuates and sometimes finds itself being unloaded on the cheap. In this sense you can think of Donald Trump as an estate salesmen liquidating the remaining celebrity value from careers before the shelf life has completely expired . Most of the items up on the block (pictured above) wouldn't fetch much on their own these days but put them together and you can squeeze out enough to sell it off as a lot on a prime time slot. It's a bit like a garage sale. Which makes sense for real-estate guy with a flashy, gauche sense of taste.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Culture & Cruelty: Rahm Emmanuel vs Muhammad Ali

There is a dark paradox to culture. A flip-side of cruelty to the esteemed achievements of mankind. The civilizations of Rome and Greece were erected on foundations of slavery. In a sense, all of what we call culture works the same way. Culture is the name we give to things we do once we have the tough, dirty job of survival out of the way. It is what we do with the surplus time, energy and material left over after we've cared for our basic, fundamental needs. Food, shelter and clothing are transformed into cuisine, architecture and fashion after there is free-time and extra cash on hand. Survival on this planet has never been easy and reaching a position of prosperity that allows for the flourishing of culture is the exception, not the norm. Even today, most of the world struggles with problems of poverty and disease in their day to day lives. As uncomfortable as it is to think about and accept, getting the "extra", the surplus needed to conquer survival and create culture usually comes about through the exploitation and control of other people and resources. 

I was reminded of the contrasts and intertwined natures of civility and brutality by two things last weekend. The first was a piece in Esquire magazine: Rahm Emanuel and his tough SOB brethren have officially replaced the douchebag. No excuses. (by Stephen Marche).
As Obama's first hire, Emanuel was a welcome sign of things to come, for Obama's lovely dreams will mean nothing without a thug to realize them. The beautiful cannot exist without the crude, or, as Walter Benjamin put it, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." Emanuel's boss has the world's most charming smile; Emanuel has a sliced-off finger. Obama says there are no red states or blue states; Emanuel likes to stand on tables and holler "[The Republicans] can go fuck themselves." Obama is "yes we can"; Emanuel is "yes we are doing it right now so why don't you piss off." How tough is Emanuel? He's so tough, he was offered a scholarship to dance with the Joffrey Ballet. He also once sent a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him and has said of himself, "I wake up some mornings hating me, too." The guy's like a character out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

I watched "Thrilla in Manila" the new HBO documentary on the infamous third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Fraizer.

Muhammad Ali, a personal hero since childhood, was a great boxer, athlete and one of the most charismatic and entertaining figures in American history. Which is why I found it so painfully disillusioning to see this realistic, sobering glimpse of a legend who's myth had all but cleansed him of the inconsistencies and ugly failings that are a part of any life.

After being stripped of his license to box for refusing induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War, Frazier befriend, supported and went to great lengths to aid in the renewal of Ali's boxing license to make possible the fight which would give him his career back. Once the fight was announced Ali turned on him and used his position within the Islamic community to subject him to bitter racial attacks. The film also shows clips of Ali siding with the KKK on issues of segregation and publicly flaunting his marital infidelity.

I've always maintained that behind every great brand (Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart, George Eastman, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison) there is an asshole birthing it through the arduous, painful process of creation. Maybe legends and the storybook versions of culture we find it easier to live with are are born the same way.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"What does this get me?" On The Mechanics of Value, Pop Culture and Social Exchange

Science and capitalism share preeminent positions of authority in our culture. They provide the primary frameworks that define what is legitimate and what matters, but the extension of those perspectives beyond their appropriateness and the forced qualification and quantification of the world at large according to their models is at odds with much of life's experiences.

The over-application and reliance on science and commerce has created terrible blind spots in the collective understanding of ourselves. In spite of the advances of technology as well as the vast amounts of data that we are able access and process the world is not a more stable and predictable place. The current economic crisis makes this painfully evident. Did anyone really see this coming? Does anyone have any significant insight as to what to do? What I find most interesting is that presently, there seems to be very little consensus on the value of anything — even basic material things, like houses — in strict financial terms.

Questions of value in life's more illusive arenas — relationships, aesthetics, culture, pop-culture — have always been complicated. They tend to get ignored, marginalized or discounted. Not because they matter less but because they are less easily grasped and manipulated. What is the cultural value of Rock 'N Roll? Your favorite song? A relationship? Questions like these are almost unapproachable.

Things with high levels of social and exchange value are paradoxically problematic. They defy the type of clearly defined value that science and commerce attempt to achieve and yet are extremely high in their social and personal importance. Physical esthetics is a great example.

Physical attractiveness as an indicator of genetic health and the role it plays in sexual selection has been a popular topic in the literature of evolutionary biology in recent years. Studies show that good looking people get farther in life. They also get there quicker. Attractiveness has an intangible value that resists being fixed. It's like a ghostly presence that can't be caught on film but it's effects are constantly witnessed. Even if it physical attractiveness and the benefits it bestows were precisely measurable, then what? The acknowledgment of this would just causes more problems. Would we have to consider educational stipends and tax beaks for the ugly? We can't even mange the value and pricing of housing, food and heating fuels.

Social status and pecking order are extremely powerful — as well as extremely underestimated and under-examined — forces that effect human behavior and shape social organization. Physical attractiveness is one factor that determines a persons place with respect to both. This creates endlessly complicated problems that range from the very personal to the broadly social. Problems we aren't able or comfortable dealing with rationally or directly. Given the emphasis placed on looks in this culture, teaching children that beauty is on the inside is as grounded in reality as the "just say no" approach to the drug problem.

Pop-culture is the way we arbitrate these issues and exorcize our emotions about them. It is the marketplace, the noisy exchange floor for the speculation, bidding, display and exchange of our social (or actual) values. Nothing illustrates this quite so perfectly as two magazine covers I saw last weekend: People Magazine's "Celebrity Transformations" and Parade's "What People Earn".

Both are social dialogues on status and pecking order. Picture of celebrities, because they are familiar to all of us, provide points of reference for a shared experience. A mass self-reflection. An evaluation and comparison of ourselves collectively. While filliping through these magazines, everyone is performing a constantly revising calculation: one’s own position and value.

This is our bottom-up, self-regulated, system for privately obsessing over our biologically-hardwired insecurities while publicly negotiating the intangible, difficult to apprehend values that exert such massive collective force. A force that operates beyond the threshold of perception and discourse. It's simply dismissed as a populist, guilty pleasure. Despite the massive amounts of physical and emotional energies — attached directly to dollars — expended on these needs and values, a quantified answer to the question "what does this get me?" is never really arrived at.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fantasy and Pop Culture

3 days ago, David Arneson, one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons died. (Co-creator Gary Gygax died in 2008.) In the 35 years since the two created the role playing game, "fantasy" has gone from a marginal genre, the realm of socially awkward teen boys — the rainbow and unicorn teen girl version is equally disparaged — to a pervasive part of pop culture.

In much the same way that "romance" has become less a distinct genre unto itself and more of a ubiquitous element in all other genres (is there any film made today that doesn't have a love interest needlessly embedded into the plot) so too has fantasy become widely embedded across other genres and aesthetics. Much as been made of the popularity of myths, superheros and the supernatural in film, television, the gaming industry and popular culture but there is an even more pervasive and subtler presence of fantasy and of the fantastic.

In my essay 1970s Airbrush Art & Contemporary Graphic Design I pointed out the influence and presence of airbrush art and fantasy illustration in todays visual culture.

Beyond discussions of genres and aesthetics there is a broader examination of our engagement in fantasy on a cultural level that is probably worth making. For now, I'll simply reference a piece from the news. This week Woody Harrelson defended himself against charges of assault on a cameraman claiming he mistook him for a zombie. From CNN: "I wrapped a movie called 'Zombieland,' in which I was constantly under assault by zombies, then flew to New York, still very much in character," Harrelson said in a statement issued Friday by his publicist.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

1970s Airbrush Art & Contemporary Graphic Design

It may not be conscious, but much of current art direction and graphic design has the aesthetic sensibilities of and relies more heavily on the pictorial conventions of artwork airbrushed onto the sides of vans in the 1970s than anything found in typography annuals or books on graphic design history. It's most apparent in web design and in advertising for consumer electronics and cars but it's visible everywhere, even fashion.

Institutionalized graphic design, like the art world, likes to tell a story of itself that traces influences and connects moments and works into a tidy, threaded history. As entertaining and as enlightening as they can be, they are more story than history. Airbrush art may be the most marginalized of visual arts, seen more as a craft or vocational art rather than as "design' or an important part of pop culture. As cheesy as it may be, its presence is hard to deny and it's place in the history of visual culture may have to be seriously revised.

The long-story night turn out to be something like: cave painting to wall murals to chapel ceilings to vans to electronic screen with all that nonsense about books and ink being a goofy thing that happened in between.

The visual elements and pictorial conventions found in airbrush art read like a checklist of today's visual cliches:

• Overly heroic subjects placed in oval vignettes within fantastic landscapes, deep space or floating in atmospheric backgrounds

• Reflections, textures, shiny surfaces, drops of water or splashes

• Bursts or radiating energy, lighting effects, rays of light and streaking colors

• The over-sensualization or sexualization of imagery and subject matter

Monday, April 06, 2009

What channel is this?

Last night, while at the gym and on the stairmaster, I watched uncut video showing accused murderer Casey Anthony visiting with here parents in prison. What struck me was how much CNN resembled YouTube more than anything that might be called broadcast news or journalism. Beyond the ethical, privacy or legal issues that might be involved in broadcasting closed circuit video capture of prison visitation was the unedited running of this video without commentary (viewers were spared Nancy Grace's presence). Like a YouTube upload the "sharing" of this served no purpose other than to pass along a juicy, sensationalistic "find". Look at the title and typography, both pump and hyped this like a Girls Gone Wild informercial.

This may be the clearest example of broadcast television programming's inability (particularly news) to compete and redefine itself in the age of online video. Why not a channel that allows viewers to surf live prison visitations and watch executions on-demand?

In Vogue: Bank Robbery

I was shocked to learn this weekend that there is more one bank robbery a day in New York City. (Bank robberies are up 57% over last year.) Source: NPR: What Makes New York Banks So Easy To Rob?

A new biography on Bonnie & Clyde was just published: Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. The couple are America's first manufactured media icons. Their sensationalized myth was a creation of the failing newspaper industry during the great depression. The reality was that they were failures at robbery, committed most of their murders in self defense and often resorted to breaking into gumball machines to get money for food.

Podcast: KERA interview with Jeff Guinn author of "The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde"

Double phallused, Bonnie Parker posed with knee up, cigar and firearm. A scandalous photograph at the time.

You can get more with a simple prayer and a Thompson sub-machinegun than you can with a simple prayer alone.
-John Dillinger

The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One
-William Black)

When it comes to bank related crimes the the current situation is paradoxically reverse. It's the banks that have been committing the robberies. The piece in the current Atlantic, There is a great piece in The Atlantic that describes a The Quiet Coup, is a must read.

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Green Porno by Isabella Rossellini

Isabella Rossellini has created an amazing series of shorts called Green Porno that runs on the Sundance Channel. Very funny, well written and superbly performed. At times there is a bit of a dark creepiness, maybe it's something she picked up from David Lynch, the two did date for a time.

There are many, many more of these on the Sundance Channel website.

(Kathleen is the one fixated on sex, not me, she's the one that sends me all this stuff)