Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Top Cinematographer Hates Digital

I remember 5-day photo shoots that felt like a month. Every minute of every work day, you worry about the shot your working on, while trying to figure out what you're going to do for the next shot. The photographer and assistants stand around looking at you, waiting for you to tell them what you want to do next. If something goes wrong, you've got to ultimately solve the problem.

Before you begin a shot, you announce your plan. Invariably, someone on-set tells you why your plan won't work. You listen. You deliberate. If you ignore their advice, you hope against hope that your plan works so you'll be proven right. If your plan fails, you feel humbled. You've just wasted everyone's time and money because of your own stubborness. But there's no time to dwell on it. You've got to quickly rally to regain your confidence, or else you'll lose control of the shoot.

You construct sets using paper and cinder blocks. You order the young studio assistant to stand on a ladder to hold a peacock feather precisely in the upper right hand corner of the frame so we can get the perfect shot. You send someone to Home Depot to buy 10 bags of sand. Hurry!

You crouch low into the set, rotating something slightly counter-clockwise so to better face the camera. You back up off the set, still in a crouch, to peek into the camera to see if the shot looks better. If it does, great. If it doesn't, you crawl back into the shot and adjust things yet again. You hope you don't hit your head on the huge Fuzzylamp, but you will at least once a day, guaranteed.

When you finally think you've got the shot ready, you ask the photographer to shoot a Polaroid. He shoots a test shot, then rips out the Polaroid print. You wait for 90 seconds for the shot to develop. You make small talk. You stare at your shoes. He waves the Polaroid like a fan, as if to will the chemical process to develop the film faster.

Finally, he peels apart the Polaroid and you look at the shot. If you're lucky, you're ready to shoot a real color transparency on real film. If you're not lucky, you repeat all the steps until you get it right.

You might repeat this process 90 times a day. If you don't get a certain number of shots done each day, you look bad, and you waste money. A lot of money.

Photo shoots could become all-consuming. At night, I'd think about the shots we'd done earlier that day. During the actual photo shoot, I'd think about the shots we need to do tomorrow. Or I'd worry that I'd made the photographer mad because I'd changed my mind and asked for completely different lighting. Or I'd get mad at the photographer for questioning my shot.

You lift things. You bend, you move. You steal a few moments away alone in the prop room, away from the photographer's "what are you thinking for this next shot?" expression. We'd listen to whatever music I wanted to play. We talked about interesting things. We got to be best friends, because we spent so much time together under so much pressure.

Now, of course, the pressure has diminished, thanks to digital photography. No more waiting 90 seconds for polaroids. If the background looks too dark, no problem, we'll fix it in Photoshop. Is there a piece of masking tape showing? Don't worry, we'll erase it on the computer. While I love digital photography, I do confess to sometimes feeling wistful for the old days.

That's why I appreciated the remarks of Taiwanese cameraman Mark Lee Ping-bing. He recently complained that digital photography diminishes the artistry of traditional film photography:

"Film is unknown, uncertain. It's a chemical reaction. To be frank, it's a little bit like painting. So if your technical skills and experience aren't up to part, you'll think that HD (high-definition digital video) is very easy to use," Lee said in the book.

"But HD is different. There is a monitor. It shows what you have shot. You'll know if it's a little dark in one part and you need to add a bit of light. Everything is on the monitor. Everything is OK if you have the monitor. All the expectation and the texture is gone," he said.

Lee also denounced the practice of covering up visual flaws on computers.

"Maybe there is a kid who knows about how to play computer games, or is sensitive to color – they can get the job done. But if everything can be changed by computer, then this is not a form of art," he said.

He's wrong, of course. Digital photography is indeed a form of art. But I've got to admire his crustiness.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

Last year I missed Thanksgiving because I was sick.

This year found me in robust health, the very picture of vitality and pluck. We gathered in Harrah, America for dinner in a spacious 2 car garage. It made for lovely ambience.

Cami's grandmother Dorothy was in full glory, with freshly set hair and a morning Mimosa. She's looking good at 97!

But baby Maeve stole the show with her never ending smiles and general sense of merriment.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Grand Canyon In Winter

Henry Shukman has written about hiking into the Grand Canyon in the NY Times. The article, found here, makes me want to Go There Now.

Most of us never get to experience such an adventure, and it's a shame, because it's more than wonderful hike; it's literally a trip in the earth's bowels. Shukman reminds us of this with strong prose:

"To experience the canyon, you have to leave the rim. The frustration aroused by the bigness, the grandness, on a rim-only visit becomes a liberation once you drop down. The modern world falls away. It’s not just a trip out of the human realm, but into the deep geology of the earth. Layer upon layer of the planet’s crust is revealed, stratum by stratum: the Toroweap limestone, the Coconino sandstone, the Redwall limestone, the Tonto Group; the Vishnu schist deep down, close to two billion years old, nearly half the total age of the planet — the stuff that is under our very feet as we go about our lives is laid bare here. And in the silence and stillness, in the solitude of the canyon in winter, it’s all the more impressive."

Winter is a good time to visit; the temperatures are obviously much milder than the average highs in July and August (when most people make the trip).

It's around 25 miles to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim. Lots of crazy people do it one day. That sounds like an accomplishment, but I'd rather take my time, to savor all that stratum.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kentucky Lawyer Decorates Entire Basement With Sharpie

Charlie Kratzer works as a corporate attorney, but he's also a very creative artist.

Using $10 worth of Sharpie permanent markers, Kratzer has drawn elaborate murals on the walls of his basement. He's drawn logs onto the flat surface of his fireplace. He's drawn an elaborate staircase leading into an imaginary room. He's drawn stacks of books to fill an imaginary library.

It's amazing, check out the 360° video here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thoughts on Venice

As my parents traipse through Venice, I'm thinking back to the my own impressions of that city.

Venice is an old woman, once soft and ripe, but now cracked and withered. The salt air is corroding her.

Venice is an old man, creaky and decrepit. Once magnificent, he is now crumbling, struggling to avoid collapse.

Venice is no longer Tazio, Thomas Mann's tempting adolescent. Those days are long gone.

Yet Venice remains, and the throngs still visit, and still marvel. Though falling into the sea, Venice remains, proud and old, feeble, yet resolute. In a culture that venerates all that is young, Venice shouts,

"I am old, but I am beautiful! I am the only one of my kind, and when I am gone, there will be nothing to replace me!"

Venice is on life support, just as we, too will eventually need life support. Our younger loved ones will prop us up and try to extend our life for a few more months, a few more years, even though we're well past our expiration date. We will follow their wishes, just to make them happy, even though we know we've lived a good life and are ready to move along.

But before we reach that stage, perhaps it is Venice that will teach us how to grow old.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sensual Mathematics

Bach's prelude to his first cello suite is currently being used in the American Express "Smile" campaign, which, by virtue of airing repeatedly during the World Series, is currently my obsession.

I love the architecture of Bach's arpeggios. Technically, they really aren't complicated. But there's an insistent, driving determination that lulls you into this strange meditative trance, only to surprise you with some startling detour.

Math is something I really don't understand, and the mere mention of it gives me a creative sphincter contraction. But somehow, in Bach's hands, music becomes a mathematics of sensuality, of conquering the labyrinth so quickly that you find time to discover your lover playing hide-and-seek from you in the hedges.

I should listen to this when I'm doing my taxes, it'll make it seem sexy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Don't Smash That Bug

Look how beautiful these bugs are up close. It's hard to believe we slap these things when they bother us. Is it because we've never seen them so close?

More of the work of Tulsa photographer Thomas Shahan here

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Experience Things!" - The Experience vs. The Story of The Experience

It's interesting to witness the seismic shift instant messaging has created. When a Big, Important Event is taking place, say a concert or sporting event (or even a first date), we're now expected to send reports from the field using our iPhone or Blackberry. Rather than simply experiencing life, we're asked to record life, placing it in tidy digital context for others.

This isn't surprising: much of what we think we "like" are things we sense we're expected to like. Our tribe tells us what's important, and by reporting back to the tribe, we reaffirm our sense of belonging. Twittering and posting about how awesome the Super Bowl is only confirms what everyone senses deep inside: the Super Bowl sucks. But wait -- the Super Bowl is important! If we're at the Super Bowl, therefore we're important.

Mad Men's Matthew Weiner touches on this:

"When I look at digital, the dark side of it for me is the physicality that's being presented alongside the Internet. I think about that movie The Matrix, and about these bodies that are human batteries that support computers. I met this guy who was creating software where you could watch Mad Men and you could chat with your friend while you're watching it, and things would pop up, and facts would pop up, and I said, "You're a human battery. Turn the fucking thing off! You're not allowed to watch the show anymore. You're missing the idea of sitting in a dark place and having an experience. Are you just like sitting with your phone and you're kissing your girlfriend and saying, 'I'm kissing my girlfriend! This is so great, we're having sex!'" EXPERIENCE THINGS!"

Before long, the idea of recording an individual's entire life, cradle to grave, will be reality. We'll no longer speculate if a George Washington really chopped down that cherry tree - we'll just refer back to his Twitters for proof. The internet will be full of these archived "Lives Lived" for us to study. How will yours measure up?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Another Crazy Grizzard...

From the Daily Telegraph (UK):

"Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”. Pastor Grizzard and 14 other members of the church plan to burn copies of the other “perversions” of Scripture on Halloween, 31 October."

My heritage is southern Confederate. That's reality. They came from the racist South and they behaved like every other racist Southerner. My heritage is fundamentalist Christian. That's not a surprise, either. We're taught from infancy what we're supposed to believe, and warned of damnation if we stray.

But book burners? That's pathetic and scary — it's a symbolic act of violence against ideas. What happened to THIS Grizzard?

"Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." — Heinrich Heine.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fascinating Fact: California

If California were an independent nation, it would be a member of the G8 (a political forum addressing the interests of the eight riches countries on Earth).

From the Family Values Desk: Dad-To-Be Gropes Maternity Nurse

From the UK Daily Mail:

"A father missed the birth of his first son after being arrested for groping a nurse on the way to the delivery room.

Police said Adam Manning sexually assaulted the nurse as she wheeled his wife into the delivery room.

The 30 year old had told the nurse she was "cute" then reached round to grab her breasts.

Police in Ogden, Utah, were called to the hospital and arrested Manning on charges of forcible sexual assault.

When later asked about his actions he said he had no idea why he carried out the assault. Police confirmed that he missed the birth of his son."

Here's the irony of the story: Utah Adoption laws prevent a person from designating their same-sex partner as a second parent if they are cohabitating. According to Utah state law (78-30-1), "a child may not be adopted by a person who is cohabiting in a relationship that is not a legally valid and binding marriage under the laws of this state". Furthermore, state legislature suggests that the optimal Adoption placement for a child should be a married heterosexual couple.

Therefore, in the eyes of Utah law, delivery room groper Adam Manning is far more fit to be a parent than any gay or lesbian (or unmarried hetero, for that matter) couple in Utah. Period.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

American Painting

When it's all said and done, this painting by pinup artist Gil Evgren might say more about America than any thing Pollock, Ruscha, or Warhol could ever say.

Family Pictures: Down on the Farm

My mom's parents, Lucile and Willis Logan, owned a 25-acre farm in Taylor County, West Virginia.

The two of them raised four children, then continued to live a simple, old-fashioned lifestyle. They kept cows for milk. They kept chickens for eggs. They grew their own vegetables. They often got their protein from varmints, like squirrel or ground-hog. I helped milk cows. I collected eggs. I saw Grandma behead chickens. I hiked in the woods. I picked berries. I used an outhouse. For a couple of weeks each year, I got to experience a rural, agrarian way of life that was a huge contrast to our families' life in industrial Baltimore. Everything moved so slowly. It was like visiting another country. Grandma played local gospel and country music radio in the house. When she sat down to watch her soap opera, she strung beans, or darned socks, or did something constructive with her hands. I never once saw her sitting idle.

Grandad chopped firewood every day that I can remember. Grandma baked bread almost every day. The old Philco refrigerator in the kitchen seemed extraneous. You know they didn't really need it.

Still, their house was full of books and news magazines. Grandad read voraciously, and kept nearly every magazine he ever read. All over the house there were stacks of old, mildewed magazines. I spent many hours studying old copies of "The Saturday Evening Post" from 1956, or "Coronet," from 1943. I read articles about politics, entertainment and sports. I loved looking at old advertisements. Back then, most ads featured long blocks of wonderfully written copy. I read every word. And the visuals: photography still wasn't popular back then. Most ad agencies hired talented illustrators to create sumptuous worlds of material wealth and comfort. I was hooked. I grew up and worked as a magazine designer, and then an advertising designer.
After my grandparents both died, there was no way to maintain their house. It was literally falling apart, and with no permanent residents, it was prone to break-ins. The family made the difficult decision to level the house. All of those memories are gone, but a few pictures remain:
Today, I can still smell the meadow. I can hear the sound of the cows braying. I can feel the bounce of our station wagon as we drove up the rough dirt road that led to their home.

We park the station wagon. Grandma is there to greet us. She's wearing a work dress and her hair is pulled back in a bun, as always. She's so happy to see us, and we're so happy to see her. She's so full of life. She loves my sister and I so unconditionally. She smiles at us so sweetly. I'm so happy to be here.

Our family still owns the Logan farm. We'll always own the Logan farm

"Making Money" vs. "Earning Money"

Despite what anti-intellectuals may tell you, words matter. When we spew out a "Freudian Slip," we reveal our innermost secrets. When we speak extemporaneously, we tend to show our hand in an extraordinary way.

Witness this excerpt from a speech by disgraced Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain. Pay close attention to the last sentence:

"Purely based on the fact that Wall Street is a pretty good meritocracy -- you have to have the right skill set -- basically you can start from zero there. You can become the president of Goldman Sachs. You can become the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. You can become the CEO of Merrill Lynch. You can make a lot of money."

"Make" a lot of money. In the wake of exotic financial transactions gone bust, does the notion of a Wall Street hotshot "making" money sound ironic? It reveals these financial whizzes as Houdini-like figures, conjuring up profits via risk-laden speculation and naked ambition.

The take-away? "Earning" money is for chumps. "Making" money is for winners.

Friday Wack

Sunday, October 4, 2009

My Doppelgänger

A search for "David Grizzard" on Facebook brought a few matches.

The most scary match was this dude from Virginia. From the looks of things, he drives a pickup truck and misses the good 'ole days of slavery.

He also wears a very hip moustache/goatee (well, it was hip in 1990, for a few hours).

We Grizzards certainly tend to originate from the U.S. South, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Why is it still acceptable to wear the Stainless Banner in the U.S.? Don't tell me it's a celebration of a "heritage." That "heritage" was based upon the forcible enslavement of other human beings. It's nothing to be proud of.

Does merely invoking the word "heritage" suggest that moral criticism is off-limits? There is a "heritage" shared by families of Nazi soldiers. Should that be honored? What about the "heritage" of the 9/11 hijackers? Would you enjoy seeing their symbols on a baseball cap?

I guess my question is this: why would anyone want to wear the flag of such a racist, murderous, and sanctimonious group of individuals? What message are you trying to send to the world?

Mountain Biking Documentary: Early Footage

My friend Brent and I began filming on a documentary over the weekend. The subject? How NOT to mountain bike. Check out some video from the Northshore Trail, outside of Dallas. Or not. They're actually a complete waste of your time. Read a book instead.
Always wear bright yellow on the trail. Bears are afraid of yellow. I've never seen a bear while riding with a yellow shirt.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Big-Time College Football: Scenes From Stillwater

On Saturday, I once again watched from the sidelines as #14 Oklahoma State battled Grambling St. in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The view from the sidelines is fantastic. You're interacting with dudes who are making plays in front of 56,000 rabid fans, and yes, it's thrilling. If you aren't paying attention, you'll get knocked down. If you have a crazy streak, you might be tempted to run onto the field and line up with the offense. No one would stop you, at least for 15 seconds or so. However, your day would be ruined. I pretended to be a press photographer, and took these shots with my little point-and-shoot camera.

Dez Bryant (1) and pals pose for some pre-game shots. These dudes are physical specimens.

A lovely cowgirl. Also a physical specimen.

My friend Neal has a nephew playing for OSU (#87 Tracy Moore, at far right). Tracy caught a TD in the 2nd half. Neal's brother (Tracy's dad) played in the NBA in the early 90's. He occasionally had to guard Michael Jordan. Q: What was it like guarding Michael Jordan? A: What do you THINK it was like guarding Michael Jordan?

Male bonding in the end zone.

I love being on the field, taking pictures of my own self.

"Mad Men's" Don Draper might take his family on vacation in a vintage camper like this one. Sans graphics.

Here's what the press box looks like 2 hours before kickoff.

Anthropology 1.1: The lissome, nubile females of the tribe celebrate the bravery of the heroic young men. Implication? Success on the battlefield promises carnal rewards at home. The times change, but the roles stay the same. [Ironically, each of these young women will likely graduate with a degree and enjoy higher earning power than most of the young men she now celebrates.]

Mike Agan surveys the crowd.

The stylish Dez Bryant shares some love with the fans. Bryant is the best player on his top-20 NCAA football team. He's incredibly fast, charismatic and talented, and everywhere he goes in Stillwater he's quite literally worshipped. He appears genuinely sweet and kind, if slightly blown away by all the attention.

Stretch those hamstrings.

Jerry Rice Not Optimistic About Brett Favre as a Viking

The old graybeard, Brett Favre, just can't quit football. He's shown some steel with the Vikings this season, but the legendary Jerry Rice remains pessimistic:

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Q You don't sound too convinced that Favre will play at a high level for the whole season.

A I really don't. Brett is a competitor. But I know towards the latter part of my career, even though I still wanted to be out on that football field, it was like things became a little bit more difficult. But my job was different. It consisted of a lot of running and stuff like that. With Brett, the thing for him is dropping back, planting himself and throwing the ball downfield so it might be a little bit different for him. But he's a competitor. I think if he still wants to play, I think he should. But I really thought this team would be moving and looking down the road instead of trying to look for the one-year miracle.

Q How hard is that for guys like yourself and Brett to walk away from it?

A It's hard. It's hard because you love the game. I was listening to some guys doing commentary the other day. If you have other things going on in your life and you have other businesses going on, I think then you have other things you can focus on. But if it's just football and that's it ... and I think with Brett right now, he's been so in love with the game and he still wants to play. I tip my hat to him for going out there and giving it everything he can give it, but I don't know if it's going to be a good year.

While Rice certainly minces his words, this is still a surprisingly candid interview, especially coming from a man who played football into his forties.

Hollywood Renaissance Woman #2: Lucy Liu

Hollywood has been an historically inhospitable place for Asian women, yet Lucy Liu stands out in a world of willowy young blondes. Here are a few reasons why:

• She's the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants.
• She's forty years old.
• She graduated from one of the most demanding public high schools in the U.S., Stuyvesant High, in NYC.
• She later graduated from the University of Michigan
• She speaks Chinese (Mandarin), English, Italian, Spanish, and a little Japanese.
• In addition to acting, she's a visual artist, and has exhibited her paintings and photography.
• She's served as a UNICEF ambassador.
• She practices the martial art of Kali-Eskrima-Silat (knife-and-stick fighting), skis, rock climbs, rides horses, and plays the accordion.
• She once worked as an aerobics instructor.
• She lives with her brother and his wife.
• She has never tasted coffee (a fact to which she partially credits her beauty).

Friday, September 18, 2009

The View From Norway

From The New York Times:

"As a Norwegian, looking at the U.S. health care debate from the outside, I cannot help but laugh sometimes. It seems like the word “socialism” has become a swear word. In Norway, we just re-elected a “socialist” government. That does not mean that we live in a communist state. We have full-fledged capitalism over here, and we are just about the richest country in the world, per capita. But we have chosen to let the state supply world class health care to all inhabitants.

To allow private insurance companies to let private profit maximizing decisions get in between a patient and a doctor is close to unethical for us. In Norway, you get the same care no matter if you are a homeless drunk or the C.E.O. of one of the biggest companies. And that’s how it should be. They say that the measure of a country’s success lies in how it treats its most unfortunate citizens."

— Gjert Myrestrand

Word Clouds: U2's "The Joshua Tree"

Wordle is a website that analyzes any block of text to create beautiful word frequency diagrams. The larger the word, the more frequently it's used in the source text.

Since I've always been struck by the lyrics to U2's "The Joshua Tree," I decided to create a word cloud based on this album.

For those familiar with the album, it's not surprising to see so many of what I call "elemental words." These are the most basic words in the English language, and most would be understood very easily by English speakers living over 700 years ago. They're words like "rain," "eyes," "heart," "cold," "river," "stone," and "sky," and when used with style and invention, they work to form poetic works of striking directness.

These are the kinds of words used in the most memorable Bible passages, which isn't surprising coming from U2's primary lyricist, Bono. He's long been inspired by Biblical allegory. For "The Joshua Tree," he didn't write typical "let's party and get laid" songs. He wrote about feeling simultaneously lost and found across a harsh, yet beautiful landscape.

When a talented poet chooses monosyllabic "elemental words" such as these, the resulting work is timeless. It becomes understandable across generations, centuries, even millenia. It needs no annotation.

Though it has a few clunkers, at its best, "The Joshua Tree" speaks to the experience of being alive, not just being alive in 1987.