Thursday, March 25, 2010

When Science Trumps Art

What to Blame When Bad Blockbusters Dominate the Box Office
By Nick Wassenberg

Despite prominent ridicule of Michael Bay's predilection for prioritizing gratuitous explosions over plot, 2009's Transformers sequel Revenge of the Fallen held top spots the box office charts for nearly two months before other high-profile films (Harry Potter 6, followed by District 9) stole the limelight -- no small feat considering the across-the-board panning it received from both esteemed reviewers and die-hard Transformers fans alike. Some argue that on-screen combustion and extensive action scenes cater to our generation of movie-goers which, when combined with the American public's fondness for escape via entertainment, contributed to the film's profits.

Professor James Cutting of Cornell University believes blockbuster success is due, in part, to manipulation of the audience's attention span.

Utilizing a process called the 'Fourier transform', people like James Cutting are able to apply a mathematical pattern of waves (representing the lengths of shots in a movie) known as 1/f fluctuation, to the behavior of a consumer's attention span. When overlaid, the two plots illustrate a significant effect made by the timing of cuts in accordance the audience's fluttering attention span. "...the more recent the blockbuster,
the more closely the length of its shots followed that
same fluctuation."

In the diagram above, Cutting compares the editorial timing of three movies from vastly separate eras. 2005's King Kong, though delivering less than was hyped, largely adheres to the 1/f pattern, whereas 1945's Detour, held in high regard, shares little resemblance. Yet despite its shortcomings, King Kong profited as admirably as Detour. The remarkable thing about this pairing is that King Kong tips the scales at over three hours long -- quite the oddity in a society driven by instant gratification and multitasking -- but succeeded in captivating its audience by following the 1/f formula. To contrast, the audiences flocking to Detour hadn't suffered from the same attention deficiency, allowing the film to flourish on its own merits.

Cutting doesn’t believe that this increasing conformity to the 1/f fluctuation resulted from a conscious decision on the part of the directors. Rather, he theorizes that films which fall into people’s viewing sweet spot better hold their attention, and thus seem more gripping, and make more money. Then the other directors naturally copy the pace of the more exciting, more profitable movies, and the 1/f fluctuation trend spreads.”

Not even industry-revolutionizing productions are exempt from using the Fourier transform method to engage their audiences. James Cameron's Avatar, weak in plot but employing myriad visual tricks and treats, is now the highest-grossing film of all time, not accounting for inflation. George Lucas' Revenge of the Sith, though victim of Lucas' diminishing popularity and riddled with continuity errors, also placed highly at the box office. While these two examples are deserving of their box office recognition (the former ushering in a new age of film-making and the latter delivering the final chapter of a hugely successful and cultural franchise), the relative success of the Transformers sequel could have the 1/f formula to thank for its domestic accomplishment, as might an alarming number of big-budget films from the past decade.

So while film students everywhere strive to instill innovative and artistic value into their productions, they'd do well to introduce another factor into their work: the Fourier method of ensnaring the masses.

James Cutting's full text can be found here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

SIP and UAT's arts degrees

"These kids are ALL your students?" Danny Trejo asked me. It was May 2008 and we were on the set of my short film "Cowboy Dreams." Or more accurately, on location - a distant patch of dirt in WAY north Scottsdale - and we were entering our 15th hour of production on a day beset by 30 degrees' worth of temperature changes, bugs the size of softballs, and a couple of supposedly "harmless" snakes. As one would expect, action-movie icon Danny Trejo was a real trouper and handled the work - and the weirdness of the day - with cool professionalism. "I can't believe they're all just college students," he continued. "They all really know what they're doing, man. I wouldn't have known that they weren't professionals." And he laughed with that signature laugh of his that might be the last thing you hear before he kills you with his bare hands if he wasn't the nicest guy in the world.

This is not the first time I have heard this sort of sentiment about my students. Nor was it the last. I have heard it time and time and time again, from producers, directors, actors, writers, cinematographers, editors, film festival programmers, Emmy selection committees, and more. So when Danny Trejo said it, I felt a familiar sense of pride and smiled a familiar smile. He was saying exactly what I expected him to say, just as his co-star Bill Engvall had earlier in the day.

Now I hear my students leading the charge against the Senior Innovation Project and to be honest, I am as proud of them about that as I was that day on the set of "Cowboy Dreams." Because that ability to think critically, ask the hard questions, and challenge the status quo is what sets UAT students - ALL of you - apart from those that would be considered "just" college students. And that is the soul of "innovation."

I know a lot of you in the arts degrees feel like the Senior Innovation Project is the UAT administration's way of somehow penalizing you for choosing the arts instead of the sciences. For a while I felt that way too, even though I was asked to "get behind SIP" and help make it more palatable to my students. "But my students need to be honing their skills, producing work, and building their portfolios - not writing proposals and filing patents!" I thought. But that's because - like many of you - I think that "innovation" word intimidated me. In my mind "innovation" in digital video was only happening in the labs of the camera manufacturers like Sony and Canon, in the code-pits of software companies like Avid and Adobe, in studios like Pixar or Industrial Light and Magic with visionaries like John Lasseter or George Lucas at the helm, or on productions like Avatar with a seemingly limitless budget and a decade or more of research and development. "How the hell am I supposed to teach my students THAT?"

But wait a second... film grammar hasn't changed IN A CENTURY. All of us who work in this medium - from Lucas and Lasseter all the way down to you, me, and the 13-year-old kid in his backyard with a Flip camera - are using the same types of shots pioneered by D.W. Griffith and editing with the same principles established by Sergei Eisenstein in the silent era. So when James Cameron was making Avatar, sure, he was innovating - but he was also taking part in an established continuum of filmmaking aesthetics and technology that dates back to the end of the 19th century. So you could say that the statement that "there's no way to innovate shots and cuts" is a spurious argument against SIP because Cameron and these other innovators we all so admire are proving that argument wrong on a daily basis. They are using new tools to create new solutions to new problems that Griffith and Eisenstein couldn't even imagine much less solve in their day - but all these new tools and solutions are still in service of a storytelling style that hasn't significantly changed in spite of the fact that LITERALLY everything else has in the past century.

Let's look at this word "innovate." What does it mean? defines it as: "to introduce something new; make changes in anything established." By that definition I would argue that you are all ALREADY innovating. The fact that an established, seasoned professional such as Danny Trejo looked upon a group of UAT students as something more than "just college students" meets this definition. As a group, the students of the UAT Digital Video Program made a change in something established - they "innovated" the perception of what a college student could be. And I would argue that all of you do that on a daily basis.

The problem is, most of you don't know how to communicate it effectively. You don't give yourselves the credit you deserve as innovators, much less blow your own horn about it. I'd bet that nearly every student at UAT knows I am the resident filmmaker around here and knows me at least by name if not by sight. The DV Program gets a disproportionate share of attention from the marketing department, the provost, the deans, the president, vice president, etc. etc. EVERYONE asks me what I'm working on next, how is "Fallout" going, when are we having a screening, blah blah blah ad nauseum. Why is that? IT'S BECAUSE I NEVER SHUT UP about what I am doing, what my students are doing, and what cool project we have coming next, that's why!

So what does this mean for you as an arts student as you face your SIP requirement? Well, first really stop and think about what you're innovating. Not what you could innovate, would innovate, should innovate, yadda yadda yadda - what you ARE innovating. RIGHT. NOW. (And if you're NOT innovating, then you need to fix that today.) But I would guess that most of you are. I KNOW my students are, because I see them in the Editing Lab and the Greenscreen Studio everyday, thinking through solutions to apply off-the-shelf equipment and software to solve complex problems that are unique to the projects they are working on. No, we're not making Avatar - but we ARE doing groundbreaking stuff that other college students aren't even dreaming about - without the benefit of a bajillion dollars and a decade of research and a team of programmers and IV drips full of espresso. (If one of you could innovate that last one I would be really, really happy.)

Now look at SIP as your time to shine, your opportunity to blow your own horn and let all of UAT and beyond know what you are doing. And not just that it's "cool" or "fun." SIP is about expecting more than that. It's about expecting you to be able to communicate your passion, your thought process, and your ability to think outside the box in a way that engages and informs your audience. (Kinda like what you're doing when you make a movie, animation, or game.)

So your mission now is to take all your anger over SIP, all that vitriol you have spewed at the Student Government meetings and on these boards, all your fear, doubt, and worry, and put ALL that energy into taking the innovations YOU'RE ALREADY DOING and make them work as your SIP, rather than wasting another second on something you are ambivalent about at best. No, you may not be building the world of Pandora or building a camera to rival the RED - but you ARE doing so much more than the average college student. Believe me when I say this. And if you don't believe me, then you HAVE to believe Danny Trejo. Or he may kill you with his bare hands.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

DV Equipment Use Over Spring Break

Regarding the use of DV Equipment during Spring Break:

Posted Library hours are 9am to 4pm during the week of Spring Break, but may be irregular due to employee vacations. Students are advised to call the Library to confirm that they are open for pick up or return of equipment. Library Phone: 602-383-8243.

Equipment may be checked out for daytime use during the Library's open hours, or may be checked out for overnight use.

Daytime checkouts must be returned BEFORE the Library closes for the day. It is the student's responsibility to confirm the Library's hours for the day.

Overnight checkouts must be returned by 10:30 am the next business day, as per normal operating procedure. If the Library is not open before 10:30 am, then the equipment must be returned as soon as the Library is open. Again, call to confirm.

Students engaging in productions carrying over multiple days MUST return the equipment the next business day for return and inspection and then check it out again.

Under no circumstances is DV Equipment to leave the Phoenix Metro Area.

Violation of any of these policies and procedures may jeopardize your equipment borrowing privileges for the remainder of the semester.

Any questions or concerns, I may be reached at I am now receiving UAT emails on my phone and should be able to respond immediately.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Master of Color Correction

As a regular follower of Stu Maschwitz's ProLost blog (you may remember Stu as the author of our DVA101 textbook The DV Rebel's Guide), I've noticed that Stu seems a tad obsessed with color correction. And if you've seen my feature The Falls you know it's a subject of some fascination for me as well.

Stu's most recent color correction post "Memory Colors" got me looking back through some of his earlier posts on the subject and it looks like this exploration of the how the human brain processes color is an extension of his earlier examinations of how Hollywood's blockbuster film all seem to be utilizing a color correction scheme that places great emphasis on skin tones.

From October 2007 - "Hue are you?" looks at the fact that all human skin tones, regardless of ethnicity, fall onto the same axis of teh vectorscope and therefore are a lot more homogeneous than we realize.

From March 2008 - "Save Our Skins" takes that a step further and looks at the Hollywood color correction trend of keeping people "porange" (pinkish-orange), regardless of the overall "look" of the film.

From June 2009 - "Got Me a Side Job" talks about Stu's gig working with Red Giant software on their Magic Bullet product line. But most importantly, in the included video tutorial Stu walks us through how to recreate the looks of several Hollywood blockbusters using said software. But even without Stu's fancy plugins, his logic and methodology can be adapted for use with whatever color correction filters you have on hand. Worth a watch!

And now from February 2010 - "Memory Colors" further explores the topic and how human memory affects our perception of not just skin tones, but everything from cabs to coffee beans.

One of the coolest tips I've picked up from Stu - this free tool from Adobe called "Kuler" which can be used to very quickly develop a color scheme for your designs, artwork, color correction, whatever. Be sure to bookmark it!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Free Guide to All Photoshop Filters

Scott Simmons of the Studio Daily Blog writes:
Everyone out there working in post-production is bound to have Photoshop and use it on a regular basis. It’s one of those must have applications for Avid and Final Cut Pro editors alike. Richard Harrington, video trainer, author and creator of the Photoshop for Video series, has pulled what looks like a chapter from one of his Photoshop books and placed it out on the interweb for all to download for free. The chapter is called Maximizing Filters and while there is a lot of good basic filter information the real handy thing in this 39 page document are the descriptions and photo examples of pretty much every Photoshop filter in there. It also includes a lot of tips and tricks in the document as well. It’s a big file, around 25 megs. Here’s the direct link to the pdf file. When you’re done with that check out Rich’s other books as well. There’s always something new to learn about Photoshop.