Pulp No. 6
Pulp No. 6
Arcadia No. 4
Arcadia No. 3
Arcadia No. 2
Quarantine Pulp No. 5
Quarantine Pulp No. 4
Rotoscope Animation Test Footage
Quarantine Pulp No. 3
Quarantine Pulp No. 2
Quarantine Pulp No. 1
Rose Colour Study
Lamplighters No. 4
Arcana Arcana 0-XXI
Don’t Flinch, Don’t Foul, and Hit the Line Hard.
This week David Berman – poet, musician, primary member of Silver Jews – passed away. And while I typically go out of my way to not make an event about how any celebrity tragedy impacts my life (because, obviously, it isn’t about me), his writing and music has had an enormous impact on me, and his thoughtfulness towards his art has been a source of great inspiration for me.
I’ve been at odds with myself for a long time, creatively. I put a lot of weight on the pursuit of craft – probably more than it should bear – but I’m self conscious about the fact that the more I hone and polish something, the more of its character and its honesty gets chipped away. David Berman’s work always attracted me for that reason. It felt like his creative process was similarly an act of distillation, but the end result was always this concise, precisely hewn piece of humanity. He was always so effective at finding ways to build a scene or a character out of one or two out-of-no-where turns of phrase, surgically selected. There’s an interview in Pitchfork where he talked about his methodology that always stuck with me:
Things like “San Francisco B.C.”, there’s this line like, “He came at me with some fist cuisine,” and it had previously been, “He came at me with all he had.” I took that out because I realized “all he had” was a cliché. I thought really quickly “fist cuisine.” It was one of the last things I was changing, but now I look at it and I realize if I had one more day, I probably would have changed it to “he served me up some fist cuisine.”
[Thinks] Maybe that second correction wouldn’t have been such a good idea because the first verb, serve– you’re not expecting some guy standing there putting out a cigarette butt to start serving. “He came at me” at least gives you a moment to prepare for fist cuisine so you can unwrap that, and say, “OK, fist in your face, in your mouth, whatever, chewing.” So you’re always on this line like, “He served it up, or he came at me. What am I going to do? Choice A will lead to a completely different [place] than Choice B in every way. A lot of that.
In retrospect, it was kind of fun. It’s how I imagined a poet like [Louis] Zukofsky working, having examined each word and putting each word on trial and made it pass. So I kind of felt it was very old-fashioned. Growing up and making art sort of slapdash is sort of an artistic position that also seemed somehow virtuous in 1980 or 1990 with postmodernism. You’re thinking, “Well, I really like this not only because it’s really interesting and its critique is unbelievably enjoyable, but it takes the privileging of craft away.” When art is about craftsmanship, then guys like me don’t make it as artists.
I didn’t remember that last line until I went to find it for this post, but it’s maybe the best part! I wish I had held onto that line when I first read it. Even though they may not mean as much out of context, I wanted to collect some of my favourite of these lyrics. The ones that feel small, but knock my socks off every time I hear them.
I’ve been working at the airport barI’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You – Tanglewood Numbers
It’s like Christmas in a submarine
It’s a dark and snowy secretMy Pillow is the Theshold – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
And it has to do with heaven
And what looks like sleep is really hot pursuit
Living in a candy jailCandy Jail – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
With peppermint bars
Peanut brittle bunk beds
And marshmallow walls
Where the guards are gracious
And the grounds are grand
And the warden really listens
And he understands
All 104 James Bond Villains, Ranked →
They say a James Bond movie is only as good as its villain. That’s not always true—weak bad guys unwind fantastic Bond movies. Stellar villains elevate terrible installments. While England’s top spy has gone head-to-head against a variety of foes, you can’t deny that some have served as meatier adversaries as others. That’s why we have to do what any Bond fan must do: rank every single James Bond villain in a big list.
Jacob Hall for Esquire put together a ranking of all villains in the James Bond franchise. Two things about about this franchise will always be true: There is no such thing as objectivity when talking about these movies (Your favourite Bond movie is someone else least favourite, and each movie is exactly as bad as it is good for incompatible reasons), and that ranking the films is an equal to if not greater part of being a fan than watching them.
Any ranking will show the hand of the rank-er, and you could make a reasonable business doing tarot readings based on a persons Bond movie rankings. From my (equally subjective and not authoritative) standing, some choices in Hall’s list feel wildly indefensible, like putting Rick Yune’s Zhao from Die Another Day (Diamond face! In the canon of Jaws, Oddjob and Tee Hee for memorable gimmicky henchmen, regardless of how bad the actual movie is) so far below people like the nameless thug from the Casino Royale cold open, and putting cartoonish performances like Joe Don Baker’s Brad Whitaker above Sophie Marceau’s movie-transcending Elektra King (Like with Zhao, it feels like the quality of the film is overshadowing the quality of the character and performance in the list). Now I’m sure anyone who just read that will equally shake their head in frustration with me. But that’s, of course, all part of the game. My top five are going to be your bottom five and that is the torment that we will forever live with.
Arcana Arcana III-XXI
Lamplighters No. 3
Lamplighters No. 2
Lamplighters No. 1
Reading Journal 2017
I found a long lost list of the books I read it 2017 – It was a little shorter than I’d normally like, but sometimes life gets fast and reading gets slow.
Reading Journal 2016
Every Year I publish a list of the books that I read throughout the year. Last year I was disheartened by the state of the digital reading industry (is that even something?), and I think it had a real effect on how and what I read this year. I split the year reading technical books, books on dharma, and fiction, but didn’t necessarily find standout works to excite me as I have in past years. I reintroduced the Kindle hardware to my reading practice, having spent the previous year reading exclusively on my phone, which enhanced the emotional aspect of reading, but actually caused me to read less. As it turns out, the best book is the one you have with you. Nonetheless I plan to keep reading on the Kindle. My enthusiasm for eInk as a technology keeps me believing in the product, despite the fact that the digital reading landscape is less competitive now than it was five years ago. I’m still looking for the type of product or service to take the place of Readmill, or to even convince me in any way that there are people outside Amazon and Kobo that still believe that reading technology has a place in the world. I’ve highlighted the books that struck a chord with me, and already have a stack of (ePub) books waiting for me in 2017.
Artwork in the Age of Data-Driven Design
I spend much of my video-watching hours on either YouTube or Netflix. Or, I think I do anyways. I missed the wave of YouTube becoming a dominant cultural platform, and as a result, I still feel awash with confusion whenever I go to the homepage. The interface is more or less fine–staid, you could call it–but the content itself usually presents itself as somewhere between somewhat off-putting and visually baffling. It’s not always the case, but it often times is.
I don’t consider myself too old or out of touch with the inherent culture of YouTube necessarily (though this article may itself prove that I am), and I don’t believe that the culture of YouTube in itself is specific or introspective enough to validate these specific anti-aesthetic decisions. What I mean is, I don’t think that the typical (forgive the generalizations, I could be very wrong about all this) content generators of YouTube are visually sophisticated enough to consciously decide to make something unpleasant in place of what otherwise would be visually pleasing for their existing audience. That the bombastic nature of their graphic design is not driven by the same unifying ethos as the equivalent would be in a punk scene, despite similarly effective visual results. That it is neither aesthetically, nor ideologically driven. My completely uninformed speculation is that they–given that they all have access to sophisticated analytical tools–are purely responding to the data they have in hand. That loud imagery beats out quiet, and big messaging overshadows modest.
I don’t have any negative feelings towards loud imagery, or bombast in general. I grew up on a visual diet of skateboard graphics, early 2000’s videogames and anime. The nutritional content of which could be distilled into categories of bold geomtric sans-serifs, incongruous paint splatter textures and colour palettes akin to what you could find on the lowest shelf of the cereal aisle. I still have an affinity for design that embraces that kinetic quality and visual excitement.
Where I do actually take a stand is the impulse to follow data driven results with no respect for the quality of the work itself. I am not shy about my bias towards craft. When I see a piece by Aaron Horkey, Martin Ansin or Teagan White I’m consumed with envy. That I can see the effort and the care that this calibre of artist puts into their work is never lost on me. I think we have a natural appreciation for the investment of others. That’s why we love monumental structures, that’s why we still admire the line-work of the renaissance masters. In Make Happy, Bo Burnham’s most recent comedy special, there was one line that resonated with me on this topic specifically. After reprimanding the audience for shouting to the stage, he explains “I’m trying to immortalize something I worked really hard on”. So when I go to sites like YouTube, landmarks of self-expression, and see a grid of flashy, grotesque imagery and slapdash visual choices, I feel cheated by the creators and by the platform. Not everyone is a graphic designer, but everyone is witness to graphic design, good or bad. In so many other artforms, most notably publishing and music, the aesthetic quality of the packaged work is so intrinsic to the work itself that the idea of releasing a book without a cover or an album without artwork in itself is a striking statement. Online content for the most part skirts these traditions, and to fill the void we invite compromised and unconsidered visual noise.
What is a cover
Whenever a new medium disrupts an existing one, part of the cultural values of that supplanted form are excised as a part of the transition of power. In 2012 iPad came into its own, and paired with the continued growth of the Amazon Kindle, it looked like it would upend the publishing industry. Craig Mod wrote a piece on the changing nature of the book cover. He illustrated the new information flow of the book reading experience, which often bypasses the book cover entirely, and of the necessary aesthetic shift from detailed, tactile works, to more graphic and immediate design decisions that cater best to black & white screens and to the Amazon search page, rather than to the 5″ x 7″ paperback in the physical store. He spoke of it not as a reduction in quality, only a reduction of detail. Donny Phillips, the graphic designer responsible for the album cover for The Hunter by Mastodon, called the trend “an aesthetic shift” and not “a dumbing down”, when speaking to The New York Times on the topic of the new landscape for music graphics. The point being that it is not about lamenting the loss of the larger canvas, like the 12″ sleeve or cinemas one-sheet, but instead thinking critically about how to make meaning within a new set of constraints. A company like Readmill could make the decision to entirely remove artwork from the equation in their reading service, as a gesture of appreciation for artwork that would be poorly adapted for a 4″ screen size, or as in the music industry, individual artists could learn towards a simplified design, knowing that their artwork will dominantly live in a space not larger than 1″ x 1″.
However online video as a medium seems somehow separate from this larger conversation about reductionist graphic design. Despite the obvious synchronicity with the music industry and the publishing industry, there is almost no conversation about the graphic design of film and TV when it comes to the same issue. My particular gripe is with Netflix who seems to be the most notable when it comes to the conversation of marketing and the artifact of a cultural product. They are very transparent about their marketing techniques, though anecdotally, I am convinced that either the data is flawed, or that their internal metrics have little relationship to the end users experience. To explain better illustrate what I mean by that: Raise your hand if you’ve spend more nights looking for something to watch on Netflix than watching something on Netflix.
The company has been vocal about how and why it choose specific artwork for specific audiences. The goal is to create as much engagement with each piece of content as possible, and to do so they first A/B test the fuck out of their content and then over time, apply what they’ve learned to their content catalogue. What they have learned is that
These are naturally very interesting and logical responses, but it leads to a dramatic reduction in creative specificity in the artwork, and transforms films that began their lives in theaters with spectacular graphics, into a vague impression of the same film. It’s how we end up with this:
I don’t believe that any of these original posters are great works of art, but they are all making visual choices relevant to the films at hand which is far more valuable than optimizing for clicks if you are actually trying to communicate what the thing is that you want people to click on. If I’ve never heard of these films–or any other in the catalogue–why would I choose one over another. Is woman-on-plane-in-sunglasses less or more interesting than man-in-chair-with-gun? How do you communicate the value of your product when everything is optimized to the same metrics? How does your audience identify what aligns with their interests if context has been stripped from your content offering?
The reality is that not all content should be marketed and sold to the same degree. A quiet indie film may not have the same potential audience of a Marvel Movie, and it shouldn’t be presented under the same terms. If you are marketing a small Joe Swanberg film the same as a giant Michael Bay movie, I think the values of those two works have been vastly misinterpreted. Furthermore, you risk creating scenarios that invent morally troubling issues, that don’t need to exist based on the perceived value of artwork manipulation.
The music industry doesn’t suffer the same dilemma, since so little of the value of their product is based on the associated visuals. And because the music industry is spread across so many platforms–from the music itself to music videos, merchandise and live performances–the weight of the artwork impacts proportionally little of the overall success of an album. So you can be complicated, minimal, weird or hyper-literal in your artwork and the overall marketing of your product will not be inherently compromised. However, when the success of your product is directly linked to the appeal of a very small thumbnail, I can understand where the fear would kick in, and the reliance on analytical results would outweigh the more subjective considerations of the thing you are trying to market. There is I believe a way to design a system that allows for both.
Mubi, the streaming video service in asymmetrical competition with Netflix has an elegantly designed solution that successfully allows for both metrics based decision making to live alongside a more context-conscious presentation of video subject matter. They present a single frame from each film, with a templated overlay of the film title, the name of the director, the country of origin and year. All films stand on equal ground to the other available offerings, and the imagery selected should distinguish each film from each other.
It’s a middle ground between the decision to generate bespoke designs for each work, and the decision to skirt the conversation all together, and genuinely assists the user in deciding what they should and would like to watch.
I’ve been troubled for a long time about the absence of a voice that speaks to the value of visual design in software. That we have a landscape that is so visually sophisticated when it comes to user interface paradigms, but so visually remedial when it comes the actual content that is presented. I hear troublingly little from would-be designers who have no interested in, nor any intelligence around how their work actually appears. That decisions are made thoughtlessly based on the encouragement of statistics, not based on what those statistics actually refer to. That the things that we watch, spend time with and seek out have a value inherent to them beyond their salience within an algorithmic system, and that the means through which we present them should better reflect that value.
In 2015 it seemed like the idea of newsletters as a writer’s distribution was coming back in a mean way. I was constantly being turned towards really interesting daily or weekly snippets that I could herd into my inbox. It was a cool idea. It felt like bloggers had abandoned their fortified homesteads and taken to the seas for a rocky, untethered adventure in the face of established distribution platforms like Medium and Facebook. But like anything that quickly swings into style, it quickly swung out of style, and with it went some newsletters that were simply too beautiful for this world (for posterity, I am referring to Matt Braga’s deep yet accessible security & technology newsletter The Dot Digest, and Robin Sloan’s wonderfully arrhythmic recommendation newsletter PRIMES). However many have still stuck with it, and every few days I’ll open up my inbox to find treasure mixed in with my receipts.
Three newsletters that I get joy out of have a lot in common. The first is Pome by Matthew Ogle. It’s a daily delivery mechanism for short poems, and is simultaneously the most impactful thing you could invite into your inbox and the least invasive. The poems are from established writers, usually contemporary, and are often the size of a tweet. The second newsletter is along a similar vain, in that the writing is often very brief, but in a less structured way. Matt Sheret’s Bureau of Small Observation is a short description of a physical scenario, usually provided without context. Think of it as Georges Perec with less personal commitment. The reason I think this newsletter is valuable is that it’s a small way of exercising your imagination. Sheret gives you a scenario, you picture what he sees, and you both move on. Exercise is healthy. The third newsletter feels like the evolved, chronicled form of the Bureau of Small Observation. Jack Cheng is a novelist and designer, and writes a weekly dispatch every Sunday night. Personal, but not overly vulnerable, he records what he has been processing, either physically or emotionally, for the last 6 days and articulates those feelings in roughly 400 words. I love his style, and am always impressed with what he is able to emotionally digest over the course of a week. I know that newsletters as a medium have severe limitations, but if email isn’t going anywhere, I want to at least use it the way that feels the most in-line with the rest of my internet use. So for me it’s a tiny RSS reader, dependant on a select few who wander uncharted territories.
A few years ago I wrote a piece about the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi. The piece was about the production of the film, and the weird, cyberpunk, multimedia world that could have been. Spirits Within was a part of the first wave of entirely computer generated feature films, and possibly the first to attempt photorealism. The entire film rendered out over 15 terabytes of data (in 2001 keep in mind), and took a cumulative 120 years of production time, split amongst the staff of 200. The aim was to create a world indistinguishable from our own, inhabited by characters that could be brought to life in a way no artificially created character had ever been in the past. The goal was to have the characters, particularly the protagonist Dr. Aki Ross, to have a life outside the film, and be “cast” in future computer generated films, or even alongside actual actors in live action. The film flopped, and any hopes of this extension of the characters or set were squashed.
The only exception is in the segment The Flight of the Osiris in the Wachowski’s Animatrix, which utilized some of the same character models.
I am totally enamoured with this idea of utilizing digital assets beyond their designed use. For one, it’s a recognition that the digital world is not separate from the physical. That the human effort, the disk-space and rendering hours are not one-time use, and can be repurposed in the same way traditional film-making sets and props can be. Additionally, it could pave the way to rethink how we use computer graphics. At a time when we celebrate the return of practical effects, I think we are also due to re-examine our approach to digital effects. Sakaguchi didn’t elect to use an artificial environment to make grander explosions in a more forgiving medium— he wanted to open up the digital landscape to a broader form of story-telling, which we still don’t see today. That being said, there have been some interesting resurgences of the same digital-to-physical cross-matter media. One notable example being the Tupac hologram from Coachella 2012. Another—more morally grey—example is that of Bruce Lee and Audrey Hepburn being resurrected for adverts for Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey and Galaxy chocolates, respectively.
Disney is currently working on some very interesting technology that algorithmically matches the expressions of one digitally mapped actor to another, so that one might be seamlessly controlled in a post-production setting. This is some really interesting uncanny valley stuff right here. But my dream of a media landscape not tied to the physical bounds of our planetary existence seem far gone. We might be recreating our living actors (in patches and pieces—like Paul Walker for Fast & Furious 7, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman for the Hunger Games—or whole-cloth like poor Audrey), but we do not seem interested in bringing to life the magic of an artificial character. Or so I thought. The reason this has been on my mind again is because of a recent collaboration between Square Enix (the makers of Final Fantasy) and Louis Vuitton. The Final Fantasy XIII character Lightning has been “hired” to model a new line of handbags as a social media promotion. Message? Unclear. Target audience? Unknowable. But my vision of a weird, cyberpunk advertising landscape may come true after all, even if no one can really figure out why.
Reading Journal 2015
This year felt like an off year for me when it came to reading. I’ve long been an evangelist for electronic reading, and every year for the last half a decade or so has given me reason to continue my excitement until this one. Blloon, an alternative to Kindle Unlimited, has not been successful in creating a sustainable business out of eBook subscriptions and has entered a period of ‘refuelling’, Oyster, the beautiful spiritual successor to Readmill has been absorbed into Google Play, and the downward trend of eBook sales in favour of their physical counterparts continues to chug logarithmically along. It seems like the only players left in the game are Amazon, Apple and Google, and that’s never a position anyone likes a market to be in. What is a die-hard .epub fan to do? I am holding out hope for a technology that acts as more of a mediator than a content provider, so that the terrible economics of licensing content do not have to interfere with the technology through which we access that content (Rdio listeners will share that sentiment). That being said, I did read many books this year that I really enjoyed, and as a habitual list-taker, I’ve included them all in the list below for posterity. I’ve highlighted the books that I’d really recommend.
Our Butcher Year
I’ve been thinking a lot more about editing than I ever have before. That’s largely because of Tony Zhou, and his video series Every Frame a Painting. If you haven’t seen them, they are short (5~10m) videos where he dissects a particular filmmakers specific hallmarks. Whether it’s the use of the lateral tracking shot in animated features, or how Michael Bay uses parallax, he’s slowly teaching a virgin public about the unseen details of constructing a visual narrative. I’m tempted to think of it as the cinematic equivalent of Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’. Here are two of my favourites:
It’s interesting to see what the particular catalyst for a moment turns out to be. Or vice versa, how one small novelty explodes into a new way of thinking about media. Because Zhou’s videos have brought to my, and many other people’s attention, a whole range of videos and processes that were otherwise just blips on the radar. In teaching us how to understand editing, he’s turned us all into would-be surgeons.
My favourite example of this is with the Hobbit films. We all unanimously agree that 12 hours of footage to explore a book that takes 6 hours to read is egregious. No one necessarily asked for a trilogy, and like we see with almost all franchises today (Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games etc.) Breaking the story into multiple parts often reads as a financial rather than artistic decision. So here we have not one but three examples of Tolkien/Jackson fans, taking inspiration from the wealth of a available footage and turning them into new, compellingly retold versions of the same story. The first, a four hour cut known as The Tolkien Edit, the second, Just over 3 hours of A Hobbit’s Cut, and lastly—and most tastefully named— There and Back Again coming in at just under 3 hours. Here’s what I like about this. It’s not a senseless parody or cruel criticism of the original. It’s the idea that these overwrought franchises are providing the ingredients with which we can create the meal. I would love to see a cut down version of The Hunger Games, or any other franchise for that matter.
The same goes for TV. With teased out versions of existing properties such as Fargo, From Dusk Till Dawn, 12 Monkeys or Bates Motel (the list is endless here) we could create infinite permutations of feature-length films without sacrificing quality or integrity. Topher Grace has already recut the Star Wars prequel films into one 85-minute edit. Not only that, but we have already successful filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh using this same liberty to explore new interesting perspectives on films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Heaven’s Gate, Psycho and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the age of DRM and walled gardens, it’s nice to see that it’s still in our power to negotiate with the media we see. It’s remix culture at its finest, and freedom in a world that can feel a little too locked down.
Reading Journal 2014
A list I feel much better about is that of the books I’ve read this year. By far the stand-out of the bunch is Underground by Haruki Murakami. It’s unlike many Murakami books in that it is non-fiction, and not about a benign 30-something man with an underplayed talent who has to leave Tokyo to find a woman who in a previous time of his life was once meaningful and he now must return to. It’s amazing how many times he can write one story. Underground however is a staggeringly beautiful account of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Subway by the Aum Shinrikyo on March 20th, 1995. The interviews are thoughtful, deep, human, and on a few occasions brought me to tears. It took me over a month to finish this book and I can’t wait until enough time has passed to read it again.