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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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Everything is Not Awesome ►

Robb Lewis is a web developer in Portsmouth, England. After reading my complaints about studios sticking with UltraViolet, and listening to Dan Sturm and I discuss it on Defocused, he decided to explore it himself. How bad could it be?

I was informed I would have to create two accounts, Flixter and UltraViolet. These are for “storing your film and TV collection in the cloud” and to “stream and download your UltraViolet Digital Collection to your favourite compatible screens” respectively.

It took Robb 40 minutes to create an account and setup one movie.

2015-02-21 12:36:00

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Discs Not Included

Kevin Tsujihara, the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, gave a very candid interview with Recode media at their Code/Media event February 18th. Dawn Chmielewski liveblogged, and Peter Kafka conducted the interview.

Tsujihara talks about the decision to tap a digital guy to head the film studio: The changes that are happening in the industry are pretty dramatic. And the DVD business is one that’s undergone a significant amount of change. The whole model is threatened. There are benefits to owning movies, though there are a lot more choices in the world today than 25 years ago.

Incredibly, he highlights that they’re still trying to push hard on UltraViolet. Consumers have roundly rejected this as any kind of solution. Disney, Google, and Apple won’t participate — but sure, let’s prop this sucker up, Weekend at Bernie’s style! It is a farce of a system that has wronged many that dare to use it.

It’s kind of breathtaking when you realize he’s the digital guy.

Tsujihara seems to have a very clear understanding of the ways in which customers, and content providers like Netflix and Amazon, want the studio to move.

There was some pressure from the audience about the amount of work they’re doing for online providers of the content they make, instead of relying on their own online content distribution. This isn’t really that abnormal if you pay attention to all the credits on the things you watch.

For those that aren’t familiar, Warner Bros. makes both television shows, and feature length movies, through separate divisions of the company. Each of The Big Six Studios (Disney, Fox, Universal, Paramount, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros.) basically act like big companies full of a lot of little companies specializing in making particular kinds of media, or providing services to make media. Some are owned by larger parent companies, like Sony owning Sony Pictures, which owns Columbia Pictures. Paramount is owned by Viacom, which also owns CBS, Nickelodeon, Mtv, etc.

It might seem confusing to an outsider, but these different parts of studios are actually pretty used to working with different parts of other studios to produce, and distribute, media. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, was made by Fox for the WB’s TV network. It happens a lot. Films are usually more self contained, but they will split things like distribution. Films will have weird distribution deals. Like DreamWorks Animation distributing with Fox, or something like 2007’s Beowulf: “Originally, Columbia Pictures was set to distribute the film. However, Steven Bing did not finalize a deal and instead arranged with Paramount Pictures for U.S. distribution and Warner Bros. for international distribution.”

This is pretty bizarre when you think about it. Like if you just turned over a packaged food item and looked at all the fine print for each of the sources.

That Warner Bros., and its’ subsidiaries, would make content for Amazon, or Netflix, instead of their own services and networks is not really that surprising because that’s actually business as usual. Those subsidiaries have to do business, and those companies are willing to do business. The end. What is strange is that Warner Bros. has very weak online services. It’s not like making a TV show for Fox instead of the CW, it’s like making a TV show for Fox, or only showing it only in Ludlow, California.

When a reporter for Bloomberg pushes him on why they haven’t acquired Machinima. (While Machinima isn’t the biggest online “channel” it’s a huge leap over Ludlow.) Kevin replies, “We’re going to have to own some of these platforms and have a real, direct relationship with the audience.”

Excerpt from Dawn Chmielewski:

“I think that everybody’s looking at this and evaluating it,” Tsujihara said of the proliferation of on-demand video services. “And everybody has a different suite of assets. Not everybody has HBO or the Turner Network.” TV viewing, overall, is up. And one could argue that the exposure on on-demand platforms is helping the shows.

Hmm. That seems like he understands, but doesn’t know how to follow through. Much of what Kevin says here is about acknowledging their shortcommings. Worringly, he doesn’t seem to have any action to follow through on. After all, this is 2015, and it’s not like Netflix and Amazon popped out of thin air. Even if we pretend that he shouldn’t have done anything until these companies started winning awards — well, that’s already too late. House of Cards is going into its third, award-winning season on Netflix. Tsujihara has been the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment since January of 2013. Where’s the plan?

I can only assume that Kevin’s held back by other, risk-averse elements. WB is not adapting to changing markets that call for investment in on-demand, convenient media.

There’s no better example of the aversion to risk, to change, than Tsujihara wants people to understand the richness of theater experiences, and he thinks people need to be taught the value in owning content (he means discs).

Usustainable, Distantly-Sourced, Subsidized

Kevin’s not the only CEO that has problems adapting. Sony’s CEO, Michael Lynton, famously gave an interview in which he said that no one would distribute The Interview for them. Sony Pictures owns more than one content distribution network. I would assume he didn’t consider them for distribution because he didn’t believe in them.

Why would an electronics manufacturer that owns a movie studio, which owns several online video distributors, think his services weren’t up to snuff? Because those services can’t compete. They’re hamstrung by a corporate focus on protecting the current business model. They don’t seriously think they can go toe to toe with Netflix, Apple, or Amazon, but they own all the component pieces. It’s a lack of will.

Apple was roundly criticized for not distributing The Interview at the same time as Google, and Microsoft. Again, where’s the pressure for Sony to do their own distribution? Their chance to prove their services are worthwhile? No?

One reason they’re so timid about online distribution, and shrinking home video sales, is that they can hide the problem.

The studios have been able to cling to the past because municipal, state, provincial, and national tax credits which help remove some of the risk. This used to be filled with DVD money. All that precious home video money has dried up. Instead of realizing there’s a hole in the sinking ship, they stuffed a shirt in it.

There’s also something else to worry about on the horizon, and that’s the online content providers. Amazon and Netflix are content to either make their own content, or get traditional studios to do it for them, but what happens as their popularity increases and the networks and theaters decrease?

I would wager that these internet companies will buy, and restructure, today’s Big Six companies. Sure, that’s just a gut-feeling, but the history of film and TV is full of studios getting bought, sold, merged, and shuttered. That’s why we have six big ones, after all.

Let’s say that WB has a few summer blockbusters flop, maybe some shows don’t pan out. At a certain point, the wealth of the internet savvy companies will be enough that they can snap up a poor studio.

Why would you want a floundering, top-heavy, anti-internet studio? Two reasons: You could actually integrate the production of your shows with the management of the studio and eliminate management overhead. Primarily, the intellectual property that the studios hold is priceless.

IP is priceless because it’s never going to ever expire as long as copyright laws keep getting extended. There are huge libraries of things spanning decades.

Don’t believe this is valuable? Look at Ted Turner’s rise to power in the 80s. He bought up all the film libraries he could so that he would have things to show on the cable networks he owned. He was able to do this because the companies were in financial distress.

Look at Sony too, Sony bought up Columbia Pictures, TriStar and the Lorimar (formerly MGM) lot in Culver City. Sony didn’t make Sony Pictures out of whole cloth. Is it so hard to imagine Sony Pictures Entertainment being sold, whole or in chunks, to finance the ailing parent company? With the TV division being spun off, and now the audio-video business, it’s hard to see a future where they cling to the not-so-bright future of Sony Pictures Entertainment for the corporate synergy they once did.

The tax credits will not be able to spackle-over structural problems forever. Vancouver is running up against problems competing in the race-to-the-bottom for subsidizing production. Even meager tax incentive programs are facing stiff criticism in Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina.

Net Worth

Clearly the studios are flailing around. They make profits by taking advantage of taxpayers. They have no clear path forward to adapt to the changing demands of the consumer market they face.

What about the internet companies they potentially compete with? The vast majority of internet-based companies aren’t constructed like the studios. Netflix doesn’t have a studio division that makes films for Amazon. Most of them do maintain a library of content that is exclusively available to customers of their services, or through their storefronts. Almost all of these services, and storefronts, are available on a wide variety of platforms. This platform agnostic approach ensures a wide customer base.

Apple and the Old, Simple Way

Apple is a notable exception. Apple sells, and “rents”, access to digital copies of media from traditional media sources. In a way, they are very similar to the Blockbuster of yesteryear. Some alternative providers are available on the Apple TV, but are usually in areas where Apple might not compete directly — like cricket matches on a channel that ONLY shows cricket. I can’t even.

Apple’s at the largest disadvantage if their competitors gain serious traction. Particularly if their competitors purchase one of the big six studios. Apple could buy a studio (all six, really) but they would scare away other content providers, or face enormous regulatory problems. Even today, Apple tailors their content offerings on what The Big Six are making. The streaming services that exist for sports, subscription services, and special “cable anywhere” programming still leave out other storefronts, like Amazon. If anything is purchased on an Apple device, it’s purchased through Apple.

They aren’t hurting because they have over 600 billion iTunes accounts. To really hammer home the point that UltraViolet doesn’t fix anything, let’s point out that they saw 30% growth last year to 21 million accounts which is less than 0.001833333% of the number of iTunes accounts. iTunes, as a storefront, isn’t in any danger as long as they still have things to sell, and they will outlast any studio controlled effort, like UltraViolet, which doesn’t exert any kind of leverage over their business.

Apple doesn’t use ad platforms for the iTunes video store, and doesn’t pursue user-generated content at all. They are quite satisfied to host several services that do that alongside their rentals, and sales. They don’t provide any system to convert purchases, though they do allow studios to issue codes that can be redeemed in their store, and they don’t offer anything like iTunes Match for movies since Apple never pushed people to rip their own discs, I doubt we would ever see something like that at this point.

Their last major revision to living room hardware was over two years ago. Rumors have circulated, from time to time, that Apple is going to release a full television set, but that they’re holding back because they don’t have content deals in place. The fact that this hasn’t materialized in years, and that Kevin Tsujihara doesn’t want to go on record as being involved in any kind of deal with Apple, should only serve to reinforce that Apple’s success is closely wedded to the status quo.

Amazon and Netflix

Both companies are pushing hard to create video content for streaming, subscription services. The studios wouldn’t let them stream the good stuff, so they had to make their own good stuff. Studios have no real response to this, other than handling the production of some of the shows.

Exclusivity is the name of the game here. It doesn’t matter if you subscribe to a competitor as long as you absolutely have to subscribe to them too. What we might end up with is a system of providers we subscribe to instead of cable TV packages. The providers becoming their own “bundles” with good stuff, and filler.

Indeed they are similar to many on-demand premium cable channels. They have a rotating library of available films on hand, and some of their own videos.

They are more comfortable with making TV shows than they are with feature-length blockbusters. It’s hard to recoup the amount of money you’d need to justify the risk of a big-budget film. Eventually, they might make their own $200 million, VFX bonanzas, but there just isn’t the same incentive.

The Changing Adscape of YouTube

YouTube, the biggest online video service, has its roots in amateurish videos and clips of user-uploaded studio content. They’ve moved away from that, towards more polished products. They’ve repositioned themselves with experiments with financing their own “channels”, licensed music with Vevo, movies purchased through the Google Play Store, and content produced by individuals or small teams. With the exception of movies, the real goal here is to make YouTube a destination for people to go see advertisements. There are no services offered to people uploading to YouTube to allow for direct payment, like the Google Play Store, so everything is financed by ads.

The studios don’t fully understand advertising. They understand a deal for a project. Product placement agreements that result in immediate payments and are permanently intertwined with the media. They don’t offer advertisers the ability to dynamically alter the advertising in an existing work. If you watch Paramount Pictures’ Transformers movies you’re “treated” to GM cars for the Autobots. A cable channel showing Transformers will insert ad breaks and show commercials they’ve bought and sold themselves. The studio has no control over that, but they license the content to the cable channels knowing it will happen.

YouTube’s ads are kind of like the TV model in that regard, but YouTube isn’t paying YouTubers (they live underground, and make a great puree) an upfront sum of money like networks pay studios. They can monetize each ad being loaded, and dynamically alter what kind of ad is served based conditions that are absolutely impossible for a cable network to match. YouTube doesn’t expose itself to the risk of buying a show and selling ads for the show. They don’t pay Tyler Oakley a sum of money for a season of work and then they renegotiate his contract. The risk in making the videos is entirely on the YouTuber, not on YouTube.

YouTubers negotiate their own ad placement in their videos to maximize this revenue, but YouTube is cracking down on this. Imagine the FX Network telling Michael Bay, and Paramount, to remove all the GM logos or they won’t broadcast their movie, and that they won’t pay for the rights up front. They’ll just send them money as commercials are viewed, and tracked. It’s kind of mind-bending to think about how different these business models are, even in situations of video advertising and product placement.

CGP Grey (not a real name) makes his living creating YouTube videos. He talks to Brady Haran on their podcast Hello Internet. Their YouTube channels select a topic and makes a presentation describing it to viewers. Ads are shown and they get a cut of those ads from YouTube. In several episodes of Hello Internet the guys have discussed problems they see looming on the horizon. A recent episode is about musician Zoë Keating being pressured by YouTube into a new, onerous contract, and what it could mean for all of them. Grey makes the case that YouTube is not only the largest game in town, it is the only game in town. No one else has an ad supported platform for small, independent producers.

The other day, CGP Grey took to twitter to voice his concerns over another YouTube policy change, a crackdown on brand-sponsored videos.

The change is about videos made specifically for the sponsor (as opposed to videos with sponsors) but thin-end-of-the-wedge and all that.


Services like Vimeo, where I host videos like my demo reel, are better at showcasing creative works that don’t rely on advertising. Short films, student projects, reels —you know, artsy-fartsy stuff. The relationship is also different in that you pay Vimeo to host your videos, and viewers don’t pay, or see ads.

Snapchat, Niche, and Vessel

Other, smaller services have spotted a unique chance to use video-sharing services to create short-form videos with very minimal overhead. Like YouTube, they are relying on advertising, but many of these entertaining videos are ads. People had the brilliant idea of making ads so clever that they are the complete content package.

This is revolutionary, in a stomach-churning kind of way. Young people can leverage their social graphs to push paid endorsements on their friends, and they love it because gosh-darn it, the ads are fun.

The concept isn’t completely alien. There are people that watch The Super Bowl just for the advertisements. In that situation, there’s actual pressure on companies, and advertisers, to use a finite amount of time to do something that isn’t completely lazy. It’s still a risky proposition though, and still uses large, up-front costs. What if it was just a couple millenials and a medicine ball and then you could just pay as you go? Great. Done.

Snapchat, a company that I despise with every fiber of my being, has “invented” channels. They didn’t invent channels, or old-media partnering with new-media, but millenial tech bloggers are so enamored by the company that it is only obvious to human beings. This Discover tab experiments with getting studios to produce small, sharable content for the desirable demographics.

The biggest problem Snapchat’s logic is with the ghost of webisodes. People forget about webisodes, for good reason, because they didn’t work. The theory was that for less money, and effort, and talent, they could make short shows for the web and profit off of all the money they were saving by not really trying. This didn’t pan out.

Snapchat doesn’t seem to have solved the problem of webisodes, they’ve just siloed webisodes into their exclusive service instead of the webisodes being available on individual, stodgy, buggy, corporate sites. Will collecting all this mediocrity work? Doubtful. The 30 Rock jokes about webisodes are available to view on a variety of content and platforms, the webisodes Warner Bros. made for Breyers Ice Cream, and starring Jane Krakowski, are not available.

Niche, is a company purchased last week by Twitter, looks like the fever dream of a coke-addled business executive. It’s a middle man to partner brands with people that have large social media followings on various services, like Vine. It’s like Uber, but for Vines. (Jumps out of window.)

Vessel, a new startup by a former Hulu executive, is positioning themselves differently from the others in that users pay for early access to “premium” content. I’m very skeptical of the viability of this service. People are reluctant to pay for access to things, and it wouldn’t solve the situation for YouTubers because they rely on people sharing their videos. This windowing concept is akin to a paywall. I’m also skeptical this will solve the film industry’s problems. From Jason Abbruzzese’s Mashable post on Vessel:

“The way I think the film business is going to evolve in the next 10 to 15 years… Let’s say the tenth Star Wars that comes out… I think that will be available on day one on your computer for probably $55 for a one time view,” Kilar said.

Rich, white guy’s gonna rich-white-guy.

It’s a Trap!

Selecting a service is, in and of itself, a problem. When a studio, or independent producer, aligns with a particular service, they are aligning with a single “storefront” to handle their business. Cheering for the next startup, is cheering for the next incumbent. Diversity of stores and sources helps people producing videos hold leverage over stores. Look at the film industry, which we all laugh at, their eggs are not in one basket. They’re in a bunch of stupid baskets, but hey it’s better than one basket. They’re misusing that leverage to cling to a business that’s shrinking instead of growing, but c’est la vie.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll all pay for a monthly subscription to apps that show different silos of webisodes about brands that allow us to connect with product narratives.

2015-02-20 09:03:00

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A No-Brainer

Tim Gray, writing for Variety:

It sounds like a no-brainer for a film company to focus on filmmakers. But in the past, Disney Animation was often administrative-driven, with layers of notes from executives that dictated content and bogged down the creatives.

It’s tempting to point and laugh and say “of course the creatives should be in charge!” However, “creatives” can make really bad choices too. The key here is to have good executives that can take themselves out of the process unless they’re needed. That is entirely subjective, and very difficult to promote good behavior of not doing something. “Good job, Mike, you didn’t say anything except that one thing.”

Bad executives have to weigh in on every, single thing. They see it as their role to give input. The worst outcome is a studio hierarchy full of those executives that feel the need to insert themselves. It is very easy to accumulate more of these executives if a studio feels that greater oversight improves films. It’s also very easy to have a lot of them if they each find some budget savings that makes a little more room for profit by cutting some component.

Disney sees the success of their animated features, and the money they pull in, but no one is pushing for Disney to close their Burbank animation studio in search of tax credits. A lesser movie studio might see enormous profits and try to squeeze out even more profit by slashing production costs on future animated features. This is totally different from the way other studios are running these days.

There’s an incredibly depressing documentary, The Sweatbox, that captured what making an animated movie at Disney used to be like. It was made by Trudie Styler, as a condition of her husband’s (Sting’s) contract. The rights to it are owned by Disney and they haven’t released it, for obvious reasons. Disney doesn’t seem interested in suppressing online leaks, so it’s usually on YouTube. Disney Feature Animation of today seems like it doesn’t have those problems. A total cultural shift.

Hopefully, competing animation studios will start looking at Disney’s process instead of just looking at the pictures Disney makes.

2015-02-15 19:45:00

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Elk Shaving

I am on vacation from my job that involves computers, so I am using computers. Of course I am. I was never happy with the look of the blog (I’m still not happy) but I feel like I got a decent visual refresh in.

I am playing with some CSS properties that I haven’t played with before, so I am not sure it will work across all browsers, on all systems, but that might not be such a bad thing (theoretically, the worst thing is that the BG image won’t load, or the blend-modes won’t blend and will just be solid.) I also fixed a long-standing bug where TypeKit was not being included in my template for the About Page so it was rendering in other fonts. You were most likely treated to Avenir Next if you didn’t have Adobe Source Sans Pro on your system.

I am pretty unhappy with the navigation controls at the bottom. They are laid out OK on a desktop, but look really gross on iOS. In fact, I can’t really do the fun background stuff effectively on the phone, so it just uses it for a hint of color around the sides.

I wrote the static-site blogging engine myself, so naturally, this explains a lot. It’s called, yakbarber, if you were unaware of that.

Elk Barber

I had also messed around with some photos from my trip to the Grand Canyon in Adobe’s LightRoom 5. This is my first time using LightRoom, but I will save my Aperture vs. LightRoom thoughts for another time. I thought the elk was visually interesting enough to use as a BG photo, without being about anything specific.

In future updates, I want to include a per-post background (or at least the option to use one instead of a default image) just to add some visual interest. Probably something that will go with the yellow and blue thing going on here.

I hope none of this distracts you from reading my thoughtfully composed text, and well-considered opinions. Butts.

Look Forward to Nodding at Your Feedback

If you have any specific requests, or notice particular problems, please feel free to ping me about it on Twitter. I am not a web developer by trade and do appreciate feedback on my cluttered CSS and nested divs full of blend-mode shenanigans.

2015-01-28 13:20:00

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DreamWorks Lays Off 500 and Shutters PDI

This is horrible news, and my heart goes out to all those affected by it. I’ve known many people that have been in and out of DreamWorks over the years, though I’ve never worked there myself. When I started working in LA in 2005 there were three places doing full-length CG features: DreamWorks Animation, Disney Feature Animation, and Sony Pictures Animation. The other big ones were located outside of LA: Pixar in Emeryville, and Blue Sky in New York. DreamWorks was unique because it had also acquired PDI (Pacific Digital Images) a VFX house in northern California, in order to meet production needs for Antz. This was the time when studios were trying to replicate the success of Pixar. DreamWorks had several successful films (not all were critically acclaimed, but they were financially successful), and Sony Pictures was trying to compete by hiring producers from DreamWorks and some talent (directors, artists) from Pixar.

Theoretically, making your own CG feature was a sound investment. CG works in a pipeline, so you could constantly feed the pipeline with new stories and then they would cascade through departments. Everything would be under the control of the studio from start to finish.

This did not turn out to be the case. The other studios never quite got the knack of it, and even Pixar had a few movies pulled. Stories were often held up and retooled, which resulted in idle time for artists. It is not cheap to pay people to sit around and do nothing, so they would usually have training, or other things to fill time and enrich artists — also not cheap. The thinking was that they’d have skilled, educated, happy workers that were up-to-speed and ready-to-go as soon as the work was there.

The current school of thought is that an idle artist is expensive overhead that should be immediately cut. Rather than invest heavily in producing quality stories to keep the pipeline fed, it makes more sense to management to cut the artists. And why not? Historically, every company has been able to staff up to meet production demands whenever they needed to. There’s no real fear of missing a deadline because artists aren’t available. Some key people are kept on, and everyone else is a nomadic workforce that can be hired and fired at a moments notice.

With the exception of some smaller layoffs, Pixar, and DreamWorks, have been the most stable places to work.

Today DreamWorks announced 500, of the 2,200 people that work at the company, would be laid off, and the PDI offices in Redwood Shores would be shuttered.



From Variety’s reporting by Marc Graser:

“My time and my focus needs to be on making blockbuster films,” Katzenberg said during a call with analysts after announcing the re-org. “We have the people to do it. That’s where my energy is going to be focused.

“Feature animation is the core of our company. Getting our feature film business back on track is our number one priority.”

So what, exactly, was Katzenberg doing that distracted him for years leading up to this? All of the articles cite poor performance of films, and specifically call out Rise of the Guardians by name, but they weren’t all 2014 releases. Many of their films have been grossing more than their budgets.

Maybe part of the problem is management? That can’t be the case though because in November of 2013, Obama personally visited DreamWorks Animation in Glendale to give a rousing speech about how great the management at DreamWorks was. He talks about how much he wants to work for DreamWorks. Perhaps you would like to start at the part where Obama says:

At the time he made this speech I was immensely frustrated, and disappointed. Unfortunately, it seems that he believes these things about his friend, Jeffrey. No one told Obama that Katzenberg is a firm believer in outsourcing labor, like with the 2012 founding of Oriental DreamWorks. It’s not an anti-Obama stance, or an pro-USA-workforce stance. I am pointing out that this isn’t what the reality was at the time of the speech, and it’s not what the reality is now.

16 months after Obama’s speech, 500 people are to be laid off. 500 middle-class jobs this country needs.

Obama awarded Katzenberg the 2013 National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House in July of 2014. Five months later, 500 people at his animation company are laid off.

It’s also worth pointing out that Jeffrey Katzenberg was a party to Ed Catmull’s “no-raid” agreement which stagnated wages in the industry. So obviously, Jeffrey has had quite an impact on the field of animation.

I am unconvinced that Jeffrey Katzenberg should be lauded for his achievements in the arts. I am extremely unconvinced that laying off these 500 people will rectify real problems at DreamWorks. A troubling sign of further layoffs is hinted at with the positive spin placed on Captain Underpants:

DWA also said “Captain Underpants” will be produced outside of the studio’s pipeline “at a significantly lower cost” with a 2017 release.

The “significantly lower cost” comes from hiring a small studio on a fixed bid, just like VFX work. I can’t find reference to which studio won this bid, or if bidding has even occurred yet, but this is not great news people should cheer. That is not stable, reliable work.

Like I said at the top, this is the kind of thing people were trying to get away from. People wanted to have total control over everything, and to have a production pipeline that could be fed with great stories. There might be a glut of employed, skilled talent right now because of all these layoffs, but how does this entice anyone to enter this field in the US? There’s no way that I would recommend to anyone that they pursue anything involving computer animation. Will schools see a decline in animation students? Will all the laid off people pursue other (sane) lines of work?

Maybe people will still push to get in to this industry because they dream of working at Pixar or Disney Feature Animation? After all, Frozen is an immense success so it’s not like it’s impossible for companies to justify keeping staff.

There’s also the software side of this. Many of these studios employ people to make custom software that handles tasks better than off-the-shelf software does. Software development is an enormous expense, and many have lost their jobs already. Will this stifle innovation in this sector? If everything’s about a film deadline, and not a facility pipeline, then what time is there to really get anything done? Where’s the money to get it done?

What if we’re in some terrible cycle where the homogenous, myopic business grads will run companies into the ground, and we’ll see staff positions in the US? Probably not, because that’s not what happened to the 2D animation industry. Better living through restructuring. Always be cutting.

In the future, all the companies will exist merely as licensing entities with starving artists tripping over themselves to win fixed-bids. The budget for production will be dictated by market research of all the preceding franchise reboot attempts, minus a percentage to get additional savings — the IP guy wants to get a yearly bonus after all. The real innovators will be the ones that figure out how to make money licensing IP to other IP licensers and return year-over-year growth. Thank god copyrights will never expire so we have plenty of time to continue to work towards this utopia.

I’d like to close with this, emphasis mine:

DWA made the announcement of the re-org after the stock market closed. Wall Street reacted fairly to the news, with the company’s stock rising more than 3% in after-hours trading.

2015-01-23 07:11:00

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See Gee Eye

This morning, I had the rather irksome experience of reading this Cracked article Todd Vaziri tweeted about. You need not trouble yourself with reading it (their site is a garbage fire).

David Christopher Bell starts with this minor concession:

And, to be fair, some movies have great CGI! However, even when the CGI is good (see the new Star Wars, Mad Max, or any graffiti-ridden Neill Blomkamp film), it still has to be used right.

He goes on to make all sorts of claims that seem at odds with this reasonable statement, so I’m not sure why he bothered to lead off with that.

David is objecting to “trends” from 2014. Which is kind of silly, on the face of it, since nothing in movies really trends within a year, with the exception of marketing.

Right off the bat, David objects to the use of fake blood. He cites The Expendables 3 (he says 2, but that’s a typo because 2 was in 2012, and thus not a 2014 trend) and provides a little gif of a head exploding into chunky goop. Then he refers to the excessive blood in the sequel to 300. (David, unfortunately, forgets that the first movie was also full of this stuff in 2006.)

This isn’t a trend, and it isn’t the medium that causes this to happen. These are conceptual flaws. A director thought this would be great, more blood, really focus on it, high-five, bros!

You can easily strap excessive squibs to someone in any movie. Remember 1988’s Die Hard when a guy’s legs exploded in blood because of gunfire? That didn’t look real, and it was, I would argue, excessive. Blood in movies has always been controversial, and oftentimes excessive, and unrealistic. Computers are not the cause of bad taste.

The next item on David’s list of trends is “Replacing Real Car and Plane Stunts With CGI”. This, again, is not a trend of 2014, it was not the style of 2014. He focuses on set extensions, instead of vehicles. Set extensions have been going on forever. Really, a set extension is the same principle as a matte painting, only it can move. Great set extensions look great. Bad set extensions look bad. Again, not a trend, not computer graphics. There are some truly egregious matte paintings in films that predate computers. Remember Ghostbusters? There’s a transparent gargoyle painting that doesn’t track with the background. That doesn’t mean all matte paintings are inherently bad.

Set extensions are in film and television projects of all varieties and genres, and often featured in ways that are totally invisible to the audience. That is the great tragedy of photo-real VFX work. If it looks real, then no one ever knows, and you just get someone bellyaching about unsuccessful ones.

Here’s an example that’s kind of mixed: the Times Square sequence from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Watch the VFX breakdown. Sure, you’d watch this and point out a lot of “fake” stuff, but did you know absolutely none of it was real? (Whether or not you like the movie is separate from that.)

I hope that clearly demonstrates that it’s not just the medium. It’s conceptual, and technical. Just like everything else in a film, and just like any practical effect. Use it effectively. Just because Sylvester Stallone has poor taste, doesn’t mean that goes for everyone by default, and for the medium as a whole.

Computer generated vehicles, or vehicles augmented with some kind of post processing, are very common in films, but that doesn’t make them bad, and it’s certainly not a “trend” of 2014. Car commercials are where you will most often see fake cars, because it allows for pixel perfect art direction (pixel fucking). Some are done better than others.

The cars that David points to in Lucy suffer from some technical problems. Conceptually, it would be impossible to put this many stunt drivers into action, all at once. You can make a case for staging a different shot that is achievable, but I would argue that this is still a shot that works relatively well for what it is, it just needs some adjustment, in my opinion. Highlights are too bright, and too crisp. Same goes for the shadows. Since they’re all cars, and all made of close to the same materials, the highlights and shadows should match to the practical cars very closely.

The examples David cites from Furious 7 (a 2015 movie, which is still, not a 2014 trend. Whatever.) Is egregious because it’s such a bad idea. This is a bad idea if you wrote it, let alone actually tried to shoot it. That’s not the fault of a computer, or a computer graphics artist. That’s the directors, writers, and producers thinking this is a good idea.

Even without computers, you can make terrible things. I recently watched Real Genius again. The plane in this movie is utterly ridiculous, even by 1980s standards. No computers were used at all for this:

His second-to-last point (make sure you click over to page two! Page views! Page views! Page views!) is “Completely Ignoring Horrific CGI Murder” [sic]. He makes good points about how terrible it is to lay waste to a bunch of extras. That it becomes numbing, pointless violence on a grotesque scale. The only problem with his logic is that he’s blaming that on computer graphics. As if no one was ever needlessly killed in a movie prior to digital doubles.

A digital double (also digi-double) is a computer model of a person that can be used in impossible, or dangerous situations. Early uses of digital doubles don’t hold up very well. A notable example is the Neo and Agent Smith(s) fight from The Matrix Reloaded. It’s pretty cartoony now. It also featured a lot of stunt men that had their faces digitally replaced. It’s happened a lot in film, on varying scales, including several occasions before this.

Now that I’ve explained digital doubles, let’s delve into the problem with David’s logic. Animatronic puppets have been murdered, dummy stand-ins have blown up, stop-motion people have fallen great distances, squibs have exploded all over the place. Heck, you could look at the body count of just Paul Verhoven’s work and be appalled if you really cared about it cheapening death, or violence against humans. That has nothing to do with computers though. Don’t pin that on technique.

Finally, David ends with his least important point, at least I assume that’s how this list is ordered because “Movie People Are Turning Into Rubber” [sic] is silly. To reiterate this once more: This does not qualify as a 2014 trend. It’s not even something new to 2014. Violence, of this sort, leaving the hero of a picture unscathed has basically been around as long as film. How many gunfights have you seen where there’s statistically no way the protagonist would be unscathed? Again, go back to the computer-room fight in Die Hard where automatic weapons annihilate everything, except John McClane, he steps on some glass. Remember Total Recall when the animatronic heads were going to explode, but then everything was totes fine?

The idea that this is the fault of computers, or of recent filmmaking practices involving computers, is misguided. You don’t want to see this stuff in films then you’re going to have to change the decades of filmmaking that existed without computers. There’s goofy shit all over the damn place.

David’s last example of this is Gandalf vs. the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings movies, and Gandalf in The Hobbit movies. Stupid example, because they’re both CG. Unless he thinks the Balrog was a hand puppet, or a small dog in a costume. Maybe he believes that Peter Jackson’s crew built all of Moria. Perhaps he believes it was all wirework dropping Gandalf, and the practical Balrog, in the totally real, giant cavern in the second film.

Gandalf highlights my counter argument perfectly, it’s not about the medium, or the tools.

In my next post, I’ll argue about disturbing trends of cherrypicking a few things you don’t like and applying it to an entire industry. It’s about how we should stop using computers to write, and Cracked articles should be distributed on paper so they actually have to think about wasting ink.

2015-01-17 14:23:42

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Canon Wars: The Trek for Understanding

A recent episode of John Gruber’s The Talk Show with John Siracusa, and Guy English as guests. The topic was Star Wars — basically all of the films, with a few mentions of expectations for the upcoming films, the Expanded Universe, and how it fits together. The really interesting part of the conversation is hearing the three of them describe what is, and is not, Star Wars, in Star Wars. Fans refer to this as canon. Canon surrounds fictional works, it permeates them, it binds a fictional universe together — It usually results in a lot of heated arguments.

Recently, there have been rumblings about Star Wars’ Expanded Universe characters, and stories, being removed. Some Star Wars fans are quite distressed by this, while others are relived the new films won’t be tied to the stories that have been told, and a third group had no idea any of that stuff existed.

Canons with Benefits

There is a tendency with nerds to analyze the minutiae of stories. To catalog what we find, assign it a spot, and weave together relationships with other elements. A number of reasons exist for this behavior:

Suspension of Disbelief

If everything is logically consistent in a story, then it makes it easier to believe the events of the story, and the events of other stories. This is a blessing, and a curse. People can know about a race, characters, or ship combat mechanics, from a previous story and it the current story doesn’t have to earn that. Unfortunately, that also means that if the current story behaves in a way that contradicts prior stories, without explanation, then you’ve thrown a bunch of fans out.

Mastery of the Subject

There’s a confidence that stems from knowing, and understanding, all the rules, and facts, of a universe. It wasn’t a waste of time! It was all worth it! The knowledge is comforting, even if it doesn’t yield any practical reward.

There is an unfortunate offshoot of this with the know-it-all-nerd stereotype that we’ve all seen in The Comic Book Shop Guy from The Simpsons — or probably witnessed in an actual comic book shop. A desire to lord their knowledge over others, and keep out all but the true believers. To use “facts” and “logic” against other nerds’ “facts” and “logic” and provide comfort, in a negative way.

Law & Order: Canon Intent

People might believe canon should exist — in the abstract — but lack any mastery of it. They want to know that things function on a surface level without having to get into the details and wade through wiki articles. They want to know police are protecting them, but they don’t want to be the police.

Head Canon

The first time I ever heard the term “head canon” was from Erika Ensign on an episode of The Incomparable. I don’t think she invented it, but I can’t find any sources for it. Conceptually, it refers rationalizing things, filling in the gaps, and generating a personalized truth. Head canon is not official in any capacity, but the person’s belief in it is unshakeable. Some might think of this as a form of denial, or pointless speculation, but that’s just, like, their opinion, man.

Comparing Canons

The idea of canonicity stems from religion. Not to touch that third rail, but it’s pretty easy to see how there’s a lot of material that organized religions sift through, and approve, as the actual beliefs of the religion. Let’s move away from the discussion of religion, and talk about something a lot less controversial: Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

Oh yeah, we’re boldly going there.

While I love both Star Wars and Star Trek, it’s pretty obvious that I love Trek more. I can easily say this is because I grew up with Star Warsbeing a trilogy on VHS tape (which I would watch over and over) and grew up with Star Trek while TNG was on the air, and the original cast was still making movies. Even by that point, there was a lot of Star Trek and there was good, and bad to be found in much of it. Star Wars was just the three VHS tapes. Kids my age were so starved for Star Wars that they bought in to much of what The Expanded Universe had to offer, particularly the N64 game, Shadows of the Empire, and anything concerning Mara Jade.

Star Wars had, until very recently, the dubious luxury of George Lucas deciding almost everything. Even though George Lucas didn’t direct two of the Star Wars movies, he was certainly involved with them. He owned the company responsible for licensing books, comic books, games, and cartoons. Even though he didn’t approve each of those Expanded Universe titles, he was the top dog.

Star Trek, in contrast, has a long, chaotic history with many different views, and opinions being expressed by showrunners, producers, and writers. Even during the original series, Gene L. Coon, not Gene Roddenberry, ran many of the shows. Indeed, he created the Klingons, Khan, the Prime Directive, the United Federation of Planets, and Starfleet Command. Even a non-Star-Trek fan knows all of those iconic things. Roddenberry, the show’s creator, did not always like the things that the fans liked, much in the same way that George Lucas didn’t really approach Star Wars the same way fans had.

While Star Trek has books, comic books, games, and a cartoon, it’s always been additional stuff that the shows, and movies, have never been bound to. Star Wars dismantling some of the officialness of the Expanded Universe just knocks it down to Star Trek tie-in properties. The market for that is still there, people still buy it, and actors still lend themselves to the tie-in projects. It’s not the end of the universe, and not the end of the expansion.

Star Trek fans have been dealing with continuity, and canon, issues for decades. The sheer amount of Star Trek material is immense, and allows for sprawling, multi-series, multi-movie analysis. That doesn’t mean fans won’t bump against those issues, but there’s so much bumping that it’s not a new experience. Phasers fired out of the torpedo tubes? Ferengi and human first contact in Star Trek: Enterprise? Klingon makeup? The warp factor scale? Almost everything else?

Star Trek is Silly

So is Star Wars. What’s your point? Is your point that Star Wars is so perfect, and rarified that it should never be subjected to the kind of inconsistent treatment Star Trek has been? It has silly stuff right in the sacred films, ignore it at your own peril.

Silliness doesn’t matter, introducing silliness, to a degree, doesn’t kill anything. Otherwise, the best you can hope for is a weird stasis with Star Wars being protected to the grave. It needs new fans, new audiences, new stories to tell. I don’t like the JJ Abrams’ Trek films as much as most Trek stories, but I’m glad that something exists because it might push people to look back on historical Star Trek.

A person doesn’t need to like all of Star Wars, or integrate all aspects of Star Wars into a cohesive whole. It is possible to accept that Star Trek: Nemesis is a movie that happened, even though I thoroughly, and unequivocally, hate the movie.

Luke is Spider-Man

Retroactive continuity was first used to describe changes made in comic books. Rewriting “history” in the fictional universe to better suit current stories, or current attitudes of the authors. It’s not the same as plot inconsistencies, but it can be used as a way to fix inconsistencies. Errors are not retcons, and George Lucas’ Special Edition doesn’t count as a retcon.

It is entirely possible that Lucasfilm will keep elements from the Expanded Universe as part of the canon of Star Wars going forward. Possibly characters, but not the stories involving those characters. Rewriting them to fit in to the new stories, and the continuity going forward.

Whether or not you consider that a retcon, a reboot, a revision, or a reimagining, is all open to interpretation since it depends on what you feel is canon.

People might cry foul over this, that Admiral Thrawn demands respect, but the situation is no different from the competing, conflicting, coexisting timelines Disney’s other acquired company, Marvel, goes through. The movies are separate from the comics, but use them as inspiration, they tell whatever story they want to tell. People still buy the comics, and enjoy them, and buy movie tickets, and enjoy them. It is possible to cope with these changes, other fans do it all the time.

Other fanbases have to deal with this too. John Siracusa points to James Bond, and Doctor Who for examples of franchises that see sweeping changes.

I Only Eat Real, Pasture-Raised, All-Natural, Original-Recipe Star Wars

There have been so few official sources of Star Wars that people have developed very intimate attachments to what existed. This stands in stark contrast to nearly every other popular franchise of the last 30-40 years. It is possible that this is a key factor in many fans taking hardline stances about what’s “real” Star Wars.

It is also possible that fans feel so burned by the official prequels that they have hardened to any changes to Star Wars. It’s the original trilogy only (mostly they just like Empire Strikes Back).

This isn’t the same thing as “head canon” because there’s no self-awareness. Their personal preferences are truth, not just to them, but must be respected by others.

The easiest way to see if you’re talking to someone afflicted by this:

  1. “Do you like The Phantom Menace?”
    1. Yes.
    2. No.
    3. It’s not Star Wars.
  2. “Do you like the other prequels?”
    1. Yes.
    2. No.
    3. They’re not Star Wars.
  3. “Do you like Return of the Jedi?”
    1. Yes.
    2. No.
    3. (unprompted) They should have been Wookies instead of Ewoks.

If anyone answers with the third options then give them this map.

When what literally counts as Star Wars is The Empire Strikes Back and parts of two other movies, then that person can’t interpret anything that might upset a very specific, narrow view they have. It is unlikely that person will see the JJ Abrams movie and think it’s official either.

People are smothering Star Wars with their love of a select set of things. The franchise needs to grow, shift, and change.

You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.

2015-01-14 08:30:00

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Analog(ue) #21: Get Your Work Done Doing

Last Thursday, I had the day off for the holiday, and I happened to have Skype open from a recording I had just done with Dan for Defocused’s 29th episode, when all of a sudden Myke Hurley called me. I missed the first call, because I had disconnected the mic and walked in to the next room to get some water, but then I raced back over to set it up. Casey and Myke were talking about movie trilogies, and I wasn’t going to let it go by without saying something. Then they asked me to stick around for the rest of their recording. It really threw me off to be on a live recording, so I certainly wasn’t as articulate as I should have been. Sure enough, the title is a dumb thing that flopped out of my mouth.

I have achieved a meta-white-whale moment by being on the podcast, and having a “guest” page on Relay now.

I don’t think I was particularly insightful on the episode, but I wasn’t that bad. The subject was on criticism, and I skipped over one very important aspect of criticism that I hope Myke and Casey will address later: Unsolicited, ‘just kidding around’, snarky feedback.

There’s an asymmetrical relationship from following people on Twitter, and listening to their podcasts. The follower/listener can pickup on running jokes, including jokes aimed at the podcaster. They can recite that inside joke back to the podcaster, in a way that seems like appreciation. Like, “Oh hey, Fast Text is so old, blah blah blah” might seem like it’s just kidding around because all the other people on the podcast are saying it to that podcaster. The listener is joining in, and being a part of it. They want to be in on the joke with them.

However, because this relationship is one-sided, the “joke” might not land. It can come across as weird, unfunny, or even as an actual insult instead of the winky-wink-smiley-face comment the person intended.

It is difficult for someone following a Twitter account, or listening to a podcast, to insure their comments are taken in the spirit they’re offered. From the perspective of the listener, they’ve done all they should do, and they feel like they’re downright friendly. We’re all friends here, we’re all cracking the same jokes, we’re all just having a laugh. Except the listener is basically a person walking up to you on the street and saying that joke, without any context, in the real world. It can be a little weird.

Some advice, from an expert jerk:

Before you make those trolling in-jokes, get them to know you by having conversations with them. Jokes are fine, but steer clear of jokes about people that don’t know you. Comedy is still possible without it being an insult. Self-deprecating jokes are fine, but go easy on them, because it can sound like the person is full of self-loathing, and seeking pity.

For example: I know Casey well enough that I can tease him about movies. Casey also knows me well enough that he can tease me about how I “hate everything”. We both know the other is making a joke. If those had been some of the first things Casey and I had said to one another then I don’t think Casey and I would be talking. I certainly would not have been invited on their show at all.

Lastly, I say all of these things because I have done all of these things. Be internet buddies with everyone, but don’t get swept-up in the single-sided familiarity the internet offers.

2015-01-06 08:58:03

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I’ve Got Five Bridges to Sell You

I started listening to Hello Internet after the endorsement of Myke Hurley, and now I’m a subscriber. Myke just recently selected this as his favorite podcast of the year to give you some kind of an idea of how much he likes it.

I quite like the show, though honestly I’ve been unable to formulate a way to pitch someone else on it. It’s two guys that make YouTube videos about stuff, but the podcast is mostly about the peripheral issues in the lives of these two people. They discuss state flags, or they discuss fiddly little protocols and forms they follow concerning Twitter and email. On the most recent episode, Brady Haran starts up a conversation about bridges. He loves bridges, and he wanted to talk about them with CGP Grey.

The bridge conversation rules were:

  • They would take turns naming bridges they liked.
  • They must have been on (or under) the bridge in person.

Brady was so excited by this topic, and Grey so baffled by it, that I found myself wondering what bridges I would select if I were to make this hypothetical list.

I won’t keep you in suspension any longer.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Sunshine Skyway on the Tampa Bay.jpg
Sunshine Skyway on the Tampa Bay” by Zword97. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I spent much of my life in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida. Your condolences are appreciated, but unnecessary because I had this beautiful bridge to enjoy!


This iconic bridge was constructed after the first, SUPER-UGLY, cantilever, steel bridge was hit by freighter in 1980. Parts of the concrete sections from the old bridge remain up today and used mostly for recreational fishing.

Because Florida is so very, very flat, the bridge can be seen from miles and miles in all directions. Like many bridges trying to emulate the colorful success of the Golden Gate bridge, the Sunshine Skyway’s cables are painted an eye-catching, yellow hue. It really stands out against the blue sky. I’m glad they went that route and didn’t paint it with green zinc paint like Los Angeles’ Vincent Thomas Bridge. Barf.

Brooklyn Bridge


Naturally, Brady and Grey took the Golden Gate Bridge off the table, as well they should have. However, second on the list of famous, and not to be overlooked, bridges is the Brooklyn Bridge. It was completed in 1883, which is 1,000 years ago in American History Years. I walked across the bridge once, on the pedestrian path, and you get an impressive view as you walk towards the spans, with the cables drawing your eye skyward. Literally everyone takes exactly this shot.

“If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you” — and variations of that phrase, have become part of our culture because a con man repeatedly “sold” the bridge. Most bridges can’t really compete with that kind of trivia.

Sixth Street Viaduct

Sixth Street Viaduct
“Sixth Street Viaduct” - Laurie Avocado
Sixth Street Bridge over Los Angeles River.jpg
Sixth Street Bridge over Los Angeles River” by Downtowngal. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Downtown Los Angeles is a bit of a festering sore. Early in the life of the city, people lived there. Then people were attracted to the suburbs (Beverly Hills and Santa Monica held “weekend homes” for people downtown that wanted to get away from it all). After World War II, LA put all of its effort into a “hygenic” car movement. Roads, bridges, freeways (highways), tunnels, all exploded over the town. The structures designed in that time are incredibly interesting, even if they are poorly maintained, and covered in graffiti. The Sixth Street Viaduct is a perfect example of that.

Even if you don’t know the name of it, you’ve seen this viaduct bridge in many films, TV shows, music videos, car commercials, and games.

The bridge is in three sections. Two reinforced concrete structures, and then the set of steel arches in the middle. Below the bridge is the scenic Los Angeles River — That’s sarcasm, it’s a concrete ditch with a trickle of industrial and residential runoff. After many devastating floods LA got the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the whole river.

The view from the bridge is actually quite interesting — in a very industrial kind of a way.

Original from Sixth Street Viaduct over the Los Angeles River.

If you have any interest in seeing it, I’d recommend you do, because people estimate there’s a 70% chance it will collapse in an earthquake due to the quality of the concrete used in its construction.

Ponte Vecchio


This bridge is so strange. It’s barnacled with shops and buildings that break all the lines. It’s haphazard — grown instead of designed — but the assemblage is so interesting that you want to explore it. Most famous bridges are obvious from afar, but not this one. When I saw it for the first time, from the street along the Arno, I thought it was pretty ugly. Over the next couple days in Florence, passing by it, and over it, I had to acknowledge that I found it too fascinating to ignore.

Bow Bridge


Central Park’s Bow Bridge is the second-oldest cast iron bridge in the US. It is quite small, but that also gives it a feeling of intimacy in its setting. The circular bows that span the bridge create give it a soft look. In fact, the view of the bridge is more picturesque than the view on the bridge.

2015-01-01 13:45:00

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