Taking out the good lines

February 6, 2008

Hillman Curtis is one clear-thinking web designer, who has evolved into video production. (I am a video producer, who has evolved into web design and branding). In his book, MTIV, he quotes Hemingway: “Write the story. Then take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.”

That’s the key to effective storytelling. The good lines too often get in the way of the story, and I think the main reason why “college video” has become a term of derision is that most of the videos focus on delivering “good lines” rather than authentic stories.

A video I really saw by Chapman University is a case in point. It starts with a long shot of the President, who addresses the camera and talks about the 4 pillars of Chapman as the camera pulls back to reveal the literal pillars of the administration building. There’s a good line that needs to be killed off because it is deadly to viewership. He’s followed by a student who’s obviously reading a teleprompter. More good lines that get the talking points in, but kill the authenticity and completely fail to establish a story.

The only way to tell a story is to let a person talk about something they care about — usually their own experience. If after a few seconds we sense that their story is interesting to us, we may watch.

That’s it. Take out ALL the good lines, and see if it works. Because in college video, it definitely WILL NOT work if the lines are left in there.

Inspiration – II

February 3, 2008

New York 17

New England 14

A concession to techno talk

February 2, 2008

So, yes, the thinking is what counts. But what about tools?

Well, I am a cameraman along with my other duties, and as a cameraman I like a camera that responds to my efforts and gives me a product that I can use. Lately, that has been the JVC HD-100 hi-def camera. It happens to be a very popular camera right now, for good reason. It’s got an amazing picture and it handles well, not like a lot of the other hi-def cameras that have crowded into the market.

And it happens that Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, also happens to own and love this camera. You can see an interview of him talking about the convenience and utility of this camera as a documentary workhorse here.

Is it perfect? No. Is it the only camera I use? No way. But for a lot of what we do, it’s a very useful tool for the arsenal.

Inspiration – I

February 2, 2008

I used my days of travel to gather some inspiration.

An old photography textbook in our room at Haley’s Hotel offered a quaint perspective:

“The essence of art is only partially concerned with materials and processes … brush, paint, crayon… are merely media of art. They can give no guaranty of art success any more than T square and triangle can produce architectural excellence…. So it is with the camera…. No amount of technical knowledge, craftsmanship, and care can make the camera produce art when it is guided by a nonartist. The camera, then, is a sensitive tool that responds to the thinking of the person who operates it.” (italics theirs)

(from Photographic Composition by Ben Clements and David Rosenfeld)

“The thinking of the person who operates”… Yes, everything in the cinematic arts hinges on the thinking of the artist, or newsman, or journalist, who controls the camera. Which lens? Which angle? Whose reaction?

A good case in point for me recently came while watching The Truman Show. Near the end of the movie, when Truman hits the sky-wall, Peter Weir (who gave us Witness, Dead Poets Society, and Fearless) chose to show the moment of anguish as a medium shot, from behind. Without seeing his face, we are left with only his body language, his fruitless attempts to break out of his prison with fists and body slams. When Jim Carrey finally spins around to reveal the agony in his face, it is all the more moving and poignant. This is directorial thought at its best.

Another example is in the movie Sleepers. Jason Patric’s character finally reveals to the priest, Father Bobby (played by Robert De Niro), the dark secrets that the boys have been living with since their incarceration for a childish prank. Barry Levinson directs that instead of playing Patric’s face and hearing his actual dialogue, we lock on a closeup of De Niro. For something like 30 seconds (and it feels like minutes) the audio goes into “hyper-reality” — the sound of words without the intelligibility — and we read the pain in a sympathetic face, as De Niro comes to grips with the horror the boy experienced in jail. It’s a master stroke. Levinson, like Weir, is a director who thinks about the truth, about the complexities and nuances of human reality. In this case it’s about how it could be more “moral” for a priest to lie under oath than to put the murder of a soulless man higher than the murder of a boy’s soul.

The best of cinematic storytelling occurs when thought is paramount…. when the goal is not to scintillate (explosions, car chases, skin) but to ruminate. With excellent actors, the thinking occurs when they and the director invest time in the back-story, developing the inner motivation and character dynamics that make each moment of word and action “realistic”. In documentary-style story-telling, the thinking occurs during shooting and editing, when the cameraman senses what is relevant or transcendant in what is unfolding, and chooses to focus on the decisive moment. Like a miner panning for gold, he looks for the glittering nuggets, and then swirls them in the pan until the mud clears away. And then, in the editing process, he thinks carefully about how to sequence, juxtapose, and set the best moments into a story that breathes with life and authenticity.

We’ve all seen boring documentaries. We’ve all seen bad movies. And the term “college video” has earned its own category of disregard. It is in the thinking, not the production values, that the fault can be found. In fact, I think that people will forgive bad production values if the story is authentic and the thinking quality is evident.

“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Which is why all the talk about cameras and formats among “video guys” is so meaningless and beside-the-point. What matters is the thinking of the cameraman and the editor. Period. To use Cartier-Bresson’s self-description, the successful communicator of an institutional ethos needs “the velvet hand, the hawk’s eye”. It’s not a skill as much as a state of mind that I aspire to … the mind of a painter of birds. Patient, observant, unobtrusive, in love with his subject. Those are the kinds of artistry that inspire me.

Learning is the Teacher’s responsibility

February 1, 2008

This ought to ruffle some feathers….

Reflecting on the technology and boredom issues in the classroom, raised in Michael Wesch’s “A Vision of Today’s Student” (see previous post), I am not going to blame the student, even though they’re an easy target; nor the university system, where the economics pressure inexperienced teachers into the classroom; nor the fat, overindulged American society as a whole; I’m going to side with those who put the ultimate responsibility for daily engagement with students on the individual teacher.

Bruce Wilkinson, in his 7 Laws of the Learner, says the responsibility to communicate rests with the teacher, and lists a lot of excellent tips on how teachers can do that more effectively… even when students don’t seem interested. Though specifically directed to a religious audience I think the principles apply in secular settings as well.

Here are his 7 maxims with my own comments:

Maxim 1: Teachers are responsible to cause students to learn.

Here’s Bruce’s diagram to show that, yes, students must take responsibility for listening, but teachers have the power to unlock and motivate that action through their content and delivery and, most importantly in my view, their personal authentic passion for the material. Note that the “cause to learn” function is separate and distinct from the “Words” and content. Presenting the content is not teaching. Teaching is the process of figuring out how to establish the necessary motivation, attention, and human connection to bridge the synapse between the two parties, teacher and student.

7 Laws illustration

Maxim 2: (restated) Teachers are accountable for their influence.

For me this attitude was epitomized by Chauncey Veatch, the keynote speaker at the NACAC national conference last fall in Austin. His address was the most moving speech I have ever heard… and he spoke of how he entered teaching as more of a calling and obligation than a career. His description of the impoverished Latino community whose lives he has transformed was absolutely inspiring. You can read a similar address here.

Maxim 3: Teachers are responsible because they control subject, style, and speaker.

Mimi Chenfeld, one of my favorite people who happens to have lightened my life as a folk dance teacher a number of years ago, calls it “Teaching in the Key of Life.”

Maxim 4: Teachers should judge their success by the success of their students

Rafe Esquith, another legendary teacher who I heard at a CASE keynote a few years ago, points to the success of his students as the success of his students. That’s what he focuses on, and that’s what he wants to be judged by. In There are no Shortcuts my takeaway was the long-term impact on the kids who he prods, cajoles, and leads to excellence.

Maxim 5: Teachers impact more by their character and commitment than by their communication.

In addition to my personal observations of Veatch, Chenfeld, and Esquith, this concept reminds me of an interview I once did for Ohio Wesleyan. Philip Meek, a nationally-respected publisher, spoke to me about a prof way back in 1958 or so who had come to class and said (paraphrasing) “I always prepare at least 2 hours before class, and for a variety of reasons I could not do that today… you are dismissed.” Phil said, “That taught me more about commitment to excellence and character than anything else that ever happened to me.”

Maxim 6: Teachers exist to serve the students.

Just a few weeks ago I was interviewing Dick Lucier, an emeritus economics prof from Denison, and he said:

“Teaching is so damn time-intensive and labor-intensive… and I never found a shortcut that would work.” And then he goes on for 4 minutes, tossing off nuggets about valuing students and coming prepared and keeping the subject fresh in his own mind.

What a privilege I have had, working for schools like Denison, Ohio Wesleyan, and Cedarville, all of which prize great teaching and keep the classes small so that committed profs can get to know their students. It makes me wish I had pursued a doctorate and become a prof at a small liberal arts college myself….

Maxim 7: Teachers who practice the Laws of the Learner Teacher can become master teachers.

Well, I guess that one’s pretty obvious. Value the students, and the students will value the teacher.

Vision of students – video reply

January 31, 2008

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Michael Wesch’s video on the state of student learning in Web2.0 America has been augmented by a remix that adds the racial dimension. Michael responds that they considered including racial statistics to the original but felt it was too emotional of an issue and would “draw attention away from some of the other points we were trying to make” … such as technology, boredom, and learning in an environment where only 18% of the profs know your name and Facebook is more compelling than the instructor. I’ve included both videos for your enjoyment.

What I find most interesting is the way in which video is increasingly becoming the medium of communication. Yes, it does have the ability to transmit serious ideas, just as your car can be used to bring home the groceries…. at least once in a while. 🙂

The remix:

The original in case you haven’t seen it:

And here’s a link to a better version of the original in case you want to use it in class:

WMV   Quicktime

One idea that is intended to be prominent because of its placement at the beginning and the end, but is actually not well developed, is the idea that the chalk board was a major technological development in 1841 but is still in heavy use today. Hmmm…. not unlike cave walls, huh? Still relevant after all those years…. because it’s low-tech, convenient, and strips away everything but the presenter and his content.

So what is Wesch and his class saying? That classrooms need to use more video or web technology to better communicate with our rich, distracted students? Based on the MacLuhan quote at the beginning, it would seem that’s the point.

Having sat in an auditorium full of 3000 people who stop breathing in order to hang on every word and gesture of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain Tonight, I would say the problem is not technology. It may be the quality of the instructor, and it may be the listening skills and inner motivation of the students.

Back from travels

January 30, 2008

Florida. Never never land. Chicago. I’m back from far away places and have a thing or two to report.

orkbeck.jpg1. Swimming with the Manatees is still the best vacation activity I’ve ever experienced. Go to Bird’s Underwater in Crystal River, Florida.

2. Best beach restaurant I’ve ever tried is The Sandbar on Anna Maria Island. Right on the sand, facing the gulf. Great servers, including Oliver from Dublin, Ohio.

Sandbar Restaurant

3. New nest for the last bird. Lyd byd, my last fledgling, flew the coup and is now nested with some other great girls in Chicagoland.

Mom, Shel, & Lyd

Great MLK week music

January 22, 2008

Nice Flash typography. The music and the obvious personality of the performer are the story.

Is this a trend?

January 10, 2008

I first noticed it at Denison. I’d seen several presidents come and go at Denison and OWU; I’d met Gordon Gee at OSU; but not till Dale Knobel did I notice a President who was equally, it seemed, a scholar, a historian, with a life of his own aside from being President of a university. I noticed this because when he gave speeches, they were infectious and interesting, not the “of course he has to say that” sort of blah-blah blather that, frankly, most Presidents seem sentenced to as part of their punishment for accepting the job. Dale was always exciting to listen to, and a big reason was he was sharing some interesting historic nugget. At commencement, at building dedications, even on the radio during a very tense time of conflict at the college, he was always putting things into context for me, keeping me in the moment as I listened… because of his personal engagement with the issues at hand.

I just assumed it was a Dale Knobel thing. Then I thought about Bill Brown at Cedarville, and the fact I had observed that he played the guitar with the students, he does his own World View videos aside from his office as President. Hmmm. Another President who was a person with an identity apart from his job.

And then I bumped into Amy Gutmann on BigThink, the new YouTube of the college scene. (Her comments on diversity, by the way, are excellent.) Now it really got me thinking.

Her title on the site: “President, UPenn; Political Theorist.” Wow. One would think President, UPenn was enough of a title; but no, Political Theorist was right next to it. As if I gave my title as “President of Ztories, and Father of 4 Daughters and Three Grandsons.” Or better yet, “President, Ztories, and Essayist on Epistemology”. Unrelated fields, one’s a job, one’s a passion. One’s a place of power, the other’s a personal zone of interest. Part of the identity of the person, which does not need any affirmation by others to make it important.

I can’t be the President of UPenn or Denison because I decide to be. Others have to give me that title; and for most of the Presidents I’ve seen, that appeared to be the pinnacle of achievement, to be so recognized.

But I can be a Political Theorist whether I’m the President of UPenn or of Cellblock 59. It is a title I confer upon myself, because of my interest in Politics or History or How we Know Things.

So my hats off to Amy Gutmann and Dale Knobel and Bill Brown, for teaching me something important about leadership. And now I ask all you folks out there in the college cave. Is this sort of personal identity trumping corporate identity a trend? Is something changing? Or has it always existed and I just happened to wake up?

First time Bill Gates made me laugh

January 7, 2008

And, probably, the last. 🙂

Here’s a wide screen version with big-audience laugh-track from the CES.

Couldn’t find it yet on YouTube, but as good as it is, it doesn’t match Letterman’s version: