October 2007 Archives
October 25, 2007
The Media Guardian today has a story about the BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol, which looks like it's seeing cuts on the same sort of scale as the children's department.
Anyone know what's going on in Specialist Factual, or whatever that department is called this month? We know that Horizon is supposedly safe, but what of softer factual ents? Are all slightly-off-mainstream departments seeing ~40% cuts in senior production staff?
October 19, 2007
I talked last night to a chum within Children's BBC, and it's worse than it seems. The total losses are about 20% of jobs, but the cuts are falling disproportionately on middle-senior posts. Which makes sense, since you need support staff to make programmes, but producers and directors you can bring in as freelancers from the external talent pool.
There's a flaw in the logic, however. They're reducing producer, director, and associate producer posts by what is looking like 40-50%. What's left will be a skeleton crew, which would leave basically every series relying on freelance labour for crewing up.
Only, there isn't going to be a freelance talent pool on which to draw. Not of specialist children's producers. Remember, the independent sector was effectively shut down three years ago, when Children's ITV stopped commissioning. There's nobody left to bring in, because there's not enough work left to sustain that community.
Thus, the days of children's TV as a specialism -- of senior staff really knowing what they're doing, and crafting the best programmes they can manage -- are numbered. And the numbers are: about 550.
Give it two years, and 'I make children's TV' will not be a phrase anyone utters.
Perversely, this is actually good news for SciCast and the science communication industry, because in that specific field we're going to be left as the de facto experts. But in general, this is at best the passing of an era. At worst, it's the abandonment of mass-audience informal learning by the one remaining organisation that could make it work.
I hate to be a doom-monger, but my argument to the science and engineering world that they need to take matters into their own hands is surely bolstered by this. There's not even a hope of anyone else doing it, now.
October 18, 2007
BBC cutbacks, and all that -- inevitable, given the license fee settlement, and perhaps not quite as bad as one might have feared. However, showing more repeats is scarcely going to work, in the long run, since people will still turn to alternative sources (including the BBC's own iPlayer service) to see TV when they want it, rather than when it's scheduled. I really don't understand the logic there.
Yet more worrisome is that the cutbacks are mirrored in the Children's department. According to the Guardian, around 20% of jobs there will go in the next couple of years. This is, of course, on top of the decimation of the sector outside the BBC.
All the more reason, then, for special-interest sector (like, for example, science & engineering) to take matters into their own hands and make media directly.
There are times when the masterplan lumbering into view behind SciCast feels like a pipedream. And then there are times, like today, when it feels almost frighteningly timely.
Bother. Via the Dorkbot Alba mailing list, I learn of an open day being held by the CCA Glasgow-based Electron Club. It's this Saturday.
I'll be in London.
I'm on the road delivering training seminars for people who might contribute films to SciCast. It's fun, knackering, and simultaneously exhilarating and discouraging.
See, we're still having problems getting people to actually show up for the seminars. Yesterday 8 out of 12 showed, with one disappearing part-way through (apparently once he'd discovered that all the competition information was on the website, and the deadline is early January, which he declared 'impossible'). Hardly a great turn-out, and we clearly need to rethink the tone and approach of the publicity material we're putting out.
I'm also continually astonished by the lead-times necessary in education, in that you have to be very precise -- it's basically two terms. One term is too tight to do anything with, and three terms is far too far into the future to think about. So you need to start talking in the autumn for stuff that's going to happen in the summer, and that's roughly your only option; other terms are far too busy. But of course, the autumn is the start of the new year, so that's busy too. Gaaah.
All of the above said, yesterday was a blast. Lots of enthusiasm, some terrific comments and thoughts, and it's tremendously encouraging to see people get so fired up and enthusiastic about SciCast. Monday's workshop in Newcastle wasn't as good, but only because I talked too much -- ah, the perils of debugging training formats. Luckily, the bit that felt high-risk worked wonderfully, which means I can use it with more confidence in subsequent days -- which in turn means I can cut my prattle. A good thing for all.
So, yes, right -- I'm in Norwich now. All's well, I'm just not being very interesting today. Sorry.
October 13, 2007
October 10, 2007
Any physicists in the house? This film at SciCast shows a neat trick with dropping playing cards, where if you drop them end-on they flutter, but if you drop them side-on they parachute down and hence can be aimed rather accurately. Now, my explanation for this has long gone thus:
The playing card's terminal velocity when dropped flat is lower than the laminar/turbulent transition speed. So the airflow around stays laminar, and the cards fall smoothly. When dropped end-on they rapidly start to flutter -- like the opposite of a flag, with the air staying still and the flag moving through it. You'd still expect the flag to flutter, and that flutter is what sets the cards tumbling.
However, my colleague who's writing up my notes isn't convinced. Which is fair enough, because, hey, it's 15 years since I didn't do any fluid dynamics. She replies:
What I've been looking at is that low Reynolds number gives you laminar flow and high R number gives you turbulence, but the R number is also related to the scale length of the object moving through the fluid. I'd like to say that only the speed of the object matters but I'm not sure how the horizontal card can suffer from air resistance which causes it to fall slowly and for this air resistance to not have an effect on the turbulence it feels. Suddenly I regret not paying more attention in second year.
My thinking on that:
The swept volume for the horizontal card is still larger. The flow might be laminar, but there's more air involved which implies more work done to displace it.
Anyone else like to weigh in?
October 9, 2007
That film I mentioned is up -- watch it here. It's the most cinematic SciCast film yet, shot entirely by first-time director Joel. He'd filmed some BMX tricks on his mobile phone, and that was the extent of his previous experience, apart from devouring the most ridiculously wide range of films. He's seen more than I have, knows them inside-out, and he's thirteen years old.
It's both exciting and humbling when you meet someone like Joel. It's not that he's done everything right: I've used some really sneaky tricks in my edit of his film to paper over some of the problems. But that's not really important, because what impresses is his raw talent. This was his first film, for heaven's sake, and we had a detailed discussion afterwards about crossing the line, continuity, and how to reduce the number of camera set-ups. All of which would have been jargon to him at the beginning of the day.
One of the things that I ... 'regret' is too strong a word, but anyway: one of the things I've had to shelve with SciCast is follow-up. We go into a school, do a day's workshop, then leave. Then what?
There are plenty of more complex education video projects, from Films for Learning through to the seriously well-funded First Light Movies, but SciCast doesn't have the time (ie. budget) to do anything much in the way of coaxing people into them. So I guess I'll never know what happens to Joel, which is a shame. He was great.
From chat with Vinay:
As children, when we first understand the question 'Why?', we demand to know 'why?' about everything.
When in practice... it's not a great question.
"OK, suppose we roll with that – how does it link back to everything else, and how far does it get us?"
...but that's a much more sophisticated and pragmatic approach.
There's an extent to which people are born as scientists, but have to learn engineering.
So it turns out that Final Cut Pro doesn't just import PDFs -- it handles multi-pages ones too. So you can prepare graphics captions in, say, Keynote, export to a PDF, then bring the PDF into Final Cut and render out individual pages.
Best of all, if you amend the slides and re-export over the original file, Final Cut picks up the changes and drops them straight into your sequence.
...which is exactly what you'd expect to happen. Isn't it nice when things just work?
I'll post a link to the resulting film shortly.
October 8, 2007
October 6, 2007
While it may seem choosy to pick specific aspects of the so-called 'Crowngate' affair as being more bizarre than others, here are a few:
- BBC1 Controller Peter Fincham has, eventually, resigned over the matter. More junior staff involved in other examples of 'deception' (sic) are likely to be sacked. Spot the difference.
- The BBC's moratorium on working with production company RDF extends, so far as I'm aware, to all RDF group companies, of which there are several. Yet Children's BBC is still happily commissioning from within itself, despite multiple slapped-wrists for Blue Peter. Huh, fancy that.
But really, I want to write about fakery in television, because there's something odd going on. None of these 'scandals', from naming Socks the cat to having someone stand in for competition winners when the phone line goes dead in the full glare of live transmission, is particularly shocking to anyone who's made videos. Not worked in broadcast, note -- made videos. When I get a bunch of 14 year-olds to make their first short film, they'll frequently assume they can fake stuff, cheat, and generally bend the resulting video to their will.
Now, all it takes is for me to stare at them for a few moments. The light will go off in their heads and they'll say 'Oh, right. OK, yes. Fine. We'll do it for real.' But the natural human affiliation with cheating is sufficiently powerful, it's often the first assumption.
Later in the day, when the same group is putting together their sequence, they'll find me and say 'If we change the order like this, the film makes more sense. But... that's faking, isn't it?'
...which is, of course, the crux of the matter, because all video is faked to some extent or other. Everything you do up to the point where you start editing is just collecting raw material -- your film is made, crafted, shaped, in the edit suite, not in front of the camera.
It has to be this way, because real life plays out excruciatingly slowly. The responsibility and skill in making films, then, lies in telling stories more quickly, and more engagingly, than real time. Which requires that you leave bits out, which in turn requires judgement about which parts are important.
Telling stories honestly is an aspiration, but not a requirement -- the temptation to cheat and edit the material in order to tell an even better story even more quickly is always there. If the story's better, and more people watch, that's a success, right? If teenagers hacking away in iMovie in a school lab face these sorts of dilemmas and compromises, you can imagine the discussions that happen in chic Avid suites in Soho.
Which brings us to the Queen, because the real mistake made by the RDF chain of command up to Stephen Lambert, and the BBC up to Jana Bennett Peter Fincham, was failing to spot that you don't produce the Monarch's storylines. To be fair, this is a bit of a shock, because off the top of my head I can't think of any other exceptions. Yet it takes only a moment's thought to realise that no, you really don't. You don't put words in her mouth, and you don't bend what happened into something completely different in order to sell your programme.
One of the quirks I find rather admirable about American society is the respect granted to the office of the President. Not to the man in the chair, but to the rôle itself. In the UK we show no similar deference to the Prime Minister -- we see only the current incumbent, and usually their weaknesses at that. We don't have to defer to the office, because that's what the Queen's for. It's a rather nice separation, because we can be loyal to the concept of national authority without it affecting our daily lives one jot.
So it's right that heads should roll over the matter, because there were critical errors of judgement. Which heads and how they should roll I'm not qualified to say, and frankly I don't care because it's all the low-level cat-naming nonsense that's more insidious.
We're whipping ourselves up into a frenzy of 'television is lying to us all the time' hysteria. Yes, it is. Yes, it always has. Deal with it. That's how video works, and if you ever thought the media, of any form, presented anything other than one impression of some ephemeral 'truth' then the person you should be criticising is yourself.
Books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, films, blogs, wikis -- all bend 'truth' to tell stories. They have to, and your failure to understand that is what's at fault.
Has our understanding of rhetoric sunk so low?
October 4, 2007
There are at least two more science film projects online, alongside SciCast; the Wired/PBS broadcast mashup Wired Science are soon to launch a competition for high-school students (scroll down), and New Scientist are running their own equivalent via YouTube.
I'm assuming the former is only open to US participants, but if you're in the UK and enter the New Scientist competition, feel free to send your film to SciCast too -- we'll make sure it's archived so schools can use it (YouTube is usually blocked by local authority firewalls).
In that odd half-awake state one has between the alarm going off and Thought for the Day, I could have sworn I heard John Humphrys say something about Steve declaring an election and Gordon launching Leopard.
I mean, there's nothing else going on this month, right?
October 3, 2007
Interesting article about favouring a 50mm prime lens over short 'standard' zooms. I've wondered about doing this for a while -- DSLR resolutions are high enough that a little post-production crop will barely be noticed, and the depth-of-field advantages of fast lenses are joyous.
I think my plan would be a 10-20 extreme wide zoom (probably Sigma's, though the handling on low-end Nikons is less than ideal in my hands), a fast 30 or 50, and later a longish zoom or (maybe maybe) macro.
Ah, it's nice to dream.
October 2, 2007
Looks like the seminal Will it Blend? may be coming to a natural conclusion: they've tried blending Chuck Norris, with surprising results.