Moviemaking on a Hot Air 2

Bryan Bishop wrote up a piece for The Verge on Apple’s latest ad spot premiering during the 2015 Oscars broadcast.

The commercial features several groups of high school students as they shoot different projects using the iPad as their camera, overlaid by an inspirational voiceover from Martin Scorsese, who extolls the virtues of hard work and experimentation as the keys to creative success. And while the piece has the kind of delicate score and evocative images that one would expect from an Apple ad, the spot was actually shot on the iPad Air 2 itself.

With expensive camera rigs. Also, not mentioned was whether the person that assembled the final ad did so with an iPad, or even used Apple’s video products to do it. It would be pretty funny if the whole thing was shot on an iPad Air 2 but edited on a Mac Pro using Mavericks and an old version of Final Cut Pro 7. Ha. What a laugh that would be.

First, and foremost, I am criticizing Apple, and not the students. I think they should be proud they were featured in a very prominent ad. However, the presence of these hard working kids doesn’t make the commercial immune to scrutiny.

While the ad showcases students using the iPad to do video editing themselves, Apple has not made video editing a real priority on their platform. That’s a controversial statement because then you get into arguments over tools people use to make art, and what constitutes a professional. Whether this is about old, crusty, stubborn jerks vs. new, free-thinking, people that can adapt to use all media. Let’s pull back from that philosophical discussion because that’s fruitless. Let’s focus specifically on the ad.

Apple showcases students using the devices, but it isn’t about what the students make. The students are provided very expensive gear to make these things — each item of gear you see costs between 100 and 500 dollars. This is not the same thing as giving students iPad Air 2’s alone. It assumes a whole system of attachments that are required to make things.

That’s fine though, because you need accessories for any camera, in any film course. The problem is that the camera itself is not a very good camera. Indeed, Apple brags that the commercial is shot on the very same device, but the whole time I watched it I was kind of appalled by the quality of the image. Imagine spending exactly the same amount of money on gear, but buying a DSLR, or GoPro camera. The iPad Air 2 is fragile in ways that the others are not. The screen also gets in the way of it being a decent camera and makes it more fragile. You have to be further from the controls to see the full screen too.

That is to say nothing of the fact that by any possible measure, storage on a dedicated camera trumps the iPad. Shooting video creates enormous files. Even if you compress the crap out of the video as you shoot it, you still have a ton of video that needs to pass into a video editor and make a new video. The iPad Air 2 starts at $499 with 16 GB of storage. 16! What is this? A film school for ants?! There isn’t even an easy way to migrate files on and off the device without requiring a desktop Mac capable of using AirDrop, or a giant iCloud Drive, or other cloud storage plan. For any other camera you can buy an appropriately sized card for the task, buy more cards if you need them, and stick them almost any place you want to. Apple sells an iPad Camera Connection Kit, which allows you to upload photos and video from an SD card to an iPad with a 30 pin connection dock. So…

Even if it has to be an Apple device, a far more practical Apple device is the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus which have nearly identical camera elements, but better low light performance, and work better for macro photography. It’s also more portable, less fragile, and almost any software on the iPad Air 2 is going to be on the iPhone 6. Teens are using the iPhone 6 to do lots of video work right now — just on Vine, Instagram, and Snapchat. It’s a good thing Apple didn’t make this a video about the social ways in which teens today use video over cloud services, because LOL.

What about that software? If the edge here isn’t the lens, or the sensor, but the ‘experience’ of it being all in one device then where’s the software experience? Apple treats us mostly to images of people shooting video. There’s a moment where someone drags a clip in a row of clips to reorder them. Apple’s own video editing software for the iPad is iMovie, which is still a bloated, slow, appalling piece of software that behaves more like baby’s-first-video-editor than a real piece of software. Apple even makes Final Cut Pro X on the Mac, but has no similar product for iOS devices. Despite FCPX’s many, many flaws, it’s still better than iOS’ iMovie.

Another major flaw is that you can’t easily pass video content back and forth between different apps in iOS. You have to work off the camera roll. Using any kind of collaborative cloud storage requires importing and exporting clips constantly. There’s a lack of seriousness here. If it’s not great to edit on, and you need to edit on a desktop, then what’s the point of this over a better camera?

Sure, maybe this is purely about getting people to consider the iPad Air 2 for education environments. Something that you can’t really do with iPhone 6’s because of phone contracts. Still, it’s ironic to push hard on that when we’re still dealing with the fallout of the LA Unified School District’s disastrous rollout of iPad 2’s to every student.

Yes, that wasn’t a misprint. LAUSD planned to buy an iPad 2 for every kid. They never completed rolling it out. They pulled the plug and reevaluated and now they’re not sure they can afford devices, and they have no clear path to maintain and keep them up to date. (Think of all those paint-splattered iPads in that commercial.) If this spot is about the iPad Air 2 as an educational tool, then it’s going to have to work harder than having a bunch of LA high school students use iPads the school district doesn’t have.

Perhaps it is my deep skepticism of Apple’s interest in helping artists that colors my view of the commercial. If Apple truly cared, I wouldn’t be reading about the slow-motion collapse of LAUSD’s technology efforts. I wouldn’t be looking at iMovie on the iPad. I wouldn’t be hearing Scorsese talk about philosophy instead of seeing Scorsese make something with it. This is fluff that needs a more critical eye. I guess that makes the crummy Oscars the best play to show it then!

Do not pass go, do not collect $499.

2015-02-22 14:35:00

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