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The Final Straw

For my last Commlab assignment, I abandoned Happy and After Effects and returned to stop motion, which was my favorite technique among all the ones we played with this semester.  There is something so satisfying about taking a format with which I’m very comfortable (nice static Photoshopable photographs) and transmogrifying it by virtue of nothing other than repetition  into animation, a format that until recently provoked cold sweats.


I wanted also to revisit this photograph, which was part of an invitation that I made for the party Bridge and I threw to announce our arrival in New York (that sounds so grand, but that we threw a party doesn’t mean that anyone actually caught it).

Bridge and I discussed the idea and she thought it would be fun to film a discombobulated argument.  I had recently listened to the White Stripes song “There’s No Home for You Here” which I thought would make a great soundtrack.

So we set up the tripod and a bunch of lights in the apartment and separately photographed our eyes and our mouths as the song played.  I stitched the resulting photos into a four-frame collage in Final Cut.  I’m not all that happy with it.  It’s too slow; I should have taken about three times as many photos, though I’m not entirely convinced that the whole thing shouldn’t just be done in video to begin with. And syncing the sound was a total nightmare.

Also, and this was the feedback I got in class, why is there no interaction between the frames?  It seems a shame to set up these boundaries around each frame only to respect them!  It’s a decent proof of concept but it needs redoing, and that’s what’s great about being on an academic calendar.  In January, we’ll plan some interframe action and shoot it again, this time in DV.

After Shocks, or the Misadventures of Happy International

Happy InternationalAfter Effects.  Wow.  I had no idea motion graphics were this fun nor did I suspect they’d be this time consuming.  But that’s also possibly because I went about this all wrong.  Instead of first going to the library to check out books filled with images that took hours and hours to Photoshop into animatability, I should have really worked visually on the story I wanted to tell.

It was frustrating to show my sketch in class and have Marianne say, “Ok, great, but move the camera around, give us multiple shots, you have infinite control, use it.”  We’ve read extensively on frames and points of view, we’ve storyboarded and shot multiple movies, and when finally we’re given total freedom, liberated from the constraints of physical cameras and perspectives, I immediately revert to overhead projector mode.

In any case, the story I was hoping to tell was that of Happy International, bon vivant and rake extraordinaire, who cruises the world in his speedboat picking up female dancers of all ethnicities and taking them on fabulous motorboat cruises of exotic locales with canals/navigable rivers/waterfronts.  I ended up with a paean to the puppet pin tool (really, I can’t gush enough) and a lot of clips that never came together.  I will revisit this particular assignment.

Here’s the painstakingly motion-tracked title sequence, lifted from an old educational video on

And here are Happy and his girls:

Exciting Laos!

Nice Pianist!

After a three days sweating in a tux, lugging heavy lights up forgotten back staircases of the Tisch building and getting coated in dust, punched repeatedly in the hand and abdomen, having to make quite a fuss to get access to a grand piano, and then spending the better part of a week hunched over Final Cut in the video lab, here it is, our small visual sonata.

I was worried that the story wasn’t going to look very good, but Michelle’s color correcting wizardry resulted in exactly the look we wanted. It’s amazing to see a story I dreamed up years ago semi-ported to the screen!

My favorite part of the whole process was watching Michelle lug the camera and tripod all the way up twelve flights of stairs and then balance it precariously over the void between two opposing railings only to not be able to yell loud enough for Zach and me to hear her below (a trombone being played on some intervening floor, possibly the seventh, drowned her out completely).

Once again I’m amazed by the amount of depth and believability sound adds to a scene. Shots that just didn’t cut well together looked flowed naturally once they shared a soundtrack. Three people and a curtain became a full party with the addition of appropriate ambient sounds. And a silly stomp became cringeworthy with the addition of a little crunch.

I can’t imagine the sheer volume of work and organization that goes into a big studio movie, especially one with complicated live-action special effects. And honestly, I’m happy I don’t have to.

So Loud In Here: A fugue for 9 voices

After Aaron and I conscientiously recorded about twenty minutes of audio each last week (on the street, over pedestrians’ shoulders, in the library, and in the bathroom, naturally), we decided that though hearing the sounds abstracted from the actions that produced them was interesting, the sounds themselves weren’t really the stuff of narrative but were too generic to be the stuff of high-concept audio art. And after the introductory sound editing class, we decided to scrap the clips entirely. Our goal was to focus on creating (aural but also conceptual) complexity from simple sounds.

We were brainstorming on the floor when we were overwhelmed by the noise around us. Everywhere, people talking, laughing, coughing, tinkering, snickering, yelling, chewing, yawning… I thought it might be fun to use the idea of a fugue (one theme, several voices transposing, altering, and/or answering that theme) as a structure for our piece. We toyed with recording a single sentence in multiple languages but settled on a single sentence eventually spoken by nine people.

We started using a Blue Snowball mic, but it produced so much noise that we switched to the more cumbersome shotgun mic and M-Audio combination. In fifteen minutes, we’d collected our clips. Editing them took, uh, significantly longer. We used Audacity to process and chop up the raw clips and then dropped them into Garage Band. Other than a couple of volume swells, a left-to-right pan, and several strategic echoes, what you hear are the unaltered and distinctive voices of ITP, where if you’re looking for quiet, you’re literally fugued!

McLuhan: Stop-motion intellectual

Several caveats before I skewer Marshall and his media:

  1. I am in a bad mood and thus predisposed to be unpleasant to ambiguous and dead intellectuals;
  2. I have only read the first two chapters (roughly one tenth) of Understanding Media and can only assume that some of the more contentious questions and normative statements these posed are more fully explored in later chapters. After reading Lewis Lapham’s introduction to the book, however, I fear this assumption may be more charitable than is merited;
  3. Isn’t it amazing how Lewis Lapham can relate any topic to the sorry state of contemporary public affairs with nothing more than alliteration and disparaging pop culture references? But like all magazine writers, he dates quickly. That Lapham would write about Clinton’s personal foibles in an introduction to a book–especially one about the mass media and one that is obviously going to be read for some time to come–is either an ironic comment on media saturation and our short memories too clever to hit the mark or an arrogantly willful disregard (and unintentional demonstration) of McLuhan’s principal premise: the medium, in Lapham’s case the ephemeral magazine, is the message. By turning a book introduction into a political editorial, Lapham unsuccessfully tries to transplant a message from a magazine into a book, and by its shocking irrelevance reveals just how tied the messenger is to his medium.

Anyway, enough vitriol for the hapless emcee, I have a whole bottle left for the main act!

First, can I just say that while I sometimes appreciate what I’m calling the stop-motion approach to argument (include a couple of key frames and the reader will fill in all the movement between them)–a form of which Foucault is a master–it’s not all that effective when the key frames are so far apart they can accommodate entire (and entirely absent) chains of reasoning in the spaces between them.

I’m speaking of chapter 2 and its questionable “hot” and “cool” media taxonomy. As best as I can tell (please refer to caveat 2), the temperature of media has to do with the demands it makes on its users/receptors. Thus the phone is cool because when you talk on the phone you have to fill in and interpret a lot of missing information and the movies are hot because you just sit there and all your senses are bombarded. Cooling begets participation while heating engenders terror and then numbness. If this is the case, then why is TV cool? Does pushing buttons on a remote really constitute user participation? And what heuristic or hermeneutic purpose does the distinction serve? And what of the oh-so-clever reference to the “cool” war between the USSR and the US? And jazz? He’s mixing metaphors like they’re paint. Too many and you end up with brown. Inescapable brown. Humph.

Humph also to the normative dicta he sprinkles flatulently throughout. Print created individualism? It caused religious wars? I think not. I hate technological determinism. Technology makes certain things possible but it does not make them inevitable. From what I understand (again, caveat 2), this seems to me like the greatest hole in all this message medium mishmash: where is human agency? Are the media truly independent from their masters, from those who create them? If they are extensions of human senses, then aren’t they also subject to the same control? McLuhan writes as if the consequences of new media are inescapable, as if all audiences are by their very nature captive to some disembodied and authorless message. Not so. I don’t watch TV. My life is affected by television I’m sure, including in lots of ways of which I’m not even aware, but I do not think in a “televisive” way. I rely much more on the internet as a general medium, but if I feel it’s interfering with my thinking, I turn it off, for months at a time. I am not an unthinking unblinking receptor.

But I guess one might argue as he does, at least given the tenor of political discourse in this country (and his book, come to think of it), that message is an effect rather than a meaning. Maybe that’s why he relies on Shakespeare and versified anagrams as evidence for his contentions in the first chapter. Because if media act on our senses rather than our reason (another distinction I shake my finger at), then it only makes sense that our eyes would be so delighted by the poetry’s novel indentation and our ears so entranced by its meter and rhyme that we would somehow overlook that a couplet from Troilus and Cressida does not constitute a viable premise for elaborate media theories. (Please see caveat 1.)

Maybe that’s just because I’m arguing from a standpoint of traditional, “literary” western rationality, which like a paragraph is “uniform, continuous, and sequential.” There’s no arguing that despite what I consider a kind of intellectual sloppiness, McLuhan’s ideas gained a mainstream recognition totally out of proportion to their academic nature. It’s possible that he emerged from the Marabar Caves and out the other end of Finnegan’s Wake with a new understanding of reality, one shaped by modes of communication that had left many people feeling lost and over-extended, a master of the catchy but meaningless sound bite (the medium is the message, the content of all media is other media) that leaves you scratching your head wondering where the medium ends and what the message is but feeling clever for trying.

Ong wryly notes that the only way to be heard once a new mode of communication becomes prevalent is to use that mode. Maybe that’s what McLuhan is trying to do, reworking the written word into a kind of textual billboard analog. And maybe it’s just that like Lapham, I consider my particular point in history the only reasonable point and forget that just as oral man was replaced by literate man, so too will a literate man like me be replaced by an electronic man shaped not by books and carefully wrought thoughts but by M&M-like bits of information on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. Maybe the rising darkness that I perceive in an educational system that increasingly privileges the piecemeal over the complete, “useful” knowledge over causality is simply my own anachronistic shadow.

Electronic media erase the lag in communication, says McLuhan, eliminating the space between call and response and delivering us into an everpresent now devoid of the pensive pauses and other non-verbal punctuations of face-to-face conversation. Modes of communication definitely shape the messages they convey, but their primary function is still to exchange information. In the absence of that information can we really say that they are the message?


I had a lot of trouble with this particular assignment. There were no constraints. I do not do well without constraints. And because my travel schedule kept me from having a partner, I spent a whole week agonizing over possible responses. How about something minimalistic–telling a story using just one black dot? Or combining photos and drawings in an interesting way? Or how about playing with the dimensionality of the frame, layering things over and under? And that’s just formatting. What idea do I want to convey? Or more importantly, which of the ideas that I want to convey lends itself best to being expressed in a series of images? Or what if I randomly assemble some images, will people still find a narrative path through them as Scott McCloud contends? Or how about combining all of these ideas? Photoshop has unlimited layers…

For PComp, we read a piece about the bandwidth of the brain that talked about how editing (and I would argue by extension communication) becomes exponentially more complex (and richer) when you move from the one-dimensionality of written language to the two-dimensionality of audio to the three-dimensionality of video. Working on this comic really drove that home. While I was able to describe my concept in a couple of sentences once I’d sketched it out, it took me much longer to arrange it into a visual narrative.

To do so, I used Photoshop to edit a picture I took of the restroom signs at ITP into the comic’s various frames and then composed them in Illustrator, mostly because I hate clunky Photoshop almost as much as I love fleet and nimble Illustrator. And also because it’s much easier to move things around and play with text.

It was fun to play around with symbols and devise ways of arranging images to convey innuendo without descending into vulgarity. But I think I’ll stick with words as my principal medium, they’re not resolution dependent. Will I ever get away from bathrooms in my academic work, you might ask. It appears the answer is resoundingly no. Nonetheless, I’m pretty happy with how the comic turned out; it’s low-brow in content and fine in form, like a really good burger. There’s one panel that perhaps doesn’t read quite right, but there’s always a piece of gristle even in the choicest ground chuck.

Stop, in the name of motion—back to the drawing board.

John and I got together on Friday with ambitious plans to animate the LED board in the ITP hallway, to create an M&M opus, to tell the story of evolution in fried eggs and bacon. When the reality of what any of those undertakings entailed dawned on us, we returned to the drawing board. Which we realized was literally a fabulous medium for stop motion. John had the idea of creating an imaginary physics using sticks and balls, and together, we worked it up into a quick storyboard that we honored more in the breach. We set up a couple of clip lights on one side of a wall-mounted whiteboard (to minimize shadows) and used a tripod and my Nikon SLR set to no flash and manual focus to take around 500 photos we then assembled into a movie in Final Cut.

My biggest learning from the exercise was that when it comes to interpreting information, the mind will do a lot of work to make it make sense on its own, so you don’t have to overspecify. As the afternoon progressed, we moved more between pictures and worried less about absolute consistency. By the end, we were experimenting with the inherent whiteboardness of our medium (we came up with the idea of the exploding knob when we noticed the little bits of marker ink that stuck the board when we erased using our fingers), testing the limits of stop motion. The final sequence viewed frame by frame was incomprehensible, but played through sequentially really read as an actual physical tying and untying.

There are several things I might do differently the next time I start a stop motion project. One is to carefully mark out the frame and record the exact position of the tripod and the camera’s zoom to ensure a consistent framing throughout. The other, paradoxically, is to worry less about exactitude. When a line’s endpoints wobbled or a shadow moved slightly in our animation, rather than detracting from the overall effect I think it added a nice texture/three-dimensionality that makes the animation come to life. I suspect it might have otherwise seemed very clinical. I’d also really like to try this technique in an environment where we’re not in control, ie outdoors.

It’s all about the Benjamin, baby

Wow, I’d totally forgotten the pleasure of complete immersion in cultural theory, where everything is inscribed and mediated and passed through a sieve of Freud and Marx and Arnheim and Adorno, and everyone is intimate with Faust and the Symbolists and those pesky Dadaists!

It’s strange to reread Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in art school. The last time I read it, it was in the context of a film class; the time before that, for Science, Technology, and Modernity (alongside “The Dynamo and the Virgin” from The Education of Henry Adams I believe). The temptation for me is to treat the text itself as a (mechanically reproduced) work of art, though I still find in its Germanic convolutions an aura that no amount of typesetting or photocopying can efface.

One of the things Benjamin doesn’t really discuss is a work of art’s interpretation. He places most of the value of the work within the work itself, not in the space between it and the artist or it and its audience. The things I’ve found important in the essay, the sentences I’ve underlined in the various copies I’ve read, have changed as I have, my context filling in meanings that are not nearly as prescribed as the captioned pictures he mentions.

For instance, on this reading, I considered for the first time the perspective of a prospective creator of art. Every one of my thoughts was tempered by my six years in China, where works of art (and of commerce) are manually reproduced, in the case of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for instance, thousands of times per day by skilled painters who have memorized every brush stroke and photometrically analyzed and synthesized every color. What happens to authenticity in a climate of mass manual counterfitting? And to art in an age when its creation is directed by market research and sold abroad to collectors in New York? What kind of aura will time bestow on a canvas painted in a workshop in Shanghai to conform to an American collector’s idea of Asian-ness? It seems to me that much of the artness of a work of art resides in the perception of the beholder. Which is why repressive governments still devote much of their attention to “supervising” art.

And which is also why new technology changes our very conception of art: things perceived in new ways are perforce going to affect the way people think of them. It’s the argument Wolfgang Schivelbusch puts forward in The Railway Journey: perception is shaped by culture. Reading Benjamin, it occurs to me that photography is to art what the railway journey was to travel—an overcoming of physical constraints by technological means, a move from belonging within a landscape or a tradition to consuming it. Trains allowed people to move faster than they ever had before and Schivelbusch argues that the new form of gazing on a moving flattened landscape punctuated by telegraph poles rather than laboriously traversing it on foot or astride an animal whose exertions were clearly perceptible actually paved the way for their acceptance of film—a similar kind of spectating.

Citing Breton, Benjamin makes a very similar argument while pinpointing art’s value in its ability to in some ways predict the future, its aspiration to be something technically impossible, interpreted retroactively as a premonition by those looking back when it has become technically feasible. I especially like the idea that this premonition involves a kind of shocking disjunction that technology is able to smooth over. In the example he gives of Dadaism as film’s precursor, he says that the cuts and constant shocks of film made palatable the much more explicit shocks of the Dadaists. Whereas they relied on traditional means of creating an effect of shock and disjunction, the technology of film internalized the effect. It’s a very similar argument to Schivelbusch’s, though in this case montage plays the role of the locomotive.

Another thing that struck me on this reading was this idea of The Masses. The Internet has changed our perception of the mass from a roiling but faceless political and economic force to an interconnected network of individuals, tangled together into a web but knowable and discrete in a way its Benjaminian predecessor was not. Google’s success as an advertiser stems from its success negotiating the new mass of individuals, from its ability to deploy a distinct message to each unlikely to be ignored or misinterpreted. The constraint of meaning that Benjamin attributes to photo captions and film has reached its apex in the manipulations of marketing: brand promises and directed messaging and product placement. Ambiguity is no longer to be tolerated in vernacular communication. Bridge and I went to see a play this weekend about three mothers who all become pregnant by technological means. The playwright spoke after the performance and explained to us that the play had been altered from the original and tailored specifically for us, a New York audience, so that we’d be maximally receptive to its message. The man is writing about fertility treatments, so I guess this approach is understandable, but is this what is becoming of art in the era of mass customization?

If we stand with Benjamin, we are to demand from art “an aspect of reality that is free of all equipment.” But increasingly, our reality is the equipment, our media becomes our message. We’ve entered a kind of William Gibson universe, the logical evolution of the movement he ascribes to print, the creation of the inextricable author/reader/critic who some times produces and some times consumes written words, now multiplied a thousandfold. We’ve moved beyond the magician and the surgeon to a new kind of paradigm, a combination of the two that embraces both interpretation and representation, the documentary and the fantastical, Muybridge and Méliès. What before was a mechanical intermediary has now become a giant pulsating collaborative work itself. Painters paint alone in a workshop. Film is made industrially in a giant factory. But increasingly, what I would call contemporary art is made in an ambient and instantly ubiquitous non-space. Connections are made within great collections of information, classifying and redefining and changing shape. Because of technology, it’s possible that the lost aura of authenticity Benjamin describes was actually lost only to him and that we of changed perception and technology have regained it in the placeless instant slices of reality that are available to us at the speed of thought.

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