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Some notes on web multimedia

by Dave Riley

Unfortunately here in downtown Northgate in the shadow of the Golden Circle pineapple cannery I've been "much under the weather."

That's a very apt term -- "under the weather" -- because the 'weather' has been bearing down on me big time and, as fits my mercurial condition, it drives me "under" such that I spend most of my time abed.

So that's where I've been lately. (And for all else, that's where I could still be if I wasn't here.)

I get up now and then, play with computer this and that then return to a prostrate condition.

I can confidently say that in my weather vane experience something is afoot in this current meteorological juncture. We must be shifting from El Niño to La Niña or vice versa.

I am not looking forward to the Summer.

Multimedia options

That said, my advantage is that domestication offers me the option of fine tuning a lot of multimedia experiences. That's not multiMedium experiences but the likes of the other digital stuff on the web.

I've recently started to experiment with video and in the process of negotiating the DIY its becoming clearer about what sort of sequence you can readily publish on the web.

Technically you can publish and share anything on the web but to make best use of a medium requires a degree of savvy and knack because you live within bandwidth and concentration constraints.

In the work we do publishing LatinRadical the program's producer, Warwick Fry, always insists on shelling out any audio in 10 minute segments. Ten minutes will give you something like 7-15Mb to download depending on how you squish down the audio file. Warwick will even divide up a longer interview into two parts so long as it can be delivered under the constraint of this law of his.

But I think he has a case. We're so used to the television fomat of one half hour (actually less than 23 minutes of programming) or the radio cadence of hour slots/news/ station identification.... that it can be easy to fall victim to the limitless space available on the web.

There's no discipline except that of bandwidth.

The problem is that as you move up the digital ladder -- from text to images to audio to video -- your files become exponentially bigger.

The downside of this is that as you proceed up in size the chances of your output being read, listened to or watched decreases . Nonetheless the irony is that the fastest growing medium on the web requires the largest share of bandwidth: video.

The YouTube left

That's a conundrum -- that's the YouTube phenomenon for you. Logically I find this hard to comprehend. Why choose the most 'expensive' medium over the 'cheaper' ones?

On the activist Left the process proceeds one perplexing step further: there's this ready penchant to offer lectures in video format. I assume you've been to any number of talks, forums, lectures, conferences and such and you'll surely agree with me that essentially it's about someone standing up front and talking to you. They often talk by reading and rarely will they do much else but stand and deliver.

But hey! you gonna wanna watch it all in video, right?

So they talk for an hour and you'll want to sit at your computer desk and watch someone talk at you for an hour?

I reckon that's hooey. You may want to consider an image of the occasion but if you want to take in the talking stuff it is better to offer you a file you can download and listen to offline or a pop up version in flash format which will enable you to continue to surf while you listen to so and so expound. In fact you'll want to listen the same way millions listen to radio: while they do something else.

Some talks/lectures can be punchy and take off in video format like this one of the late (great) Peter Camejo:

But that's Peter -- he was a total experience.

Does size matter?

I'm a total audiophile in the sense I value the power of my ears to harness input. I was born before television was introduced in 1956 here in Australia and I've always valued radio not so much as a source for music but as a medium for talk and communication. Today I take in so much of my information though podcasted audio than I fear I'm becoming much more oral in my brain than textual.

In my experience on the left -- despite all those left magazine and newspapers, the core cultural tradition is aural . Generally the lot of us can talk the arm off a chair because we value argument. We appreciate the dialectic of point and counter point and nuanced debate.

And when you can have a person like Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro who can talk for 3-4 hours before a mass audience we tend to think that's really something.

Our problem is that the YouTube generation tends to be visually dependent and they tend to take notice more of something in video format --something seen that moves -- rather than something only written or said.

So this begins to explain why size doesn't matter so much and why video files can be preferenced above smaller text or audio ones on the web.

The medium is the message

While I did suggest that maybe it doesn't add very much to a lecture to share it in video format rather than as a sound file -- when you come to editing up a video as against an audio recording it so very evident that you are dealing in a very different medium.

The pressure to replicate the format of the six o'clock TV news with its short grabs is strong and flows almost as an imperative from the material before you. Good video editing is honing what you've got down to a bare minimum of representation. Hypothetically, out of an hour's footage you may choose to use just three minutes or less in the final cut.

[Of course you ain't gonna do that with the lecture you shot! You are still going to offer that as a whole hour video on the web!]

So there's a logic there that runs counter to Left habits where content is anchored in words.

If you consider video/audio offerings like Democracy Now! there's no real mix in play as the program is secured by talk and interview. Nothing radical there -- it goes out with more or less the same content and edit regardless of whether in video or audio format.

If you watch a John Pilger documentary or that of some other skilled video journalist more elements are in play. The history of documentary film making is still being aggressively made as any selective viewing of SBS or the ABC will indicate; or any visit to your local Activist Centre film showing. Video documentaries are a new and very powerful force which have opened up a major new dialogue on the left.

But we can't all go to film school nor do we have the resources to pursue a major documentary film project. There is a standard of presentation expected that doesn't come so easily as giving a talk or a writing newspaper article for Green Left Weekly.

So what is the utility of video on the left?

My preferred view is that any progress at the present time has to be via multimedia. I don't think you can rule one way or the other or insist that it has to be one medium or another as the way to proceed. So you gotta mix it up.

If I go to a demonstration I can be asked to write it up and maybe that's all of 250- 450 words. I can add to the description by also taking a few photographs of which maybe one will get in a hard copy publication. If I record audio of the event I'm going to pitch my edit toward what the speakers' said and I could probably format an edit that lasts all of 8-10 minutes for web use.

But if I shoot video and do a publishing edit I'm more likely to offer 3 minutes of passion and protests.

Although I can edit audio to capture a lot of militancy and a lot of passion -- the potent emotive medium is going to be that of video.

So I say there's this role for video as a means to share emotion on the left and to do it in a way that's not like the exposee approach of the 6 o'clock news.

However, because the new mini dv camera is becoming a pervasive tool there is another element that warrants consideration. It's sometimes called microcinema but that hardly defines its potential.

To give you an example, consider the film: Voices of Iraq.

Voices of Iraq segment

Voices of Iraq is a ground breaking 2004 documentary about Iraq, created by distributing small video cameras to the subjects of a film, thus enabling subjects to film themselves.

This is 'anti film' making which in its own way develops a new video language which is such an absolutely personal point of view. I've talked about this approach previously here in regard to Ten -- Microcinema and Ten: Abbas Kiarostami's new digital wave.

This isn't third person storytelling but as close to first person as you can get. And despite what I've been mulling about here I see a direct relationship between this kind of cinema and vlogging -- videoblogging. It's documentary making but it is of a kind that relates strongly to the tradition of oral history taking.

In my way I'm thinking of a Howard Zinn like rendering of political existence.
A People's History of the United States is a 1980 nonfiction book by American historian and political scientist Howard Zinn. In the book, Zinn seeks to present American history through the eyes of those rarely heard in mainstream histories. A People's History, though originally a dissident work, has become a major success and was a runner-up in 1980 for the National Book Award. It has been adopted for reading in some high schools and colleges across the United States and has been frequently revised, with the most recent edition covering events through 2003. In 2003, Zinn was awarded the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique for the French version of this book, Une histoire populaire des Etats-Unis. Over one million copies have been sold.
So while audio is constrained by a certain expectation of content, video offers a real option for POV stuff that transcends almost the shallowness of the 6 o'clock news or, for that matter, the ready manipulation of Reality TV.

As I said, this all is but notes. While you should continue to "watch this pace" there's one other element that warrants mentioning . The irony is that because video is seemingly intrinsically more attractive than audio (to watch and to shoot), we are more likely to impact on the web that way rather than through recourse to recording sound alone.

Our only handicap can be if we persevere with some of the stolid habits that have already set in.

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