After years of unpaid experiments, the FCC officially opened up the airwaves to commercial television broadcasting on July 1, 1941. NBC’s experimental W2XBS in New York City received the first commercial license becoming WNBT. That very same day, at 2:30PM just before a broadcast of a Brooklyn Dodgers – Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, NBC aired the very first television commercial in the world.
WNBT aired TV’s first commercial at 2:30PM; i was simply a picture test pattern that had been redesigned into a working clock, ticking off the seconds in front of the TV camera. The sponsor’s name, Bulova, appeared on the clock, which ticked for a full minute at 2:30 and later again that night. Bulova paid four dollars for the afternoon spot and eight dollars for the evening, and afterwards they signed up for thirteen weeks of similar commercials. (page 37)
Okay so a bunch of sites saw a YouTube video claiming to be the first TV ad ever produced and bought it? So what? People make mistakes. I certainly have.
But this mistake sheds light on a common cultural problem – our technological complacency. We live in a world of streaming media and camera phones in every pocket. Recording anything today is trivial.
But that wasn’t the case in 1941. Sure we have lots of films that look great from that era – recording an image onto celluloid film was well established. Recording an electronic television signal however… that was not quite there. The first solution was called Kinescope – and guess what it used? Film.
That’s a film camera taking a picture of a TV screen – yeah… the same way kids today record shows off the TV by pointing their phone at the screen. Video Tape as we know it didn’t come about until the early-mid 50s.
So the only way to watch television in 1941 when this first broadcast was made was to watch it live. No record of these early television days exist, at least not the video portion (they did record the audio). Certainly no YouTube video of the first ad exists.
But we’re so ready to believe because these miracles are so common place today that we expect them to have existed forever. There are so many ways technology makes and shapes our lives that we lose sight of where we are in history.
I start this article with a conviction to rail against the arrogance on display from Sticklers for Terminology. But as I work through the case in my head, I find that the truth with this topic, as with all topics, lies in the delicate balance between two extremes.
Let’s back up… Film like all technical mediums has a very rich lexicon of terms – it is important that you as a filmmaker are familiar and understand these terms and the concepts behind them.
However we should not put all our faith in what sometimes can be arbitrary language differences. Furthermore we have to be careful about rushing to judgement on people for their use (or perceived improper use) of terminology. What results from this is verbal tribalism: “You’re not a filmmaker if you don’t call XYZ what I call it.”
As someone who produces film educational materials, I know this quagmire all too well. In a quick video I did a long time ago, I mistakenly said the phrase “pan down”. Panning describes the rotational movement of the camera from side to side – “Tilt Down” would have been the correct term. In the heat of the moment, I let the wrong term slip.
But would you argue with a superior on a set if he/she told you to “pan down”? I once worked for a filmmaker from Iran, he was well spoken in English for someone whose native tongue is Farsi – but when he called directions during a live multi-cam shoot, he always had a hard time explaining the what he wanted. On numerous occasions the instruction would simply be to move the camera so I would “get the guy”.
Which guy? ”
The guy, THE GUY!”
If he ever told to “pan down a little” I would not start in with a terminology debate… I would just tilt the camera down a bit and never think of it again. So in the case of “pan down” – I was clearly in the wrong – But there have been several cases where I have been called wrong on much more arbitrary uses of the language.
One such example came from a channel that used a puppet to explain filmmaking – they insisted that the term for the line from the 180 degree rule was the “stage line” and I was wrong to use the term “action line”. Now my “action line” may be a bastardization of the term “line of action” and may confuse Google with the “action line” used in drawing - but I think it’s perfectly apt description of the concept – and actually far better than “stage line” because “stage line” conveys a grounding in the physical set when in fact the line of action can be mobile and fluid depending on the camera movement with no regards to the actual stage. Either way, the concept is easily conveyed. But in his “25 years of Hollywood Experience” he has never heard of “action line” so therefor everything I had to say on the subject was invalidated… oh well.
But the one big terminology debate I think will never leave me is the discussion I had about 3 years ago when I first released our video: “Hollywood’s History of Faking It: the Evolution of Greenscreen Compositing“. I received a message from someone that I had respected (but never met) telling me he thought it was a good video but I made a mistake by saying the term “keying” was now a blanket statement pretty much applied to all greenscreen composition. He added that he couldn’t share the video because he’d be laughed out of the industry by his friends who were real “legitimate” film special effects artists.
Okay, here’s some of the background on this subject: the technical name for greenscreen (or bluescreen) is “Traveling Matte” – but the problem is no one who would benefit from this video would know what a Traveling Matte is – which is why it doesn’t appear in the title.
This is a Traveling Matt
The term “chromakey” originally came from analog video switchers and they were pretty horrendous. So my friend is correct… up to a certain point in history.
After finding himself out of work when the studio he was at downsized, Petro Vlahos, the man who perfected blue screen Travelling Matte – turned his attention to video – eventually changing the television world with what would be called the Ultimatte. Notice how Vlahos stayed away from the word “Keyer” because of it’s implication with that crappy old technology… but that didn’t stop the rest of the industry. Ultimatte did what a Keyer does but better – so eventually the process of getting rid of a greenscreen and replacing it with something else took on the word “Chromakey” EVEN though originally it was ONLY applied to a blunt tool on an analog switcher.
One of dozens of modern products labeled as “Keyers”
I tried to argue with industry examples like the plugins “Keylight” that come bundled with After Effects, “Ultra Key” – the loads of industry material that utilize the term “chromakeying” as part of the modern lexicon of filmmaking… but my friend was sure I was making a fatal career mistake by saying the term “chromakey” had blossomed to mean more than it originally did.
Well now the video has been seen 2.2 million times with over 1,000 comments and I have yet had ANYONE take issue with that terminology (although that might change if some people read this article and decide to mess up my record).
So those a few examples of I’ve been slapped around for using the wrong terminology – seems pedantic looking back at it, but people still want to put the armor on and go to battle. That’s the one extreme I wanted to talk about… But if we have vastly different definitions on basic terms, then we have a problem.
For some reason, talking lenses always brings up experts in the field that don’t have a clue. I had one guy who needed to correct me by saying that Field of View is not the viewing angle but the area covered with the lens when focused at it’s nearest focusable point. This value was always listed on Zeiss’s website. Okay… a quick look at Zeiss’s page and I did find “coverage at close range” but that is not field of view.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, terminology is important. We need a common set of words to express what we want to do. But on flip side, let’s recognize the fluidity of language and not use words as dividers to separate artist from artist. Instead, let’s use terms to educate and share our filmmaking culture, knowledge and history.
And forgive me if I should ever tell you to “pan down”
10 days all-expenses paid professional mentorship with filmmaker and director Brian Rapsey in Vietnam
A 3-day post production workshop
Video Mic Pro with XLR Adapter, Smart Lav, Lavalier Mic and accessories from RØDE Microphones
A state-of-the-art travel camera bag from Crumpler
A copy of Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Video Tips.
And, of course, Travel Insurance from World Nomads for the duration of the trip!
So what do you have to get this awesome opportunity?
Head over to the World Nomads Site and apply. You’ll need to make a 3-minute film about an inspirational travel story – try going out there and interviewing an adventurer and bring their compelling travel story to life. This could be anything from a story of immigration to a close wildlife encounter to a triumph of summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Upload that video and YouTube or Vimeo and complete your application form by writing about what winning the scholarship would mean to you and why you should be selected.
But you better hurry because the application deadline is September 28, 2016. Winners will be announced October 14th and the adventure starts on February 27, 2017.
Think you have what it takes to be a winner? Check out last year’s shortlisted travel films here and watch winner Coleman Lowndes film here:
A rich but racist man is dying and hatches an elaborate scheme for transplanting his head onto another man’s body. His health deteriorates rapidly, and doctors are forced to transplant his head onto the only available candidate: a black man from death row.
Now that’s certainly not an exhaustive list but I’m exhausted already going through it. The hair styles might be different, the budgets might be smaller, but there’s a whole lot of crap up there. The point is, every year there’s going to be a ton of shitty films. Every generation will remember the best and toss out the garbage in the dust bin of history.
Chill out – watch the films you want to watch, don’t watch the films you don’t want to watch. Film will always be film – an evolving human institution of both high and low brow. Things change, but they always stay the same, just enjoy the ride.
Designed, directed, and produced by Kurt Rauffer
Instructor: Daniel Oeffinger
Music: Spectre by Radiohead
Star Wars is one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises to date, containing one of the most unique universes in sci-fi fiction. Not only is the universe incredibly iconic, so is it’s title sequence (the famous title crawl). Designed by Dan Perri, the title sequence is one of the most recognizable introductions in the history of film.
Growing up in the 90s where Star Wars was released on VHS, the franchise really sparked my imagination as a child. It not only let me exercise my imagination but also supplied me with some of the happiest memories as I watched it with my family. After re-watching “The Empire Strikes Back,” I decided to use this as a chance to create a homage in the form of a title sequence. This would also serve as my senior “thesis” at SVA and took me the whole semester to complete.
The style and tone of the animation was inspired by the James Bond title sequences. The music was a rejected song from the newest Bond film, Spectre, sung by Radiohead. I really wanted to play on the concept of Luke trying to find himself and true purpose, so the music and inspiration felt fitting.
Oscar Dominguez and the lighting team for “The Voice” have won two Emmys. Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister went backstage before a live show to visit Oscar and find out how “The Voice” gets its trademark sizzle.
What Makes a Hero? Today Kyle is asking what makes cinematic heroes – at least American cinematic heroes. And to answer that he’s digging into some classics such as Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. But what about Captain America? Does Cap fit the bill of what an American Hero should be? Don’t worry he dives into that as well, to find out if we should be rooting for Captain American in Civil War, or if we’re on the wrong side of the conflict.
We are obviously living in a technological super age when it comes to effects. Go to YouTube and type in “VFX breakdown” and you’ll see the latest and greatest Hollywood has to offer. But many still deride Visual Effects – saying they can always spot CGI and that it’s ruining film today as we know it.
But then there lies sort of the odd conundrum of 1940′s The Thief of Bagdad.
It remains one of the greatest of fantasy films, on a level with “The Wizard of Oz.” To see either film is to see the cinema incorporating every technical art learned in the 1930s and employing them to create enchanting visions. Today, when dizzying CGI effects, the Queasy-Cam and a frantic editing pace seem to move films closer to video games, witness the beauty of “Thief of Bagdad” and mourn.
If we were to be completely honest the special effects of The Thief of Bagdad simply don’t hold up well today – many of these techniques are about the same quality as the output from a first year high school video class:
Are we really suppose to mourn a film which features a blue screen job like that? Even the use of practicals in the shot on the right is obviously a paper mache form on a machine. It moves with the linearity of a Murphy bed being lowered from the wall and twice as slow.
And yet, this film makes Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” list. To be fair, The Thief of Bagdad showcased groundbreaking special effects for it’s time but now, taken out of context and compared to modern techniques, they’re laughably incompetent. How does a film that trades so heavily on special effects survive to be considered a classic?
The answer is simple – we want to believe.
Belief is our only mechanism for understanding the world. The universe is nothing more that a swirling soup of energy – vibrations of energy make up matter and electromagnetic forces give us the illusion of solidness – of touch. Our eyes respond to a narrow band of these vibrations – a small section we call visible light that stimulates cells to send electrical impulses to our brains. Sound is the beating of air molecules against a drum in our ear canals. From the constant feedback we get from our senses we try to gather information about the world around us and that begins with a belief that our senses represent reality.
But our senses are easily fooled – not just by trickery but by everyday interactions. We look in a mirror but we do not believe there is an identical person standing on the other side of the glass. When it’s foggy outside, we don’t assume that the world has been erased and turned gray – instead we believe that there is a low hanging mist that obstructs our view. We don’t need to test it every time, we just believe even though our senses may tell us otherwise.
In the case of the physical world, science has done a pretty outstanding job reaching beyond our biological capabilities in order to explain to universe. But even science itself is a belief - more accurately a philosophy (hence the Ph. in Ph.D). Things get even more muddied when we step into history, politics, morality, ethics and of course film criticism.
A friend on Facebook once worried about the future of information now that face swapping technology can make people say anything - people will be easily fooled into believing anything. I had to remind him that we don’t have the technology yet but there’s already plenty of people on Facebook that will believe anything (like ahem.. chemtrails). The bar to fooling people is already incredibly low, you don’t need high tech to get people to buy on some phoney baloney crap (like… chemtrails).
That’s because it doesn’t matter what the reality is – we as human beings want to believe. We want the narrative we hold true to be true. And that means seeking confirmation and vilifying opposition. Even the pursuit of “reality” is flawed in that it believes “reality” to be something that is knowable or measureable. The trouble with this understanding of the world is… you guessed it… it itself is a belief.
This is not a pipe
So what the hell does this have to do with filmmaking?
How we approach film and talk about film and make film is based on our own internal narrative – what do we believe and want to be true. In the passage above, Roger Ebert has already created the narrative in his review – his narrative shapes how we perceive – predisposing us to liking the film as superior to modern creations because we all admire and like the late Roger Ebert. We can tolerate the special effects because we have the narrative that it was groundbreaking for it’s day whereas a modern CGI cash grab has no excuse (the fact that Thief of Bagdad is just charming helps too).
But many more negative judgemental themes float about in film discussion circles today – themes like “the Golden Age of Hollywood” or “CGI is crap” or “Movies from the 70s are way better than today”. These are are prevalent in the zeitgeist but easily dismissed with evidence (75% of the films made in the Golden era were B movies, Plenty of beautiful CGI out there, and the 70s had their fair share of crap). The danger in these critical themes is they predispose us from enjoying contemporary culture in exchange for a fleeting sense of superiority.
In terms of filmmaking, an internal narrative can blind us to possibilities of our medium. There is a myth about Alfred Hitchcock that he storyboarded every shot so that when it came time to shoot the film, it was just a clinical matter of following the storyboards. This narrative makes for great legend building, but is far from the truth and even completely undesirable in live action – you don’t just draw a shot and it magically comes to being. But the narrative persists and it colors young filmmakers minds thinking everything needs a storyboard instead of letting a scene grow organically.
Narratives are powerful things. Narrative makes film work. We know the CGI dragon isn’t real in the same light that we know The Prince of Bagdad doesn’t have a humongous genie. But it doesn’t matter (or it shouldn’t) because ultimately we want to believe. We buy in because a good film asks us to.
The magic of the human experience and the magic of the narrative meet at the crossroads called cinema. It is our most powerful tool and yet it can be our most limiting. Being prepared to change that belief, to weigh and accept new and different modes of thinking will lead to better filmmaking and better film viewing experience. But in the end, perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.
Patrik Forsberg of Stiller Studios offers insights on how they are slamming the boundaries between live action and game engine technology using motion control, real-time VR, and Adobe Creative Cloud software like Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Photoshop.