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August 09, 2007

Video Notes

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Shouting Thomas takes his videocam for a walk around Woodstock's beautiful Cooper Lake.

* Learn about the not-rare phenomenon of "Lesbian Bed Death" direct from the source.

I enjoyed both of these videos and salute their makers. Nice work! They've also got me thinking about a couple of things.

  • It seems to me that the advent of cheap videocams, computer video editing, and the web has rendered about half of the old film avant garde's program obsolete.

    Among the many things that film avant gardists hoped to do was to use film in as personal and direct a way as a writer uses a quill, er, a keyboard, or as a painter uses a brush. The thinking behind this dream was that the industrial-scale processes -- crews, equipment, financing -- required by narrative feature movies meant that the final results were often impersonal. Wouldn't it be great if such a beautiful and exciting medium could be made to yield works as suffused with personality, mind, and point of view as the traditional arts?

    In the old days of celluloid, Moviolas, and repertory theaters, there was no way to accomplish this simply. Equipment was cumbersome, fragile, and expensive, and distribution was next-to-impossible. All the more reason to celebrate the artists who did manage to use film in a super-personal way, of course. I've blogged enthusiastically about a few of them: Kenneth Anger and Chris Marker.

    These days, by contrast ... Hit the "On" button, tweak a bit in iMovie, upload, and voila: Direct personal expression via audiovisual-through-time means.

    What has come as a surprise is that this work has almost no kinship with traditional movies at all. It's naked of the rest of the film avant garde's program; it's more like email than it is like Cocteau, or even oldtime home movies.

    "What's become of the poetry?" is a question that can arise. And while I'm often quite the whiner where that kind of thing goes, for some reason in the case of the new amateur-video-makers I'm not even tempted. Instead, I'm thrilled. I find myself fascinated by the new techniques, genres, and conventions that are emerging: teengirl webcam-karaoke-dancing, for instance, or "owned" vids, or the jump cuts some videobloggers use to hop over the dull parts of their rants, or video responses to other videos, or "unboxing" vids, or the titles that vloggers superimpose to comment on what they're already saying. We're witnessing the birth of a whole new audio-visual-through-time language.

    Not just that: It's all happening unconsciously. There's no art-program, let alone school-program, behind this activity at all. People are finding their way on their own, fumbling, experimenting, doing what they can, and then (often) moving on.

    Which (if I'm on to anything here) makes this a funny time artwise, because what's being done spontaneously and unconsciously by amateurs is far more interesting than what the pros are doing, even though the amateurs have no aesthetic goals whatsoever. It's like the early days of desktop publishing (or the early days of blogging) all over again.

  • Having put a few iMovies of my own on YouTube -- here, here, here, here -- I gotta say it's a lot more trouble to do than you might imagine. It would be lovely if throwing a video together were as quick and easy as assembling a blog-posting, for instance. But it isn't. This seems to have to do with file sizes. Text and still images don't overwhelm today's computers. But video files ... Well, my current iMac (two years old) handles them a lot more gracefully than my old one (six years old) did. But it's still a somewhat awkward process.

    And then there's the challenge of video formats. Do you have any idea how many digital-video formats are out there? Dozens, with more being introduced all the time.

    The reason for this is that digital video in its raw state takes up really massive, unwieldy amounts of space, the kind that needs high-end workstations and industrial-strength hard drives to wrangle. When Hollywood filmmakers make movies using uncompressed digital video -- necessary if your imagery is going to hold together on a big screen -- their cameras are big and expensive, nothing like a home pocketcam, and are attached by thick cables to huge hard drives. The footage is edited by teams of expert workers, with effects handed over to teams at specialty houses. Final renderings of these movies can take days.

    As a consequence, all home-video-type digital video is compressed. I didn't understand this key fact until embarrassingly recently: Even the material you have gathered on the cassettes you use in a typical home-video recorder is in a compressed format. Confusingly, that format is known as DV. But "DV" doesn't mean that you're handling raw digital video. It means that the digital video you have captured on your cassette has been compressed in a format called DV.

    (By the way, did you know that digital videotape is on the way out? It's considered by those who know to be a medium in its death throes. Soon we'll all be shooting video recorded to hard drives and flash memory cards. Yahoo: I can't wait myself. I never did like tape, and I despised the tedium of transferring video from tape into computer.)

    But other "codecs" are necessary to squunch digital video into the smaller sizes necessary to fit on the drives and cards that are and will be replacing DV cassettes.

    Here's how the format thing played out as I made a typical iMovie. First I recorded footage on my Kodak digicam in an MPEG4 version of Quicktime. When I imported the files into iMovie for editing, iMovie converted -- "transcoded" in computerspeak -- these files into DV. Once I was done editing, I had to choose a format in which to export my masterpiece. I chose a pretty high-quality level of Quicktime. Then, when I uploaded my masterpiece to YouTube, YouTube transcoded my iMovie into a Flash format. On its way from me to you, in other words, my silly little video moved through four different formats.

    To be honest, handling all this isn't much of a pain, and if I can do it anyone can, etc. It's certainly nothing like what film avant gardists went through, what with negatives, chemicals, expenses, cans of film, storage space, projectors, etc. And there's always the possibility of just switching your webcam on, yakking into it, and uploading. Still, making anything more ambitious than an uncut me-and-my-webcam vid requires considerably more trouble than dashing off an email or a blog posting.

* Will amateur, user-generated video content wipe out the movie studios? Scott Kirsner thinks not -- that what we'll have instead is a richer video-entertainment ecosystem, with professional and amateur videos coexisting. Scott also makes excellent and informative videos of his own.

* Mac nuts are aware that Steve Jobs announced an updated iLife suite the other day. It was supposed to be mindbendingly important and innovative, but it struck me as a disappointment. (Perhaps Jobs was exhausted after focusing so relentlessly on the iPhone ...) As much as I love spending money on Apple's products, I'm still trying to come up with an even halfway-decent reason to spring for the new iLife, and I'm failing to do so.

The new version of iMovie in particular strikes me as a spectacular miscalculation. As far as I was concerned, the last generation of iMovie (iMovie HD, which -- if you purchased the new ilife -- you can now download for free here) was a near-perfect weekend hobbyist's tool. All it needed was an extra audio track and a better way to handle titles and transitions. Hooboy, did I want that extra audio track and that better way to handle titles and transitions.

What Jobs has done is take iMovie in the opposite direction. He has pulled a paradigm shift on us, throwing out what we knew and loved and replacing it with something else entirely. Take a look at it here. No timeline, no tracks, no scrubbing. It barely seems to be a video editor at all.

The new iMovie may be brilliant on its own terms, and it may even be capable of being made to do everything the old iMovie could do. It's what those terms are that dismay me. As far as I can tell, it's no longer a video editor that has been simplified for the masses. Instead, iMovie has been turned into a gizmo optimized for throwing together minute-long montages set to pop tunes.

Maybe that's all most people want to do with their video footage, and maybe they'll be thrilled to have this new tool. For people who want an excellent dumbed-down video-editor, though, it's a sad development. Interesting to see that a few early reviewers of the new iMovie agree with me: Kate MacKenzie and Loren Feldman.

So I guess I'll be sticking with iMovie HD despite that missing audio track. Or maybe I'll try to learn a thing or two and then move to the grownup's table, where they speak Final Cut. Now that's a genuinely scary prospect.



UPDATE: Colleen forwards along a gorgeously evocative music video by Fredo Viola. That's about as personal as it can get.

posted by Michael at August 9, 2007


" It seems to me that the advent of cheap videocams, computer video editing, and the web has rendered about half of the old film avant garde's program obsolete."

I remember hearing exactly the same kind of euphoria about the portable video cameras and luggable Sony video recorders in the 70s. Lotsa people rhapsodized about the videos that would result. I have yet to hear of any that anyone considered noteworthy.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 9, 2007 5:05 PM

I remember that euphoria too, or a version of it anyway. Seems like yesterday; seems like so long ago ... Like you I saw some of the vids too -- snoozola.

But the masses never took up home-videomaking, and there was no easy way to edit or distribute. We're getting to the point now where it isn't all that much trouble to record a little vid and email it to a friend, or post it on YouTube. I'd love to know what people looking back at 2007 will choose (if anything) as the noteworthy vids of our era. But maybe the whole concept of "noteworthy" is going south too ...

More seriously, the desktop-publishing comparison strikes me as helpful. Were there individuals and/or individual works from that era that have gone down in art history? Maybe a few. But the important thing was the era and the development itself, which transformed graphic design, both the practice of it and the results, and visual culture more generally.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 9, 2007 5:15 PM

Speaking about videos/movies, what's the status of making web available your and your hot looking wife's indie production, Michael?

Have I missed a notice about it here?

Posted by: dougjnn on August 9, 2007 9:37 PM

Michael, only you could juxtapose my nature walk video with a lesbian bed death video. You are truly ecumenical.

I edit with Premiere Pro, and I really like it... perhaps just because I'm used to it. The home video is, admittedly, done quickly and on the cheap. On pro jobs, I work with a team of five or six people and Premiere has the flexibility to do just about everything. Well, After Effects is helpful, too.

My gargantuan Dell XPS M2010 laptop is more than equal to almost any editing job. I even have a RAID 0 hard drive, tuned for AV.

YouTube is great, but as you pointed out the video gets compressed, not once, but twice. The first compression is the transission from 720 x 480 to 360 x 240. The second compression is the conversion and publishing to Flash. Audio and video quality degrade markedly in the second compression. I really struggled to keep a sound track that included an ambient track and a voiceover track coherent.

I plan to use YouTube as a promotion tool for the band. Gigs are lined up. We're going to be stars of YouTube!

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 10, 2007 7:57 AM

Oh, and in response to the quality of the videos issue...

I look to YouTube for that "You Are There" experience. On my weblog, I've been linking to motorcycle ride videos in exotic locales.

I've found some great ones in the Philippines, India and Thailand.

And, I've been inspired to buy a camera mount for my Road King so that I can produce ride videos in upstate New York.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 10, 2007 8:00 AM

I love how understated Shouting Thomas' video is. It lets beautiful upstate New York speak for itself.

As for the lesbo thing: I now know more than I'd like to know about butch and femme.

Posted by: ricpic on August 10, 2007 8:52 AM

If you take a close look at Apple's Final Cut Pro, you'll discover a "movie-studio-in-a-box". I have been fascinated by the number of Hollywood films that are being produced using this software (including "300"). Given the type of quality you can extract from high definition video cameras which cost less than $3,000, the ready availability of commercial music and sound effects, and an internet ready, (nay, eager) to accept your creation, you now have absolutely no excuse for not going out and producing an epic.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 10, 2007 9:04 AM

Dougjnn -- Thanks for asking. A harddrive crash and need-to-make-a-living concerns have set us back a few weeks, but we're hoping to have it ready by September or October. It's really all our director's doing at this point -- I've seen a bit and it looks great. He put all our $6000 on screen. I'll find a way of letting people know about it when the time comes...

ST -- "You are there" is a great way of looking at it. Eager to see your own on-the-road vids.

Ricpic -- Maybe the art of letting things speak for themselves hasn't been entirely lost. Now: A Ricpic ode to the Finger Lakes.

Charlton -- It is amazing what's available today, isn't it? And hard not to imagine how cool tools will be in 5 years. Final Cut, though -- scary! But you're someone who handles ProTools ... Sigh. I need a personal computer tutor ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 10, 2007 10:14 AM

That video is the wrong kind of lesbians!

(BTW, am I the only one charmed out of my wits by the way British people say "Youchube"?)

Posted by: Brian on August 10, 2007 10:39 AM

What the computer can't replace is the sheer effort of producing something good. A friend of mine is a video nut, in fact he's worked as a news camera man for the local Fox station. I've helped him shoot his own projects a few times, and my god what a tedious process! No wonder so many in Hollywood are into drugs - it's the sheer boredom that does it.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on August 10, 2007 12:07 PM

Michael, maybe I linked to this already, but this podcast of the lonelygirl15 scriptwriters (warning: mp3!) was absolutely fascinating!

I was there at the panel a few months ago.

One point they made is how carefully they tailored the experiment to the Youtube website (and how moved away from the 1st person talk-to-the-camera thing).


Posted by: Robert Nagle on August 10, 2007 2:07 PM

Man, real life lesbians are boring. And earnest. I couldn't get past the 3:00 mark.

Posted by: Thursday on August 10, 2007 8:25 PM

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