Reviews, Views and Adventures in Content Creation

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Honesty On Film - Ridley and Tony Scott's "Boy and Bicycle"

After the recent death of motion picture and television director Tony Scott (Top Gun), I became aware of "Boy and Bicycle," a 27 minute short film his older brother Ridley Scott (Bladerunner, Black Hawk Down)had created as a film student in 1965.  It featured Tony as a teen skipping school and riding his bike around his English coastal town.  We hear his interior dialogue as Tony's mind wanders from random thoughts on his home life, his school life and his immediate surroundings.  

This fictional film honestly captures the mood, sarcasm, frustration and curiosity of a sixteen year-old boy.  The deceptively simple plot line shows off the talents of both Scott brothers, who would go on to develop substantial careers in mainstream motion pictures and television.

"Boy and Bicycle" reminded me an experience I had some years ago when I brought a half dozen teens from a filmmaking workshop I was teaching to a film festival in Los Angeles. We attended a screening featuring a collection of short films created by high school students across the city.  The films ranged from comedy to drama to animation and documentary, all a few minutes or less in length.

After the screening, I asked the boys which films had the greatest impact.  They weren't interested in the action films, or films on current issues impacting teens, or anything that reflected the high production value that some teen videos can have in a company town like L.A.  Instead, they were in awe of a series of documentary-style films that, like the fictional "Boy and Bicycle," featured the introspective voice-over thoughts of individual subject/filmmakers about their lives, set to video featuring moments in their lives, often seeming to wander aimlessly, as the Boy in Ridley Scott's film.  

The boys, who were residents at a facility for those recently released from juvenile hall, especially valued the simple, honest nature of these short autobiographical films.  To them, at that time in their lives, honesty was rare and unusual.

Honesty, after all, is at the core of all great and effective art - whether a painting, music, motion pictures - or even a vlog on YouTube.  Learning to create can be a challenge - but the struggle to create truthfully can last a lifetime. 

Though it's a forty-seven year old black and white short film, I recommend catching up with "Boy and Bicycle" - hyper-personal and directly engaging, you may discover that it speaks directly to the age of YouTube.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thoughts on "Ethel" - A Documentary About the Life of Ethel Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy was slain in 1968, five years after his brother John, leaving a widow and eleven children, one of which was born six months after he died.   That last child, Rory Kennedy, grew up to be a documentary filmmaker.  For the first time, she turns her attention to her own mother in "Ethel," an HBO presentation premiering on the channel on October 18th.

"Ethel" is an emotional, moving, and at times even intense experience, incorporating a wealth of previously unseen photographs and home movies of this iconic American family.  This program, however, shouldn’t  be considered a historical documentary.    This is, first and foremost,  a family’s self-portrait, featuring Ethel Kennedy's unique perspective on the highs and lows of her eventful life.

Rory narrates the film, and warns us early on that her mother isn't generally a reflective or introspective person.   Ethel doesn't dwell on tragedies, explaining that "nobody gets a free ride" in life.  

Though the film is called "Ethel," this is really about Ethel's enduring relationship with Robert Kennedy.   Forty-five years after his death, she considers everything she's done since, including raising her eleven children, as simply carrying on her husband's legacy.  She dismisses Rory's suggestion that she's done anything extraordinary in raising her children, explaining that the values and ideals with which they were raised were Robert Kennedy's alone.

Of course, the truth in any iconic relationship is much more complicated.  Many of Rory's siblings took part in the documentary, sharing their memories and perspective on the nature of their parent's relationship, and their belief that they were who they became because of each other.  Ethel, too, was raised in a large, spirited Irish Catholic family - though her father was a self-made man (and a staunch Republican).  She was fiercely supportive of her husband, and remains active in the causes he supported.

At the Los Angeles premiere of "Ethel," held at North Hollywood Laemmle Noho 7 as part of the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks program, Rory explained that she carefully considered her family's  feelings as she produced and edited the documentary.  In a particularly telling moment in the film, Rory brings up the evening of Robert Kennedy's assassination with her mother.   Ethel at first remains silent and distant, then curtly suggests that they talk about something else.  There's little footage from either November 22, 1963, when John Kennedy was killed, or June 5, 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated - a conscious decision, Rory explained, to spare her older siblings from reliving the still traumatic events.

This isn't a film about scandals, indiscretions, or political posturing (though Ethel shares a truth that must have been borderline scandalous in her family: her parents were staunchly conservative Republicans).  The film touches on the struggles they've faced - Robert Kennedy after the assassination of his brother, and the family after his own assassination - but this isn't a film about struggle.

This documentary may not be an exhaustive portrait of Ethel Kennedy or her family, but it does reveal a rare perspective:  Behind the iconic/legendary status of the Kennedy name, this is just a family - and like most families that survive the test of time, they choose to remember the good times.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Teens Achieving Dreams in a World Without Gatekeepers

(From L-R) Harrison Houde, Andrew Brackin, Cassius Morris

Traditional media is largely governed by "gatekeepers," those people and institutions that determine the fate of countless creative individuals that attempt to "break in" to the media industry.  From casting directors and script readers to studio chiefs, the obstacles to success are great, and few break through to the "big time."  The gatekeepers may be experienced industry veterans with an eye for quality and talent - or, they might be largely governed by more arbitrary criteria ranging from pure instinct to  pure prejudice.

Alongside traditional media, however, there's now another world - without gatekeepers.  In just the last few years, the "democratization" of media has made it possible for anyone with a few simple tools and access to the internet to create, distribute or simply access a wide audience.

Musicians, artists, filmmakers, writers, commentators - or, really, anyone who needs to establish a base of like-minded comrades - can do it.  If  they can create with quality and consistency - and navigate social media to promote their work, they can achieve their personal and/or artistic goals. 

Through my Vlogger Interview web series, I've had the opportunity to speak with three teens who may not think of themselves as pioneers, but offer, I believe, a hint of what's to come:

Harrison Houde, sixteen, is a professional actor with several television and motion picture credits (including a small but hilarious role in the first "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movie).  He's been able to pursue his personal filmmaking interests through his YouTube channel, xTurnipTimex, and recently used IndieGoGo, the crowdfunding site, to finance a short film.  He's built his channel through hard work and interaction with the YouTube community.  He creates quality content, responds to his audience - and has built a following that isn't about exploiting his professional work as an actor, but earning his success as  young content creator on YouTube.  [See my Interview here]

Andrew Brackin, eighteen, discovered the world of entrepreneurship as a young YouTuber.  That initial social network of friends and associates made it possible for him to actively move ahead on his dreams while still a young teen.  He created an internet radio station, licensing music at fourteen years old.  He later co-founded, a daily deal type site aimed at the tech community.  Today, he's working with like-minded entrepreneurs in the US and UK to move even further ahead, even as he shares his insight with aspiring young entrepreneurs.  [See my Interview here]

Most recently, I spoke with thirteen year old Cassius Morris.  Cassius discovered the world of podcasting several years ago.   He's co-hosted a podcast on his favorite band, KISS, and more recently has been building a following as the sole host of "That Reporter Kid Speaks."  He's approaching thirty episodes of the program, which features Cassius interviewing comedians in the US and Canada (Cassius lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia).  He's learning from his experience, from others, and from direct audience feedback. 

Cassius' initial success (he has 4,600 Twitter followers) is also notable for another important reason.  He freely shares having been diagnosed as being both bi-polar and ADHD (Attentional Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder).    At thirteen, with a growing audience, he also can serve as a source of hope and inspiration for the hundreds of thousands of kids his age that struggle with the same challenges.

In a sense, what Cassius, Andrew and Harrison are doing isn't new - hard work and dedication go hand-in-hand with achievement.   Unlike previous generations, however, they've grown up with unique access to the world at large.  It's intriguing to consider what these three creative individuals - and thousands like them - will do with that access - and what they might achieve in the future. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Dawn of the YouTube Family

In the eight years since it's inception, YouTube has become many things to many people. For some, it's a social network, for others it's a replacement for television.  It's a tool for social change, and a wide-open forum for self expression.  It's a repository of all kinds of talent, and a source of pop culture thats so prevalent that it's hard to remember a time when such a platform didn't exist.

As YouTube continues to evolve it's place in contemporary culture, it's also becoming a source of family bonding.  Recently, as part of my "Vlogger Interview" web series, I've interviewed two families  that are living what might be called a YouTube lifestyle.

The Flores Family, of Ontario, Canada, consists of single mom Tammy Flores and her sons, Craig and Calvin.  All three maintain YouTube channels.  Mom vlogs about her family's daily lives, travels and adventures, while the boys thirteen and fifteen years old, simply create for the sake of creating.  Craig, the thirteen year-old, is often asked by his friends when his next video will be posted, though they're really, in his words, "randomness."  The boys aren't creating for subscribers (at least not yet), but for themselves.  For the Flores family, creating on YouTube also comes with an added benefit - it's provided a gateway into and connection with the YouTube community.  Through YouTube, Craig and Calvin enjoy friends and mentors across Canada and the United States.  It's something the boys appreciate, and Tammy recognizes as something that helps and enriches their lives, even as they offer videos to enrich others.

My discussion with the Flores family came just weeks after a discussion with another YouTube-centric family.  While dad and their daughter don't have their own channels, mom and her three sons are actively involved on YouTube.  "Fur" is even a YouTube partner, creating collaborative videos not only with his family, but with many other members of the Florida YouTube community  (Check out their interview here).

The wider and growing familiarity with YouTube and what it offers is beginning to encourage parents not only to allow their kids to create online, but to jump in themselves and become part of the YouTube experience.

What will it mean in the long term?  "The Family YouTube" is still a new phenomena, with very few engaged to the extent of these two families.

The opportunity to create together can be powerful, but might prove challenging as well.  Creative expression and egocentric behavior sometimes go hand-in-hand, and not every family may be equipped to juggle those traits fairly.  Still, as parents become more aware and sometimes involved with YouTube, there's likely to be a wider acceptance of the potential benefits.

The chance for kids to grow up with enhanced verbal and media skills in an increasingly media-centric world might offer a strong competitive edge.  YouTube also offers the creative boy or girl a chance to find other similar creative minds world-wide.  Millions of young content creators have already discovered this; future generations may not have to work as hard to prove it to their parents.

On the other hand, will some families become overly sensitive to reflecting and catering to pop culture trends?  Will entire families, like some individual YouTubers, lose sight of the creative and social benefits and become obsessed with monetizing their content?  Will micro-celebrity culture distort the family structure?

Finally, what will it mean to "Grow Up YouTube?"  What's your view of the world, if you've always been shared - and eventually shared yourself?  Do you live only to please your lifelong subscribers? Do you compromise part of your identity to serve your followers and subscribers?  There have been movies that touch on this theme (The Truman Show) - but soon we'll be experiencing the reality.

For now, one thing seems certain after chatting with these two families:  Creating online content together may not be for everyone, but for a family with creative and artistic talents, it may prove to be a real gift.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Vlogger Interviews: TryThis0001 [Jason]

About this Interview:

Jason is a veteran of the United States Army.  He retired several years ago after eleven years, and was searching for a hobby.  He played the massive multiplayer game Worlds of Warcraft for a while, but wasn't finding exactly what he wanted.  Google Hangouts introduced him to the YouTube community, but at first the idea of actually putting himself on YouTube seemed unlikely, at best.  In this interview, we learn how that changed.

Today, Jason not only has his own channel Trythis0001, but makes a substantial contribution to the YouTube community as a member of TheQuadSpot, the YouTube chat show, and his developing several collaborative projects as well.  We discuss how he changed his mind, where he thinks YouTube is going, and what he has in mind for his own YouTube future.