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SXSW Film + Interactive

Fri., March 16, 2012

Man vs. Algorithm: Online Video Curation Face-Off

Friday, March 9, Austin Convention Center

The title's "face-off" suggested a debate between its two co-panelists, Marc Hustvedt (of Chill/co-founder of the Streamy Awards) and Neetzan Zimmerman (of the Daily What). But the panel ran more like Q & A on how manual and automated curation solve what Hustvedt described as the "unarticulated want" of online viewers. "They know they want to be entertained," said Hustvedt, "but they don't know by what." (Cue cats!)

Hustvedt introduced the panel by outlining why we need machines' help. "Just last year, the number everyone quoted was 48 hours," he said. "Now 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute. That's 3,600 minutes of video, which if we do some rough, back-of-the-napkin math, if we say there is three minutes per video, that's 1,200 videos per minute – impossible for anyone to watch all of them." While that much video presents a daunting task to any person, computers lack human fatigue and provide ever-improving curation at an ever-lowering cost. But how? Hustvedt identified two primary ways for computers to extract the Rebecca Black "Friday" music videos from the truly pedestrian sing-alongs: content data (tags, titles, etc.) and user activity, which he categorized as either explicit (thumbs-ups, views, channel follows) or implicit (user engagement, like time on video). Point: machines.

Not to worry. Through Hustvedt and the audience's questions, Zimmerman defended human curation, identifying several ways in which computers just can't compete. Two themes ran through all his examples: comedy and creativity.

"Machines have no sense of humor," said Zimmerman. "If we figure that piece out, AI is complete and the computers have won." He offered the example of the OMG Cat, a cat with lockjaw that seems surprised. "Can a computer look at a cat – a diseased cat at that – and know this will make people laugh?" Point: humans. He further argued that online curation amounts to more than simply identifying good videos. It means facilitating the creation of new ones through remixes. "[Computers] can't predict human creativity," said Zimmerman. "My goal is to show videos, have people take that seed of an idea, and then grow it." – Ashley Moreno

Rewards! Emotions! Design With the Brain in Mind

Saturday, March 10, Austin Convention Center

This panel, like so many others presented during South by Southwest Interactive, is about maximizing. This one in particular, explained by the tag team of neuroscience researchers Carlos Velasco and Alejandro Salgado, was about maximizing the precise use of "core evolutionary emotions" that drive compelling character development and narrative in film or games.

If you're a successful storyteller or even just a longtime and considerate consumer of other people's tales, you know pretty much what works, what sort of gambits to use in hooking an audience and forcing (albeit subtly, if you do it right) appreciation for the creation. Velasco and Salgado of the company Neurosketch are all about removing that "pretty much," about using controlled scientific research to pinpoint exactly the sort of details and surroundings that are most effective on the physical brain and consequently the person. You know: You show a subject a series of film clips and track where the eyes dart and linger; you note, with functional magnetic resonance imaging technology and so on, what portions of the old gray matter get excited by which images or combinations of effects; and you follow this up with research outside the lab, making sure you have an anecdotal, crowdsourced perspective from which to further winnow out the variables. Well, except where variables themselves would impart a positive influence on the narrative/character/whatever you're using to engage the audience.

Velasco and Salgado, trading spokesman duties, using projected slides and animations and film to enhance their speech, building the talk with a few of the methods – "hedonic forecasting" – they represented, did a fine job of explicating their work and pimping its advantages. The two of them fielded frequent audience questions, gave substantial replies, and were not afraid to say, when necessary, "Well, we don't know yet, that's part of what we're looking into" instead of offering vaporous bullshit. Well done, boys.

But, still: What all this research boils down to ... what the presentation's subject and the presentation itself gave evidence to ... what all this highly scientific brain-based jiggery-pokery serves to validate is merely what one of They Might Be Giants' two Johns said more than a decade ago: "If you do interesting things, people will be interested."
Wayne Alan Brenner

Producer Sarah Green
Producer Sarah Green
Photo by Jana Birchum

Collaborations in Film: Writers & Producers

Saturday, March 10, Austin Convention Center

While any number of things can go wrong in the delicate process of steering a movie from concept to screen, one particularly important thing to get right is the chemistry between a writer and producer. The strength of this relationship, according to panelists at Saturday's discussion, can make or break a film. "When you find a producer able to allow you to let yourself into your writing," said writer/director Jeff Nichols, "you have to latch onto them." Nichols was joined onstage by two producers: Sarah Green (The Tree of Life) and Brunson Green (no relation), who produced The Help. Both got their starts in Austin, Brunson as a props intern ("mainly cleaning guns") and Sarah interning in "every department in the film studio" because, as she claimed, she wasn't good at anything – until she stumbled "by accident" into a PA gig. Sarah, who also produced Nichols' Take Shelter and forthcoming Mud, said, "You have to make sure you and the writer are making the same movie. That seems basic, but you can't imagine how often that doesn't happen." The key to successful collaboration – aside from communication – is in prioritizing relationships over other things (like, say, money). Sarah emphasized that taking a "lesser" position to work with "people you want to be involved with" is worth the sacrifice because "those relationships can carry you." Brunson pointed out that writer-producer relationships without a close creative chemistry can be tricky. He described watching writer-director Tate Taylor of The Help go through several iterations of rewrites with studio producers who unwittingly recommended fixes at one stage that merely undid fixes they'd recommended earlier. Without a cozy collaborative relationship, that process, said Nichols, can turn political. You have to decide which notes (edits) you can give in on, and use those to bargain against those that truly run counter to what your script is about. Nonetheless, he said, notes – at least "from the right people" – are essential to the creative process. So often, when filmmakers get successful, their work suffers, said Nichols, "I think it's because they're no longer getting notes." – Nora Ankrum

The Evolution of the Douchebag in Modern Cinema

Saturday, March 10, Austin Convention Center

Miles Mander, Charles Foster Kane, Carlos the Jackal, Scarlet O'Hara: The douche is louche, a staple of filmmaking and the society it mirrors. "For our purposes," explained panel moderator Robyn Sklaren, "a douchebag is a character who is unlikable, arrogant, selfish, impolite, and unapologetic about all of it." From Thomas Edison, who looted Georges Méliès and hundreds of other filmmakers in his time, to James Spader's Steff in John Hughes' Pretty in Pink, the douchebag has been an integral part cinema since the very beginning. The four assembled panelists – moderator Sklaren, "failed academic" (but proven windbag) P.E. Oppenheim, Upright Citizen Eliza Skinner, and Slate and The New York Times Magazine cultural critic Dan Kois – proved themselves not only worthy of the task of discussing and indeed disseminating douchery but also able to perform remarkable feats of verbal douchery within a mostly empty Austin Convention Center hall. Oppenheim led with a rambling but edutainment-packed history of actual late 19th century douche-related inventions, including a practical device made to keep animal husbandry in the house where it belongs. "The last 10 years have demonstrated that the upper-crust douchebag," noted Kois, "is a viable and reliable hero in cinema. For people like me, it's been a long and difficult road for advocates of douchebags in the arts." But no more. "Once upon a time, as Doctor Oppenheim pointed out," continued Kois as moderator Sklaren checked her makeup and swizzle-sticked her drink, "douchebags in cinema were viewed as villains or buffoonish sidekicks. In the early days of the cinema – 1983, 1984 – douchebags might well have been cartoons. But for us, Pretty in Pink wasn't about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who sewed a really ugly dress. It was about [James Spader's] Steff, a wealthy, popular high school senior who's struggling to keep his group of socially appropriate friends together." At this point Skinner declared herself, winningly and whiningly, chilly and promptly zoned out apropos of everything, proving once and for all time that there's nothing like a witty faux panel made up of metadouches to kill an hour waiting for James Spader's career to resuscitate. – Marc Savlov

Seth McFarlane
Seth McFarlane
Photo by John Anderson

A Conversation With Seth MacFarlane

Sunday, March 11, Vimeo Theater

Blame Janet Jackson's nipple for the poop humor missing from the second coming of television's Family Guy, show creator Seth MacFarlane says. Ever since her wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl, the FCC has cracked down. "We can't do a lot of the things we could do before," he told a packed South by Southwest panel on Sunday. "Particularly shit jokes. Somehow they translated Janet Jackson's breasts into shit."

That wasn't the case prior to the show's 2001 cancellation, MacFarlane said. The show's unlikely return to the airwaves in 2004 was all about Fox execs reacting to strong DVD sales for those early seasons. "You can write endless letters trying to bring back Party of Five, but they have to feel they'll be making some money," he said.

He brought surprise guest Mark Wahlberg to the panel as the pair tried to ramp up buzz for MacFarlane's feature-film directing debut, Ted, about a boy who wills his teddy bear to life and then must live with the bawdy creature as both age. The audience got an eight-minute sneak preview of the film, which is much in line with Family Guy's comedy stylings and is slated to hit theatres in July. MacFarlane voices the CGI stuffed bear, who sounds a whole lot like Family Guy's Peter Griffin.

Griffin's voice came from people MacFarlane encountered while studying animation at the Rhode Island School of Design. "They have one of the worst dialects on the planet," he said of Rhode Island. "What King of the Hill did for Texas I hope Family Guy does for Rhode Island."

He was 24, with a little stand-up comedy and writing for Hanna-Barbera cartoons under his belt, when MacFarlane sold Fox on Family Guy. He did many of the voices in the pilot himself to keep down expenses and now sees it as an advantage. "There's a certain freedom to writers being able to deliver their own stuff," he said, "and Family Guy is very delivery-based."

MacFarlane has also turned his attention to reviving the past. In 2011, he released an album of classic songs using Frank Sinatra's 1950s microphone from Capitol Records. He's an executive producer for Fox's revival of Carl Sagan's science series Cosmos. And he's at work on reviving The Flintstones franchise for Fox. "I want to stay true visually to what the show was," he said. "There's not much of it that needs to be changed. They invented the animation method we all still use." – Joe O'Connell

Matt Boch
Matt Boch
Photo by Jana Birchum

Unpacking the Myth of the Intuitive

Sunday, March 11, Palmer Events Center

Matt Boch was a one-man myth-buster as he dug a grave for the overused and often misused term "intuitive." The man's résumé includes work on some of video gaming's most vexing interface hurdles as the project director at Harmonix and most recently as the designer for that studio's newest franchise, Dance Central. The rules of Dance Central are natural enough: Mimic the dance moves on the screen and the Xbox's motion sensor will score your accuracy. No instruction manual needed, right? But how do you choose the song? How does one scroll through and select from a list using only body language and gestures? The reviews of Dance Central almost universally praised the game's design.

Boch isn't comfortable with his work being called intuitive aside from the fact that many people misinterpret the concept altogether, à la "Once you get a feel for the controls, they are very intuitive." More than that, the idea that an interface is intuitive means that it is familiar and immediately understandable. What Boch created is different (and better), which can be seen as the opposite of intuitive.

Boch then debunked the idea that the iPhone was familiar and intuitive right out of the box, crediting its superlative marketing more than any mind-reading design. The simplicity of the iPhone's ads – 84 and counting – are striking, but what was clear after Boch pointed it out was that the spots were instruction manuals. The ads could be written for children: "This is an iPhone. This is how you open the App Store. This is how you check email." The campaign gave people the skills to interact with a new product before they even had one in hand. Once they did, they were amazed at how intuitive the controls were when in actuality they had been shown the way over and over again on TV.
James Renovitch

Conference Quick Cuts
Photo by John Anderson

Marvel: House of Ideas

Sunday, March 11, Palmer Events Center

The heaving floor of the ScreenBurn Arcade may not have seemed ideal for a major product rollout, but Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso may have made the right choice: You know that you're with hardcore comic fans when they yell out that their favorite characters are the Sentry and Squirrel Girl, not Captain America or Thor. Sunday's big announcement from the house of ideas was a new deal with Aurasma, the same smartphone app that has been bringing the Chronicle's South by Southwest covers to animated life. The bonus content will start appearing in this summer's Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, and the Aurasma developers got to show off what the software can do. A poster of Iron Man launched a video of Tony Stark's high-tech alter ego; a page of art was stripped down through the color layers, down to the inks; and the cover of the first AvX issue activated a full flash trailer for the series. Alonso explained, "This is our way to build out DVD and Blu-ray extras into comics." Aurasma is just one part of the Marvel revolution, where it starts deliberately designing comics for tablets instead of print. Yet Marvel Digital Media Senior Vice President/General Manager Peter Phillips argued that this is not a case of Marvel falling prey to the "shiny penny syndrome." The firm already has a proven track record with digital subscriptions with and starting in June, all its top-selling comics will come with a free download code. As for Aurasma, Marvel looked at other interactive technology, including QR codes, "but we want something that actually enhances the experience of reading a comic," said Phillips. But isn't this just free content? "If this comic line sells the way that we hope it will, and augmented reality will be a big part of that, then it's going to pay for itself." – Richard Whittaker

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