Three reasons I dislike most video on the Internet.

lcd-test-pattern-pro-18a423-h900It’s sort of odd, but I’ve gotten to the point I really hate seeing video on the Internet. It’s funny because I love video. I’ve been shooting it since I was in middle school. I think my first gig was recording a training seminar for teachers. That would have been in either 1976 or 1977. In high school I had access to this weird-ass Akai VT-400 camera/ recorder combo that I used to record whatever I could talk anyone into letting me record. I spent a lot of time with the basketball team.  Up until five or six years ago my professional life revolved around making video in one way or the other. Back in 2008 Streaming Media Magazine named me a Streaming Media All-Star. As best I’ve been able to determine, my team at UC was the first ever to stream a high school graduation live on the Internet back in 2001. That’s a footnote-to-a-footnote kind of accomplishment, but it illustrates the point that I’ve been at this for a while. I still care about video a lot. I’m enjoying this writing thing, but I’d kill to direct a multi-camera shoot just one more time.1,2. But I do hate seeing video pop up on social media.

It’s not the production values (or lack thereof) that bother me. I can’t tell you how many “Intro to TV Production” courses I’ve taught. When you see some of the stuff students do intentionally for a grade when you warned them not to, you’re not terribly overwrought when you see people with no training fall into the same traps. It’s definitely not vertical video. I feel the same way about people who get all holier-than-thou about that issue as I do about people who turn up their noses at a well-made lager because, well, it’s a lager. The phrase “douche canoe comes up almost immediately.

After putting milliseconds of thought into it while making a Facebook comment on this topic, I came up with three reasons I dislike most video on the Internet:

  1. Environmental Demands. Few videos are silent. Most have sound. I’m not always in a place where it’s appropriate for sounds to be playing. I keep my phone muted a lot of the time. When I was in cubicle-land I had headphones, but a lot of time I wore them just to muffle outside sounds. Sounds are intrusive. The Internet may be a dark, seething morass of overdeveloped outrage and underdeveloped potty-training skills, but at least it’s usually quiet.
  2. Cognitive Throttling. I read fast. Like everyone, I read differently depending on the circumstance. If I’m trying to immerse myself in the piece I read every word and am happy to go back and re-read a passage again. If I’m in a hurry or looking for a specific thing I’ll scan until I locate what I’m looking for. Everyone does this to one degree or another. The brain is an amazing thing. The amount of information you can take in at a glance is quite remarkable if you think about it. Of course you don’t have to think about it. That’s kind of the point. Until it’s video. Now you’re getting locked into a single speed. Whatever’s in there you’re looking for, you get to wait for it with everyone else, damnit. It’s going to drip, drip, drip and you can’t do anything about it. That five-minute video is going to take five minutes to watch. Plus anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds extra because there’s probably going to be a pre-roll ad.
  3. Cognitive Hijacking. When you watch a video, you’re outsourcing your cognition to whomever made it. You’re only going to see what the person who made it wants you to see. You’re only going to hear what you’re given. The camera is never passive. It draws attention to itself in varying degrees depending on the technique being used, but you’re not the one who’s deciding what you’re looking at. That’s been done for you. Saying “I’m going to watch TV” or “I’m going to a movie” pretty much means you’re signing up for this voluntarily. I like how Steven Spielberg manipulates my cognition. Uwe Boll?  Not so much. But that’s just me. My main objection to most video on the Internet is that I’m usually doing something else and I can’t really afford to sign over my consciousness to this other person who might or might not share my cognitive goals right then. One of the hoary chestnuts of the Internet is that videos have to be short because no one will watch long videos. Bullshit. People will hang in exactly as long as they need in order to get out of it what they want. You just can’t shove 50 unrelated things into a long video and expect people to wade through all of them to find that one nugget they really want.3

If you have a video of your cat doing something adorable and you label it as such, I have all the information I need in order to decide whether or not to watch it.  And let’s be real. I probably will. Because cats. On the other hand, I have no interest in watching a recipe. Some of the best recipes in the world have been passed down through generations on 3×5 index cards. How is making a video supposed to improve on that? Some particular technique in some step? That’s fair, but then just show me that. You can just write out the rest and I’ll be very happy.

Video is good at showing complex spatial relationships among multiple objects. That could be anything from a baseball game to a gymnastics meet to a video on how to remove a car stereo from a car. Video is good at showing parasocial cues like smiling and body language. Video is good for demonstrating complex techniques. We’ve all seen the line drawings of how to tie a tie or assemble some piece of furniture. Most of the time there’s this one key step that video is perfect for. You look at the drawing on the instructions and you wonder if Screw 2B goes into hole 3C or whether you’re supposed to invade France by way of Belgium4. There are certain things video is good for. It’s not good for everything.

I always liked to tell my students that it’s nearly as hard to make a really crappy video as it is to make a good one. The amount of effort that goes into something has absolutely nothing to do with how good or appropriate it is. The flip side to that is that just because it’s easy to shoot a video and put it up, it doesn’t mean you ought to. I could go on for at least another thousand words about the crime against humanity that is the “video user guide” for most software. Just admit it. You were too lazy to write out the text for what each menu item does. That’s all I want to know. I don’t have to see you do it.

To get my point across do I need anything more than words?  No?  Then stop. Can a picture help show a two-dimensional relationship? Yes? Add that sucker in. Is there something we absolutely have to see in motion  and hear in order to understand? Yes? Then video is a good idea. Otherwise it’s not. It’s not that complicated.


1OK, maybe not kill. I’d be willing to kick you. Call me?
2I did order one of these things way back. It was supposed to ship this month but it’s been delayed to July. Not perfect, but it could be fun.
3As an aside, I think 360-degree video is a cool and interesting technology, but I’m betting people are really going to struggle to find a good use for it in a story-telling setting. How do you direct attention when you just opened up the world by a whole lot? I’m definitely not saying it can’t be done, but I sure don’t know what it looks like. Then again, that’s the fun part, right?
4I’d like to apologize again to the governments of Belgium and France for that misunderstanding when I was assembling my Weber grill.

Curling One to Life

I got in touch with my inner Canadian yesterday. Carla and I went to the Cincinnati Gardens Skating Center to join fifteen or so other folks who’d backed Braxton Brewing’s Kickstarter campaign a year ago. One of our rewards was a “Learn to Curl” session with the Cincinnati Curling Club. Since the ice can only be maintained in the cooler months and Braxton’s first year has been a whirlwind, it took a little while to get it all to come together.

It was absolutely worth the wait.

My knees are pretty much crap nowadays from carrying around too much weight for too long. That lunging move you see when people launch the stone? Yeah, that’s not going to happen for me. It turns out they’ve come up with a cheater stick that old fat guys like me can use, and I spun a few stones down the ice. I’m going to say what everyone who ever plays the game for the first time says: it looks a lot easier than it really is. And it’s even more fun than it looks.

After about an hour on the cold ice my knees were screaming at me, so I shot some video on my phone. I decided to finally give one of those iMovies templates a try so I this edited on my iPad this morning1. Here’s what I came up with. Two explanations of things in the video: Braxton’s motto is “Lift One to Life” so that’s where the title “Curl One to Life” comes from. People who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign are “Braxton Builders.”

With no further ado:


1I think back to ’91 or ’92 when I got a call from a guy at Adobe who was bragging that they had hardware and software that could digitize video at something like 12 frames a second at (I think) 320×240. It might have been 160×120. And it’d only take about an hour a minute to capture. I can’t remember how much it cost because I was laughing so hard. And now I’m shooting on a phone and editing on a tablet. Kind of nuts.

Building the “Building Braxton” Video: Part I

Braxton Brewing Company officially opened last Friday and one of the things done during the opening is play a little video I dreamed up and then had a chance to edit. Here it is:

You can go to Hoperatives to read more about Braxton and the opening, but I wanted to say a bit more about how the video came about and the challenges of putting it together. This is anything but a woe-is-me exercise because I had an awful lot of fun doing it. There was some pressure, but it was mostly the kind I put on myself. I wanted the final product to be good and it seemed like there were roadblocks every step of the way. It’s a story in and of itself and it ought to be written down somewhere.  Luckily. I have a place to do that. This goes on for a while, so I’m going to go ahead and make a jump. It’s not like I update this blog all that often, but I would like the page to be a bit manageable. So click on down if you want to experience some video nerdery

Continue reading “Building the “Building Braxton” Video: Part I”

There’s nothing wrong with vertical video. Nothing. N-o-t-h-i-n-g.

Hi. I’m Tom. I’ve been shooting video for more than 35 years. And I don’t have a problem with vertical video. In fact, I’m starting to have a problem with people who have problems with vertical video.

What am I talking about?  Here’s a video shot the “right” way:

Apparently this is virtuous video. Video that won’t curl your hair, lead to halitosis or Make America Lose the War™. (I think I owe George Carlin’s estate royalties for that line.)

This is vertical video:

Even Dunkel is bored with your aversion to vertical video. And yes, I snuck in a cat video.

I first learned this was a thing when I saw this video:

I’ll be the first to say that this is hilarious. It’s also about as intellectually rigorous as most of the arguments I’ve seen. I haven’t (and won’t) do an exhaustive analysis of those arguments, but there seem to be four of them:

  1. History:  Video has always had a horizontal orientation.
  2. Physiology: Our eyes are side-by-side and our perceptual range is roughly horizontally-oriented.
  3. Wasted space: A vertically-oriented video is often presented with black bars on the left and right when presented on a horizontally-oriented
  4. It looks funny: I think this is really just some fuzzy combination of the first three, but maybe not.

I’ll say right up front that the first three sound perfectly reasonable on their face. Each statement is actually true. Irrelevant, but true. Here’s why:

History

The ratio of a video’s width to height is referred to as its aspect ratio. Most of the time it’s expressed as a proportion:

Number Units Width : Number of Units Height

So a 4:3 aspect ratio would equally describe a screen 4-inches wide and 3-inches tall as well as one 40-inches wide and 30-inches tall. Don’t misunderstand: the units can be anything:  feet, millimeters, squares of chocolate, or the mark my forehead makes on the desk as I collapse from tedium. You’ll also see aspect ratios expressed as the quotient of width divided by height. Our screen with a 40-inch width and 30-inch height can also be said to have a 1.3333 aspect ratio.

I didn’t just pick that size out of the air as an example. You’ll learn, if you go to the Wikipedia article I just linked to, that this was film’s original aspect ratio. For reasons lost to the mists of time, Dickson and Edison (and likely more Dickson than Edison) decided the height of a frame would be four sprocket-holes and the width was based on what was left over on 35-mm film after you accounted for the space the sprockets took up.  So the Ür moving-image aspect ratio wasn’t sent down by the Almighty on stone tablets, it was tied to the physical characteristics of the first standardized film system.

So it’s true that video images have historically been horizontally-oriented. First it was a little wider than tall, now it can be a lot wider than tall. The thing is, it’s pretty tough to flip a movie projector or TV on its side. Still images never had that limitation. You’d never hear anyone being taken seriously if they tried to argue that landscape orientation is the only true photo orientation and portrait is the spawn of the devil. Digital video images are closer to still images than traditional analog moving images in that the display devices can be made to arbitrarily rotate the image so that up is always up and and down is always down.

So sure, we’ve always had horizontal video. We had to.  Now we don’t.

Physiology

Everyone’s a little different, but we have a little bit more range of vision side-to-side than up and down vision.  It isn’t in focus all the time and we actually pay attention to very little of what’s in front of us, but our visual fields of view tend to be horizontally-oriented. Not as horizontal as even old-school 4:3 video, but horizontal nonetheless. The argument against vertical video seems to be that moving images are somehow “wrong” if they aren’t mimicking the physiological characteristics of our eyes. That seems like a safe assumption on its face, but it falls apart pretty quickly.  Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things people accept in film and video all the time that the human eye isn’t capable of:

  1. Zooms
  2. Pans and tilts
  3. Fast-forward / Slow-motion
  4. Dissolves.  Heck, pretty much any transition except for (possibly) the cut.

Don’t start on me about pans and tilts. “What do you mean?” you say “I can certainly turn my head from side to side! I can look up and down!”  Yes you can. But what you don’t notice is that your eyes don’t stay fixed forward as your head moves. What basically happens is your eye tracks very quickly to where you’re looking and your neck catches up. You change your “shot” as fast as you possibly can and “edit out” the motion of your eye so you aren’t disoriented. Google “fixation” and “saccades” if you want to know more.

That’s why I’m willing to say the eye can sort of mimic a cut, but unless your name is Steve Austin and you’re the Six-Million-Dollar Man, your eye isn’t doing a zoom. So it’s kind of silly to insist on a horizontal orientation for video when we accept all kinds of things the eye can’t do.

At a deeper level, the whole language of the moving image is predicated on two things:  The interplay of light and shadow and the notion of directed attention. The camera’s gaze isn’t supposed to fall equally on all objects in the field of view. One of the hardest things to do is watch video shot by an unmoving camera. It’s like talking to someone who doesn’t blink. It takes a while, but after a couple of minutes your skin is crawling.

Is vertical video always the best choice to direct attention? Of course not.  Lawrence of Arabia would have been a silly movie shot vertically. What I find hilarious, though, is that the effectiveness of the Vertical Video Syndrome PSA up there really relies on the vertical video to create the negative space necessary for the joke to work. And speaking of negative space …

Wasted Space

This is the one I find the funniest: that somehow you’re not getting your money’s worth if every pixel of your display device isn’t taken up with video. It’s kind of like back in the days when TVs had a 4:3 aspect ratio and you’d hear screaming from people when they saw a letterboxed video. Or now when people are perfectly comfortable distorting the aspect ratio of a 4:3 source video to fill a 16:9 screen. Somehow people looking shorter and fatter (and circles appearing to be squashed ovals) is preferable to there being pixels on the screen that aren’t earning their keep by just showing black. To each their own, I guess. For the record, videos with distorted aspect ratios drive me nuts, but Carla can watch them without noticing. And I love her very much. I can accept mystery in my life.

For reasons no one will every really understand, YouTube doesn’t accommodate vertical video and to people who leave comments on YouTube (a scary, depressing group of people), that makes vertical video A Bad Thing.™   Here’s my video from above as it appears on YouTube.

Note how they blow up the still frame and then BAM! Black bars left and right. Other services allow vertical video. The fact that YouTube doesn’t isn’t a valid indictment. Sounds more like a lack of imagination on their part to me.

I really don’t know what to do with the wasted space argument. It’s a taste thing, I guess. But just because it bothers you doesn’t mean it bothers everyone.

And finally!

It Looks Funny

When I’m being charitable I say that this is probably a way for people to express their discomfort over some combination of the other objections. When I’m not being charitable I ask when in the course of human events we’ve ever seen things go wrong when humans immediately dislike something because it’s strange and unfamiliar. It usually works out pretty well, right?

Conclusion

This has been a long post.  I have a simple point. You may not like vertical video. That’s fine.  You don’t have to. No one’s making you. Just understand that it’s not the video that’s having the problem.

It’s you.

Don’t mistake the two.

 

I remember being warm

Carla and I took a cruise on the Disney Fantasy over Christmas. This is one of the few reminders I have right now that it’s possible to be warm outside. This is the timelapse video of us leaving Port Canaveral. Silly us.  We thought it was breezy and cool. Silly us.

This is when we were approaching Grand Cayman on December 23, 2013. Sun. Warmth. I remember those.

I reserve the right to bitch about the heat this summer.

I look forward to it.