Running notes from Picnic06/Crossmediaweek in Amsterdam.
Michael Johnson is the opening keynote, talking about the creative process at Pixar - the studio behind "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" and other animation movies. "Pixar is about coming up with the better story", he says, giving a short history of the studio (Ed Catmull's vision; the computer division of LucasFilm in 1979; introducing the computer as part of the film-making process; independent since 1986, until the merger with Disney this year). "Pixar's philosophy is all about casting, casting, casting - assembling the best possible team. It's better to have a so-so story and a fabulous team, than a great story and an average team, because they would ruin the story, while the great team will find a way to fix a so-so idea and make it great. Art is a team sport".
The process: it all starts with a story; telling stories is a fundamental human activity, but in our case it's about selling them, "pitching" them, getting people to buy into your vision or idea. (He shows a clip of writer/director Andrew Stanton pitching "Nemo" for the first time to the Pixar crew, and you wonder: how did they go from there to the movie?) "We make the movie twice, first as script/drawing/dialog etc" using story artists, who can draw really well, coming up with poses that capture a character in a single line, who understand composition and pacing, and who always had another idea".
"What we're trying to do in stories, is fail as quickly as possible" - always keep moving, always test ideas, get versions of the movie in front of people fast so that it can be criticized and enhanced (He shows a clip from an earlier, black-and-white animated iteration of "The Incredibles" where a secondary character dies - a character that never made it into the final movie: "we realized that the movie was supposed to be about the strength of superheroes, not dying characters"). "We give notes, and a good note is about criticizing something and at the same time offering a solution, a way to fix the problem, to enhance the idea".
The editorial - where the film is cut and sound is produced - is "organized like live action". Voices are recorded before the animation is done. How does Pixar choose the famous actors that lend their voice to the animated characters? By using existing movie dialogs and test whether they fit to the character. The art and animation/simulation depts are next. "We're not trying to mimic reality: for us reality is just a convenient measure of complexity". As director John Lasseter says, "it's not about being real, it's about being believable". Lightning dept is where the final story comes together, before it is rendered.
Pixar develops most of its tools - software tools that story artists use to pitch their story, for example. "Good tools obviate bad processes". "We try to use technology not only to make the film, but to make the process of making a film an essentially creative process."
Gary Carter, chief creative officer FMX FremantleMedia (UK, the guys behind the "Idols" TV franchise - interview) talks about the "next big idea". "You keep hearing that reality TV is dead, the 30-second commercial is dead, the broadcasters are dead - everybody is dead except iTunes and YouTube and content. Is television going to die? (And if it does, how will we know in what way to point our furniture?)". The TV industry "feels under threat from a group of mass media technologies which are generally described as "new" and "digital", and are blamed for audience decline, copyright infringement, etc. But I often wonder whether audiences are deserting TV just because it's not good".
Mass communication technologies (except the telegraph, which was discontinued earlier this year) are never replaced by newer technologies - they continue to exist, although they transform themselves. Will content specifically made for TV survive? Some of the stuff in prime-time TV actually is already not TV - it's distributed on a TV channel, but it represent older media forms (cinema,...) carried by newer technology.
"It is possible to describe what's happening today in the media by looking at how communication devices have been personalized: they move from the public space to the domestic to become private (telephone, PC). There is something profoundly human going on, which can be summarized in a short history of TV as both a medium and a form across three generations:
- for my mother, it was a technology without history, it appeared as evolutionary, perhaps related to movies or theatre. It was a window onto the world, a social instrument. The voice of television was that of the estabishment. Famous people were famous for something they had done.
- for my generation, the TV is a domesticated animal, it moves into our space (bedrooms, kitchens), has codified its conventions, developed a culture of its own. The commercial broadcaster rises. The famous are famous for the amount of media exposure they get - for being on TV. And a domestic version of the technology is filming us (videocameras), material is generated by the subject.
- for the generation of my son, television - or rather video - has become totally personalized, the digital project means that media represents no reality at all. The only reality is that of the images. A celebrity is now somebody who is recognized by more people that they themselves can recognize. TV gets closer to games, where users can affect the outcome; audiences have both production and distribution means. Power in this environment is no longer "push", but it's not "pull" either: it's distributed equally in all parts of the network (peer to peer).
"We're not living through the death of TV, because this is not about TV. It's about what we will do with it, who will control it, what we will become because of it".
John Underkoffler, who was an advisor to Steven Spielberg for the making of "Minority Report", picks up where Johnson left off - with the question of narrative and of building story-worlds that are interesting, populated with interesting characters. "Narrative is the spine of all forms of entertainment", he says, but he then criticizes the traditional filmmaking model "where the writer comes first - where there is a primacy of the script. The writer sitting in his room however, is not nutritious enough to grow a good narrative". In "Minority Report" they did something different: "Spielberg wanted to do a movie set in the future, but a recognizable future, not a sci-fi movie. The production designer and the writer were hired the same day - so while the writer started writing, the prod designer started putting together a whole world, packed with technology". Most of what people remember about "Minority Report" is about the data displays - on big screens, on clothes, etc. "But that existed in a bigger context that designers had to build": urban planning (how would a 2044 Washington DC look like?), social class distribution, maglev transportation (the cars that go up and down the side of buildings), the place of advertising. "We had to build up a structure, a logical coherent world" and if you do so, "if you prepare a dish with enough nutrient, then the narrative can grow in every direction". Moviemakers "should hire the writers later, after they've build their world".
Fine, that's what happens with movies. In many cases, the team comes together within days, and they work effectively because of the discipline of moviemaking. But "is it possible to take this organizational skills and approach to other disciplines?", he asked. With his colleagues he tried to apply it to a project called DestinyUSA in Syracuse NY, to create a 220-acres entertainment and leisure site, "green" (no fossil fuels - so it will also be a park of sustainability). They imagined the "world" in four weeks, he claims, "sort of real-world prototyping". But according to the Wikipedia entry, the project has not had an easy life and has been significantly scaled down.
Dan Gillmor ("We the Media") talks about the evolution of journalism "from lecture to conversation". "Media is becoming democratized, in the sense of a broader participation; the tools of production/distribution are in everybody's hands", the Web "has become read-write, you can actually add to it, not just read". If "we are moving from lecture to conversation, the first rule of conversation is to listen", and that's something "journalists have not been very good at". But now readers are becoming more active, blogging sharing annotating collaborating. "Newsmakers are now targets of new bottom-up journalists". Of course there is much good in it, but also problems, such as: "if it's published, is it true? We need accuracy and trust and transparency". He shows a series of examples of media that are beginning to adapt: the News-Record in Greensboro, Le Monde's blogs, the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield - an example of ultra-local news produced mostly by the readers. "Even if the media don't ask the audience, don't engage it, the audience will do it anyway, committing acts of random journalism that are significant". He also reminds us that "people have been doing this for a long time": think of the Zapruder footage of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963: "now people routinely carry photo and video devices; imagine if we had 500 video witnesses of Kennedy's motorcade, and they were all connected to a digital network, we would have a very different understanding of that event. Well, that's what's coming".
I then moderated a panel with (from the right in the picture below - thanx Heiko) Gillmor, Craig Newmark (founder of classifieds-site Craigslist) and Marc Canter (co-founder of Macromedia and now of People Aggregator, a social-networking tool). It was a discussion with them and with the audience, with them seated at a picnic table on a stage covered with real grass...
John De Mol, Dutch media superstar and the inventor of the "Big Brother" TV format, was next. His main point: television will continue to play the role of natural aggregator for a long time: the Internet will not replace TV, it will enhance it. The next decade will be that of "and" rather than "or".
Linda Stone, a former VP of Microsoft, gave a dense and very insightful speech about the experience of the anywhere-anytime-alwayson lifestyle. We've been operating in an increasingly noisy world and taking on the job of keeping up with everything (even if we yearn for stillness, for more meaningful connections) and we've started to pay continuous partial attention. That's different from multitasking. When we multitask, is in order to be more productive and efficient, and we often do things that require little cognitive processing (we eat lunch while speaking on the phone), we give the same priority to many things. Continuous partial attention is when we pay partial attention, continuously, and it's motivated by the desire to be a live node in the network - we really want to connect and be connected, scan for opportunities, optimize for the best opportunity.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything, and this involves an artificial sense of constant crisis, we're always on high alert. This orientation to connect is contributing to a feeling of overwhelm, overstimulation, and a sense of being unfulfilled. We constantly scan the periphery in case something more important (than what we're doing at the moment) emerges. CPA has been happening and evolving and getting refined to a high art during these last twenty years. In the 1965-85 period we valued personal self-expression above everything; then the center of gravity moved towards connecting - towards the network. We moved from valuing productivity to valuing communications. But that has led to situations where people are at a party and don't talk to each other but into their cell phones, they're everywhere except where they physically are, because the focus is about scanning for opportunities, don't want to miss anything. But this state of constant high alert is unnatural. "Human nature is made of cycles; always-on doesn't: if there is no winte ("off button") there cannot be a spring". Now our desire is to move beyond "me" and experience more meaningful relationships, and a sense of belonging, and of commitment and attention. Endless stimulation(external) is gradually being replaced with a desire for exhilaration (internal), which comes from creation. We went from being excited about information to being excited about knowledge and now we're heading towards taking only the info that we need, discerning what really matters. We went from info workers to knowledge workers and now our opportunity is to become wisdom workers. We went from multitasking to constant partial attention and now the opportunity is to move into an era of increased focus, uni-tasking. We went from creating opportunities for ourselves, to scanning for opportunities, and now are moving into discerning (choosing) opportunities. And when it comes to products and services, we went from features to ease-of-use, and now towards products that offer/enhance quality of life. "The new differenciator is: does this improve my quality of life?"
Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Lab, maker of the synthetic world Second Life, spoke (in a session moderated by the conference's producer, Monique Van Dusseldorp) about how they used technology to create an online game, but also something much bigger: "an environment that you can walk around and explore, where you can do everything and make everything - but which unlike the real world is totally malleable". SL has 800'000 members, Rosedale claims (there are other figures on the SL website); it runs on 3500 servers; occupies a space equivalent of the city of Amsterdam; has its own "economy", based on Linden Dollars, which people use to buy and sell digital goods (clothes, jewelry and more) and which can be exchanged for real dollars (overall value: 75 million US$ a year, growing). The median age of the users (median meaning that half of them are above that) is 31, females account for 36% of them but 44% of usage hours. Philip offered a series of vignettes of things happening in SL: a graphic artist who casts herself as a fashion designer of virtual clothes and sells them; people who buy, improve and resell the virtual "real estate"; music clubs, concert spaces, live performances (real music but avatar characters), filmmaking. Companies are building their presence there (Microsoft, WellsFargo bank, American Apparel, etc), the Berkman Center at Harvard teaches classes live, and so on. "What's interesting is not the 3D environment, it's the fact that this is inherently something that you experience online with other people".
A company that just set up shop in SecondLife is PR consultancy Text100, which opened there "our 30th office", said Andrew McGregor. "Media used to be the arbitrator of the credibility of information, but the credibility zone is moving from traditional media to peers". So Text100 is exploring the synthetic world of SL in order to figure out how PR will evolve "when the message must survive the test of potentially anyone". "It's an experiment, we want to listen and learn". They conduct global staff meetings in SL (with every employee attending through an avatar). They're also suggesting to their clients to try things like real-time customer participation in testing product design ("a virtual roadshow in SL") or brand reputation. "I predict that in the next 18 months a real-life brand will emerge from these virtual worlds, probably that of a fashion designer".
Sampo Karjalainen spoke of another virtual space, Habbo Hotel, while Yme Bosna presented Eccky, a sort of next-gen tamagotchi. Simon Guild, the CEO of MTV Europe, showed how they managed to position over 100 channels and almost as many websites for different audiences.
Ben Hammersley - whom I've already blogged from Reboot a few months ago - spoke about "the responsibility of possibilities". "There is a posit that civilizations naturally rise and fall, and they fall because they come up against some limiting factors - the form of government, religion, a tradition, a distraction (social decadence). One of the limiting factors is that after a while, technologies can't really be improved anymore. But IT is different. What's the difference between information technology and a plow or a sword? You can't use a plow to make a better plow, they reach a natural limit. But IT can be used to make a better version of itself. You can take a computer and use it to design a better computer, use a social networking service to bring people together to design a better social network software, etc. For the first time we have a tech that improves itself, and there is no natural limit to that. Which means that there is the possibility that things are not going to get worse (that our civilization is not going to fall). That comes with a responsibility: to make things happen, to ride this revolution, to never be dull, to enhance the whole civilization.