.42 I'm Still Thinking About These Ideas

Today, a few things I have read over the past month, ideas and provocations which are still lingering in my brain. That’s always a good sign, right?

These are all roughly related to storytelling and publishing.

What the hell just happened in Fortnite?

I’ve never been a gamer and I have never played Fortnite but it’s been on my mind since Monday when I heard what had happened the previous evening.

So…Fortnite is a multiplayer video game where you are dropped onto an island with 99 other players from all over the world and have twenty minutes to kill everyone before someone kills you.

250 million people have played this game, it’s a big deal.

But the designers also have an epic storyline that is unfolding on top of the gameplay, something to do with alien visitors, rifts in space, no-one really knows yet.

On Sunday evening, as millions of players were busy killing each other, they noticed weird things starting to happen around them. A rocket suddenly launched from the ground. Then, before their eyes, giant rifts appeared in the sky and…the entire island was sucked into a black hole.

Like I said, I’m not a gamer and I’ve never played Fortnite, but my mouth was wide open as I watched this video of it unfolding. I felt like I was there, witnessing some momentous event.

As this article argues, what makes Fortnite different is the environmental storytelling.

Video games (like all stories) employ narration to make sure the player follows what is happening: it might be text on screen, voice-over narration or a cutaway scene where characters dish out spoonfuls of exposition.

Fortnite does none of that. Instead the cues are buried in the environment: meteors might start falling from the sky, or an animal might behave differently than normal. If the players notice this, great, but the game doesn’t insist everyone does.

It’s basically just like the real world.

It makes me wonder if this environmental storytelling can be made to work in other mediums?

Would it be possible to write a murder-mystery novel, comprising of just pieces of evidence with no narrative handholding? One chapter is a transcript of an interview with a suspect, the next photographs from the crime scene. Instead of observing a divorced alcoholic detective go through the motions, a reader is the detective?

I had never thought of comics or graphic novels like this.

Graphic Novelist Chris Ware, interviewed in The Guardian:

“What can you do in comics that you can’t do in other storytelling forms?”

“As far as I’m concerned, the form seems to allow for a greater range of simultaneous impressions, memories and thoughts other than any other visual language, the possibility of overlaying and overlapping both seen and remembered in a way that most closely approximates real consciousness. We have an extraordinary superpower as humans, which is to see with our eyes closed, redolently experienced when dreaming or when reading a traditional novel, where one ceases to see the words on the page and instead “looks” at the images being prompted in ones imagination. Comics function at an awkward point between the two, simulating the perception of the present using the tools of memory, and I’m simply trying to harness it, to draw the world from the inside out rather than the outside in.”

I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Chris’ new book Rusty Brown.

Overlapping both seen and remembered. There’s something in that concept I find really intriguing but I can’t quite articulate it.

But I do feel that graphic novelists are more creative in how they express ideas visually than some of us working in the moving image. I think a lot about if and how treatments can be transported from one medium to another.

What does publishing in the 21st century look like?

Novelist Robin Sloan in his newsletter:

For me, personally, “learn to code” has been a decades-long intellectual and emotional engagement. If, instead of coding, I’d spent all those accumulated hours practicing the guitar… I would now be VERY good at the guitar.

But even today, having more-or-less successfully “learned to code,” I wouldn’t pass the first interview at Google. So… what is it I’ve learned to do, exactly? Well: I can make things happen on screens—and not just things pre-packaged, pre-determined, but new things.

Maybe occasionally even things that have never happened on screens before.

And I think this is important for aaalmost any kind of artist in the 21st century. No; let me scale that back. It’s important for any artist who aspires to be a pathbreaker. This is totally optional! There’s plenty of art you can make using genres pre-determined, pre-packaged. You could write a whole series of absolutely tremendous literary horror novels and never learn a thing about code. You could win prizes. Obviously.

But for anyone who feels the same itch as me, for whom these questions about the 21st century feel as urgent, then… I think code might be non-negotiable. I could be wrong! But this is what I think.

It’s becoming clearer to me—again, I could be wrong—that software is the medium. Simple as that. There is not some dream app waiting. The app is always going to kinda suck, because it’s going to be owned by some corporation and it’s going to be, by definition, a bit generic; generic in a way not even the most blasé trade publisher would tolerate. So, you have to design the book-that-is-not-a-book, and of course there are rules and guidelines, there’s art and craft, but every book is different, so, just sit down and do the work.

What has lingered with me is not Robin’s top level point (although I suspect he’s right, code could well be a significant form of expression in the 21st Century and what constitutes art might shift from a static painting or book into a dynamic tool); it is the idea beneath it.

That the job of the artist is not just to make something entertaining, or pretty, or even emotionally profound, but that it might be creating interesting solutions to problems. Something that rests inbetween art and entrepreneurship (without all the startup bullshit).

And the solution is bespoke - it’s custom made from original parts, not working inside the confines of one of Mark Zuckerberg’s apps.

If the idea still doesn’t make sense, consider the difference between our two letters: Robin designed the platform for his newsletter himself, it is completely unique, it has the features he needs and none of the ones he does not. I publish my letter using a third-party platform, ultimately hoping to get rich from our weekly conversations. There is a template my words fit into that makes it look identical to every other Substack newsletter.

It is still hazy but through Robin’s words I can glimpse a better way of making and publishing things.

Writer Craig Mod in his newsletter (also a custom made piece of software)…actually there’s just too much to quote from this one so, if you are interested in the way stories of all kinds are published or could be published, get yourself a cup of tea and read the whole thing!

I have no good answers to any of these questions but they’ve been rattling around in my head for weeks. Now they can rattle around in yours too!

Until next Sunday,

.41 What Can You Organise Today?

This feels like the urgent and important question we should all be asking ourselves in this moment.

The odds are not stacked in our favour, individually or collectively. The climate crisis appears so overwhelmingly impossible to solve that nihilism is the only logical response. Wherever you are in the world as you’re reading my letter, chances are there’s a madcap authoritarian in charge, or in the wings, or in the country next door. Oh, and then there’s that recession just around the corner, ready to strike as most of us are still dusting ourselves off from the last one.

Being on planet earth right now feels like being stuck on a packed, broken-down subway train. It’s hot, dark, cramped, there is no-one in charge and you have no way of knowing how or when you’ll get out.

You feel powerless and undignified.

I have spent the last few years in various phases of hopelessness about it all, but recently I have had some experiences that are beginning to change my thinking.

Earlier this year I watched a talk by a member of Extinction Rebellion, where the speaker literally held a two-minute silence to allow the audience to grieve the end of society.

I mean… 😶

But that talk also introduced me to a NASA scientist called Dr. Kate Marvel. When I spoke to her on the phone and asked her about hope and hopelessness her answer stuck with me:

“You can be hopeful or not - it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change what we need to do.”

It turns out there are a whole bunch of climate scientists, activists and writers who have given up on hope.

Instead she and others have moved beyond it.

Here’s what a marine biologist called Dr. Ayana Johnson told me a few weeks ago:

“I have abandoned hope and optimism - they are not useful words, they don’t imply action. I like to think about strategy, next steps. What can I do? What am I good at?”

Being hopeful about the climate crisis is the same as saying ‘oh, if I just sit here and do nothing, I’m sure it’ll work itself out in the end.’

Instead these activists - and there’s a whole amazing network of them, mostly women of colour as it goes - believe in “building communities around solutions”.

When people like me have been curled up on the floor feeling depressed about the end of the world, there are people asking “What needs to be done? What skills can I bring to the table to help do it?”

They are busy self-organising, starting local movements, getting people together to solve problems in their area.

They aren’t waiting for permission.

This is something every single one of us can do. We can look around us and ask “What problem needs solving right now and what could I contribute?”

In his book Poetry from the Future, Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat tells a story of Yugoslav refugees fleeing Nazi persecution during World War Two. They ended up in the hands of the British who, unsure what to do with them, sent 37,000 to camps in the Egyptian desert.

The British left the refugees to their own devices and, returning a short time later, they expected to find scenes of chaos and desperation. Instead:

“The administration of the camp was almost completely controlled by the refugees. They established their own courts, even a police force. They started kindergartens, elementary schools, secondary schools, nursing schools, trade schools and published a newspaper. The camp had its own theatre, recreation hall, store houses, repair shops, infirmary, laundry and so on.”

Faced with abandonment and subservience, the refugees had organised themselves.

I can’t help but think there is a powerful dignity in this.

Sitting around waiting for someone, some greater power - a 16-year-old for goodness sake! - to come and rescue you from your problems…you’re robbing yourself of your dignity.

What if, on that packed subway car, one person raised their voice and said “is everyone OK? Does anyone need some water?”

What needs to be done?

What are you good at?

What can you organise today?

Until next Sunday,

.40 More of Your Questions, Answered

This week I have answers to your questions about the making of Jaron Lanier Fixes the Internet, my new series with the New York Times.

By the way, I owe loads of you replies to emails you have sent in the last - oh, I don’t know - three weeks (!) I’m really sorry if I haven’t written back yet; the travel and flat moving, plus some other personal things knocked me off my usual schedule. If you haven’t had one, replies are coming soon, I promise.

Alright, let’s go!

How did you do that shot with the fluid coming out of the girl’s neck!? - Sarah

This shot - the big defining image of the whole show - was a mixture of practical and digital effects.

The fluid is washing-up liquid mixed with food colouring. We taped a tube to Caroline’s neck and as the camera rolled I pushed the fluid through the tube using a syringe.

Straight out of the camera, you can see the fluid moving down the back of her head, plus the tubing clearly not going into her skin…

…so I created a motion tracking mask in After Effects, which tracked her neck as the camera panned down…

…and in Photoshop, created a “clean” version of her neck with the top half of the tube painted out…

Finally, it was just a case of attaching the right part of the photoshop image onto the original footage (using the motion tracking data). It came together almost perfectly first time!

How did you come up with the idea of the dark fluid coming out of that woman’s neck? - Dan

This is a story about data: who owns it, who should own it. But data is invisible - it’s an abstract concept, the only physical manifestation of which is the billions of tiny invisible electrical pulses firing through a transistor.

So it’s the old challenge of making something invisible, visible.

When we think of visualising things like this, our first thought is usually to the obvious ‘literal’ ideas: ones and zeros flying through space (like in the recent Netflix documentary The Great Hack) or something out of The Matrix.

But these have been overused to the point of cliché.

So my solution was to dig deeper, below the threshold of awareness and ask - what do I want people to feel about their data? And I wanted them to feel violated, exploited - that, after all, is the heart of Jaron’s argument: data is this really valuable thing we all possess and we’ve been duped into giving it away for free.

I brainstormed a list of valuable physical objects and ways we could watch someone seem to hand it away (a wedding ring, a wallet, a phone) and none of them carried the right connotation.

But the idea of part of your body being secreted away without your knowledge - that felt creepy.

I initially thought the fluid should be blood but, of course, we are kind of supposed to give that away for free! So my next thought was some kind of clear liquid, like spinal fluid. Clear liquids do not show up well on camera especially in low light, which is why we settled on a dark purple.

So to summarise - the idea came from asking how I wanted to audience to feel, not just what I wanted them to see.

The op-doc format gives a lot of creative freedom, so how do you approach mixing acted dramatized footage with stock with wire video, animation, and interview? - Mark

My approach is to break the story down into scenes. Scenes are the base unit of story, in fact each scene is a story, in miniature.

The question then is ‘what is this scene about?’ and ‘what sequence of images will best tell this little story?’ The atomic approach makes it easier to choose from all the different approaches at your disposal.

The side-effect is that the end result runs the risk of being a visual smorgasbord with each scene visualised differently. The rough cuts of this series were definitely like that. So, working with one of the Times’ designers, we made some last minute changes to colour, to create a unifying theme of black and purple.

That said, I don’t think a smorgasbord is necessarily a bad thing. What matters is that the visualisations add to the story in ways the words cannot do alone, and the audience are pulled through the story.

In your edit, what would you say are your main influences? - Mark

The edit was inspired by Jaron himself. As you probably noticed, Jaron is an eccentric chap, he is playful and unusual. I knew right at the start I wanted a style that reflected his personality.

So the big tonal influence in the edit was RadioLab, a science podcast famous for its creative use of music, sound design and playful editing.

I’ve listened to that show for years, interviewed its producers even, and always thought “there should be a visual version of RadioLab”.

Jaron Lanier Fixes The Internet is as close as I have come so far to making one!

The music and sound design were important. I wanted the audio to react to Jaron’s voice, hands and facial expressions. I searched out weird compositions and when I found a small segment I liked, pulled it out, looped it and layered it to create entirely new sounds.

Love to hear you talk through your thinking behind the structure. I love the 'cliffhangers' - the whole thing was just fascinating and effortless to watch (in a good way) - Brendan

The superstructure (across the three episodes) is very simple and I had it figured out early on: Episode 1, establish the problem, Episode 2, present a solution, Episode 3, demonstrate how that solution solves the problem.

It’s a sort of ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ sequence but essentially still the dramatic structure of a piece of fiction. To paraphrase Billy Wilder: “get the cat up a tree, throw rocks at the cat, get the cat down again.”

Structuring the individual episodes was a lot harder and took a couple of weeks.

One structural device I use frequently is repetition. The story of the couple with a baby is played out three times, each time slightly differently. In complex stories like this, repetition is powerful because the audience will have a lot of information ‘saved’ from the last time you told the story, so you have space to present new layers of meaning on top.

This ‘parsing’ of information is one of the hard parts of this kind of storytelling - carefully drip-feeding information so that the audience are not overwhelmed with too much at once.

Other than that, structure is just the outcome of conflict, so I thought hard about how to challenge the audience, raise a big question early in each episode and keep raising the stakes scene by scene.

Did you script the whole thing out with Jaron before? Or was it more like an interview but you had certain lines you got him to read? - Brendan

Both actually! I wrote a very detailed script beforehand, recorded a temp voice over in my own voice, which we used to create an animatic (a rough cut which uses storyboards instead of actual footage).

Jaron and I discussed the script in detail on the phone over several weeks but, as the shooting date approached, I realised I wanted a spontaneity from him that a script would not deliver.

So at the last moment I converted the script into a long series of questions, which I asked Jaron while he looked into an Eye Direct device.

I’m very glad I did; some of the best moments (for example, when he makes a venn diagram with his fingers) were things I could never have written myself.

That said, the interview would not have been as good had I not been as well prepared, so the original script becomes this discarded and yet completely necessary part of the process, like a pencil sketch that gets erased from a finished watercolour.

I also had him record a few bridge phrases I knew I would need, things like “But!” “So,” “Here’s the thing” etc, which were really useful in the edit for connecting scenes and ideas.

Did you actually use a photocopier or are those photoshop effects? - Brendan

Yes it’s a real printer that was filmed in the Times’ studio.

More generally, the printer was a solution to a frequent problem I face making these kinds of videos: how to address the caveats. Any good argument ought to consider its critics, but in a video these things can really kill the narrative flow, so they usually require some creative problem solving.

In Operation Infektion we wrote a boxing match time-out device in each episode; in this video about the felony murder rule, I had the main character argue with himself in a split screen; and for Jaron I had the criticisms literally printed out.

It’s a fun challenge to come up with a new way of solving an old problem in each video!

Why is your credit "producer"? It feels to me what you did is very much the work of a filmmaker. Is the hierarchy in journalism different than in filmmaking? - Nathalie

The New York Times has its own in-house rules about how different contributors are credited. I would personally prefer to be credited as a writer and director as that’s what I do.

I don’t know how other journalism organisations do it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a general resistance to ‘creative’ titles like writer/director/filmmaker in case the audience interpret the work as a piece of fiction.

But you only have to look at films like Vice, American Animals and The Imposter to see the boundaries between fiction and reality are being intentionally blurred now.

Ok but who needs to do what? How do you implement all this? Is it once again the citizens who need to stop working to riot all day for months to maybe see the governments move their butts? - Nathalie

The sort of change Jaron is describing is huge - it’s a rewiring of capitalism and a fundamental reimagining of what value is. It’s possibly more demanding than fixing the climate crisis (in the sense that most solutions to the global warming at least involve capitalism continuing). Therefore it is ultimately in the realm of governments to make it happen.

For us as individuals, I hope the video makes more people aware of the value in their own data and begin to demand it be accounted. Making this show has made me much more conscious about the information I would normally hand over.

Jaron Lanier Fixes The Internet is an ideas video in many ways, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of ideas to linger, ripple, echo and grow in peoples’ minds. Jaron’s solution might not be the right one, but perhaps there’s someone out there who will figure it out after seeing the film!

Thanks for all the great questions! If you have any more, please don’t hesitate to reply to this email.

Until next Sunday,

.39 September 29th, 2009

An entry from my journal:

Tuesday September 29th, 2009

Yesterday I started my new job - as a freelancer. I am now self-employed, in other words, not working and it’s terrifying. I know that’s normal and I have done a good job of not letting my emotions control me. The side-effect of this though is the numbing of my emotions entirely. I feel like I’m on anaesthetic and all I have is a dull sense of sickness in my stomach. As soon as I begin to contemplate the enormity of the task ahead of me, it’s like my brain interrupts and purposefully directs me to something else. The other consequence of this is while I am unable to get terrified, I am also unable to get excited about things either. I haven’t come up with any ideas, I’m unable to contemplate the potential and opportunity spread out before me. I am almost worried I might become paralysed.

I remember it clearly. On the weekend I had packed up my possessions and driven down from Hull, a city in the north of England where I had been working as a reporter, to Kingston, on the southern outskirts of London.

I moved into the spare room of a lovely retired couple and started trying to figure out what freelancing meant for me.

It didn’t start well.

Mentally, I struggled with the fact that as a freelancer you frequently have days where you don’t achieve anything. At least in the low-paid job I had just quit, I would come home having earned a little bit of money.

My early days as a freelancer felt horribly driftless.

Tuesday October 20th, 2009

So here I am in week 4 of my freelance life. Am I any closer to my goals? Nope. Why? Because I don’t have any! I lack direction, enthusiasm, sometimes motivation. What am I doing? Blogging a bit, tweeting a lot, reading blogs, sending the odd email, nothing which is tangibly about to bring me any money.

And so it went on.

I get asked for advice about how to be a freelancer but I have to admit that looking back on the last decade, I have never been good at it.

There are people out there who crush the game - they create spreadsheets of contacts, develop ambitious goals, cold-call and pitch stories, build formidable social media presences and generally hustle their way forward.

I wasn’t smart or motivated enough to do any of that. I survived and - eventuuuaaally - thrived.

So let’s be real about something: luck and privilege played a huge role in getting me this far. I’m a white dude from a middle-class family and, although I am proud to say that I never had to rely on family help in the end, knowing that they could and would bail me out made a huge difference, psychologically.

I could entertain riskier ideas and simply stay in the game longer just knowing there would be something to cushion my fall; an account of the last decade wouldn’t be accurate without that point acknowledged.

As I’ve written before, it’s so important more people from disadvantaged backgrounds get chances to express themselves in the arts and this psychological element needs addressing.

Anyway, I had one successful strategy, which I’ve stuck to for ten years and hasn’t failed me: make my own work and make it as amazing as I possibly can.

Back in 2009 I wrote a blog about the future of journalism. It never once made me a penny in advertising or affiliate links, but I treated it as if it were a proper publication, with an editorial calendar, custom made banners and more. Just when I was about to move to London I got a phone call from Beth Brewster, the Head of Journalism at Kingston University in London. She’d seen the blog and wanted me to run a course in video journalism!

I taught two days a week for nearly four years; I loved it and it kept the wolf from the door.

The blog also brought in invitations to speak on panels at journalism conferences and to run workshops everywhere from Perugia in Italy to Abakan in Russia, from Moldova to Doha (yes, I pretty much said yes to any gig going).

In 2010 I started making videos and posting them on the blog. I spent days and days editing, teaching myself motion graphics to make them as professional looking as possible. Again, not a penny in return, but one day I received an email asking if I was available to shoot a video for a company website. One gig led to another and by 2011 I was in Chengdu in China filming a competition documentary.

In 2012 I created and sold a quarterly magazine about storytelling. I acted as if it was a bonafide publication, conducting interviews, commissioning (and paying) writers, even paying for copy editing. It made a little bit of money, but more importantly, it led to a successful online course I ran with my friend Marc in 2013 and 2014.

And then, in January 2014, I started a YouTube channel and began uploading my video essays. As you know, I worked my arse off to make these videos the best I was capable of, spending weeks on story design and scripting. I didn’t want to put ads on them so they never made me a penny, but in June of that year (!) I was flown out to Rome to meet the big boss at Fusion - he’d seen the videos and offered me a contract to make them for him.

I did that through 2015 before launching my Patreon account. I made more videos until 2017 when the New York Times wrote and asked if I’d be interested in directing a film about fake news…

…and here I am, on Tuesday last week - almost ten years to the day from when I took the leap - at the Emmy Awards in New York!

From left: Executive Producer Adam Ellick, Op-docs Senior Producers Lindsay Crouse & Andrew Blackwell and myself. My phone camera sucks.

Sadly Operation Infektion didn’t win in either of its categories but it was still incredible to be nominated. 2009 Adam, feeling sick and sitting in his pyjamas in Kingston would never have believed his journey might take him here.

So that’s the only thing I can offer in terms of advice if you’re thinking about freelancing: make your own stuff and make it as amazing as you possibly can.

Until next Sunday,

P.S. have you seen my new three-part series with Jaron Lanier yet? Don’t forget if you have any questions about how it was made, reply to his email and I’ll answer them next week!

.38 A new project from me

About six years ago I was living in a tiny apartment in Paris and spending a lot of time in the American Library, tucked away in the 8th arrondisment.

It’s a strange place, full of bored students, elderly dames, rude staff and the most eclectic selection of books you can think of - titles from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, long out of print everywhere else.

As a place of serendipity and discovery, it is one of the best I’ve found (or at least was in 2013).

It was here, among the out-of-print paperbacks and long-forgotten self-help guides, that I stumbled upon a book called You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier. I had never heard of either book or author before but - maybe it was the intriguing title, maybe the cover design, or maybe the photo of the dreadlocked man on the inside - I felt compelled to read it.

And it changed my perception of the internet entirely.

Jaron’s book was full of weird turns of phrase like “drive-by anonymity” and “social media fascism”. Back in 2013, almost all commentary on the internet was positive - pollyannaish in fact - and here was a guy saying “this is not working out for us, and if we don’t change it soon, we’re going to be stuck with this version of it forever.”

Today everyone is saying that - but six years ago it was news.

I didn’t want to agree with him, but by the last page, my mind had been changed, my perception of the internet completely altered.

How many books can you really say that about?

“I want to make a video essay about these ideas” I said to myself, and six years later, incredibly, I was offered the chance to direct not just a video but a series with Jaron for the New York Times - and it’s about to drop.

In the years since You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron has developed his ideas into a vision for a new economy where internet users are not treated as products to be manipulated for clicks, but as dignified economic agents in control of, and earning money from, our data. I hope it will change your perception of the internet as much as his book did for me.

As a filmmaker, it’s been one of my most difficult projects. The challenge right at the top was converting Jaron’s abstract ideas into something you can not just see but feel.

I had a some significant creative breakthroughs during production and if you’ve been Third Something reader for a while, you might have read about them in letters #11, #21, #25 and #31.

The series is called Jaron Lanier Fixes the Internet and it launches tomorrow (Monday 23rd September). If you head to the New York Times homepage this week you’ll struggle to miss it. If you read this later in the week (or the future!) you can see the whole thing here. (If you’re not a Times subscriber, the videos will be on YouTube in a week).

In letter #40 I might do a quick Q&A about the project - so if you have any questions you want to ask about the show, just reply to this email!

Until next Sunday,

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