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My TEDx Talk: Problem-Solving and Adaptation in a Digital World

Recently I was honored to give a TEDx Talk on creative problem-solving.

Using examples from three different film projects, I talked about thinking on your feet, adapting to change, and improvising solutions—valuable skills in any era, especially our digital age. It’s not just about mastering the gear, I tell my students. It’s about releasing your creativity. The ability to acquire and propagate images with ease doesn’t make you a Spielberg, any more than learning to write turns you into Shakespeare. But creativity, inquisitiveness, and collaboration will never go out of style.

TEDx programs are independently organized TED-like events.

“TED … has become in recent years a showroom for the style of the digital age,” writes Nathan Heller in  The New Yorker, ” … People who know TED these days frequently know it best from ‘TED Talks,’ a series of Internet lecture videos that has received more than eight hundred million views to date (That’s nearly two-thirds the number of movie tickets sold last year in all of North America). Yet its style and substance have begun to overtake other media, too. To feed a market for ‘ideas’ which it has helped create, the organization has launched an e-book imprint and an e-reader app to accompany it. You can watch TED lectures on your seat-back screen as you fly cross-country, or listen to excerpts in your car as they air on NPR.”

The venue for my talk was Mission San Jose High School in Fremont CA. Ten speakers were recruited to give 18-minute speeches that day, under the general theme of Synergy.

Text of my speech and more about TED and TEDx appear below.

Video of my talk was just posted on YouTube.

Watch it here:

From the event website:

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)

TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. Started as a four-day conference in California 26 years ago, TED has grown to support those world-changing ideas with multiple initiatives. At TED, the world’s leading thinkers and doers are asked to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Talks are then made available, free, at TED.com.

2012 Theme: Synergy

Miraculous things can happen when two separate entities come together: a hodgepodge of chemicals create the functioning cells of our bodies; the collaboration of individuals have created Pyramids, Civil Rights movements, and Space Stations (and now, this TEDxMSJHS event!) 

Since we began our studies at Mission San Jose High School, the words of John Donne inscribed on our bell tower have resounded: “No man is an island.” Through TEDxMSJHS, we hope to offer our audience an array of new and valuable perspectives, to foster the mentality that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and to catalyze the next collision and fusion of multidisciplinary ideas—the next synergy.

More about the TEDx event at Mission San Jose High School.

More about TED.

Problem-Solving and Adaptation in a Digital World

By Bill Zarchy

Twelve years ago, at the turn of the century, when you guys were five or six years old, Bill Clinton was president, hardly anyone knew what a text message was, there were no Apple Stores yet, and all my projects were shot on film. But now, the digital cosmos swirls about our heads, and data of all kinds blows through the air, to our phones, our computers, our TVs, our devices.

In my field, cinematography, the changes have been momentous: Film started to fade out of my professional life years ago, and now Kodak is bankrupt, and everything I shoot is in HD Video, or some file-based digital cinema format.

The high-definition camera on my phone has finer resolution than the expensive, professional, standard-def video cameras I was shooting with just a few years ago. Moving images, words, and all kinds of content are easy to acquire and share globally at the drop of a login. Which sometimes brings up a question from content buyers, many of them clients of mine: “Why should I hire you guys to do this? My nephew could shoot this video on his phone and edit it on his laptop.”

But it’s not always that simple. I tell my cinematography students: It’s not about the gear. It’s about releasing your creativity. The mere ease of image acquisition (which we used to call photography), doesn’t solve the many problems that arise during production. Regardless of the recording technology, filmmaking is a collaborative process, often involving dozens or hundreds of people. Film crews exhibit boundless improvisational ingenuity, adapting the tools and techniques of cameras, lights, rigging, psychology, and rapport, to new and unpredictable situations every day. I’m going to show you three examples of crews meeting technical and interpersonal challenges with creative problem solving.

(Incidentally, in my writing, it’s hard to know what to call the production process anymore. “Shooting” isn’t always appropriate, especially when we’re working with politicians. Are we still “filming” even when it’s not on film? “Videoing?” Really? Some called it taping for a while, but we don’t record on tape anymore, it’s all on cards and drives. Are we carding or driving? It’s a problem! I stick with “filming.” And don’t even get me started on “rolling.” Nothing actually rolls.)

[Piano video clip]

This is not a digital effect. The gag here was to drop a piano, on camera, from the rigging above the studio, as one actor ran out from underneath and another remained in the shot.

But how do you do this in a safe and photogenic manner? No one on our team had dropped a piano before. A new challenge.

Before the shoot day, the special effects crew removed the 200 tightly-wound piano strings and the heavy soundboard, sawed through other structural elements so they would break apart easily on impact, and loosened the keys and internal hammers, so they would flop and bounce for dramatic effect.

The piano was positioned to fall with the keys facing toward the camera, then hauled up to the pipe grid above the studio, very carefully. The special effects crew had made a clever custom release mechanism, with a pair of C-shaped hooks that met in the middle.  The rig had a release pin that they pulled from the side, releasing both hooks in opposite directions so the object fell straight down. They had tested it many times … with sandbags.

With the piano ready to drop from the rigging, but still held in place by an extra safety line, we locked down the camera, a technique as old as silent film making: locking the tripod, placing barriers around the camera so no one would bump it, positioning my camera assistant to snarl at anyone who came near.

Next, we shot the scene where the actor playing the customer looks up and then runs off to the right, as the proprietor sits very still in the background. Then we cut. And with the camera still locked down, the customer safely out of the way, and the proprietor still in the shot, the rigging crew unfastened the extra safety line, we rolled again, and the custom release mechanism securing the piano rig was pulled. Ka-boom! Down came the piano.

This camera lockdown technique allowed us to imply continuous action, even though the camera had actually cut as the actors and props were rearranged. In addition, we used foreshortening, the same optical illusion that makes the pitcher and catcher, as viewed from center field in a televised baseball game, appear fairly close together. Here foreshortening helped create the illusion that the piano fell right in front of the proprietor, when in fact he was a good 15 feet behind the drop zone.

The final technique we employed was slow motion, often used in action scenes, explosions, and stunts. Gravity is relentless, and pianos, like most things, drop very quickly. To extend the screen time for this stunt, we slowed the final action down to about half speed, yet it still takes place in a fraction of a second.

Incidentally, the special effects supervisor had never dropped a piano before, but some time later he rigged a shot with a flaming meteor that fell from the sky, crushing the hood of a convertible as a couple was making out in the front seat. Once you know how to drop a piano, meteors, apparently, are just a small step up.

 [Steve Jobs video clip]

Steve Jobs was a world-class presenter and marketeer, as in this film I shot for the opening of the first Apple Store in Virginia eleven years ago. But he was not a filmmaker. He had little patience for the deliberate, tortoise-like speed of most film or video productions. I’d filmed him before, in brief studio shoots where the crew stood behind black drapes, out of his eyeline. And many crews had waited all day in vain for Steve to appear and talk to the camera for two or three minutes. Apparently he was off building the most successful company ever, and our little shoots, on any given day, were sometimes less important in his universe.

But the Apple Stores were a costly expansion, a new and risky venture. He wanted to film a video tour, and, unsurprisingly, he wanted to do it his way.

Our director told us Steve’s idea: that he would be alone in the store with a cameraman in the most low-tech setup possible: a handheld camera with an on-camera microphone, with no other crew, no lighting in the store, and no wires anywhere. He would start out in front of the black barrier which still separated the unopened store from the mall, then walk through the barrier and lead the viewers through the store in one long, uninterrupted take. Simple, eh?

Except for a few challenges, which made our skin crawl as we anticipated them. First and foremost, no wires, at that time, meant that we had no control over the picture, that no one except me would be able to see and judge Steve’s performance and my shots, and our director would thus be out of the loop. Of course, we could play back the video, but we knew Steve would never wait around for that, and we would have to get it right the first time. But if we could run a long, neat bundle of cables from my camera to the storage room in the back, the director, producer and our client from Apple could watch and listen. The on-camera mic was a bad idea too, so we needed to have our sound recordist trail behind me during the tour.

Another problem—the bright lighting in the store came from the ceiling. It was maximized, of course, to make the products look good, a different goal from making the CEO look good. The store allowed us to add sheets of our lighting diffusion to the bright fluorescents, but were we really going to shoot this man in glasses, dressed in black, walking in a continuous shot through overly bright, white product areas, then into the dimmer, black-walled theater where his shirt might melt into the walls? This plan was destined for disaster if we let the auto-exposure unit in the camera control the brightness of our picture. But a lifeline cable back to the storage room would mean that our video engineer could also monitor the picture and remotely adjust the brightness, contrast, and color on my camera as needed.

To do this right, someone had to face down the leader of the free world, a man who was accustomed to getting his way. Meaning that our director had to suggest this methodology and convince Steve we needed to monitor and control quality. As a colleague of mine often insisted, “Don’t give them what they want. Give them what they need!”

Steve grumbled about the camera cable and the soundman, but he went along, grabbing the lavalier mic and pinning it, without ceremony, onto the front of his turtleneck.

Did you notice how he pointed away at various sections of the new store and I panned the camera to each? I didn’t do that in the first take, and he stopped and glared at me. The director and I had agreed I would stay on Steve at those moments, and we would shoot the separate sections later and edit them in. Steve disagreed.

I apologize for the quality of this copy we’re viewing. Even in the original it’s a bit difficult to see what I’m panning to. But we did it his way.

And so it went. We did walk around the store quite a bit on camera. We couldn’t do it all in one take, so we cut and re-set between sections. In the new Genius Bar, Steve told the audience, “I’m not a genius, but I’ll stand behind here …” At the back of the store, the theater video and audio hiccupped and glitched briefly as he switched modes. He grew angry about the glitch, called in an Apple engineer, dressed him down, and appeared to fire him on the spot. The man left quietly, but the following week our client assured me that he was still on the job and back in Steve’s good graces.

But that day in the first Apple Store, Steve was done. Our client implored him to stay a few more minutes to shoot a wrapup. He gave us a quick “I’ll see you when the store opens” on camera, and he was gone.

It’s impossible to tell from this copy, pulled off the Internet, but we did pretty well. Having control of the camera and audio in a very portable, impromptu situation that had to look and sound great, coupled with clever editing, and Steve Jobs’ marketing genius, give the piece the feel of a seamless personal tour. And now eleven years later, Apple stores are by far the most profitable retail real estate in the country.

[Bill Clinton/West Wing video clip]

This clip is from a special episode I shot for The West Wing on NBC. During the period of intense patriotic outbursts after 9/11, Aaron Sorkin and his cohorts on that series wanted to celebrate public service. We interviewed three former presidents, cabinet members, and a dozen presidential aides about the culture of working in the White House. This was intercut with fictional scenes from past episodes of The West Wing. I thought this format sounded hokey when I first heard it, but the results were wonderful, and very moving.

The challenge here for us, with a small crew, was to light and shoot a series of mostly middle-aged guys with glasses and, at best, graying hair, in a variety of West Wing-like environments, and to make it cut seamlessly with a Hollywood series where they spent millions of dollars per episode creating dramatic scenes with brilliant actors. Also, we were shooting on video, but The West Wing series was shot on film.

There’s nothing more synergistic than a production crew. We’re all in this together, I tell my students, and we each contribute our expertise. For a more film-like look, we put a filter on our video camera, a piece of black Mexican bridal veil stretched on an accessory ring over the rear element of our zoom lens. Our video engineer helped set the rich look for our show, maintaining healthy contrast ratios and warm color balance. Our grip crew put up a 12-by-12-foot double-layer net, in the shot, out of focus, a few feet behind the interview subjects, in order to soften the backgrounds. Our set dresser in Washington advised us that the American flag, which is in nearly every shot, traditionally appears on the left side of the frame.

For grey heads, our lighting crew reduced the light coming from behind. For bald guys, we turned off the backlight completely, to eliminate glare bouncing off shiny skulls. In most cases, we elevated our subjects a few inches for more dramatic angles, and we carefully framed lamps or windows in the backgrounds of our shots, to motivate warm or cool side or back light striking the faces. This type of source lighting helped us emulate the dramatic look of The West Wing, as much as we could with sit-down interviews.

The director agreed to let us see each interviewee on camera for 30 seconds, in the interview chair, immediately after arrival and before makeup or prep, with the correct eye line and with no one standing in the light. The crew was poised to make quick changes. This short inspection determined whether we raised or lowered the key light, bumped it more to the side for more lighting ratio, or more frontal for more light in the second eye.

Those 30 seconds were critical for us to scrutinize our subjects’ particular facial topography, wardrobe, and glasses. The light struck everyone’s bone structure and complexion differently. We didn’t really know how the lighting would look on our actual subjects until we saw them.

I had been a pre-law, government major in college, and it was a thrill to meet many of these public servants and to shoot in D.C. But one of my biggest challenges came about when I found myself tongue-tied around Bill Clinton.

I’ve met six former or future Presidents, and I’ve shot five of them, filmically speaking. Richard Nixon is the only one who got away. Of the three in The West Wing Documentary, Jimmy Carter gave us exactly a half hour of his time, including pleasant greeting, interview, handshake, and group photo. Gerald Ford was recovering from a stroke and affable, but only to a point.

But President Clinton—whom I had long admired for his politics, intelligence, and wit—greeted each of us, did the interview, shook everyone’s hand, thanked us, posed for pictures, and then hung out chatting for another half hour as we wrapped. Less than a year removed from the Presidency, he gabbed easily about public policy issues and his own future. But what was in my heart that day, what I couldn’t bring myself to say, was the fact that we had both recently lost our dogs.

Harry Truman once said that if you need a friend in Washington, get a dog, and the Clintons did exactly that, early in his second term. But his dog Buddy was killed by a car a few weeks before we interviewed the former President, around the time our family dog Sophie died of old age.

What to do? This work often involved judging how personal to get with VIPs. I usually tried to maintain a friendly, professional distance. But I wanted to say to President Clinton, “Enough about Republicans and taxes. We’ve got something in common. Let’s talk about our poor dead puppies.”

I made a bashful, professional decision not to. But I wrote him a condolence letter a few days later, and he responded warmly, four short months later.

Connection made. Sometimes the best challenges are the personal ones.

*    *    *

The ability to acquire and propagate images with ease doesn’t make you a Spielberg, any more than learning to write turns you into Shakespeare. Our technology is getting ever simpler, and ever more complex. I can’t imagine what our tech toys will be, what devices we’ll be using, twelve years from now.

But I do know that the tools are not always tangible or technological. Ingenuity will never become obsolete, and creativity will never go out of style. As we adapt to accelerating changes in technology … inquisitiveness, collaboration, and problem-solving will always be in demand. It’s about thinking on your feet. Going digital has not changed that.

When presented with unusual situations and people—piano drops, technical demands, recalcitrant CEOs, charismatic ex-Presidents, or whatever the future has in store for us—the ability to improvise is a special quality that will always thrive.

 

Article first published as My TEDx Talk: Problem-Solving and Adaptation in a Digital World on Technorati.

 

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