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March 23, 2009

Movies and Video, Pro and Am

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Back in around 2000, Apple introduced an iMac that they called the "video iMac." The machine was supposed to be an easy-to-use darling that was up to the demands of video editing. Apple produced a blizzard of stylish, warm-'n'-huggy ads suggesting that you could now create movies that would be as slick as anything a pro director might put together. I sprang for a video iMac instantly.

As it turned out, the machine was a very nice little computer -- but, where video went, it was a long, long way from living up to Apple's claims for it. The hard drive wasn't nearly big enough; the processor wasn't nearly fast enough.

Despite the sluggishness of the process, I spent some time playing around with video on my video iMac, getting to know the then-current version of Apple's video-editing-for-hobbyists program iMovie. It was more fun and instructive as a taste of what might one day be than as a satisfying experience in its own right, to put it mildly. The experts were able to envision a time when everyday people would be using video freely. Heck, I was too. But it hadn't arrived yet.

More interesting to me than the experience of making video on the video iMac were the feelings and thoughts that monkeying around with iMovie set off in me. I had myself a big wrestle with the word "movies," for instance.

Movies ... Movies ... What does that word really signify anyway?

Apple (and many journalists) yakked freely about using home computers for "moviemaking." I balked at this, mainly because what the word "movies" calls up in my brain isn't home footage of adorable kids, riotous dog-bathing sessions, and blissed-out ski vacations. What the word "movies" means to me is Takashi Miike, "Rules of the Game," "Casablanca" and the like: elaborate, enacted, visual / narrative experiences of some length and complexity.

Now, I know perfectly well that the word isn't as restrictive as I'm using it here. Home movies, experimental movies, industrial and educational movies, and short movies have been part of the "movies" cosmos for a long time.

Still, on an instinctual level I couldn't help feeling some exasperation with the claim that the couple-of-minutes-long jumbles of informal clips set to pop music that iMovie was usually used to create qualified as "movies." And I felt indignant that Apple was trying to convince people that they'd be able to create anything resembling real movies on an iMac.

So, what was I to do about the word "movies"? I chewed this question over for a long time. Finally, as far as home iMovie-style creations went, I found myself thinking of them not a "movies" but as "personal videos."

With this decision I breathed a sigh of relief. Rather than resenting these little nothings for not being "movies," I was able to start enjoying them as creations in their own right. I was also able to let go of my protectiveness about "movies" and enjoy the larger panorama of what was emerging in our audiovisual atmosphere. As Matt Mullenix wrote in a comment on this blog recently, what we're experiencing these days is a much-enriched media ecosystem. Why not dig -- or at least explore -- it?

A few years went by, and I started having my doubts about theatrical presentations as well. As feature films started passing through more and more computers on their way to audiences, I found myself wondering if maybe they no longer qualified as "movies" either.

As experiences, the new cyberspectacles were often mind-warpers -- but they had very little in common with the movies from 1895 to around 1990 that I often loved. As far as I could tell, they had far more in common with videogames and TV ads than they did with "The Great Train Robbery" or "Lola Montes." And I don't have much interest in videogames or TV ads.

I knew perfectly well that the argument can be made that, "Well, this is what 'movies' have become. Get used to it." And, socially, I long ago made that adjustment. Got to get along with people, after all, and got to be able to make yourself understood too. But for myself ... on an emotional / aesthetic / primitive level ... Nope. I just couldn't see much of a connection between Zemeckis' "Beowulf" and, say, "Claire's Knee," "The Navigator," and "Thunder Road."

Since it seemed to me useful to consider the cyber-spectacles to be one entertainment form and "movies" quite another, what to do about the word "movies" in the case of feature films?

I had myself a prolonged wrestle with this question too. Upshot: I started thinking of computerized theatrical presentations as "digital audiovisual-through-time entertainments."

That was a nice adjustment as well. It enabled me to make sense of myself as someone who is a fan of movies while also being someone who is unenthusiastic about "digital audiovisual-through-time entertainments." (For more on my reactions to today's cyberspectacles, read my posting about the movie -- oops! I mean, the digital audiovisual-through-time entertainment -- "300.")

Cut to today. It's a world where even the cheapest digicams are capable of recording passable video clips. New iMacs have much bigger hard drives and much faster processors than my old "video iMac" did. Although Pixar productions and "Matrix" sequels still require vast amounts of resources -- to mention only a few: rooms full of computers, teams of geeks, fancy financial arrangements, and months of heavy processing -- a new iMac is capable of doing a swell job of managing and polishing amateur-quality video. I wouldn't say that the experience of working with videoclips on an iMac quite matches the ease and convenience of, say, composing and shooting off email messages. Still: gettin' a lot closer. Nice.

All the above is a long prologue to the main musing I want to venture in this posting. After these wrestles with computers, video, and entertainment developments, and with my own laughable "what's a movie?" crises too, I've come up with a taxonomy that I'm kinda proud of. Maybe you'll find it useful. Here it is:

Main category: "audiovisual-through-time entertainment." Subcategories:

  • If the creation under consideration is a traditional movie, I think of it as "a classical movie." A recent example: Claude Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two," starring the ultra-delicious Ludivine Sagnier (and available, so far as I can tell, only through Blockbuster). Though it's a long way from perfect, I loved it purely because it's a sumptuously crafted traditional movie that peddles traditional movie values. Watching the Chabrol was like sitting down to eat a beautifully-made French meal. Demanding that it be anything other than what it was would have been uncivilized.

  • If the thing under consideration is electronic, impressive, and big, I think of it as "professional computer-video." This subcategory includes most theatrical movies these days, as well as all commercial TV.

  • If what we're discussing is something that might have been done on an iMac, then I think of it as "personal computer-video." That includes amateur and hobbyist creations.

(Incidentally: Yes, thank you, I do know that there are some kinds of productions that fall somewhere between these categories. Wedding videos, for instance -- pro or personal? I'm leaving it to lesser mortals to sort out these questions.)

Let me admit here that I'm not trying to speak with my usual Olympian detachment. (Small joke.) Instead, I'm an interested party. Howso? Well, though I long ago gave up all dreams of making feature movies, I've retained a desire to use audiovisual-thru-time material in far-less-ambitious ways. Seems cool and fun, for one thing. Plus, while it's great giving Netflix a workout and yakking viewing experiences over with the very insightful Wife, I crave a little something more in the way of participation.

I'm someone, in other words, who wants to use video. Now that it has become the plausible-for-civilians thing that I've always wanted it to be, I've found that I'm also someone who is looking around for guidance about how to use video in low-energy, personal ways. That's the main reason I'm so proud of the above taxonomy. It has enabled me to sort a few things out.

Predicament: I have a brain shaped to some extent by traditional movies ... I have a strong attachment to traditional movies ... But traditional movies are of no help whatsoever where the question "What kind of use might I-the-amateur put computer-video to?" goes. Tracking shots? Crowd scenes? More than a little beyond what I can command. To be honest, given my present energies and resources, even the idea of setting up a light seems a little overwhelming.

Where to turn then for ideas and inspiration? Obviously not to my category of "professional computer-video." The ads and entertainments we watch on our TV screens are amazingly high-tech productions. Think about a routine basketball-game broadcast. The investments behind it ... The legal arrangements ... The crew size ... The collections of cameras, mikes, computers, and cords ... While the players move the ball back and forth, the crew broadcasting the action represents millions of dollars, hundreds of professionals, and a great big infrastructure. An NBA game shown on TV may not be quite the equivalent, wowee-technology-wise, of a NASA rocket launch. But it's pretty damned impressive event in its own right.

Solution: Look instead to other creators of personal computer-video. Don't covet tracks, extras, satellites, and graphics-and-research departments. Instead, look at what other hobbyists are doing.

So that's what I've been up to -- abandoning my traditional movie ambitions and tastes and looking to webcam girls, to pet-video-makers, and to videobloggers as my masters instead. I'm trying to think less in terms of such trad techniques as crosscutting and staging, and more in terms of hobbyists' semi-unconscious tics: direct-address-to-the-webcam; the jump-cutting-within-a-webcam shot; the wandering-around point-of-view shot; fun found footage; laying self-scornful, "ironic," or jokey titles on top of footage ... I'm tempted to get a pet just so I can turn a videocamera on it.

Thinking about my videomaking life in this way has got me thinking some thoughts I'm finding entertaining. For example: If movies and TV have their own language and set of practices, perhaps hobbyist computer-video does too. These practices may be far more modest and informal (and far less well-recognized and picked-over) than the glitzy stuff -- but is there any reason not to give 'em some attention and respect? After all, isn't what we have here a grassroots, bottom-up, populist phenomenon? Perhaps it's even an artform a-borning.

Some comparisons: Flickr. Status Updating on Facebook. Tweeting on Twitter.

Does anyone want to argue that these aren't fun phenomena? Or that they don't represent an impressive upsurge of real-people energies and (sometimes) talents? It may all be uncouth, messy, and overwhelming. But if there's an awful lot of skippable material out there, there's also an amazing richness too: commenters and Updaters whose observations you always look forward to reading, clever and gifted models and image-makers ... Lots more people turn out to have talents, brains, and knacks than we ever had reason to suspect, it turns out.

So far as audiovisual-through-time-productions go ... Well, if I'm mostly bored by what's happening at the high end, I couldn't be more psyched about the low-end. Email has transformed writing; blogging has transformed publishing; digicams (and digital sharing) have turned photography topsy-turvy; and being able to put a link up on Facebook delivers its own kind of communicative high. Soon video will be part of this.

Actually, of course, many of us have already had tastes of the participatory video world to come. If you've emailed someone a link to an online video, or left a comment on a video, or collected a list of your Favorites at YouTube, then you've already taken part in the bottom-up world of personal computer-video.

To spatter out some more comparisons:

  • Fixating on high-end "movies" while ignoring what's happening at YouTube ... Well, isn't that like visiting Manhattan and doing nothing but taking in the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty? Isn't it worthwhile as well to check out Greenwich Village and the quiet blocks on the Upper East Side off Park, and to relax in some restaurants and parks too?
  • Christopher Alexander. While the architecture academics and the achitecture editors spin theories to justify their preferred overscaled, torque'd perfume bottles, Alexander, Salingaros, and the New Traditionalists are offering real people concrete ideas and techniques that can be used here and now to enhance the built-environment parts of their lives.
  • Blogging. Would any account of reading and writing over the last ten years be complete (or even sensible) if it took no account of blogging? This may just be me, but the advent of blogging strikes me as far more significant (not to say fun and interesting) than most of what novelists have been up to.

To my mind, the current amateur video scene is in many ways akin to the old avant-garde movie scene. Though it has little of the awareness, the intellectuality, and the self-conscious refinement of that old scene, it's similarly fizzy and inventive -- and (to my mind) just as aesthetically fascinating.

(Incidentally, and just for the record: One major obstacle yet to be overcome where the mass adoption of video goes is formats. Good Christ, formats ... There are not only a few dozen video formats out there, there are many different audio formats too. Multiply those two numbers times each other and you wind up with hundreds of possible combos. In other words, the video files from that brand new memory-card vidcam you just bought? The one that you hoped would prove so convenient? Well, they may or may not play in the video editor that's on your computer. And if they don't, then you're going to find yourself spending a lot of time "transcoding" the video you've shot. Let's not even go into the question of getting screen ratios to output the way you want them to. Get it together, video manufacturers. If digital cameras shot not just in RAW and jpg but in hundreds of other formats too, would Flickr have been possible? Would the still-digicam business be nearly the size it is?)

So far as amateur-vid forms go, I'm a huge fan of the way so many people have discovered simple interviewing. There are loads of interesting people in the world -- why not sit them down and ask them a few questions? Why is anything at all in the way of ritzy or flashy effects needed? Here's one example I enjoyed: The photographer Frederick Van talks to Mac expert Jim Heid. Incidentally, I didn't watch each and every second of that interview, though I did listen to the entire thing. But maybe that's OK. Maybe we can not only make computer-video as we see fit, maybe we can consume it as we see fit too.

OK, I confess that this torrent of jottings was triggered off by the personal computer-videos of one guy in particular. You may have watched his creations already; I'm certainly late in running across them.

He calls himself MrChiCity3, and good lord is that man ever bursting with energy, ideas, and humor. For a likable and funny example of his videoschtick, here's Chi's very popular "Keeping your refrigerator stocked will get you many women." NSFW for tons of exuberantly crude language.

Beyond my general sense of smiley pleasure in watching this vid, two things interest me. One is the way that personality can emerge from a short, no-budget video piece just as explosively as it can from any other setting. This isn't just a guy from the 'hood who has a good sidewalk persona doing his thing for the camera. It's a funny guy from the 'hood really using video to put his persona / act across.

Now, no pretentious claims here. After all, Chi fumbles words, uses (to all appearances) only one shot, and his camera often goes out of focus. But who cares? From the point of view of informal personal video, there's a lot going on in his vid. A few of them: videoblogging. Performance art. Standup comedy. Branding. Informal horsing around.

It's interesting that Chi doesn't seem to have made his vid willy nilly. I'm guessing that Chi put some real thought, planning, and energy into his vid. I assume that he 1) worked up an idea for the vid; 2) went to the trouble of preparing his set and his props -- arranging the contents of the fridge and the food closet, making sure that the handwritten sign was taped on the outside of the fridge; 3: decided deliberately which order to make his points and his jokes in; and 4) rehearsed the piece a few times.

Watch the masterful use of his hands in front of the camera, and listen to the slickness of his rap and the pacing and the ordering of his jokes. Register too that Chi never shows his own face. That's a genuine aesthetic choice. Given that the first thing most videobloggers do is point the camera at themselves, it's maybe even a radical one.

A few ideas I take away from Chi's video: Put a couple of minutes into coming up with an actual idea. Be willing to invest energy in setting some modest visuals up beforehand. And of course: Show your own face -- or don't.

By the way: The Wife is convinced that Chi isn't a real guy, that he's instead a new version of LonelyGirl13. Perhaps he's the brainchild of some Chicago improv group. She may be right -- but from the point of view of enjoying his videos, as well as stealing some ideas and inspiration from them, does it really matter?

Watch more of MrChiCity3's videos here. Read interviews with him here and here.

Bonus Links:

  • The excellent movie-industry reporter Anne Thompson does a Flipcam interview with "Mumblecore" director Joe Swanberg and actress Jess Weixler. Anne has posted a number of her FlipCam interviews here.
  • Is Apple's new iMovie '09 the video-editor-for-everyone that will finally make using video as commonplace as slinging jpg's around already is? John August says it's partway there. Sadly my current three-year-old iMac doesn't have what it takes to run iMovie '09 ...



UPDATE: Here's a moody short travelogue that showcases some of the slickness that iMovie '09 is capable of:

posted by Michael at March 23, 2009


Home movies.

Posted by: JV on March 23, 2009 9:47 PM

Yeah, only now much easier to do, and with numerous ways to show 'em off. Game-changers, both of them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 24, 2009 9:20 AM

Pupu has a crush on Chi!

Posted by: Pupu on March 24, 2009 1:04 PM

Pupu always demonstrates the best taste.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 24, 2009 2:15 PM

To my mind, movies (or motion pictures) are type of art form, like music, dance, painting, architecture or literature, so to my mind all of the phenonmena Michael talks about here, classic films to whooshy entertainments, are all movies. Of course, what you can many extremely different styles and genres within any particular art form, so I don't think it is wrong to distinguish between them. Jazz is not Western classical music is not Ukrainian folk music is not heavy metal. So, what Michael thinks of as "movies," I would simply call classic film. But it is important to remember that all these various things are operating within on particular art form, that is motion pictures.

Posted by: Thursday on March 24, 2009 2:48 PM


Thank you for the kind words. At 2Blowhards, it is not hard to have crushes!

Posted by: Pupu on March 24, 2009 4:46 PM


Have you looked at some of the really popular Youtube producers? When I first started looking closely at Youtube, I was amazed by the phenomenon of these people making fairly tedious videos, who amassed huge followings. Case in point is the guy who calls himself Renetto (Paul Robinette) whose videos have never held my attention for more than thirty seconds, but has 40,000 subscribers.

I really puzzled over the popularity of people like Renetto, and I concluded that people like these peeks into other people's lives, even if the content is somewhat tedious. There is definitely a different aesthetic and set of expectations for these producers.

Posted by: James on March 24, 2009 11:00 PM

Pupu always demonstrates the best taste.

Posted by Michael Blowhard at March 24, 2009

What a touching "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" moment here at 2blisters, complete with sound effects no less.

Posted by: shiva on March 25, 2009 4:00 PM

The availability of cheap, high quality filmmaking (including video) equipment hasn't sparked an outpouring, let alone a trickle, of quality narrative films that are then distributed online.

I have yet to hear of or see one. The user-generated content I've sampled is solipsistic, amateurish and juvenile. Worthless stuff.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 26, 2009 3:20 AM

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