Synopsis of “I, Party Cup” that was sent to Solo Cup Company

In February, after discussing "I, Party Cup" with a representative for the Solo Cup Company, I sent the following document summarizing the film as well as the materials that Solo had offered to provide. Several weeks later, Solo (under auspices of Dart Container, the company that acquired Solo in 2012) informed me via their representative that they had decided to rescind their cooperation. I’m posting this here merely as reference for forthcoming Kickstarter update to the film’s backers. 

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WHAT IS THIS FILM ABOUT?

This film is about the human being(s) whose choices and stories brought the “red party cup” into our world. Who are they? What are some of those stories, those choices? 

Think of the film as a short documentary “portrait” similar to this…

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/magazine/who-made-that-soy-sauce-dispenser.html?_r=0

Who? This is the key, core question of “I, Party Cup.” 

The trailer I created encapsulates this approach succinctly:

https://vimeo.com/48953139

WHAT IS THIS FILM NOT ABOUT?

"I, Party Cup" is not a piece of outsourced "PR" about the Solo Cup Corporation, or the history of this product. Nor is it a muckraking "expose" about environmental impacts or trash or corporate policy. This is not an "issue" film. It’s not Frontline. It’s more like This American Life, or this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqYFFLKeLPo

WHAT APPROACH AM I TAKING WITH MY RESEARCH?

My approach—as with most documentary projects—is to accumulate much more information and material than I’ll actually use, and sculpt it down in post-production. In this information-gathering stage, I make the analogy to “following bread crumbs”: I won’t know which story or stories are exactly the right ones for this film until I encounter them, which I can only do by moving from one person or bit of information to the next. 

WHAT MATERIALS AM I INTERESTED IN?

These are all archival materials that you’ve said Solo is willing to give me access to:

old video, old commercials, some marketing vids as far back as the 70s. 

- technical drawings of the cup, engineering sketches, prototypes, and other product-design materials

- print ads and marketing literature from the origin of the party cup to the present day. 

WHO AM I INTERESTED IN TALKING TO?

To facilitate my “following the bread crumbs” approach, I’d love to talk to all of the following as a start:

- head of marketing

- retired plant manager (Neil, you mentioned him in our call)

- someone in charge of sustainability

- someone in product design

These conversations can happen over the phone. They are intended to fill in background information so I can start to narrow down my ideas about who, what, and when to shoot on-camera interviews. (This is called “pre-interviewing.”)

INTENDED LENGTH: 5 to 10 minutes. 

WHERE IT WILL BE SHOWN: online, premiering on Grist.org. Documentary festivals may follow after that, but the primary distribution will be on the web. 

TIMELINE: My intention is to continue research and production through February and March, and finish postproduction by April. 

New Work: “Limited,” a music video mashup about a lonely AI trying to connect

Here’s an experimental music video I made for Jascha, remixing footage from 2001, Moon, TRON, Robocop, and WarGames:

I’ve been curious for a while about whether I could re-edit images, shots and scenes from well-known movies to tell different stories from the ones I borrowed them from. The music video for Jascha’s “Limited” seemed like a great opportunity to experiment with this approach, since the song instantly suggested to me a science-fiction short story — and I didn’t have the time (or interest, to be honest) to create sci-fi production value from scratch. 

It also seemed like a fun challenge to take images that have acquired so much “baggage” over the years — like the glowering cyclops eye of HAL from 2001, which has become visual shorthand for “evil machine” — and try to attach completely opposite emotional associations to them. What if something like HAL wasn’t evil at all, but just misunderstood in its intentions, like a puppy who plays too rough with its owner? That’s exactly the image that Jascha’s plaintive refrain in “Limited” put into my head.

Remixing material from five very different films creates a necessarily impressionistic approach to telling a story, so maybe the story this video tells in your head isn’t the same one that it tells in mine. Either way I hope it’s a good one. 

And here’s some interesting background on artificial intelligence from BERG, a tech/design consultancy in London, that I only discovered after making the video but seems to be in the same wheelhouse of what I was thinking about when I edited it.

"Limited" is the first single from Jascha’s album THE FUTURE LIMITED, which you can download for free for a limited time here.

TV on the Radio

Mainstream web video bugs me. So often, I find myself wanting it to be something… more. More inventive. More cinematic. More … I dunno, something more than the completely obvious, the half-assed, or the seen-it-before.

Google just unveiled its first crop of science channels on Youtube, which are part of its gajillion-dollar push into developing original content. I checked out the channels and immediately harrumphed out an email to some friends about how “spectacularly underwhelming” they all were. 

Talking-heads-‘n-greenscreens. ENG-style “reports from the field”. Infomercial production values. This is what a gajillion Google dollars buys? (Yes, I know the whole gajillion didn’t go into creating these channels. I’m sure the guy who created CSI costs a lot. But still.)

As a viewer, I guess my feeling was: We could be seeing the Youtube version of COSMOS or Radiolab. So why the #&*@ aren’t we?

A few weeks later, it’s hitting me that maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe I’m finding these science channels — and the overall “poetics of Youtube” — so frustrating because of my own old-media associations with this new medium. Which just may not apply.

My standard lament with a lot of this stuff is that it’s too much like old TV, when it should be more like movies, music videos, or Tim and Eric-style pop art mutations. It should immerse, delight and surprise me. Instead, it often feels fast, cheap, and out of control totally predictable. 

The “values” I want from mainstream web video, and feel are too often missing, are certainly great for creating engaging one-off experiences. (Like my "Lego Antikythera" film, which got gangbusters views.) But Youtube is mostly about something different. Another one of my standard gripes is that it’s like watching “radio on TV.” (Show don’t tell, mother$#*ers!) But really, Youtube is more like TV on the radio

What do I mean by that? Geniuses like Jad Abumrad like to say that radio is a medium that literally gets inside your head. It’s very intimate and relational. Even though it’s technically a one-way experience (unless it’s a call-in show), great radio feels like personal conversation: just for you. Successful Youtube channels have much more in common with that kind of media experience than they do with watching television shows or movies or ads or experimental films. 

It’s not so much about feeling immersed as it about feeling conversed with. How often do you blow up a Youtube video to fullscreen? I hardly ever do, even with the ones that I really love. The pictures are like words in radio. You don’t need to go fullscreen for them to do their job any more than you need to blast Radiolab through an enormous roof-rattling subwoofer. Youtube isn’t internet television. It’s TV on the radio. 

The science channels on Youtube disappointed me because I expected/wanted them to be, first and foremost, aesthetically immersive artifacts. (“Do something with this medium, damn you!”) But if I’d come to them with “TV on the radio” expectations, I might not have been so disappointed. 

Then again… even when re-appraised through that lens — which at least helps me understand how these channels can rack up the kinds of views they do — I still find them kind of wanting. Minute Physics and Vi Hart make wonderful “TV on the radio” about science, and have the views to back it up. Their work is just as appropriate to Youtube’s “poetics” (and Google’s mass-audience goals) as the stuff on these new official science channels, but it’s orders of magnitude more clever, fresh, and informative. Why can’t these channels, with all of Google’s support and influence behind them, be just as great — so that I deeply want to watch them, instead of just weakly “want to” want to?

Maybe it comes down to the “voice” part of my TV on the radio metaphor. The new science channels don’t seem to have much in the way of distinctive voice (either literally, thematically, or visually/formally), whereas with Minute Physics and Vi Hart, the overall “video voice” is immediately and uniquely apparent. Here’s two physics-related videos: SciShow with Hank Green (the best of Google’s new crop) followed by Minute Physics:

And here’s two math-related videos: the Google-backed Numberphile, followed by Vi Hart:

Maybe this is just personal taste, or comparing apples and oranges. But to me, even as “TV on the radio,” the Google-backed videos feel shticky and didactic, while the other two feel authentic and engaging. With Minute Physics and Vi Hart’s clips, there’s no part of me that’s willing myself to keep watching; I can’t help but do so. But that just doesn’t happen with the other ones, even though I want it to. (Which is odd, because Hank Green’s old "Brotherhood 2.0" series felt authentic and engaging too, if more than a little Ze-Frank-ish.)

Whether you agree with me on these particular videos or not, “voice” is what creates the kind of crossover appeal that Youtube science communication desperately needs. When it’s there, almost any topic becomes appealing, informative, and viral. Do I give a damn about art criticism? Not really, but I’ll sing Art Thoughtz's praises to anyone who'll listen. Do I care about this or that new video game I'll never play? Nope, but I still enjoyed Zero Punctuation immensely. 

What I’m realizing (grudgingly) is that not all science web video can or should be like Radiolab or COSMOS — i.e., a transporting, innovative aesthetic marvel. Simply being “TV on the radio” is just as good. But a Youtube version of Radiolab or COSMOS would actually be — and should be — just that. Not “expensive, complex and time-consuming to produce”; just undeniably, unignorably unique in its voice. 

Final Cut Pro X: a sketchbook for students?

Science writer and filmmaker Tom Levenson asked me for my thoughts on the whole Final Cut Pro 7 vs Final Cut Pro X thing, because he was wondering what he should use with students in his filmmaking classes. I wrote my thoughts to him in an email, but figured I might as well share them here too. This was prompted by an app I saw that purports to convert FCP7 project files into FCPX files. If it could also convert them backwards to FCP7 — so you could hot-swap your projects between both editing paradigms — that would be truly awesome.

I’m torn. It seems obvious that Apple is going to have to let FCP7 die at some point. And it also seems clear that they’re distancing themselves from serving pro markets — the Mac Pro tower hasn’t seen a decent upgrade in years. That doesn’t seem to bode well for putting much stock in FCPX as a truly professional-grade postproduction solution.

However

Just because Apple may be distancing itself from serving the pro market in terms of feature filmmakers, TV producers, and other “big scale” production workflows, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily leaving mixed-media/multimedia producers behind. I’ve heard that FCPX can be pretty powerful for quickly putting together short films for the web shot on DSLRs and other tapeless media that outputs h.264 rushes. And because you can edit any codec natively without transcoding, it sounds great for remixing and collaging footage from the internet. It can also (apparently) run like lightning on a Macbook Air.

So FCPX might be a pretty great teaching tool. Like a sketchbook for short-form editing or experimenting. If I had the money to buy an Air just for the hell of it, I’d put FCPX on it for exactly this purpose. Not as a bulletproof postproduction solution, but as a sandbox for messing around with ideas on the fly, like this (a mix of original DSLR footage and found stuff from the web, cut together in about a day):

Stuff We Love: Eames Chair Assembly Film by The Eameses (who else?)

I could not love this more. I love the jumpcutty “special effects.” I love the pixilated animation. I love the chair (of course). I love the process value. I love the blown-out cinematography. I love that they box it up at the end. 

God bless Charles and Ray Eames. Every film they made is inspirational. Even when (or mostly when..?) they were just doodles.