Streaming and the world

Fred Wilson wrote a post on how streaming and easy availability of content via streams can/will kill piracy via the torrent download. I largely agree. And especially for movies and TV shows I think people are even willing to pay to get instant access rather than download a torrent and wait an undefined period to get the file.

However, what happens globally? I’ve been in India for a few months. I can’t watch any Netflix stream here. I can’t watch Hulu. If I wanted to, I would have to go through a US proxy server that slows things down tremendously and even that does not work for Netflix. If the customer is a US customer but is traveling globally, these restrictions are simply ludicrous. I live in New York City. My Netflix account is tied to my address in Manhattan. I am still paying the monthly fee. And just because I am out of the country I am no longer a valid customer? Ridiculous.

I understand there are convoluted rules governing global rights. But the content creators should also realize that in today’s connected world, the audience for any piece of content is global. Excluding the situation of a traveling user (which is a no-brainer), here’s a very simplistic solution to the problem

  • Let’s assume the rights for a certain TV show or movie, that is created in the US, are sold in India. A viewer from India arrives a US site showing the movie. The site should let the viewer watch but share a certain % of the revenue with the rights owner in India. Clearly the rights owners in India have failed to provide the customers in the country access in a timely and/or user-friendly way. Why should the end-user be punished? Why should the content creator be punished by having fewer viewers. Distributors get your act together! Get stuff out to users in your country on-time. Get the content out to them in a way they want to watch it. Otherwise be okay with a provider in another country doing this.
  • If the rights in a certain country are not sold, then the users can view the content without the streaming site having to worry about reverting payment. If US site makes money via advertisements, and the advertisers don’t care about a global audience, then either make the user pay a fee or let them watch for free and build brand loyalty.

Same thing applies to an Australian movie and a viewer in the US. The locations of content creator and viewer are irrelevant.

Content wants to be global. Why should the viewer be concerned about rights in each country? Even brands are becoming more global every day – why should Hulu be a US brand? YouTube isn’t. It is really time for a new model. In future, my hope is that content creators and rights owners forget the country-by-country rights sale model. Just put the movie online, let the whole world watch it, collect your money. Much more efficient, elimination of months of negotiations, everyone is happier. Some content creators are starting to do this. It is time more jumped on the bandwagon.

Chennai Int’l Screenwriting Workshop

A few weeks ago, I learned (web, twitter) about the Chennai International Screenwriting Workshop and decided to apply. The application process is probably one of the most tech-savvy I’ve seen. Everything was run through their website (a modified blog, really). Regular updates kept the masses fed in a very efficient manner. And just a day later than their originally promised schedule, I found out that I got in.

And here we are…

May 29th, Friday, 2009. Day 1.

The day kicked off with an introduction by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He put the entire workshop together to make screenwriting more accessible to aspiring writers. This is the first time I’ve seen the man in person and I have to say that he’s articulate and intelligent. He also seems very self-effacing. Most importantly, he seems really committed to the workshop. I’m writing this at the end of day 2 and he’s been in every session – hasn’t skipped a single one. He also introduced the rest of the presenters for the workshop – Hariharan, Director of the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, Anjum Rajabali, Head of departments of screenwriting at FTII and Whistling Woods, and Atul Tiwari, a professional screenwriter and an excellent dialog writer.

Anjum Rajabali took charge of the next couple of sessions. He’s a very impressive man – funny, engaging, articulate, compelling. An excellent presenter who captures and holds your attention. He clearly loves what he does and he communicates that joy when he talks about his craft. In his first session, he walked through each of the elements of a screenplay – idea, premise, theme, plot, character, structure, scene, dialogue. It was a solid primer and a good grounding on the basics of what’s involved with writing a screenplay. He then spent an entire session on Premise. The key take away for me:  figure out the Premise early in the writing process in order to ensure you have enough to power an entire feature film.

Mr. Hariharan (feel compelled to say Mister here… Anjum seems like a guy who’d be cool with it if you called him by his name though, so I’m going with it) then led a very detailed session on Characters, Characterizations and Characteristics. And when I say detailed, I mean extraordinarily detailed – pages and pages of detailed PowerPoint, each one filled with great stuff. The best parts of the session were when he took the time to illustrate with examples – he came up with hilarious examples that will stay with me for a long time. An example of one of his examples – “What if you named one of your characters Abithakuchalambal? It immediately embodies the character with certain attributes. Then what if you name the other character Tania? You have an image of an Abithakuchalambal and you have an image of a Tania. Now what if Abithakuchalambal was 20 and Tania was 60?” It’s enough to convince you that you have to have a weed-smoking, goth-styled Abithakuchalambal in your next script, yes?

The day wrapped up with a screening of On The Waterfront. I’ve watched it before and I can honestly say the second viewing of Kazan’s masterpiece was better than the first.

May 30th, Saturday, 2009. Day 2.

Anjum led the session on Structure. This is one of those parts of a workshop that has to be taught (I mean, can you actually say you don’t teach anything about structure in a screenwriting workshop?) but, one that really shouldn’t be applied by screenwriters *as* they write their screenplays. And fortunately, Anjum himself stressed that point – do not think about structure, do not work to a formula. Having learned the basics of screenwriting from the inimitable Mick Casale (head of the writing program at NYU’s Tisch), I was jumping up and down in agreement with that statement.

The next session was on Scene design and Anjum screened and dissected a handful of beautifully constructed scenes including the opening scene from The Godfather, the scene in the car from The Sixth Sense where Cole reveals his secret to his mom, the scene from Satya where Bhiku Matre comes home and exchanges slaps with his wife, and finally the opening scene of Charulata which Mr. Hariharan talked us through.

Despite the fact that we spent a session and a half on Scene Design, I really feel this needs even more time. Creating a great scene is hard and I would love to learn more about the variables in the writer’s toolkit to build a great scene. I’m hoping they can spend a bit more time on this on Day 3.

The last session of the day was led by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He chose to focus on Hey Ram, in which he was the writer, director and actor, and spent most of the session answering questions. A very open and honest exchange despite the occasional, cringe-inducing “question” that was really a verbal love-letter from an ardent fan.

The day’s screening was Ghatak’s extraordinarily depressing Mehge Dhaka Tara, widely regarded as his best film. Even though I like Ajantrik better, one can’t really complain at having to watch any Ghatak film again, especially on a large screen.

Finally, I have to say this is a really well-organized conference. It’s located in IIT, unarguably the best campus in the city, the presenters stick to their times, the food is decent and handed out in a very organized manner and the volunteers are genuinely helpful. When was the last time that happened? Kudos to everyone involved!

Also read: Part 2 – Days 3 and 4

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. is a Buster Keaton classic. At just 45 minutes, it is short, but packed with action and innovation. The stunts are astounding. At a time before CGI, I have no idea how he did this stuff. So I started digging around to try to understand it better.

Sherlock Jr. is about a projectionist who wants to be a detective. He proposes to his lady love but by doing so irks her other suitor who frames Keaton in a robbery of the girl’s father’s pocket watch.

In the first amazing sequence, Keaton follows the other suitor to try and investigate. This involves a Keaton-usual where he walks within an inch of a person he’s following, every movement synchronized. How? The detailed video deconstruction (below) reveals that they set the camera to roll at a slower frame per second (FPS) to record the action and then sped it up to normal speed (24 FPS) for viewing.

In real life, he’s a pretty pathetic detective and doesn’t get very far. But when Keaton the projectionist falls asleep at the projector, his dream “avatar” enters the movie being projected. After Keaton is thrown from location to location (Africa, the ski slopes, in the middle of traffic) at the whim of the director, he is then allowed to become the super-duper detective of his dreams (pun intended of course).

The stunts then take on a new level of cool – in an exquisitely choreographed move, he jumps out of a window, through a dress and emerges full clothed as an old woman. Unbelievable. From The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast:

Perhaps the most brilliant Keaton far shot to reveal a process (and what a process!) is in Sherlock Jr. (1924). A single far shot presents (1) a room where Buster is surrounded by thugs (Keaton has dissolved its fourth wall); (2) an open window with a paper hoop that Buster previously placed in it; and (3) the exterior of the house outside the window. In a single shot Buster dashes toward the window (1), leaps through it, through the hoop resting inside the window frame (2), somehow puts on a dress stuffed inside the hoop as he is tumbling through it in midair, rights himself on the group outside the house (3), and begins to impersonate an old beggar woman, since he is now wearing a dress. Without the far shot, it would be impossible t believe that a human being could turn himself into a beggar woman while in midair tumbling through a hoop; it would also be impossible to believe that any comic acrobat could perform such a stunt. Apart from the mechanical performance of the stunt, there is the idea behind it. Who else would think of escaping his foes in such an incredible way and with such an incredible means to an incredible disguise? Keaton’s far shot makes incredibility to the third power completely credible.

Then there’s the one where he leaps through the stomach of a vendor woman and disappears. How? Search as I might I couldn’t find the answer.

But by far the most brilliant sequence of the whole film is where he rides solo on the handlebars of a motorcycle (not knowing the driver has fallen off). This is not a short sequence – he drives through crowds, over bridges and through long stretches of road, all the while “steering” the two-wheeler from his precarious position. Undercranked or not, this is superb stuff. All of these sequences are in the clip below –

A combination of the stunts, the humor and the real life/reel life comparisons (hey, it wasn’t a cliche back then – he invented this stuff!) make Sherlock Jr. more than a fun, engaging movie to watch. And understanding how Keaton achieved some of the scenes elevates it to the realm of the exquisite.


The acting was exceptional. Across the board, every actor excelled. These are the roles that Meryl Streep was born to do. And Philip Seymour Hoffman – wow. He was so cleanly-creepy that I cringed every time his long nails were displayed.

And there were a few moments where I felt like I was a lucky fly on the wall, listening in on conversations, watching the drama in the Catholic school unfold. But overall, the movie fell below expectations, mostly due to decisions made by the director.

In a movie where the acting is exceptional and emotions run high, I feel it is best to let the camera be as unobtrusive as possible, but director John Patrick Shanley in his first real directorial effort, does the opposite. There are scenes where the camera suddenly drops down and frames the character from below, immediately snapping the viewers attention away from the conversation and onto where the camera is instead. Ugh. The one-on-one scenes between Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and between Hoffman and Adams are scenes where there is a lot being said between the lines and the actors carry the scenes – instead of cocooning the audience and making them feel unobtrusive, they are suddenly thrust into the conversation – breaking the spell the actors have cast. Unfortunate.

The strange and forced camera angles to emphasize mood and tone is repeated at various points in the movie – in a shot where Streep walks in out of a storm and through a corridor in the school, Shanley chooses an off kilter camera angle to emphasize the emotional state of the characters. Why, why, why?? Please don’t beat us over the head with it.

I had similar issues with the screenplay too (written by Shanley) – when there is a tense scene, the setting is a storm. High winds are constantly blowing branches to the ground. It’s all a bit much. A lighter touch would have given the solid story and intense acting the space they needed to make the movie truly top-notch.

Here’s my initial reaction to the movie on twitter:

Just saw Doubt. Great acting. Don’t love some of the directing, cinematography choices. *Movies 7.5*.

Six weeks later, the only change I would make is downgrade the 7.5 rating to a 6.5.

The Last Laugh – F. W. Murnau

We slide down in the elevator, slip past the opening doors and glide towards the front of the hotel and the revolving doors. Looking out, we see the doorman coordinating guests and luggage, managing arrivals and departures. It is with this incredible camera movement that Murnau opens The Last Laugh.

The camera movement doesn’t sound so amazing you say? Well, consider that the movie was shot in 1924. The opening shot had me saying – “He came up with such brilliant and fitting camera movement more than EIGHTY-FIVE years ago??!”

The Last Laugh is about a hotel doorman who defines himself by his job. He is treated with deference at the hotel and at home in the apartment complex – his grand uniform and his well-brushed, giant moustache lending an air of unmistakable gravitas. When the hotel manager decides he’s too old for the job, he’s replaced with a younger version of himself and is suddenly demoted to the washroom attendant – the lowest job on the totem pole. His world shatters.

The completely silent film doesn’t even use title/dialog cards to explain what’s going on. The acting would be considered over the top today, but considering that it had to convey all the emotion without a single word, it is understandable. Emil Jannings as the doorman is exceptional. His desolation and humiliation are painful to watch.

With a very straightforward story line, the movie is about emotions. The camera is used to excellent effect to highlight his mental state. Initially the camera idolizes him, shooting him from below or straight on. After his demotion, he shrinks – not only in comport, but the camera also moves higher, making him smaller. The hotel, is shown as a towering edifice, with revolving doors extending skywards – his perception of his workplace when he returns in fear. Murnau also used the camera to depict Jannings’ inebriatedly-depressed state. The camera swings around Jannings capturing the surreal, discombobulated state he’s in very nicely. And then there’s the dream sequence where Jannings imagines himself back in his role, easily hoisting large trunks of luggage with one hand – the camera flies through the air towards and around Jannings, emphasizing the removal from reality. When his secret is discovered, the laughing faces of his nosy neighbors are super-imposed onto each other – all leering at him. The movie illustrates how the camera, in concert with the actors, can communicate so much without a single spoken word.

The only incongrous part of the movie is the ending. After an utterly crushing emotional attack, it would be most fitting if the doorman collapsed and gave-in to the circumstances. Apparently the studio wanted a happy ending – and so the movie’s first title card apologies for what lies ahead – the doorman unexpected inherits a fortune from a patron who dies in his arms. He’s shown eating and drinking heartily in the hotel and being benevolent to all those who work there before he rides off into the sunset.

That aside, The Last Laugh is an excellent movie. A movie I enjoyed much more than I expected to and one that gets better with repeat viewings. Murnau did things with the camera in 1924 which many directors today are too conservative to try. Bravo!

The movies

After a dry spell for huge chunks of 2007 and 2008, the recent past has been better on the movie front. What hasn’t been better is my willingness and ability to document my thoughts on the stuff I’ve watched.
Writing a full review seems like a huge effort in the days when I am getting very little sleep. But hey… when did my little movie blog have to be anything other than what works best for me?

So in 2009 I hope I’ll blog more on Tatvam. But when I talk about a movie, it won’t be a classic review. Rather it will be the thoughts and emotions that struck me as I watched it. Will it be interesting to anyone else? Well… I guess I’ll find out.

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Ira Glass on Storytelling

These videos are excellent. He’s talking specifically about the broadcast world, but it applies to any creative storyteller (writer, photographer, filmmaker, artist). The first three are particularly relevant, the third video is my favorite. Brilliant stuff.

Godfather – restored

What fabulous news – they’ve painstakingly restored the epic!

The final product, which the studio is calling “The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration,” combines bits and pieces of film recovered from innumerable sources, scanned at high resolution and then retouched frame by frame to remove dirt and scratches. The color was brought back to its original values by comparing it with first-generation release prints and by extensive consultation with Gordon Willis, who shot all three films, and Allen Daviau, a cinematographer (“E.T.”) who is also a leading historian of photographic technology.
Critic’s Choice – Pristine Glory of ‘Godfather’ Films in ‘Coppola Restoration’ Set on Blu-ray and DVD – Review –

The rest of the article makes me want to run out, buy it and watch all three films back to back. Here’s a small taste –

Watching the first film, you are struck again by how little screen time Marlon Brando actually occupies. Most of his work is done in the 20-minute opening sequence, as the Godfather sits in his study, receiving supplicants on the day of his daughter’s wedding. This is a piece of superbly efficient expository writing, setting out an exotic milieu, describing its rules and moral configuration, and establishing the larger-than-life figure who presides over and protects it.

And Brando plays it like the master he was, balancing just enough exaggeration (the cotton-stuffed cheeks, the asthmatic voice) with pure behavioral naturalism (the eyes that go blank when he is bored or distracted) to create a figure that both belongs to this world and is too big for it. After that sequence his work is effectively done, and the character can recede into the background of the action (he spends much of the rest of the movie recovering from an assassination attempt) without surrendering his dominant presence.

So, click through and read it.

And at the bottom of the article, a juicy little tidbit. Sex And The City: The Movie DVD also comes out this week. And it has 12 minutes that I didn’t get to see in the theater… Hmm… that screams “no brainer” to me. Count me $35 lighter.