Saturday, May 19, 2012

Film Industry, Digitalization and Creative Empowerment: "Side by Side"

Executive Summary: In the context of the excellent documentary, "Side By Side", here is a quick snapshot of digitalization's impact on the film industry along the dimensions of film making process, creativity, innovation, innovation collaboration, end product quality-trade offs between digital and film, the human factor, and history and trends. Is it digital vs. film, or digital and film? Or is this debate a distraction? From the desk of No-Industry-Is-An-Island-Unto-Itself.


Digitalization has impacted our lives in many ways, specifically, how we-
- Connect with people,
- Search for, find, and utilize information and entertainment, and,
- Get things done.

Over the years, there has been quite a bit of news about digitalization's impact on the publishing industry (you could blame the NYT's media desk for a lot of it). I have talked about a "fly on the wall" documentary, "Page One: Inside The New York Times", which describes the impact, here.

On the other hand, there has been relatively less news about digitalization's impact on the film industry beyond the usual reviews about special effects laden movies.

How has the film industry been dealing with the digitalization of the world around them?

Some Initial Questions

Waiting in a standby line for the sold out film, "Side by Side", at the Tribeca Film Festival, I roped in fellow film enthusiasts, waiting in line, into an interesting discussion about digital technology's impact on the film industry. Some of the questions raised were:
- Do you lose out on quality (cinematic experience) with digital films?
- Is 3D really better?
- Would actors be replaced by machines?
- Digitalization impacts jobs and people's lives- is it really a good idea if it does that?
- Wouldn't human experience be lesser in movies driven by machines?

Thoughts Before the Screening- Baseline Ideas

My initial reaction to a lot of these challenges was:
- Human beings have been telling stories for ages- this is just another tool to help us tell stories.
- Any narration would always have to rely on creativity in the story, and on how well the story is told.
- Film was a technological advancement in telling stories. Digitalization is just another step in this story telling evolution.
- Human beings would always want "real world" contact with another person (there are anecdotes about conversational skills of teenagers that seem to prove otherwise).

I am of the view that this digital vs. film debate is a distraction. The conversation should be able the story *you* want to tell, and the story *you* want to hear.

"Side by Side"

The documentary, "Side by Side", premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, provides a bird's eye view of how digitalization has affected the film industry. It was surprisingly well equipped to handle a lot of the questions raised.

Here are a few of the areas it covered:

Film-making Process and Creative Empowerment:

An anecdote by a woman filmmaker summed up the empowering outcome of digitalization. A woman filmmaker (an actor on Girls, on HBO) admits that she would not have been able to make a movie if it were not for digital technology. She was daunted by movie making process as a complex film "undertaking".

As the documentary slices through the various facets of film making you can see this creative empowerment theme through the various film making steps below:
1. Movie development and production:
- shooting and production
- acting and actors
- film direction,
- cinematography and camerwork,
- film editing, and,
- post production
2. Film planning and budgeting decision making
3. Film distribution,
4. Film screening, and finally,
5. Film archiving.

Digitalization has forced changes in the degree of creative control and influence asserted by each step of the creative process. While independent movies had embraced digital technology early on, fully aware of the detrimental impact on cinematic quality at that time, big budget movies appear to have  begun to embrace digital technology as a tool for budget control.

Movie making creativity:

The documentary covers while getting industry greats and pioneers, from George Lucas to Scorsese, to spill their guts about the creative impact of their choice between using film and digital media for their film releases.

While some directors have relished
- the flexibility and freedom of instant feedback,
- the removal of the 10 minute shot, and,
- the cost constraints of using expensive film for footage,
some others have decried the loss of cinematic experience in moving to digital.

One filmmaker was concerned that the quality of films has dropped drastically since anyone can now make a movie thanks to digital technology. Quote: "there is no taste maker". Christopher Nolan believes (and correctly so, for now) that digital does not match film in quality.

Scorsese points out that for effective storytelling, you must return to the wells of human creativity. David Lynch summed the pro digitalization view on storytelling and cinematic experience aptly, by drawing a parallel with the publishing industry, through the analogy that "everybody and his brother has paper and a pen..."

Innovation, and  Innovation collaboration:

A striking example of innovation was the team behind RED cameras talking about how they rigged a camera mechanism overnight to enable the rowing sequence for "The Social Network" to be shot. While George Lucas had collaborated with Sony on "Star Wars: Episode 2" to move digital camera technology along, this is a different order of innovation collaboration.

As with changes in creative control and influence exerted by each step of film making, the potential for innovation is leading to a need for greater collaboration and participation across each area associated with movie making.

End Product Quality- Trade offs between digital and film:

The documentary pulls no punches on the technical details of how film captures images and how digital technology has advanced over the years. Digital technology, in many ways, is still short of the cinematic experience that film can provide.

While digital technology is catching up, it has a lead in:
1. Night sequences of the type shot in the movie "Collateral",
2. Movies of the type "Star Wars",
3. The active sequences of the type shot at the beginning of Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire", and,
4. The rowing sequences in the movie "The Social Network".

The Human Factor:

The movie making team is changing on the dimensions skills, creativity expectations, collaboration, creative control and turnaround time.

"Side by Side" clearly lays out the human impact of this massive change. George Lucas had to call a summit at his home to deal with the backlash from his decision to shoot Star Wars: Episode 2. Some members of the industry accused him of shooting on film and claiming he was shooting in digital, because "digital could never be that good".

It has been a tumultuous period for the film industry, with old skills being replaced by new, especially in functions like editing, and post production.

History and Trends:

The film covers the gamut of the movie making ecosystem, from George Lucas' and James Cameron's big budget movie technology toys to a student at NYU's film school, shooting a film on a Canon 7D. Her take was that while the Canon 7D is not a movie camera, it allows her to focus on the story and turn in her project within the time and budget constraints.


The film industry has had its fair share of upheavals, like the publishing industry.
It will continue to embrace the advantages of digital technology.
Story telling skills will always be in demand.

Finally, this all hinges on the movie goer enjoying the experience. That has been a different story altogether, as you can see in this article here:

My view? This documentary put me firmly on the side of the view that this debate is a distraction. It should be able the story you want to tell, and the the story you want to watch. Use the tools you believe will help you deliver and enjoy the experience your way.

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Creativity, Market Domination and Innovation

Executive Summary: Filter thoughts on creativity, competition, and market domination, through the lens of experience and business history. Play devil's advocate to the obvious- Is all creativity about finding monopolistic market positions? How about sustaining advantages through competition? From the desk of Silver-Bullets-Are-Often-Traps.

David Brooks wrote an interesting article on creativity, and the importance of creative minds seeking monopoly like market domination, for society:

The article has some great lines, like "we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable." I also found this article to be a good springboard to sift through some common thoughts and touchstones about creativity, competition, monopoly, and market domination.

An example from the non profit world,, and its founder, Sara Ziff, may well be textbook cases for David Brooks' article. To get us started, let's break the article down into two contexts: Creativity in Industry and Business, and Individual Creativity.

A. Creativity in Industry and Business:
Let's pick key thoughts in the article around this context and find supporting cases for them.

Quote 1: "We often shouldn’t seek to be really good competitors. We should seek to be really good monopolists."
If you are familiar with the different flavors of innovation, David Brooks appears to be saying that breakthrough, disruptive innovation trumps incremental innovation.
Let's take Pharma industry as an example- the policy support for orphan drugs dovetails with this view.
In the technology industry, Facebook could be touted as an example of this strategy.

Quote 2: "It’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it."
Besides Facebook, Apple products like the iPod, iPhone and the iPad come to mind.

Quote 3: "The competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires."
Clayton Christiansen's examples from the hypercompetitive hard disk industry seem to support this. Business is littered with examples, where an organization's momentum often prevents it from acting differently, when required, to maintain leadership through market change. IBM had to face a major crisis to undergo change.

Quote 4:  "Value to society is often bigger (with dominant market positions)".
Facebook is being valued at over $100 Billion. That is a useful yardstick for impact on society.

Following this train of thought leads to these questions:
1. First Mover Advantage:

Are we only talking about the first mover advantage here?
There are very few business contexts where a first mover maintains a competition free market position indefinitely, or for a long time.

2. Sustaining the first mover advantage:
Once the market has been created, would you need skill in competition to find dominating differentiation, and to maintain profit margins?
Would you call that incremental innovation?
Or would you call that moving the market/ shifting the goal posts every time competition makes a move?
The current Apple iPhone 4S, and iPhone 5 rumors, are examples of this tactic.

3. Supporting Environment:
What kind of industry, business, public policy and cultural environment would support this consistently?
Would society be able to substantially increase the number of disruptively innovative people, and also allow a significant percentage of them to demonstrate achievements at a significant scale in society (these are two separate things)?

4. Impact on Society:
Given that several world economies have lost out on manufacturing exports, where sustained, incremental innovation is important, would it be fair to call breakthrough innovation a silver bullet?
Would a "portfolio" strategy toward innovation be more effective, whether active or passive (creating the right conditions for all type of innovation to prosper)?

B. Individual Creativity:
An individual's decision paths are complex, and heavily driven by the environment he/ she operates in. However let's simplify this section with some "devil's advocate" questions:

Quote 1: "Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows."
This is a great description of one type of creativity. This type of person would be in the same category as Beethoven and Picasso. If even Steve Jobs could be said to have x number of great products in him, would you say this type of creativity is common?
What social, economic and cultural context would you need to harness this creativity?

Quote 2: "Competition has trumped value-creation."
In an effort to create value, wouldn't you need skill at competing for resources to achieve your monopolistic position?

Creativity and innovation come in many flavors. Diverse social, economic, cultural, and market structures may be required to support them all. Can we tweak these structures to support one type of creativity and innovation, with the intention of benefiting society more? Would it work, i.e. would it truly benefit society?

What do you think?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Consumer Behavior Changes due to Technology.

Are there some "behavioral ecosystems" (driven by technology, or otherwise) and "contexts" that are simply "better" for human behavior? Are there "contexts" that "stretch" human behavior?

Executive Summary: A quick three pronged approach- a question to start us thinking about the impact technology has on the world we live in, a thought experiment to help us think through this impact, and then some quick thoughts as a check, and as an inflamatory contrast, to throw our own thinking in sharp relief. From the desk of Three-Pointers-Aren't-Just-All-Basketball.

The Question

A conversation with some bright digital media folks bubbled up this question: how has technology changed consumer behavior?

To each of us, the answer may be obvious, however, it is well worth stepping back and taking a moment to think through this as an exercise. This helps us become more aware of technology's impact on consumer behavior.

A Thought Experiment

Here is a visualization thought experiment, with apologies to the GEICO Caveman- The Neanderthal cave paintings were a "Gossip Girl" of the age.

Some Quick Answers

A wise, experienced response:
Within the framework of behavior in a country, nothing much has really changed. The context? As far back as the 80's and across the pond, folks were leveraging consumer analytics to sell financial products (Hats off, Ritesh).

Another view: Technology impact consumer behavior by 
  1. aggregating numerous individual decisions,
  2. making consumers aware of these aggregations, and,
  3. allowing game theory to have a field day via exchange of, or lack of exchange of, information.
The underlying theme across these points is the development of markets- either intra or inter country- and the development of context for human behavior.

I know, your first reaction here would be- do you really think Facebook, Twitter, and Groupon have not changed how we live? Sure, they have helped "cultures"/ "markets" evolve, by changing their context. However, have these forces of technology changed fundamental human behavior?

The Twist in The Tale

This leads a different line of thought:
  1. How is technology changing the context we live in?
  2. How does human behavior adapt to changed context?
  3. Are there really new contexts that have not existed before?
  4. Are there some contexts that are simply "better ecosystems" for human behavior than others?

What do you think?