Capturing the World in One Second

by jwolowic ~ April 20th, 2010

The New York Times plans to capture the world in one second.  Asking people everywhere to take a picture at exactly 11am UTC and send in their photographs to create a mosaic representing one split second of the world.  Wow!!

Technology, media, participation, visual.  It will be fascinating to see what is created and amazing to think how connected we have become when we can all participate in one project and literally share our individual results with a world wide community.

Where will you be May 2nd?

Cameras, Kids, and Television

by jwolowic ~ April 14th, 2010

I’ve been volunteering for a digital filmmaking workshop with 6th and 7th graders all week and the experience constantly shifts between fascinating and just hilarious.  We are showing them the in camera editing “tricks” that create earthquakes, spiderman effects, and how to make people or things disappear.   It’s fun and in an hour and fifteen minutes we give the kids some hands on time with the camera, communication practice, and possibly a little reflection about the medium.

But it’s also been fascinating for two reasons.

FIRST, by 12 years old the digital divide is frighteningly apparent based on the kids’ backgrounds.  From just one school district we will have a class from the wealthier parts of town where everyone claims to to have made a movie and used editing software.  Then another class will step in from across town and no one raises their hands.  But what is interesting is that their understanding of what is happening with a film isn’t really different, just their comfort level and their ability to use the medium for creative expression. They all have a level of media comprehension but the wealthier kids have more practice and and can tell a story using shots that manipulate time and space.

However, what’s been amazing to see just how much they really don’t understand.  Making someone disappear by manipulating the record button completely blows their minds. They can see it coming as we walk them through the steps of saying action, having an actor say “abra cadabra” and freezing, pushing stop, removing the item, and pushing record again so that the still frozen actor can move again and react to the disappearance.

I mean the room explodes with “whoa!  Wow! So Cool!!” when we play it back.  Even those kids who claimed to have made adventure movies and funny mocumentaries are stunned excited and jumping out of their chairs. The digital divide is there but what part of the fun of this exercise is educating the kids about the reality manipulations that  happen all the time with cameras.

SECOND, it has really made me think about that moment when we see ourselves “on camera.”  As part of the workshop we talk for a while and then turn on a camera that is connected to a TV facing the the class.  The students see themselves live on the TV screen and every, and I mean EVERY, hand shoots up in a frantic wave.


Kids might walk in front of a mirror and haphazardly wave or make a funny face, but they don’t have the same intensity reaction.  I mean in this context the camera is providing live feedback- it’s basically a mirror- but they won’t stop waving until we pan the camera towards the wall.

Perhaps, their reaction has a lot more to do with the television than the camera. It is a box that gets so much authority in the world.  The screen is the authority for incoming messages and entertainment, so to see ourselves on TV is to see ourselves having authority.  For kids that’s a new and exciting experience  and part the excited reaction.  I would argue it’s a reaction we hold into adulthood.  I mean we’ve all seen people always trying to squeeze in behind the newsreporter and wave frantically.  It’s not for the chance to be “on camera”  but “on television.”

Rising Ideas

by jwolowic ~ April 9th, 2010

I’ve always been a fan of the Jungian “sea of unconscious.”  Not so much for its psychological applications and I don’t believe in a collective unconscious, but as an model  for learning, working through, and  producing knowledge.

For Jung, the ego sits on a sea of unconscious and as contents gain energy they rise, breaking the surface to enter our consciousness.  In order for these contents to rise, contents already in our conscious thought send energy into the sea allowing other thoughts to gain energy, bringing new contents to the surface.

By the way, I’m writing this because I am waiting for the contents of my next paper to rise to the surface.

I like this metaphor for learning and writing.  We read and gather ideas and put them into our sea of unconscious or that sea of knowledge in the back of our minds.   In the meantime the currents of our unconscious are swirling and pushing things about in ways we don’t know.  Then during a conversation or when it’s crunch time for making that dead line we pour the energy thoughts into that sea and new ideas rise out.

Other ideas or different concepts are those energized triggers that bring what we have learned in the past or memories to the surface. It’s a way of thinking about how we make connections. So working with one idea will bring other ideas out of their unconscious depths and into our consciousness. That applied “energy” is how we seem to suddenly make new connections mid stride. Case in point, Adam Smith plus beautiful blond provides the energy for John Nash’s moment of discovery:

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This model also allows me to say I’m working on a paper when I am not actually working on a paper!  It’s in there, swirling around, working itself out and when it’s time it will rise up and onto my page.

It is also the best way I can describe that feeling you get when you are on to something, but you don’t quite know what just yet.  There is an energized feeling accompanying those thoughts as they rise to surface.  You get excited because you know they are rising,  but they just haven’t quite broken the surface and entered your conscious so you can articulate those ideas just yet.

It’s the fun part of thinking and creating new knowledge; the exciting part.  When they break you rush to put it all down on paper before you loose it and it sinks back into that subconscious.   It’s also the best way to describe that frustrating feeling when you get when you knew it was rising and then you lost it. Your idea was rising and now it has drowned back into sea and you’re at a blank.

That’s where I am right now. So come on sea of unconscious, I need you!  I’ve given you a bunch of books, authors, ideas, endorphins, and chocolate.  It’s time to let those thoughts rise.

Hmm…Maybe I’ll try standing on my head.


by jwolowic ~ April 6th, 2010
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Well it’s one form of visual anthropology.


People’s eyeballs tend to go funny when I first mention visual anthropology. Well first I have to explain that I don’t dig up dead people.  To which they usually look disappointed.  If they’re still listening after they realize I won’t make a guest appearance in the next Indiana Jones or CSI Miami I might get to explain.

But now, thanks to TEDtalks, I can explain with an awesome example.  This is classic (old school) visual anthropology. Using the visual medium to explain a society or culture; or in this case explain the social theory of how the lone nut becomes a leader.

Another form of visual anthropology is using cameras to help study  the visual aspects of culture. Lone nuts like going shirtless.

Now contemporary forms of visual anthropology expand on this visual elemets of culture theme  to include visual media itself as well as it’s affect and relationship with culture.  And because we are such a visual society, visual anthropologists are also exploring how the audio visual representations we bombard ourselves with affect our other senses. Exploring why the visual is such a power medium.

So Silvers answer to how you start a movement is old school visual anthropology that explains a social theory.  But now lets turn it into new school visual anthropology blended with a bit of anthropology of media.  How do you, reading this, interpret the visual representation of a standing man using visual anthropology in front of an audience to encourage you, (as if you are a member of that represented audience and a viewer mediated through my hypertext) to become a first follower?

Here’s Another TEDtalk sidebar:

by jwolowic ~ April 6th, 2010

The sliding glass door in my apartment is currently covered in dry erase scribbles from one of my brainstorming sessions. It’s how my neighbors know I’m starting a new paper.  Last week a friend called it my “Beautiful Mind” board. Only I have social theorists key terms instead of greek symbols and math equations.

Windows make excellent chalkboards

Windows make excellent chalkboards

And then my friend  sent me this

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As I stare at my “Beautiful Mind,” I can’t get one comment from the talk out of my head.  Critiquing the one kind of intelligence academics employ Robinson says “professors live in their heads- and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied.  They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads. It’s a way of getting their heads to meetings.”

It’s true. It’s sooooooo true.

But what about me riding my bike for 108km on Sunday to help me find my mind?

STOP! Before you just push Play

by jwolowic ~ March 30th, 2010

In anthropological classrooms, we love films.  The sights and sounds embodied in the discipline’s history jump off the screen during these visual studies of other cultures. Professors use films to help humanize the texts and engage students.  At least many professors hope they do.

Profs introduce a concept or a foreign community and push play on a VCR (yes VCR, we are talking classic anthropological film here).  On screen, a student’s first introduction to a culture comes from 30 years ago; a different era in anthropology and film. Then the film ends and the professor asks if there are any questions.  Rarely do students raise their hands.  Then we are out of class time.

They are sent home with an assignment to read their anthropological text. But how does that initial film viewing shape the students’ perceptions of the book?  It’ a question we never ask.

Nor do we engage in a discussion about the film in the same way we use class lecture time to dissect a text about the same culture.  We push play, we watch, we move on. Then we crack the spine of the book and pinpoint select sentences and critique them with students, breaking down words, and teaching student how to read a text; how to break down a text and reconstruct it through the students’ own perspectives.  We are not considered good teachers unless we discuss the details of a book, engaging students in analyzing the text.

But we are good teachers if occasionally, we just show a film. Despite the multiple essays, discoursescritiques, and solutions from visual anthropologists and media theorists, we continue to make films stand alone.

STOP!  PLEASE STOP DOING THIS!!                                          Yes, I am begging.

By just pushing play, we are in fact encouraging students to passively absorb visual media, teaching them how to be passive viewers of the media that surround them.  When most messages in society are visual, it is irresponsible teaching to leave films unexamined.  Teaching passive viewership in class leads to passive interpretation of other mainstream documentaries, leading to passive absorption of nightly expository news essays and a lazy attitude towards media in general.

We can no longer afford to screen films in any class without bringing up representation. Without discussing with students how to interpret films as representations.  We should discuss with students how the visual compares with their text.  What they get out of one medium that they miss out on with the other.

Assign the reading first, then show the film.  Cut the film short if need be! And in class, ask the students to compare their text with the film.  Ask them to apply the text to the film. Don’t be scared, they’ve grown up with media, and I suspect, have an a level of media comprehension that will surprise you. Share with them why you thought it was important to spend classtime with the VCR/DVD/streaming video.

If you don’t, as teachers, you are missing a vital opportunity to teach students not only about the topic of the film and other cultures, but how to think about, through, and with media. If we encourage them to become critical readers we should also inspire students to become critical viewers; to absorb and assess the audio visual for its information and experiential effects on the viewer.

So please, shape your pre film or post film intro/conclusion with media comprehension in mind and open your students’ eyes to what they are seeing.

Thank You- 65_RedRoses

by jwolowic ~ March 29th, 2010

I finally had the chance to watch 65_RedRoses after having heard about it over the last 6 months since it blew everyone away the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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65_RedRoses has popped up in the local Vancouver news every once in a while, providing updates about Eva, the cystic fibrosis patient that the documentary is about.

This morning,  I stumbled upon CBC’s stream of the film on The Passionate Eye.  Excited to have found the film, I also found an update that the film.   Eva ended her battle with Cystic Fibrosis just two days ago and found peace.

Knowing this, I feared it would change my interpretation of the film.  In some ways it did, for it is hard to share the joyful moments knowing the ultimate outcome and the sad moments seem to linger a little longer.  However what comes across is the friendship and intimacy the filmmakers have with Eva, her family, and her medical team.

In the first few minutes Eva opens her heart and tears build in her eyes.  At first it is somewhat jolting, but then I was reminded that all films are a record of the relationship between filmmaker and subject (sarah elder 1991) and this scene not only expresses Eva’s perspective about her situation but her trust in the filmmakers and especially her commitment to sharing her experiences with the world.

The film explores the role the internet plays in Eva’s life by creating friendship and her laptop as her constant outlet.  The open access of the filmmakers to Eva’s family and operating room is amazing and could only have been done because of the friendships built both before and during filming.  I commend the film for succeeding in what Bill Nichols names the goal of every documentary: to create a space for dialogue. In this case about life, death, transplants, illness, friendship and love.

But what I what perplexes me as a filmmaker is life after film. Here Eva’s story went on.  Her life not only shaped the film, but in turn the film shaped her life.  As her battles continued, the film brought new attention and support to her blog.

“Her blog continued her story in her own story in her own terms” the director Nimisha Mukerji told CBC radio today. I think that is an insightful summary of the difference between the film and Eva’s blog.  The film is a powerful story about Eva’s experience, but having spent the last few hours exploring Eva’s video and blog posts from the last few months, I have to say the film documents her story; the blog is Eva’s story!

It provides insights into how she saw and shared the world that may be lost in the powerful narrative of her transplant experience.

As a filmmaker, the events  after the film’s completion leave me wondering if we should ever really be done with a film we have made.  In my own work I have been told I need to create an update, that people want to know more about the youth who shared their lives on film.  For 65_RedRoses, the happy note on which the film ends is one story, Eva’s experience since then is another story.

But it also speaks to the power of mixed media.  Tonight I watched the film online, I googled and found her blog, the posts made by her family, and the CBC radio interview with the director made this morning.  All of that is Eva’s story.  The film makes Eva’s written words more powerful, and her self shot webcam video becomes the most powerful statement to the young woman’s spirit.

However the cold statement that ends the Passionate Eye screening is disturbing.  The CBC announcer reads a written statement that appears in white letters on a black screen, announcing Eva’s continuing battle.  It’s so disconnected from the story from the people and events that is both cold and harsh; destroying the love and spirit the film expressed.   In seconds destroys the collaboration between Eva, her family, friends and the filmmakers that builds the spirit and message of the film. It pains me to think that those words will soon be updated once more to coldly announce this week’s events.  It would be crushing for a film that embraces audiences with Eva’s smile to hear of her passing in that way.

And so I hope the filmmakers do add and addendum to the film. A minute or two that celebrates Eva’s life and the hopeful lens through which she celebrated the love that surrounded her, both from her friends, family and the strangers who read her blog.

Documentaries are about people who live on after we filmmakers decide we have a final cut and we should still have a responsibility to them and their family.  Especially in a film like this, where so much is wrapped up in the embodiment of the person and as the directors admit she was their number one collaborator.  It is a disservice to Eva that the last the audience expericnes  is a disconnected voice  atop a cold harsh text. I hope when it re-screens on the Passionate Eye this Friday the ending will be different.  At the very least her speech for the Totrono Chapter Cystic Fibrosis gala is a wonderful summary of Eva’s  perspective and experiences that she wanted to share .

And thank you to 65_RedRoses for sharing your story and being a beacon for how, through the internet and film, one story can touch so many.  And thank you to her family for bravely accompanying Eva on her journey and allowing the rest of us to experience her spirit in film, text, webblog, and all it’s different forms.

Reciprocative- can I call it that?

by jwolowic ~ March 27th, 2010

I am currently in the midst of my comprehensive exams.  I have to write three essays, answering three questions and arguing my point of view.  Basically creating both a review of what has been written in my field and producing new knowledge.  As PhD “students” that’s what we do!

So my first essay is a discussion of the different documentary sub genres. We’ve got observational (long slow takes), expository (think 60 minutes and/or Michael Moore), and reflexive (that is all about making a film about the medium of film). Reflexive is meant to remind us that documentaries are not truth, so get over it!. But that might be another blog entry.

Then we have interactive.  Now in the 1980’s when it was first described, the term was used to describe those films where the relationship between the filmmaker and film participant was revealed.  They would include interviews where the film participant had some level of control over the final authorship.  A fantastic example can be found in Jean Rouch’s films.

So I wrote a paper arguing my attraction to this interactive film, since it forces the audience to realize  a documentary film is a constructed argument that isn’t truth and reveals the environment through which the film is made. Most importantly, it places the representations of those on screen as a priority and gives them some level of control.  Since, a film is ultimately about them, participants should have some level of authorship over their image.

If you want a cool example of a film that blends authorship and creates and interesting narrative about a larger issue through the  creation of a a space of self discovery around a camera and the young filmmakers check out March Point.

So I wrote my paper.  Whew. Done.

Then I realized something.

The term interactive has taken on an entirely new meaning in the 25 years since it was first coined by Bill Nichols!!  Now, instead of referring to the interaction between filmmaker and participant, interactive cinema is about the audience clicking and interacting with the film in a “create your own story” kind of structure.  Think of a dvd with hidden pop ups.  You watch but you click to decide if you want to explore the info behind the scenes. It is an expansion upon the idea that a film can show multiple points of view, encouraging the audience to take an active role in the creation of meaning embbedded in the audio visual.  Now it not only refers to this encouragement but to the actual process of breaking the cinema time frame by the audience through interavitve media.

Crap!  It has a new definition. Academics hate when this happens! It means we  have to rethink what we think, because it’s already been though and reworked.

So I drowned a couple of graduate frustration over a beer or several and asked, “what to call this other process of revealing these subjectivities and perspectives in a film the audience will only watch?” Around beer two, I  realized academics also enjoy when definitions change, since it gives us a chance to create a new term!! Tenure here I come!

I’ll rename it Reciprocative.  An adverb of reciprocity, it fits nicely into the idea of anthropological films.  Especially since anthropologists LOVE the idea of reciprocity, since it is what culture is founded on.  You could say anthropology’s study of culture was founded on the idea of reciprocity! Reciprocative also implies that “give and take” between subject and filmmaker since a film can not be created without this exchange.  It also implies a sense of responsibility of one group towards the other, which I believe separates many anthropological films from mainstream exploitive documentaries.

Reciprocative is a mouthful, but academics like multiple syllables.  So I will call films,that reveal the process of filmmaking, co-authorship, and the embedded relationship between filmmaker and participant, reciprocative.

March Point is a reciprocative film.  The work evokes the meaning of the multiple perspectives;’the mutually dependent process of filmmaking, and most importantly a recognition that a responsible representation of participants is as important as a film’s overall argument.  Check it out.

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A Story in a Single Frame

by jwolowic ~ March 27th, 2010

I often can’t decide which I like better:  photography or filmmaking.  Each have strengths and weaknesses.  A film literally tells you a story through moving images, grabbing you and dragging you along through 24 frames a second.  You are brought into the audio visual world, but usually there is not time to stop as you’re swept along the reel of images.  A photograph-I mean the good ones– tell a story in a single frame.  It tells your eye how to meander over the image, contemplating the details, but it is entirely up to you to figure out what it is telling you.  You decide how long to look at it since that single frame can contain so much and yet so little information.  But the difference between a good photo and a bad one?  A good photo doesn’t just freeze a fraction of a second that occurred in front of the camera, but captures the emotions and story that exudes under the visual elements that cameras can capture.

(A photo from the 2008 Yaletown Grand Prix bike race. How was the race?)

(A photo from the 2008 Yaletown Grand Prix bike race. How was the race?)

Photojournalists don’t just have expensive cameras and equipment and years of technical experience to make their images look so cool.  They are looking to capture a story in a single frame. Tensions; emotions; the ironic; photographs create a summary of a larger story yet leave you wanting to know the details that they leave unexplained.

Here’s some of the world’s best from the New York Times.  Plus, the photos just look really cool!

New York Times Lens Blog

12 minutes or less

by jwolowic ~ March 26th, 2010

A documentary film doesn’t have to be long.  In fact I was once told, the average audience has an attention span of about 7 minutes.  A filmmaker has 7 minutes of screen time to bring viewers into their vision or audiences may start to wish the film would end. This doesn’t mean filmmakers have 7 minutes to hook their audience and an hour to explore a topic. Brilliant films don’t need that much time.  The audio/visual can be so rich and complete that the viewer is left with just as much to think about as a feature length documentary and more time to talk about the film with their friends.

Christmas With Dad, directed by Connor McCormack (who I met in Finland at the Viscult Festival of Visual Culture ) is a brilliant example of how much can be told in only a few minutes.  The Short film captures the chaos, challenges, and affection a young 23 year old step father of 5 and father of 2.  It’s McCormack first foray into documentary film and while they only shot for a couple of days he was able to create a detailed intimate portrait of a young father. YouTube Preview Image

Also check out Journeyman Pictures to watch their documentaries online and definitely check out their Journeyman Shorts channel on Youtube.

I’m currently thinking about creating experiential films that go beyond just documenting to focus on making the audience experience what the film captures.  My love of cycling and racing brought me to Standing Start.  Another short documentary piece that I love.  The film brings Odysseus into the modern world as a metaphor for a champion level athlete. Dramatic and beautiful, the film expresses the mental and physical experience  embodied in an athlete and all that is compressed into a 12 second, Olympic effort.

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