Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Business of Storytelling

A little over a year or so my Dad mailed me a newspaper clipping of an ad for the Digital Discovery Center, an after-school program located in the suburb just west of their own in Bay Village, Ohio. It looks like a pretty cool place, and the credentials of the couple who own it (backgrounds in childhood development, special education, independent schools) are pretty stellar.

Click on the About section on their site and you learn that the Digital Discovery Center "provides children with hands-on access to sophisticated technology that is often missing from their current school programs. Robotics, digital filmmaking, and photography, and other forms of digital media are exciting new means of communication that captivate children and challenge them to develop their creativity and problem solving skills."

They offer courses in digital filmmaking, stop-motion animation, digital music creation and robotics. It's a niche that I can't help but think public libraries should more aggressively be looking to fill. The joint venture between the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County and the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, the remarkable ImaginOn, is the best and most exciting example of how public libraries should be responding to the fact that their patrons are no longer simply consuming media. They're creating it, as well. Lot's of it. Films, photographs, fan fiction, blogs, music and remixes. Distributed online to friends, family, and sometimes, mysteriously (virally), a few million of the curious who have followed a link to your YouTube post.

The folks who had the audacity to follow through and actually get ImaginOn built realized they were, at their chewy center, in the business of storytelling. And they realized their patrons, especially the younger ones, were hungry to tell their stories. So ImaginOn does just that. It doesn't matter if they're fictionalized or confessional, filmed against a blue screen or performed on a stage, using stop-motion animation or painted on a canvas, told through a dance or a song. The building is designed to help nurture and create stories by offering the tools, space and support to make it happen. (The above photograph is of one of ImaginOn's two performance spaces.)

Which makes me wonder. Does ImaginOn then archive the material these teenagers are creating? Does that content, with the creators consent, become part of the libraries permanent catalog? Can, for example, one teens ImaginOn supported documentary on skateboarding be accessed and watched (and commented on and tagged) by his peers via the libraries catalog?

I'd love to see a larger body of literature out there about ImaginOn, a Library Technology Report or a collection of essays, heck, a book written by some of its directors or an intrepid reporter. I want to know more about what's working and what isn't, I want to see some of the content that's being created and hear what the kids who created it thought about the process and what they thought of their end results. What kind of collaborating is happening and how is it being facilitated? Can their successes be replicated in other public libraries?

The sheer scale of what they're setting out to do at ImaginOn is almost too overwhelmingly good to be true. For a place in the business of telling stories, it very much needs to share its own.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Romance of Biking Rails-To-Trails

As Cathy can tell you, I find the whole rails-to-trails movement--of converting old, unused rail lines into multi-use trails--wildly romantic.

The whole rails-to-trails thing is all about riding my bike. No walking, definitely no jogging and certainly no roller-blading. It's all about me and my bike, the wind in my face and a unknown trail full of potential stretching and winding out ahead of me. It's all about riding those old railway routes, now tastefully, respectfully re-purposed and paved with asphalt and limestone (though I always imagine a dirt road, which somehow feels more appropriately Rockwellian) and getting a chance to ride my bike through interesting spaces not burdened by cars. I like the serendipity of it, too. Of the natural beauty these trails promise. Of the little towns they take you through, perfect, I always imagine, for stopping and grabbing some lunch.

Browsing the smart and unfussy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy site tonight, I fell under the spell of their December 2006 Trail of the Month: Wisconsin's Military Ridge State Park Trail. My romantic notions of rails-to-trails doesn't have time for any pint-sized trails. Anything under 20 miles seems too dainty, too potentially abrupt. The Wisconsin Military Ridge State Park Trail is a little over 40 miles long, which isn't too shabby. Most of it runs along what was once, according to the accompanying description, "the old Chicago and Northwestern (CNW) railway corridor." (See picture above of the Challenger, a train that ran on the CNW.)

And there's this:

It (the trail) flows uninterrupted from Dodgeville to Fitchburg through scenic farmland, woods and wetlands. In between, it meanders west to east through the communities of Ridgeway, Barneveld, Blue Mounts, Mount Horeb, Riley, Klevenville, and Verona.

"Meanders." I like that. The trail meanders. That's nice. After this winter, I definitely need to meander. But really it was this stunning photograph below that sold me:

Its alluring caption reads, "Several long stretches of trees provide shade along the trail." And, wait, is that a dirt road I see?

Close To The Edit II

Over the last few weeks I've been editing some home video with iMovie. It's a powerful little tool (at least as handy as a good Swiss army knife) and I can't imagine there's a better introduction to basic film/video editing out there. It's consistently intuitive and comes packed with more then enough decent editing tools to give anybody the editing bug. I know I've got it.

Reading the Walter Murch book has been the perfect antidote to my tinkering with the purely technical aspects of iMovie. Murch, as I've said before (but it's worth repeating), is an utterly compelling advocate of film-editing. His answers almost always offer perfectly revealing anecdotes, a scene he edited in Godfather II or Apocalypse Now (where Martin Sheens hypnotically intimate voice-over narration--written by the amazing Michael Herr, whose Dispatches is one of the best, most vivid historical accounts of Vietnam I've had the luck to read--is a good part of the allure the film has for me) and how he came to respectively shape them in the editing room and the affects he hoped they'd have on the films -on Coppola and Puzo's and Milius, Coppola and Herr's-respective narratives.

Editing allows for this near endless opportunities for massaging whatever materials you're working with. The ability to sequence, add musical cues, titles, photographs, voice overs, sound design, animations, among other editing effects--can all be used in service to whatever narrative, whatever story, you're trying to tell.

The goal, then, is to make that narrative a compelling one. I'm still working on that one.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Coming To Chicago This Wednesday!

Hello, first 70-degree day. Of course, depending on which way the wind blows, those us by the lake may be experiencing the dreaded lake-cooling effect. I'm always a little jealous of those western suburbs this time of year.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Robbins Barstow's Disneyland Dream

I'm a fan of Internet Archive, a "non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library, with the purpose of offering permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format."

Part of that noble mission includes Our Media, "an initiative devoted to creating and sharing works of personal media." That includes home movies, both old and new, good and bad. I've long been fascinated by video's contribution to family folklore and have come to cherish the Super-8's my Dad shot of my own family.

Corey Doctorow at the blog Boing Boing brought my attention to one of Our Media's gems, a 1956 home video made by Robbins Barstow, father and husband of one of the 25 lucky families to win the national Scotch Brand Disneyland contest--a week-long, expenses paid vacation to California and, of course, Disneyland.

The video's summary reads:

In July 1956, the five-member Barstow family of Wethersfield, Connecticut, won a free trip to newly-opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in a nationwide contest. This 30-minute amateur documentary film tells the fabulous story of their fun-filled, dream-come-true, family travel adventure, filmed on the scene at Walt Disney's "Magic Kingdom" by Robbins Barstow.

For a piece of amateur documentary filmmaking, it's beautifully crafted. Given that Barstow himself made it himself, it demonstrates a surprisingly canny understanding of narrative construction and editing on the fly. I suppose he could have spliced some of the footage together later (my Dad did some splicing about 15 years back on some of our own Super-8's), but I imagine much of it was simply shot linearly, the scenes filmed planned out by Barstow beforehand. And the amount of collaboration, especially at the beginning of the documentary when the family's neighbors gather round their car en mass, throwing confetti and seeing them off on their grand adventure, is pretty remarkable. And while Barstow, along with his wife Meg and his three children, is behind the camera for numerous scenes, there are just as many others where somebody else, one of those neighbors, a willing flight attendant, a Scotch Brand representative or a kind, willing stranger must have shot the footage, following Barstow's directions.

The recently added, enthusiastic narrative by Barstow himself (I'm not sure when, though a reference to the trip being "40-years ago" makes me think it must have been added sometime in the late 90's, if not 1996 itself), is perfect. Accompanying the visuals, Barstow lovingly retells the story of his family's Scotch Brand sponsored vacation. It's loving, corny, modest, completely lacking in irony and sprinkled with a gee-whiz vibe that's completely endearing.

Completely inspiring stuff.

Close To The Edit

I've been happily reading Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. It's a series of nicely freewheeling conversations Ondaatje, an author of some repute (good or bad, I don't know), had with the respected film editor/sound designer and all around polymath, Walter Murch. Ondaateje, who wrote The English Patient, became friends with Murch during the making of the film adaptation of that book. Murch was the film's editor and played an active role in helping to shape its overall sound design.

The book is winningly casual and Murch is completely game, wise and answering Ondaatje's questions with those elegant, perfectly formed paragraphs that I find myself both jealous of and thrilling to. The gift of highly articulate, maddeningly interesting gab.

In one of their conversations, Murch explains the decision behind not playing any music during the infamous restaurant scene of The Godfather where Pacino's Michael Corleone murders the police Captain and Sollozzo.

In the hands of another filmmaker, there would be tension music percolating under the surface. But Francis wanted to save everything for those big chords after Michael's dropped the gun....It's a classic example for me of the correct use of music, which is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than the device that creates the emotion.

To which I found myself nodding my head in vigorous affirmation. I can't tell you how many films I've seen that have made my teeth ache with an overload of musical frosting. These scores have all the bombast of an advertising jingle, their mission being to make the viewer feel something the narrative hasn't already managed to accomplish on its own. This is either because Michael Bay is directing or simply because the film should never have been rendered into existence in the first place.

My favorite films have musical cues that do just that--they collect and channel previously created emotion and they remind me of the breathtaking power of music and occasion. There's this great, magical music moment in one my favorite films from last year, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Ploy, where a hotel maid who's just had some very naughty relations with the hotel's bartender lays back on the bed she's just made, turns directly to the camera (the first and only time a character addresses the viewer) and lip-synche's a wonderfully languorous, post-coital Thai pop song. It's completely unexpected and yet a perfect, even giddy encapsulation of what's just come before it. The music acts as an exclamation mark. It's funny, touching, sexy and devastatingly charming.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Biting Fingers and Cultural Mimicry

I love it. There's a YouTube video called "Charlie bit my finger- again!" with over 16-million views and almost 21-thousand comments. And once you watch it you'll know why.

Maybe it's when he decides to tempt fate by putting his finger so brazenly in Charlie's mouth...again! Charlie, who can't be much more then one if even, is more then happy to chomp on that thing because it's what he does. He's chomping on everything he can get his little teething gums around. Charlie chomps on this big brothers finger, regretfully releases it before checking to make sure big brother is still of one piece and then, with an amazing sense of timing, waits a few perfect beats before busting out a big old mischievous finger-chomping laugh.

And of course there are remixes or remasters cropping up in its wake. The guy playing the big brother who gets his finger chomped in this one is particularly good , though nobody seems to be able to really nail Charlie.

I suppose if you want to get a peak into how teenagers are riffing on the user-generated content of others, especially those that become Internet cultural phenomenons like this one, you could do far worse then to spend a few minutes checking out some of the remixes, remakes and remasters that have appeared in the original Charlie video's wake, most of which have nicely managed to rack up thousands of their own views.

HBO's John Adams Bummer

I initially had high hopes for HBO's John Adams miniseries, an adaptation of David McCullough's excellent biography of the stout and certain little man who was to be our nation's second President. Sadly, the first couple episodes haven't exactly inspired me to want to bother with the final 5.

The first episode of the series, largely a demonstration of Adams' iron-willed commitment to the rule of law ("a government of laws, not of men," said he), isn't all bad. Paul Giamatti, the go-to for stout and portly roles, portrays Adams with competence if not much else. When appropriate, which the producers seem to have thought often, his eyes grow suitably misty at thoughts or speeches conveying justice, liberty and other self-evident truths.

Joining Giamatti in teary-eyed semblance is Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. A good deal of the success of McCullough's biography came from his powerful, expansive portrayal of Abigail Adams-- of her fierce intelligence and the political acumen of the council her husband (and Thomas Jefferson, among others) relied on--here, at least in the first couple episodes, she's regulated to uttering maxims and sharing her husbands bouts of lachrymosity. Linney, a better and more nuanced actor then Giamatti, does well with her cameos, but the series as a whole is devoted to our founding fathers. Linney's Abigail dispenses wisdom, scrubs floors and stares off into meaningful horizons while tending to the children and homestead.

Another check against the series comes from an abundance of fussy and downright goofy camera angles. The series' cinematographers (Danny Cohen and Tak Fujimoto, according to IMDb) fuss with the introductory framing of numerous scenes, placing the actors on oddly tilting floors, or as viewed through the spikes of a fence, the crease of a curtain or the partitions of a window, all of which has the jarring effect of calling attention to itself. "Look," it seems to say, "these were very topsy-turvy times, were they not? And, look, here we find ourselves catching a sneak of Abigail and John reading behind the curtains of their bed!" You might as well have had Linney reach up and grab the boom mic while they were at it. It's a pretty glaring intrusion on the narrative and any suspension of disbelief.

Still, Stephen Dillane's Thomas Jefferson is pretty great--both otherworldly and wise. And Sarah Polley arrives somewhere over the course of the remaining 5 episodes as the adult Abigail "Nabby" Adams, smallpox-inoculation-gone-terribly-astray-survivor and daughter of John and Abby. Neither, though, are probably enough to bring me back for any more servings.