The perils of adaptation

For our third and fourth nights of ds106radio live tweeting, we listened to the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and a BBC adaptation of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice. The former was from 1948 and the latter from 1991, so again we had the contrast between the age of radio and the age of video.

Lux was a soap company that sponsored the radio series. This was common in those days, and is where the term soap opera originates. From the sound, it may have been recorded live in a theater. There was applause, which sounded out of place, at the breaks between acts. The announcer would do product promotion in the breaks, commercials much different from what we hear these days. There was a judicious but effective use of sound effects and transition music.

It was a problematic adaptation however. The movie is considered a classic now, and was very popular then, bit with audiences and critics. Hitchcock was recognized as a master film maker. I think the radio producers were intimidated by this. It really shows in the final scene. In the movie, it was very dramatic, but also very visual. It could not work with sound alone. With a little imagination, I’m sure it could have been re-written to work as sound, but that would have meant tampering with the climactic moment, which probably wouldn’t have pleased anyone.

“The book was better” is something commonly said about movie adaptations. It’s pretty much always true. Stanley Kubrick once said that you can’t make a great film out of a great book. I think that’s because what makes a book great is the way it uses written language, which gets lost in translation to film. It’s better to use a mediocre book so you’re not bound by the original. The radio version of Notorious ran into that issue.

You Only Live Twice adapted Fleming’s novel for the radio. While the movies took liberties with his work, the BBC appears to try to be faithful. But that becomes problematic too. In a book, we can read what the characters are seeing and thinking. It’s difficult to translate that to dialogue without getting awkward, as this program showed. Instead of following the “show, don’t tell” rule, the producers gave us some longwinded exposition and extended sequences of Bond thinking out loud. I should have previewed the audio before taking to the air, because it sounded like someone did an amatuer job of layering soundtrack music on top of the radio broadcast, too loud and in the wrong spots. Even so, we could still hear examples of how sound can convey setting and a sense of the action. Both broadcasts give examples of things that work, and things that don’t. We can take lessons from the failures as well as the successes.

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Time periods and talent pools

For our Wednesday evening live tweeting with ds106radio, we listened to the BBC 2018 radio production of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker.

The modern production was a contrast to the previous night’s shows, produced 65 years earlier. The contrast was most apparent in the clarity, detail, and stereo imaging in the sound production. Several people remarked on this.

While the production quality was better, the production overall, I thought, was weaker. The BBC used a voice of Fleming as a narrator. Some people were okay with it and others found it distracting and out of place. Frequently it was superfluous. In some instances the narrator repeated information we could pick up from sound and dialogue, and in others the narrator interjected unnecessary details. Perhaps they’re trying to be faithful to Fleming’s stories in ways that the movies were not, but it felt like a failure of imagination and critical editing.

At one point, they used an old-fashioned newsreel to provide background exposition. This was an effective way to show rather than tell us about the villain. It also put the story in a particular time, one where newsreels were a thing. Later on they used some rather modern-sounding background music, which reminded me of Tool, and felt incongruous with the period. It’s a small detail, but it breaks the flow by calling attention to itself.

It made me think about the time periods and the talent pools. Nowadays, for the past half century really, people have grown up with video as the dominant form of storytelling. There are people who do excellent sound work, but most often it’s in service of visual storytelling. At the time of Douglas of the World, print and radio were the dominant forms of mass communication. Creators and audiences were much more attuned to those types of languages, whereas now it’s all about the moving image. That critical ear for tightly-edited audio storytelling is underdeveloped. That’s my conjecture anyway.

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The world is enough for Doug

For our first night of ds106radio tweet-alongs, we listened to two episodes of Douglas of the World, “The Terrorist”

and “The Murder Rap.”

I had never heard either, and in fact never heard of the show until this past weekend, so it was a bit of a risk. The sound quality on the first episode was normal for old-time radio – listenable but not good. The second one was poor but mostly understandable.

One value of listening to old shows recorded with primitive technology is that
they present a pretty low bar. Anyone can make something just as good or better without any special equipment beyond a computer and a microphone. Another value is that they show the effectiveness of just a few simple sound effects.

A third value is in the writing and structure. A half hour drama has to be taut and economical, and in an audio setting, has to function purely through sound and dialogue. There’s that storytelling dictum of show, don’t tell. We know Douglas is a newspaper reporter from the office banter and typewriters in the background. We know they’re driving when we hear the car engine. We know they’re trapped when we hear the door close and the lock turn. Those simple sounds create a sense of place, of space, action, … even the transitional music gives us clues to the passage of time and the mood of the situation. All of which are parts of writing for audio. We will be making our own radio shows in a couple weeks, and we can take many lessons from what we hear in these old-time shows.

Some background on Douglas of the World can be found at the Digital Deli Too site. It was produced for Armed Forces Radio and referenced real world issues of the time, as we saw in The Terrorist with Mossadegh. That episode was written up on an Iranian site, which gives some interesting perspective on it.

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Doug Engelbeats

The Engelbart Framework Annotation Project is worth paying attention to, and participating in, for those who can find the time. I’ve been struggling with it, as things I have to do crowd out the things I want to do. But I did find time to listen to Gardner Campbell’s reading of Engelbart’s paper, and a few minutes in I had the idea to give it a backing track. I found A Tribe Called Quest_Rare & Unreleased Instrumentals Vol 2 (Album) 2010 on Youtube and pretty much dropped Gardner’s recording right in top of it. I noticed the instrumental still had some Q-Tip in it near the beginning, so I made some room for that, although it might have been better to just take that part out. It was just a happy accident that the rhythm of the reading fits so well with the beats. I gave it a little nudge here and there, but mostly just let it fall where it may. Maybe it’s a silly mash-up, and better men than me have done it before, but I kinda like the way it came out. I wonder where my wallet went…

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Creepy anime eye

by Cris Shapan

This morning a saw a new creation from one of my favorite contemporary artists, Cris Shapan. This is in response to advertising for an upcoming film, Alita: Battle Angel, which dares to venture into an uncanny valley. What I really like about Shapan’s work is the attention to detail, like that little blurb, “Not for sale where creepy is unlawful.”
But it got me to wondering if I could do something similarly creepy. It looks like a fairly simple bit of Photoshopping. I looked for images of James Bond and found a collage of the many actors in their role. It would have been great to work with, but the image was too small and the resolution was too low. Instead I grabbed several individual Bonds and put them together in my own collage. Then I used the polygon selection tool to copy the eyes, one pair at a time. I set the feathering to 2 px so that it would blend smoothly with the rest of the image. Then I enlarged the eye copies and moved them into place. I had to move the second eye separately to get them closer together, like in the original. I repeated that for each Bond.
The effect is interesting. The eyes are big enough so that they don’t look right, but not so much that it’s immediately obvious what’s wrong. I probably could have pushed it further, especially with Dalton and Bronson. Maybe I should have enlarged their eyes vertically.

OK, that’s creepy. So, I did this because I thought it would be fun. There wasn’t really a Visual Assignment that matched it, as far as I could tell, so I’m making a new one. I had to think of a title, and this just came to me:

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Top Secret!

Restricted information: Security clearance level 3

The data below was intercepted from ds106 communications:

Further details on these individuals has been located. Familiarize yourselves with the information. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

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Bagged and tagged

Commencing inspection of Training Officer (TO) BOND's backpack
Backpack belonging to TO BOND
Item 1 Metal water bottle
The bottle implies a connection with Penn State. This appears to be a red herring, or a subtle misdirection.
Items 2 and 3 eating implements
Item 2 is ostensibly an orange peeler, although the small blade could serve other purposes. Item 2 is a paring knife, which seems innocuous, but apparently has seen heavy use judging from the condition of the handle. Consider upgrading.
Item 4 listening device
This is a standard iPhone earbud/microphone wire, with adapter, which lacks the tensile strength to function as a garrote. Recommend upgrading to agent standard version.
Item 5 book
This is not on the list of agency-approved standard equipment. The title matches BOND's name and should be considered a red flag. Recommend BOND for a psych eval. Check for narcissism within acceptable levels.

This is based on the What’s in your bag? assignment, which has been a required character-visualization assignment in the past. I applied it to the backpack I use, filtered through the secret agent theme. This meant looking at the various items and considering how else they might be used in an agent context.

I wanted to set it up as a table, thinking that might make it look bureaucratic and outdated. I found the TablePress plugin, which didn’t quite give me what I envisioned, but it does the job and it may come in handy in the future. Photographically, I think it would have been better to use a tripod and a less decorative table. Given the context, it makes sense for the photos to be documentary snapshots, with little thought to composition or aesthetics. It’s really more of an exercise in design than imagery, but I think it made sense to take that approach.

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The man with the golden camera

I’ve been playing with James Bond titles in the weekly assignments, so I had the idea to rework a movie poster. I googled for examples and found a site with loads. There’s quite a variety there, so I also did an image search for golden camera to let that help guide my choice. The image and poster I used were a natural match. I’m not sure if the poster is official, but it appears to be a product of Matt Raubenheimer. I found out he was on Twitter, so I asked for his permission to remix his work and he said “Yes” within minutes.

The camera shutter icon came from a stock photo site. I had to redo the title, so I went looking for an easy way to get that metallic look on the typeface. I went with this tutorial and used a color overlay to make it gold. I should have played with the settings more, and perhaps the font as well, because it looks way too much like a MS WordArt horror. Even a flat gold color would have been better – more legible and less distracting. I left it as is for the purposes of critique.

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Good guys and bad guys

I recently watched Philip Noyce’s 2010 Angelina Jolie vehicle Salt on Netflix. As I recall, it wasn’t well-received when it came out. Some people had issues with its implausibility, as if implausibility isn’t inherent in action-adventure films. In the movie, we find out that the lead character, Evelyn Salt, is a CIA agent. The we find out she’s a Russian agent. Hollywood being Hollywood, we know she’s not going to turn out to be a villain, but we can at least play along with the story that the issue is up in the air. That uncertainty makes the story interesting to me, but I can see how others might be turned off by the lack of clarity.

I’m thinking about how Vonnegut’s story shapes would apply. It’s a little tricky because the chronology is not linear, but I’m going to take the start of the movie as the beginning and the end as the end, and ignore the flashbacks and what gets hidden in the leap forward. There are a few different ways of looking at it. The story starts out in ill fortune, as she’s being interrogated in North Korea. From there it goes to the median line, as we see her in her regular daily life. She spends the rest of the film on the run, so we could call that ill fortune, but she also has her escapes and victories along the way, so we could also see it as going up and down. Broadly, I think it fits the Cinderella shape, as she dispatches the bad guys, saves the world, and manages to convince counterintelligence that she’s on the side of the good guys. But in the version I saw (apparently there was a different one with an alternate ending (YT) she’s still on the run in the end. Perhaps the fact that it doesn’t clearly hold to a familiar story shape is why it was not well-received. Her situation is never really resolved.

If we were to include the flashback sections in chronological order, that would change the shape of the story. But since the story isn’t told that way, it would also change the story. There is a storytelling principle of “show, don’t tell.” Here’s an example from the classic rock radio that woke me up in the morning:

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air

It paints a picture with words, rather than just telling us the singer was driving through the desert at night. In a song the showing can be done poetically, with an economy of language. In film it’s more challenging because exposition usually has to shown in real time, and time is a limited commodity. The flashbacks in Salt show us something about where the character comes from and what motivates her, which is more effective than having someone tell us her background. Perhaps it’s more poetic in a way too.

I’m also thinking about Bryan Alexander’s chapter on digital storytelling. One of the overall questions driving the course is, “What is digital storytelling?” although I try to keep it implicit so as not to be limiting. I like his approach of asking what it is not, and the challenge that question creates. Is Salt digital storytelling? So much media these days is born digital, edited and produced and distributed digitally. I tend to think of it in terms of the web. The web’s power comes from the hyperlink, from connecting and embedding documents into a larger story. A movie is a movie and a TV show is a TV show, perhaps not DS. But on the web they can be connected with other narratives, sub-narratives and meta-narratives, to be part of a larger story. What I’m doing here is trying to weave some things together, songs and lyrics and thoughts and reflections, hopefully to say something and show something more than just a few paragraphs. Hopefully more than rambling drivel too.

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On the Daily Create

A few people have asked about the Daily Create, so I thought I’d write a post.

The Daily Create is an ongoing part of ds106. It comes out every day of the year. The idea is that regular exercise of creativity can make us more creative. If you wait for inspiration it will never come. If you work at generating ideas, then the ideas will flow.

The Daily Create is meant to be a simple, quick exercise. Just make something in response to the prompt. Do it that day and share it on Twitter. It’s not about making a masterpiece. It’s about making. If I were to paraphrase John Cage, I’d call it Rule 106:

You’re allowed to be creative in what you make and how you interpret the prompt. If it asks for a photo and you make a poem, you’ve made something. Some people do the Daily Create nearly every day. Some people do it when they feel like it. I’m glad a few students decided to have fun with it this week. They didn’t have to, but they did it anyway. A varying number of Daily Creates will be assigned each week in the coming weeks. Which days you choose to do them is up to you.

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