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The Ruling Zeitgeist is Dead

Long live “The Ruling Zeitgeist!”

This blog is moving to my official site at www.jeff-holmes.com/blog. The blog as it exists here will not be deleted, but neither will it be updated. The past 4.5 years of archived content is already over at my new site, just as it was here (minus the random broken video embed). The new RSS feed is here, so please update your bookmarks.

Since moving to Atlanta I’ve had no luck acquiring a full-time job, not least because neither my potential employers nor I are sure what to make of my eclectic background*. Luckily I’ve so far been able pay my bills freelancing as a writer, researcher, and production assistant. Embracing that the forces of nature do not wish me to have a steady job with paid benefits and vacation time, I am consolidating my vast online presence into one site (still being tinkered with, FYI). This will, I hope, help to rationalize what I’ve done with my life so far and generate more work for myself by making it easier for folks to figure me out and witness my idiosyncratic swathe of skills.

*Suspected additional reason: gigantic world recession.

There are also attitudinal changes behind the move. When I first starting blogging, I kept my online activities in semi-anonymous silos and was mainly interested in providing value for myself. Monetizing my musings was not a priority. I often blogged like the tenured econ professors I still love to read, but I am not an academic and my blog posts on economics don’t get me columns in the New York Times or invitations to TED. My focus now is on creating content that gets me paid one way or another. Moving the blog to an official “me” site helps, as does being selective about time and topics. I like many of the econ-nerd posts I did here, but unless I go back to school, it feels self-indulgent to do many more. New site, new start, even if it’s the same blog.

I appreciate your continued readership. Please visit the new site, subscribe anew, click around. Experts agree there’s something fun for everyone.

Thanks,

Jeff

PBS is currently running a “Like Drive,” offering exclusive videos for every so many ‘likes’ their Facebook page receives. One of the latest to be unlocked offers a behind-the-scenes look at “The National Parks.” The video is a bit of a cheat on PBS’ part, since what it shows probably happened three or four years ago–could they find nothing from “Prohibition” or even “The Tenth Inning”?

I like this video though because it offers a brief but accurate feel of a screening with Ken*. Most videos like this, whether they’re focusing on a PBS documentary or a Hollywood blockbuster, tend to be overproduced in an attempt to make it more entertaining.  The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach favors authenticity (of some form) over entertainment, and appeals to a different curiosity.

*Yes I call him Ken and no he would not remember my name, though he reportedly said I was a ‘good guy’ after I left the room once. 

During my half-year with Florentine, three films were in various stages of production at the edit house. “Prohibition” was I believe technically wrapped but some work on it was still going on; meanwhile editors were piecing together the first visual versions of “Dust Bowl”(2012) and “The Roosevelts” (2014). During that time three screenings were held at the edit house: two for the two-episode “Dust Bowl” and one for the first four episodes of “The Roosevelts.”

Screening Room Alpha

Florentine doesn’t have a proper screening room at its edit house on account of it being an honest to God house. Instead, everyone crams into the office with the biggest TV, which is a 10′ x 20′ room on the first floor where a producer and two of the editors usually work. Since these are the first visual cuts of the episode, each episode will run maybe thirty minutes longer than the final version–often over two hours. Finding a comfortable chair is therefore crucial, and those with lumbar support are hotly contested. More than a dozen people–including Ken and co-director Lynn Novick, the writer, editors, etc–will find a space in here, and often another half-dozen will have to trudge upstairs to another impromptu overflow screening room directly overhead. When this is the case, an additional logistical difficulty is presented: the screenings must be started simultaneously, otherwise one screening will always be subjected to the echoes of the other*. As Florentine is always on the cutting edge of media technology, this obstacle is surmounted by connecting the two rooms via the office phone telecom. On the count of three or some such prompt, the person manning the station in each room will press the space bar and set the episode into motion.

* Echoes were expected and tolerated if you were in the overflow, but Screening Room Alpha was always to be slightly ahead if a perfect synch was not achieved.

Screening Room Bravo

At the end of these uninterrupted two-hour sessions, many rush to the two bathrooms the edit house generously affords its occupants. After a short break, everyone (even those banished to the overflow) then gathers back in the main screening room to share their impressions. This is Florentine at its most egalitarian: while the key players always give their impressions first, eventually everyone down to the lowliest intern is invited to opine, even if by that point there may be nothing left to add. The resulting discussion sounds something like what you hear in the PBS video, and it’s fun to witness.

That all of this goes on in some unmarked house* on the corner of a village street has tickled me since I first started there. Early on I asked some of the younger staff why no one seemed interested in highlighting that part of the Ken Burns production. They shrugged and said that the edit house ethos was to stay well and truly behind the scenes. I suggested that there were ways to accommodate that–my tweets didn’t betray anyone’s privacy–but I didn’t push it any further. I still think plenty of Ken Burns fans would like to see more of what goes on in Walpole, but for now this blogpost will have to do.

*I’m pretty sure there’s not even a house number–oh, and you enter through the back. New England can be cold.

The Nile Anniversary

 

Two years ago today Thelma and I were rafting in Uganda when we tipped in a torrent and were plunged into the Nile’s chaos. I surfaced quickly, calm and collected thanks to my extensive experience kayaking on streams and man-made lakes in South Carolina’s golden corner. Thelma, on the other hand, had grown up in Chicago and like most mid-westerners had no idea how to acquit herself in water. While her life jacket had returned her to air, it was too big for her slender frame and was threatening to abandon her. Knowing me as I knew me (and sometimes know me still), I should have met her plight with gentle indifference; instead I swam over and granted her a portion of my buoyancy. It was then I realized I loved her.

Later while pondering this on a calm stretch of the river, Thelma sensed my conflicted thoughts and tried to engage me with some playful foot tickling. I told her I wasn’t in the mood and to stop touching me.

 

My Radio Piece on Bensonwood

To listen to my half-hour radio piece about Bensonwood, click here or listen at the player below:


The background…

I spent the first eight years of my life in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, a small town now numbering around 6,700 people. When I prepared to move near Walpole, New Hampshire about a year ago to start at Florentine Films, I used my birth town as a model to imagine what Walpole might be like. This turned out to be unhelpful, as Walpole is practically star-studded even with 3,000 fewer folks: where Walpole has Ken Burns, Fountain Inn has Peg Leg Bates.

Though it sounds odd to American ears, Walpole is probably best described as a village, considering the ‘central settlement’ only has about 600 people. Yet in this village you can dine at the posh flagship cafe of LA Burdick, whose high quality chocolates are produced nearby and shipped hither and yon. If you sit long enough, you’re sure to see some of the Florentine Family grabbing a coffee or a bite to eat, seeing as the edit house is a five-minute walk away.  And you might meet there, as I did, Gary Smith, record producer most famously for the Pixies.

I’m terrible at the thing businesspeople call networking, so the first time I met Gary I really had no idea who he was or what he did, even though the night ended with him, another guy, and me sitting on his porch swapping stories for a couple of hours. I didn’t see him for a several months until we met again at a birthday gathering for one of the Florentines. During the chitchat, he mentioned he was trying to find content for the small community radio station he ran across the river in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The opportunity was perfect for me–except that I was moving to Atlanta in about a month. D’oh, I thought.

I met with Gary a few days later to discuss what I might produce for WOOL FM, and he suggested a series of ten-minute vignettes on local companies. Not the podunk ones*, mind you, but regionally or nationally-known ones of the Florentine Films and LA Burdick flavor. He gave me a list, and I was again amazed at the caliber and variety of companies in and around Walpole. The idea was to cover one company per week in the three or four few weeks I had left.

*Though as a Florentine assistant editor notes, Walpole does somehow summon the economic might to support two dentists.

The one I eventually decided to start the series with was Bensonwood, whose facility I had driven past dozens of times without really noticing it. Bensonwood designs and builds homes and commercial buildings all around the country using a pretty ingenious method, and Tedd Benson, the founder, was chiefly responsible for the national revival in timber-frame construction starting about thirty years ago. I interviewed Tedd, took a tour of the facility, and interviewed a few other people over the course of two days.

As I began putting the piece(s) together, it became clear that I wasn’t going to meet Gary’s output goal. The pace of my creative process is slow to begin with, and nearly glacial when haunted by the specter of possibly ruinous technical challenges**. Instead of doing three or four ten-minute pieces on different companies, I would tell one half-hour version of the Bensonwood story. In the end I finished it several weeks after moving to Atlanta.

** BLOG EXCLUSIVE: I recorded all my voice-overs in my car, as it was the most convenient and acoustically-suitable environment I had.

My goal was to achieve professional-level quality despite my limited resources, and it wasn’t until the final few hours of work I put into the piece that I felt I was getting anywhere close. I’m proud of the final product, even if it still sounds a bit amateurish to my ears. Gary and the folks at Bensonwood enjoyed it at any rate, and I hope you do too.

Readers may have noticed that in my TV viewing history, I didn’t list any multi-camera sitcoms. This is for the remarkable reason that, well, I don’t watch any and haven’t since long-ago lazy days watching the odd rerun in syndication. Nowadays sitcoms in that style feel anachronistic to me, and even the commercially and (sometimes) critically well-regarded ones like How I Met Your Mother just don’t do it for me. I find that I’m actually predisposed not to laugh at them, which is clearly not the intended audience response.

I’m not alone in this. For the distinguishing television viewer, sitcoms are overwhelmingly considered passé and even low-culture, even if many of those viewers loved the multi-camera Seinfeld back in the day. This article sums it up:

I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theory last weekend. This was not by design. I was on an airplane and my Kindle screen was frozen. I panicked. I’d already exhausted Sky Mall, there were four hours left on the flight and I needed a diversion. People seem to enjoy that show. It’s nominated for five Emmy awards this year. It’s about nerds. I like nerds. I gave it a shot.

You guys. That show is not good. Please stop telling innocent people like me that it is.

Here’s the thing about The Big Bang Theory. There were a few funny jokes and the performances aren’t bad, but I could just barely discern any of that through its slavish adherence to the old guard of formulaic television. It’s got the multi-camera setup, the excruciating laugh track, the lingering close-ups of over-exaggerated facial expressions responding to lame jokes. It feels so dated, so tired, that even if the writing were scintillating, I’d hate it. And the writing, my friends, is not scintillating.

Despite my agreement with this, I find myself wanting to defend the beleaguered the multi-camera setup, for much the same reasons outlined this excellent piece:

Multi-camera sitcom is a strange format that’s unique to television, because unlike single-camera, which is basically a little movie, multi-camera is a combination of different formats: a bit of film, a bit of radio, and a great big heaping helping of theatre. A multi-camera sitcom episode is a play, a performance.

Yep, and this does have its tradeoffs. I don’t like multi-camera sitcoms because the artifice of the production is so hard for me to ignore: sets look like sets (heaven forfend anything happen outdoors), lighting is white bright, and studio audience laughter–even when genuine–often sucks me right out. On the other hand, these theatrical aspects allow for stories to unfold in a different way, and lets a relationship and rhythm to develop between actor and audience that’s particularly important for comedy.

What’s odd to me is that theater is hardly considered lowest common denominator entertainment, but that sensibility applied to TV is. For that reason I wonder whether detractors of multi-camera are applying the wrong set of standards, and maybe even being a bit too distracted by the prettier single-camera aesthetic. Would the writer of the first piece have reacted so distastefully if she had watched the performance of Big Bang Theory live on stage rather than an airplane TV monitor? That’s not a apples-to-apples comparison I realize, but single- and multi-camera shows aren’t the same kind of fruit either. In terms of production, multi-camera sitcoms have much more in common with Saturday Night Live than they do with a single-camera comedy. The show is filmed in the course of single night, there’s usually a live studio audience, and jokes are rewritten on the fly in response to the audience. Does SNL represent such a dated format?

In the first article, the author claims that Arrested Development, a single-camera sitcom, “put the nail in the coffin of the traditional sitcom” for her. Interestingly, that show was created explicitly with the intent to mimic the joke-writing process in traditional sitcoms:

…Ron Howard had this idea to do a single-camera comedy that was as funny as a multi-camera comedy, which sounds sarcastic, actually.

(…)

[W]e often think of those kinds of sitcoms as being jokier, but really, there are more jokes per second, per page, than there are on a show like Sports Night, where there wasn’t an audience, and there was no compelling reason to rewrite. His question was, “What if we shot a show in digital video, so we could go very fast and didn’t have to spend an hour and a half lighting for each shot, we could just go out there and start shooting, like Cops or Blind Date? Could we spend that time sharpening the jokes and making a more ambitious production? What would happen if we applied the sensibility of multi-camera to single-camera?

I may disapprove of most traditional sitcoms, but I will defend to the death their right to more than a single camera.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” is an adage that I’ve never agreed with.  Once upon a time that was true, perhaps, but covers are purposefully designed to signal helpful information about the book. Here’s the NYT fiction and business bestsellers for the week:

These two differ slightly in tone, I feel.

To be sure, the book cover won’t tell you everything about what’s inside–and it may try to mislead you–but the cover is a quick and easy way to get a sense of what the book’s about.

The opening title sequences for TV show serve a similar function. In mere seconds a well-designed sequence can signal all sorts of important things about the show, like genre, style, tone, and production value. Many of these are even able to give users a sense of the show without resorting to cheesy character montages or “turn and smile” shots as parodied here:

The received wisdom is that opening credits have gotten shorter on average over the years. Probably true, but hard to know for sure since the variability of lengths has gone way up.  Game of Thrones and Dexter’s opening credits each run over 1’40″, while Breaking Bad’s runs about 15 seconds. Many shows like Glee and Brothers & Sisters have a mere one-second flash of the title card.  These days, opening credits are like the proverbial box of chocolates.

Because title sequences have gone from perfunctory kitsch to an important stylized element, they’ve gotten a lot better. In the last post I gave you my TV watching background; here’s some of my favorite sequences from shows (not far) past and present:

  • LOST (ABC, 2004-2010)

It’s still remarkable to me how much this simple sequence accomplishes. I didn’t start watching until three seasons had aired, mostly because the I couldn’t see how a show about stranded plane wreck survivors could be compelling. When I finally gave the show a chance, this sequence quickly made me realize my preconception of the show was quite wrong. And there’s just three elements:  The show title in skinny gray letters coming into focus as they drift past on a sea of empty blackness, accompanied by an ominous musical cue (credited to JJ Abrams himself) that’s really more sound effect than music. Hardly big-budget (the producers say they created this in 15 minutes with After Effects and I believe it), but perfectly capturing the mood of the show. The splash of water in my tumbler of MacCutcheon is the oscillating whistling sound in the last few seconds. Perfect.

  • Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present)

No doubt about it: Mad Men is a cool show with cool opening titles. The style is distinctive and slick, and the imagery is unique and allows for some always welcome visual metaphor.

I don't get it.

But more than anything, it’s just cool. The music, “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2, is modern electronica but works despite the show being set in the 1960s (for an example of modern music not working for a period show, see Boardwalk Empire).  And that final shot, all bass and drums with the silhouette of Don Draper casually slumped in a chair, head cocked in concentration, makes for one of the best title cards you’ll see on TV.

  • Weeds (Showtime, 2005 – present)

There’s nothing mind-shattering about this one (and I stopped watching the show several seasons ago), but I almost never skipped through this sequence. The song is catchy (and in later seasons, they do covers to mix it up a bit) and matches the imagery of suburban clones quite perfectly.

  • The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-present)

Another great example of how credits can set tone and mood. Quick tracking shots, a bit of time lapse,  desaturated colors, weird filter effects. The main characters are introduced through scorched images of their pre-zombie life, nicely providing the star billing and a lil’ bit of character information. Last but not least there’s the great theme from Bear McCreary, whom I first discovered on Battlestar Galactica. You can watch him talk about composing The Walking Dead theme here, and to see a very cool fan-made opening titles of a different flavor, click here. Season 2 is filming all around me here in Atlanta as we speak, a fact that excites me more than I should admit.

  • Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present)

Watch this and marvel at the ability for what’s essentially a 100-second information dump to be visually arresting and reward multiple viewings with its stylized details. Game of Thrones has a complex storyline involving seven main factions spread across a vast world, so it’s inevitable a map is going to be involved at some point*. Instead of clunkily inserting maps with animated dotted lines into any episode that called for it, the show wisely chooses to give viewers a quick geography lesson at the top of each episode, and the locations visited on the map change depending on the episode. This saves flow and story, and having not read the books, the credits have helped me quite a bit as the show jumps from place to place. But looking at a map at the start of every episode would quickly become tiresome if not for some great animation, attention to detail, and a pounding score composed by Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi. I love the look of the map, which is made to look like a practical model (even the sun has its astrolabe), but is bent inside a sphere to give a better perspective as the viewer flies through Westeros and beyond. The way way the various kingdoms rise as cogs mesh and gears turn is  a fantastic way to depict the intricate interrelations between the characters. The details are wonderful too: the etchings on the astrolabe, the sigils on the main buildings of each kingdom and beside each credit, the rendering of the water (particularly at 1’20”), and my favorite detail, the  lenses flicking in and out when the camera zooms,  as if we were examining the world through a spyglass.

*The Pacific miniseries had a similar problem, so HBO decided they would do two-minute introductory history lessons voiced by Tom Hanks; even the producers didn’t think they worked. And while I’m at it, might as well mention that I thought the titles sequence was a bit overlong and grand, but I always have time to rewatch the Band of Brothers opening.

  • Dexter (Showtime, 2006-present)

How would you introduce a show about a guy who is by day a mild-mannered blood spatter analyst for the police and by night a serial killer who targets other murderers? If you answered anything other than: “a montage of his mundane morning routine,” then this sequence proves you were way past wrong. This is my favorite titles sequence (evah!) because it takes a straightforward but absolutely inspired concept and executes it (heh) beautifully. The cinematography is exhilarating, and the jaunty but slightly demented music by Rolfe Kent adds a a dark shade of humor and mischief. Like LOST, this is also an example of a sequence that turned on its head what I thought the show–really the character of Dexter–was going to be. Seeing the violence of breakfast is not only inherently fun, but deftly communicates important subtext about protagonist Dexter; he’s someone who has mostly learned to mimic the rhythms of a normal life,  but whose ‘dark passenger’ peeks out upon close inspection. Funny how dental floss resembles garrote wire in his hands…

About a week ago foremost TV critic Alan Sepinwall coined the TSORIS stat (Theme Song Over Remainder in Show), which attempts to capture how much of a show’s legacy is due to its theme song (Gilligan’s Island: 81%, Rockford Files: 44%).  Nothing on my list would get a very high score for Opening Credits Over Remainder in Show (OCORIS), and I’m hard-pressed to think of a titles sequence to a show I didn’t like, let alone one that would stick in my mind more than the show itself.

In any event, you’ve seen some of my picks, so what are yours? Any notably bad ones? Or how about good nominees for high OCORIS scores?

I spent hours drooling in front of the TV as a kid, but mostly I channel-surfed and didn’t follow any particular show. It wasn’t until I was close to graduating college that I began watching TV with purpose. Speedy web browsing had largely replaced TV viewing by that point, but the internet had also exposed me to loads of info and critical opinion about good stuff on TV. Eventually enough of this info entered my brain that a synapse fired, causing a thought to occur that went something like this: “Hey, I might want to check some of this stuff out.” And so I did, and quickly discovered I was missing some great stuff.

A visualization of my childhood, where TV, chips, and socks were the order of the day.

First there was Rome, which had already ended its brief two-season run. Then came Arrested Development, whose three majestic seasons helped me get through my hastily written thesis. I stayed away away from new shows at first, instead focusing on successful shows that had aired for at least a season and often more. I watched the first three seasons of LOST, a show that quickly took hold of my heart, the summer before I left for Germany. While abroad I hit my stride, watching shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Weeds in season-sized chunks

Young expats are wont to pack media-filled hard drives along with extra deodorant and favorite snacks, and I was no exception. When I left for my year in Rwanda, I had dozens of movies and several seasons of shows like Deadwood. There I realized that I’d much prefer watching two hours of a good TV show than most any movie. I binned my movie collection when I got home, never having watched most of it.

For a lot of people television is about reality shows, but for me it’s all about scripted hour-long drama: Fringe, Mad Men, Dexter, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the best show I’ve seen, The WireThis is not to say I don’t enjoy the more digestible half-hour stuff like Parks and Recreation, Archer, or the genre-dodging Louie, but they lack complex serialized storytelling, which is what TV does best. Long, skillful plotting takes viewers to deeper and unexpected places and gives characters time to fully fleshen. Payoffs can take years to realize, making them that much more delectable.

Not every show catches me, of course. Treme is usually well-done but often boring. Friday Night Lights was I’m sure good, but for some reason I stopped watching near the end of the first season and haven’t missed it. Sadder to me are the shows I quite liked but were canceled after one season. Terriers had a decent resolution at least, but Rubicon‘s de facto series finale was unfortunately pretty awful.

Not every AMC show is a success.

For all the shows I’ve listed and love (and there’s more),  I don’t spend anywhere close to the American average of five hours a day watching TV. I don’t watch sports, and I almost never watch live TV.  As the Nielsen data indicate (pdf), TV is the preferred timesuck for older folk, with teens watching half as much as retirees. I’m even worse than a Nielsen teen. I watch my few shows a week and I’m done, leaving my time be hoovered away by the internet. And honestly many shows don’t require a huge time commitment. If I adopted the 7-hour-a-day habit of African-Americans, I could clear out the first seasons of shows like Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey, and The Walking Dead at a rate of one per day, and most premium-channel shows would take less than two days per season. It doesn’t take long to see a lot of good shows.

Being abroad also gave me the habit of watching shows on my laptop, which I continue. Alan Sepinwall has written about being something of a TV-less TV critic. The internet has made sampling and following shows very easy, all while avoiding most commercials.  For me, it’s a great time to be watching television, even when it’s usually not on a television set.

Up Next: My favorite TV opening credits sequences, for which all of this was merely background.

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