Trailers for trailers

I’ve loved movie trailers since my earliest days on the web. As a teenager, I would wait impatiently for postage-stamp-sized previews to download over dial-up. In college, Apple’s trailers site was a daily visit, despite its reliance on the clunky QuickTime player.

Now, decades later, I still adore trailers, but the medium and its surrounding tech have matured. Full HD trailers download almost instantly—even over my DSL connection. The average trailer’s quality has improved, too—it’s less a sloppy afterthought and more a carefully-planned salvo in a months-long marketing campaign.

One recent change to the medium sticks out. Many action-heavy trailers now begin with a stinger—a 4–5 second preview of the trailer’s most exciting scenes, stitched together with fast cuts and scored with a cacophony of rising sound effects. It’s literally a “trailer for the trailer”:

I don’t really understand this trend. “Nano-trailers” make sense on social media; quick cuts catch a user’s eye as she scrolls through Instagram. But why do studios tack nano-trailers onto the trailers themselves? Are viewers more likely to watch the entire preview if the pre-trailer piques their interest? Are we so attention-poor that we can’t wait for a two-minute trailer to slow-boil?

And what’s next? Where does this trend lead? Will we eventually see trailers for trailers for trailers? A half-second megaclip with 12 single-frame smash cuts, scored with a single BWWWWAAAAAP?

My head hurts. ■

  1. Film strip artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.
movies tech

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mid-Production Tragedy, and Virtual Actors

Hollywood was rocked on Sunday by the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of its finest actors.

Hoffman had not yet finished his work on the final Hunger Games sequel, in which he plays mentor to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. The actor had one week of shooting left on the marquee project.

It feels crass to ask how filmmakers will handle Hoffman’s absence. But one supporting actor’s death can’t derail a project whose budget surpasses a hundred million dollars. That difficult question must be asked and answered.

So how will they work around the actor’s death? A studio spokesperson indicated that the unfilmed “key scene” will be reconfigured to accommodate the missing Hoffman.

Regardless of how things play out for Mockingjay, this situation seems like a Hollywood executive’s worst nightmare. It proves just how risky it can be to rely on actors. The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Rob Legato, a visual effects guru, about how that risk might be mitigated in the future:

Insurance companies may require actors in big films to be scanned and have a range of facial expressions recorded in advance “in case something like this does happen – and it seems to have happened quite a bit lately.”

Actors might also record vocal demo reels, from which their speaking voices could be recreated.

An obvious next question: if you can recreate convincing performances digitally, why hire actors at all? You’re already hand-crafting the set, the props, the stunts, and the visual effects via CGI. Why not the actors, too?

A CGI cast offers obvious practical advantages. After all, digital actors don’t get paid scale, won’t demand a luxury trailer, and never collapse in narcissistic tantrums. Digital actors can interact more convincingly with digital environments than can their flesh-and-blood counterparts. And, again, digital actors don’t unexpectedly die.

As technology stands, this suggestion sounds preposterous. Too many CGI characters have fallen short of believability.

But it’s just another in a long string of technical challenges, and technical challenges eventually get overcome. Graphic artists can already create convincing performances by referencing a motion-captured actor. Soon, they’ll learn to create similarly convincing characters—entirely from scratch.

Later, this process will be automated and packaged as “actor software.” Algorithms will replicate even the subtlest of emotions. Directors will give computers the same instructions they currently give actors: “Less on-the-nose… More theatrical… Give me a pause there.”[1] Filmmaking will be something that happens in a computer lab, not a sound stage.

Of course, the Screen Actors Guild may have a thing or two to say about it.

UPDATE: Has the age of the “digital actor” already arrived? On February 6, the NY Post reported that filmmakers will use CGI to recreate Hoffman for a key scene in the final Hunger Games sequel.

  1. Can you tell I have no idea what a director does?  ↩
technology TV Uncategorized

Betting on the binge: Netflix, House of Cards, and the future of appointment viewing

We rejoined Netflix, and I can’t stop watching.

I’ve already devoured two seasons of The Walking Dead, AMC’s zombie gore-fest. We’re plowing through Arrested Development, a show that somehow slipped under our radar back in its day. West Wing looms on the horizon, along with a half-dozen other series we never caught the first time around.

In other words, we’re binging—and loving it. It’s a pleasant way to veg. No weeklong wait between episodes. No commercial breaks. Dig into a show on your own terms, not on the schedule that helps the network win sweeps week.[1]

We love it, and so do millions of other viewers (especially the younger crowds marketers salivate over). For us, this is “TV”. Not hundred-dollar cable bills. Not frustrating slogs through weeks of reruns, waiting for a new episode. Just an easy-to-use, inexpensive service that encourages us to overindulge on our favorite shows.

Knowing how much its users love to binge, Netflix has gone all-in. House of Cards, an original series produced by the online service, never aired on a network. It was never released piecemeal, episode by episode, either. Instead, Netflix debuted Cards’ entire first season all at once: fourteen episodes—teed up for immediate binge viewing.

The binge is in, but the old model has its strengths, both for the networks and their viewers. For over half a century, the television industry emphasized “appointment viewing.” Popular shows were hyped as “must see TV”, and viewers rearranged their schedules to tune in, every week—“same bat time, same bat channel.”

This steady time slot approach helped make television a social phenomenon. Fans planned parties around each new episode’s premiere. Workers gathered around the water cooler to discuss the previous night’s shows. And as social media—particularly Twitter—ramped up, this communal conversation spilled out onto the web.

Viewers want to watch together. The desire is hard-wired into our brains. For most of human history, after all, we gathered around the campfire, huddled against the dark, and told each other stories. We still gather—only the flickering light comes from a talking box, and the stories get beamed in from afar.

Slowly but surely, the networks realized how important social viewing was to a show’s success. For a series to go viral, it needed rabid fans to share it with others. So the studios now do everything they can to encourage this conversation. Thus, we get hashtags superimposed over every broadcast.

This leaves Netflix in a precarious position, with irreconcilable agendas on all sides. Their subscribers want to binge freely and share the viewing experience with others. The networks—who still provide the vast majority of Netflix’s content—need a viable release model for the digital age and a way to promote their product.

It’s a tricky problem, but here’s one way Netflix could solve it: help users sync their viewing with each other. Make it easy for people half a world apart to watch the exact same thing at the exact same time. If one person pauses, the other does, too—automatically. And, as their mini-marathons roll along, friends would share their reactions, real-time, on Twitter and Facebook, thus recreating the hashtag effect in miniature.[2] Netflix itself might even organize some parties: “Jump into LOST with the rest of Netflix, starting this Friday at 9!”

The binge is no longer fringe. To satisfy its viewers, appease its content providers, and cement itself as the streaming king, Netflix should invite us to binge… together.

  1. In fact, if anything, the binge trend undermines TV ratings, since it encourages viewers not to watch the best shows as they air. Let the bandwagon pass you by and the seasons stack up. Then, once the show airs its finale, you’re free to enjoy the entire series. You can rocket through Battlestar Galactica in a long weekend. You can power through LOST in a fortnight. You can skip over the universally-reviled episodes to reach the fan favorites. If you can wait out a show’s broadcast run, TV works around your schedule, not the networks’ prime-time strategies.  ↩

  2. In fact, the XBOX Netflix app had something like this functionality in its “Party Mode,” until a firmware upgrade wiped this feature out  ↩