Recent “Musings” Posts

Update on “The Olympic City”

Greetings friends, here’s a quick update on The Olympic City, my photography collaboration with Jon Pack where we’re looking at former Olympic host cities around the world and documenting what happens once the Games are gone. Jon and I have visited 13 cities, culminating with my trip to Beijing in December (above) and Jon’s trip last week to London to document the transformation happening at the Olympic Park there. So we’ve finished photographing, and now the book is in the capable hands of our designer Paul Sahre. The book will be going to press in March, and shipping in April. If you didn’t reserve a copy through our Kickstarter campaign, the remaining 300 available copies of the book will be offered for pre-order in mid-February. I’ll post details here or on my Twitter feed.


Categories: Merchandise, Musings

  • Apr 23
  • 0

Come on, get happy

Last Wednesday, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian debated USC professor Jonathan Taplin, director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and former tour manager of The Band (watch the video). The topic: antipiracy, SOPA, and the current state of the entertainment industry. Taplin asserted that music piracy has impacted the income of musicians like The Band’s Levon Helm (who passed away from cancer last Thursday, R.I.P.), forcing Helm to have to tour in order to support his family and pay his medical bills. Ohanian countered that crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter could enable fans to help artists like Helm by directly financing their projects.

Taplin replied:

“You want to give every great artist a virtual begging bowl with Kickstarter. But Levon never wanted the charity of the Reddit community or the Kickstarter community. He just wanted to earn an honest living off the great work of a lifetime.”

While I can agree with some of Taplin’s views on piracy and how it has influenced the situation of someone like Helm (though one might also need to look at how The Band’s record sales royalty percentages are structured, and Helm’s publishing splits), I don’t agree with his assertion that Kickstarter is “a virtual begging bowl” for creatives.

Kickstarter is not a begging bowl. It’s a happiness machine.

About eight years ago, my girlfriend at the time was in the process of starting a non-profit literary magazine. We happened to be at a friend’s wedding, and someone we met there was asking us about the project. “Why would someone want to give money to help start this magazine?” he asked. We launched into a long pitch about how they’d be helping champion new writers, that literature was important, that we were educating people, etc. etc.

He paused for a second, then said, “No, no, that’s not what you’re offering them. You know what you’re offering? Happiness. A lot of people want to get involved in creative projects, but for whatever reason they can’t. You’re offering them a way to do that, a way to be involved in something important and creative. So don’t think of it as asking them for money, you’re providing them with happiness.”

Those words have stuck with me, because they represent a shift in how we as artists think about raising money for our projects, whether it’s a $10 Kickstarter backer or a $100,000 investor in an indie film. It’s not charity. What Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo have done is provide a large audience with an easy way to become part of the creative process and feel good about it. And with many projects now raising millions through crowdfunding, there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be a bigger part of how we all work in the future.

Obviously we’re in the midst of a major shift in terms of how artists should and can be compensated for their work. My films are illegally downloaded constantly, and I’ve tried to combat that by making the films as easy as possible to legally access (like by renting or downloading Urbanized directly from this site). When I went on tour with my second film, Objectified, I asked audience members how many of them had seen my first film, Helvetica. Maybe half the audience would raise their hands. Then I asked, of the people who’d seen Helvetica, how many had watched a pirated copy? About half of the people who had just raised their hands usually kept them up. On one hand, you could argue that I’d lost money from those people not paying for the Helvetica downloads. But on the other hand, they’d all just paid $20 for a ticket to the Objectified event.

So in my case I believe that file sharing has opened up a larger audience for my films, especially internationally. And how I utilize that larger audience to make my future films possible, and pay the rent, will be the key to my continued sustainability as an independent filmmaker. I believe that having a direct relationship with the people who want to see my films made, and making it easy for them to be involved in that process, is the best way to achieve that. Everybody’s happy.


Categories: Musings

  • Apr 20
  • 4

Remembering Hillman Curtis

In 2005, when I began the process of making Helvetica, I was searching for other design-related documentaries. I discovered there was only one filmmaker out there who was documenting designers and their work in an innovative way. Hillman Curtis’s Artist Series shorts were beautifully conceived, shot, and edited, and they really inspired me. You could tell he was passionate about documenting creativity and sharing it with other designers through these short profiles, which were always available free on his website. I was in awe of his creative output and how he balanced paid gigs with passion projects. His filmmaking style was unique, and he often put the guts of the film production process (boom microphones, lighting stands, backdrops, dolly tracks, etc.) on-screen as visual elements. In a way, his films simultaneously exposed his subject’s creative process, and his own.

He inspired countless designers through his books and conference appearances. His early Flash designs changed the way the web looked and helped open up the possibilities of online media. He explored narrative film, making 11 original short films, also viewable on his site. Hillman’s only feature-length project was the 2010 music documentary Ride, Rise, Roar about David Byrne, which my partner Jessica did the film festival publicity for. When I saw it at the SxSW premiere, I told Hillman it was one of the most well-photographed and edited concert films I’d ever seen. He was working on another feature, his collaboration with designer Stefan Sagmeister, The Happy Film, and he recently posted this short on Vimeo in which he explained his approach. “Be prepared to reinvent yourself,” was his advice to young creatives.

I first met Hillman in 2007 at the Design Thinkers conference in Toronto. We had plenty to talk about, we were both originally from Southern California, had our roots in the music scene, and in a sense we were doing the same thing with our films but in different forms. At the end of the conference, they gave the speakers a gift of an ornate hand-blown glass bottle of artisanal maple syrup. We were both flying back to New York, but Hillman didn’t have any checked baggage and realized they probably wouldn’t let him on the plane with a large vial of syrup in his carry-on. So I offered to bring it back in my suitcase, and we agreed that we’d meet up for brunch some weekend and make pancakes with the fancy syrup. Of course it slipped our minds, and every time we ran into each other after that, we were like, “The maple syrup!!!” Eventually I got his bottle back to him, but we never did have that pancake brunch.

Hillman passed away Wednesday night at the age of 51, after a three-year battle with cancer. He was someone who I truly admired, and this is a huge loss for all of us. My heart especially goes out to his wife Christina and their children.

Watch one of Hillman’s “Artist Series” short films now. It will make your day, and your life, better.

Cheers Hillman,

Categories: Musings

10 Westerns I Like

In response to a challenge from Jim Coudal:

1. Once Upon a Time in the West
2. Blazing Saddles
3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
4. High Plains Drifter
5. Seven Samurai (because, c’mon, it’s a western…)
6. The Wild Bunch
7. The Searchers
8. Westworld
9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
10. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Edit: I just remembered a few more messed up ones: El Topo and Greaser’s Palace

Categories: Musings

  • May 10
  • 2

Decorative water fountain, Brooklyn style

Observed near our studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn…

Categories: Musings

Sarah F. Cox: Imported to Detroit

This is the first in a series of guest posts on the Urbanized blog, where we invite people we like to share their views on the state of cites.

During the Super bowl, Chrysler launched a new television ad with the motto “Imported from Detroit.” The two-minute pitch features scenes of the city and residents and culminates with Eminem driving the car up to the gorgeous Fox Theatre where the words KEEP DETROIT BEAUTIFUL adorn the marquee.

In the commercial, Detroit was used to improve the image of the product, an observation I stole from a tweet from @rustwire, a defender of Rust Belt cities. If you know anything about the press that city has gotten in the last 20 years, and especially since the foreclosure crisis and auto industry bailout, you’d have to think they were crazy. Yet here is the epic tribute to Detroit pride:

If any city has had an unfair share of negative propaganda, it’s Detroit. Examples are widespread in every medium from New York Times articles, to BBC documentaries, to a recent photo essay from PBS, entitled: Desolate Detroit, the Forsaken City. While Detroit does have plenty of problems, it’s the hyperbole used to describe the issues that gets residents fired up. Lest the images of vacant houses fool you, 800,000 people still live there making it the largest city in the state of Michigan.

It’s easy to manipulate a story with images, as a recent story in Guernica pointed out by examining ruin porn, an artistic compulsion to gawk at decaying buildings. What is it about emptiness that scares America so? I have been contemplating this question a lot as I prepare a thesis on Urban Design in Detroit, a project that has allowed me to spend six weeks of the last year there.

Car commercials are their own type of propaganda; this one pushes a product with a celebrity. But subtle moves can be revolutionary. KEEP DETROIT BEAUTIFUL it says. Not “make” but “keep.” We’re still here, it says.

Detroit, in my opinion, has a terrible motto. Many would disagree with me, but I think it’s impossible to lure new residents with the words: “We hope for better things, they shall rise from the ashes.” Chrysler now offers up, “Imported from Detroit,” which is great for lifers, but I’d like to see “Imported TO Detroit,” catch on as well. I’m moving there from New York City next spring and I cannot wait.

Sarah F. Cox writes about architecture and design for Curbed, Core77, and The Architect’s Newspaper. She’s currently working on a thesis on Urban Design in Detroit to complete her MFA in Design Criticism for the School of Visual Arts. Sarah’s thesis talk will be part of the day-long D-Crit Conference, open to the public, on May 4. She is very sad that the White Stripes broke up last week.

Categories: Musings

Spiral Jetty

Cities are great… but sometimes we need a break from them! Last weekend I visited Robert Smithson‘s 1970 earthwork Spiral Jetty, on the foggy banks of Great Salt Lake, Utah. It’s about two and a half hours from Salt Lake City. Highly recommended if you find yourself anywhere near SLC. The driving directions on Dia’s site make the trek seem a little more daunting than it actually is, since there’s been some major road improvements recently. And it’s right next to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869! History geeks, you’re in heaven.


Categories: Musings

  • Jan 13
  • 5

A walk in the Mumbai sky

I just returned yesterday from a week-long trip to Mumbai, India. I’d never been there before, and whatever I’d imagined this city would be like wasn’t even close to the reality. I never thought I’d describe New York City as quiet, but hell, NYC is like a mountain retreat compared to Mumbai. The noise, the traffic, the street life, the constant crush of people in most parts of the city; it all adds up to stimulus overload.

There’s so much to discuss from an urban design standpoint here. With about half the city’s population living in what would be deemed “slums” in most Western countries, informal housing pretty much dominates the conversation. There are massive slums, like the much-documented Dharavi, which was a fishing village on the edge of the city 100 years ago but has since been swallowed by Mumbai’s growth and now sits in the middle of prime commercial real estate. Then there’s the development of the Eastern Waterfront area, thousands of acres currently controlled by the Port Trust that many feel represents the future of the city’s growth.

One of Mumbai’s new Skywalks towers over the Bandra East slum.

But once I arrived in the city, I became fascinated by its new system of Skywalks, 36 elevated walkways that are basically extended exits from the urban railroad stations. The city planners’ position was that commuters wanted to be able bypass the swarm of taxis and hawkers that surround the station exits, and have the Skywalks deposit them several kilometers away which would more equally distribute the amount of exiting pedestrians. The first Skywalk was built at the Bandra railroad station, and it stretches several kilometers over the Bandra East slum to the entrance of the Bandra Kurla Complex, a hub of new office buildings and commercial development. So basically, business people taking the train can avoid walking through the slum by walking over it on the Skywalk.

Informal housing and urban farmers under the Bandra Skywalk.

In the conversations I’ve had in this film so far, what often comes up is that cities are shaped by a series of small incremental choices: should a city spend $300 million USD to try to address the issues at street level (sanitation, traffic planning, sidewalk maintenance, informal vending) or spend that money building a way for part of the population to avoid having to deal with those issues? In the film you’ll be able to see more of our exploration into this project, the people involved, and the people it affects.

Special thanks to our production coordinator Prabhat Gupta, Jahangir, Suresh Rajamani, Pamela Puchalski, Rahul Mehrotra, everyone at SPARC, the Slum/Shack Dwellers Association, and the MMRDA.


Categories: Film News, Musings

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