Video Streaming Services and Design (A Comparison of The Criterion Channel and Mubi)

A rant that becomes a comparison of how The Criterion Channel and Mubi designed their services.

This is an odd thing for me to write. Anyone who knows me would be quick to point out that I am not a design person. In any way, shape or form. I am someone who will complain, at great lengths, about poorly designed things. I may, in fits of desperation, blurt out my thoughts on how to improve something that is terribly designed. Despite this, in my heart of hearts, I am not someone who knows much about or is capable of sharing in an insightful manner about design.

Which is why I have chosen today to write about video streaming services and how they are designed. First and foremost a revelation I had of late – I have been lumping all streaming services into the same category. Which is to say that when I think of Netflix I regard them in the same manner as I regard The Criterion Channel, Disney Plus, and Peacock TV. Which is completely wrong.

One of many titles that have disappeared from HBO Max (and broken my heart)

Let us address one streaming service first: HBO Max. My frustration with HBO Max over the past two months has stemmed from me being positively baffled as to 1) why so many shows and films are disappearing from their service and 2) why they have so little new content I want to watch. If you think of HBO Max as being the same kind of entity as Netflix, a streaming service which creates new films and television shows (and apparently games) as well as hosting films and shows they did not make then what HBO Max has been doing is bizarre. Yet if you think of HBO Max as a different iteration of the HBO channel then what they are doing gets downgraded to weird.

For the longest time I have wondered why so many films made by Warner Brothers are not on HBO Max. That is because I assumed, incorrectly, that the good people at HBO would be trying to gather all of their properties (since they are owned by Warner Brothers) to their streaming service. Instead they seem to be following the HBO model of getting new films and shows onto their service for a limited amount of time and expecting subscribers to watch what is offered and be happy about it. The creation of films and shows for their service seems to operate independently of the content available on the service.

I belabor this point because it is easy to mistake HBO Max as being a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu because they do not offer purchases/rentals through their service and because they make original content. Part of this is a design problem and part of this is a streaming service problem. I don’t claim to have the capacity to fix either but today I would like to make an example out of two services in the hope that this might lead to overall changes to streaming services and, potentially, benefit the rest of us.

The two services in question are Mubi and The Criterion Channel. To begin, since The Criterion Collection has been available to stream I have been using services that allow one to do so. First they were on Netflix, then Hulu then FilmStruck and for the past three years there has been The Criterion Channel. Other than FilmStruck I have used/belonged to these services when The Criterion Collection has been available to stream.

In that time I believe I have watched a handful of films. Part of the reason for the lack of watching is and has been the terrible design displaying their offerings. Netflix has always been lackluster in presenting the movies and shows on their site. Between the ever changing poster images, buried subcategories and the carousel main view, finding what they offer has never been easy. The Criterion Collection had it’s own menu when it was on the site but the offerings were small and changed on a regular basis. I am not sure if I watched anything while Netflix had it.

The same was true with Hulu whose design was only slightly better because at the time they had a Staff Picks section which often showcased excellent films the service offered that were buried deep in their catalogue. Which I believe is why when FilmStruck launched I never subscribed to the service (despite having a subscription to nearly everything else and hearing wonderful things about FilmStruck).

For some reason when I heard that they were launching The Criterion Channel I believed I would love the service. I signed up before it launched, was given this weird thing and have been a subscriber, despite watching almost nothing, ever since.

In some ways it feels a bit like Patton Oswalt’s bit regarding giving money to NPR. You do it because you believe in the work and you appreciate the service but dear God don’t make me listen to it.

But rather then run them down unfairly I would like to provide some evidence to what I would like to call “The Design Problem of The Criterion Channel”.

First and I don’t know how to explain it, the design is pretentious. The moment I open the app or go to the site I am bothered by the look and design of everything. The black and white (I see the grey as well) color scheme just shouts “We are important!” and makes me want to go elsewhere. At the time of this writing this is the splash page when you visit from your computer.

I’d like to point out that the image itself changes depending on whether or not your browser is full screen. The above image is full screen, you can see only Michelle Yeoh’s eyes are visible. Whereas,

This is what you get if your browser is not full screen.

So the site is incorrectly formatted (at least for with Firefox and Safari). There are four menus at the top which are unhelpful. You can Browse, Search go to All Films or, bizarrely leave this site to visit Now as someone who likes language and uses many streaming services (listed in no particular order here: Netflix, Amazon, The Criterion Channel, Mubi, Hulu, Disney+, The Roku Channel, Plex TV, Kanopy, Hoopla, HBO Max, PBS and Apple TV) I cannot say with confidence what the difference between the Search menu and the Browse menu are. Let’s find out.

Clicking on Browse takes you to their main page, which resembles the app. Here you have the carousel view of their content with the main large image at the top of the screen. As of today it looks like this –

This is a screen recording of what it is like to scroll down through this page (recorded last month when I started writing this, be kind to me) –

I don’t share this for the sake of overkill, if I am going to criticize I’d like to do it correctly and be fair. This is a ton of information. They have so much on this site and it is organized in many different ways. The problem, I find, is that it is too much. I find that when I want to watch something I need to have it already found and in my list before I get to the site, otherwise I end up scrolling, clicking and looking for an hour. At which point I’ve either run out of time to watch something or I no longer have a sense of what I’d like to watch.

It is also interesting to note that the header, with the menu options, does not follow you as you scroll through their offerings. Meaning if you decided you’d rather search than browse, you have to scroll all the way to top to do so. It’s not a big deal but it’s poor design.

Clicking on the Search menu brings up a search bar. Using this leads to interesting results. This morning I was curious which films they had from the director Park Chan-wook. When I searched using the app on my television I had quite a few results, many having nothing directly to do with the director. Searching now on the website I get these results –

My final comments regarding this site/app would be the All Films menu. When you click on it you get the following page –

Personally I love this. To be able to sort and filter the entire catalogue in this manner is appealing. Their filter options are great as they allow you to sort by genres, decades, countries and directors. I think those are interesting and unique filtering parameters. The sort option lets you do so by title, director, year and country. Again, I like this, it’s different and allows you to get creative with what you watch. I certainly have bouts where I want to watch films from a particular country or time period. The thing I would note here, which is not a design issue, is the total number of films.

I recognize that what they offer changes on a monthly basis and that there are strange and mysterious reasons as to why certain films can be shown at certain times – but 2,849 is a small selection. Part of my frustration with this site and all streaming services in particular is the limited selection of films and shows. I’d rather see services merging (or sharing with one another or creating some new entity) in order to have more offerings than this current situation where I have 14 services and often (very often) cannot stream what I wish to because it is not available. Today that happened with I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay (and yesterday it was Oldboy and so on…).

I am relatively new to Mubi. I joined their service two months ago so I am seeing them with fresh eyes. Why did I join them? Because they had a holiday special of getting three months of service for $1 a month. I could not resist and I am glad I didn’t.

As of this writing this is what the homepage (and app) looks like. First and foremost – look at the color. Look at the titles (and text). Instead of trying to impress me with a splash page telling me the site is a ‘Movie Lover’s Dream’ their main image is of their Film of The Day. I love that feature.

I love that the search bar is built into the top of the screen and they highlight the current tab I am using. The tab next to Now Showing is their Watchlist (List) which is great to have available at the top of the screen. Their version of (minus the selling of DVDs and Blu-rays) is Notebook which has plenty of great written content for those of us who also like to read about film. Mubi Go, which is a separate membership, is their weekly service that allows you to go and see a film in theaters. Your account icon is by default Totoro (points for this) and then a drop down menu with numerous other options.

To say I prefer this design and interface is an understatement. They’ve managed to make it welcoming, packed full of useful (and familiar) features, but also convey that this is a place to watch movies. If you look at the screen recording below you will see that what they do with their site is similar to The Criterion Channel (many different categories, the carousel display). To me, because of how it is designed and interacts with the mouse, I find it helpful and not overwhelming.

When I scroll over a film in my Watchlist is shows a check mark to convey this information. Titles that will be leaving the site soon have a banner on their image which informs me of this. Comparing the two main pages what I see is that Mubi has considerably larger images, which I find pleasing and appropriate for a film site. I would like to note that their header also does not follow when you scroll which is disappointing. As you can see from the screen recording the site goes on for a ways and having the header follow you would be a welcome feature.

I’d like to conclude with a comparison of how the two services handle the presentation of the same film. I give you: Lady Vengeance.

Right away I feel my point is made. The Criterion Channel has so much unused, negative space. The entire right bottom corner is empty. The Criterion Channel has a poster for the film and then their own little display they do for films. This feels unnecessary and redundant. My eye is drawn to the grey bars in the middle of the screen which are the least important pieces of information being.

When you look at Mubi, the image dominates the page. The faces are clearly seen and yet all of the information concerning the film is there and easy to read. The screen has the playhead in the middle to indicate how easily you can watch the film but it is small and tasteful, not obscuring the image.

Among the things I think Mubi does better (or I just appreciate) – they offer the title of the film in its original language. Both sites are in English because that’s what I speak, but this feels respectful. I also like that in addition to the synopsis they have the “Our Take” for their films. I have found that I no longer bother reading the synopsis because I want to hear what this person has to say about this film. This is the personal, human touch I long for when it comes to film recommendations.

I’ve done a final screen recording to try and convey the differences.

As you can see with The Criterion Channel the image I captured is all of the information they provide for the film. For many films they have supplemental videos that they include at the bottom of the page. The Criterion channel has an astounding number of “extras” for their films but due to how the site is designed you may miss many of them without knowing. I have had two versions of the same film in My List not realizing that one link is for the movie and the other is for their collection concerning the film. This would be easy to fix.

With Mubi they show you the collections the film belongs to, the awards the films have won and the director and cast pictures which you can then click on to see more about. They embed the trailer on the page (despite having a link to it above) they have articles from their Notebook section and reviews about the film on the page that you can read in their entirety. After which they have reviews from other people who subscribe to Mubi and they conclude with Related Films.

I find this so pleasing and helpful and vastly superior to how The Criterion Channel has designed their site. It feels unfair to make comments about their offerings because I know they have just as many as Mubi. Unfortunately they have not showcased them in a user-friendly manner like Mubi and I think this is why I use their site so little.

Thank you for joining me on this strange deep-dive into the websites of Mubi and The Criterion Channel. I’m not entirely sure how this happened but I am glad it did.

Fractured Narratives

A rant about Echo 3, Nope and trusting your instincts.

The following post contains mild spoilers for Nope and Echo 3

The famous quote about stories needing a “beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order” has been rattling around my head of late. In the past week I have watched the Apple TV show, Echo 3 and the latest from Jordan Peele, Nope. Both of which have unusual, if not bizarre narrative structures. What strikes me upon reflection is that neither of them have tried to displace the order of events hoping to confuse the audience, a technique that has become en vogue in recent years, rather that they bounce around in time without much purpose.

I love this inforgraphic as it sums up perfectly how I feel about story structure

Nope, being a film, is easier to follow and understand in terms of narrative. When I finished the film I looked at Metacritic to see if reviewers enjoyed the film. It appears to be favorably reviewed but with reservations. Most people seemed to feel what I felt – that while the overall experience was fine it lacked emotional resonance and wasn’t terribly coherent. The characters were not fully realized, the storylines truncated or without purpose and the ultimate “message” absent. It is not that the movie is difficult to watch – it is interesting and has a number of sequences that are engaging. It’s that at its heart, having a story about a UFO (or alien creature) and several people trying to control/document it without any larger questions being posed or answered is unfulfilling. I am unsure what the takeaway of this film was meant to be. I am not certain I understand why the horse trainer would be such an expert on predatory animals (and how this ties into chimpanzees). There seems to be no greater plan at work with Nope and it is a shame. Following Get Out I think most viewers were hoping for a multi-layered film that exceeds expectations.

Echo 3 is the latest work from Mark Boal. A former journalist who was embedded with troops in Iraq and wrote a screenplay based on these experiences. It was a successful film despite the disconnected narrative and anti-climatic ending. In fact all three of his collaborations with director Kathryn Bigelow have these qualities. Interesting concepts with narrative gaps and endings that deliver little in the way of closure or emotional payoff seem to be how he operates. Echo 3 does this worse than the films, in part because it is longer and, I suspect, because Ms. Bigelow is not involved.

The show begins in a lackluster, heavy-handed manner. It is the wedding day of two of the main characters and the bride is hiding with her brother (the third main character). The wedding sequence is long. It is disjointed. It makes little sense as we are just meeting these people and know nothing about them. Ultimately is serves to inform the ending – that all is not right between soon-to-be bride and groom. Only….why? It’s unclear other than she’s keeping secrets and he’s…something. The show becomes truly muddled around episode nine, which would have been the final episode for most. The latest rescue mission for Amber (the bride) is attempted and her husband (Prince) and brother (Bambi) work with mercenaries to conduct a false flag operation to get her out of the prison/drug factory where she has been tortured and drugged for some time.

The show hinges largely on a secret beacon, a secret CIA connection and back-channel favors. Why it does not work is because the people, causes and stories that rise to the forefront all eventually are forgotten. Whether it is the abandoned military commander, the drug-addled mother, the wealthy father or the Colombian army all of these stories are left with an ending that is incomplete and unfulfilled.

I’m not sure if there is much of a reason to write about this show and movie (together no less) other than to express my frustration with investing time and emotion into stories such as these. I’ve written before about how Syd Field’s book, Screenplay, changed the way I watch movies. He outlines in his book how a script reader can usually determine by page ten whether the script is good or bad. Since a page of a script usually translates to a minute of screen time this rule of thumb can also be applied when watching a movie or show. Within the first ten minutes you should have a sense whether what you are watching is good or bad.

With both Echo 3 and Nope I stopped watching before the ten minute mark. I could tell with Echo 3 starting in the manner that it did, with two unknown characters having an opaque conversation about the wedding and the groom, that I was not going to enjoy the show. Despite a trailer which promised one thing (a rescue story, a love story, a story about overcoming adversity) this show was going to be something else. It was going to try and deal with the complexity of US relations with South American countries. Of marriages built on a foundation of lies. Of addiction. Of ambition and careers and nationalism. In short I think Mr. Boal was trying to marry ideas and stories from his life as a journalist with a story of his own creation and the results are mixed. I’m not sure if I ever grasped the inner lives of any of these characters. Other than Bambi, who only wanted to get his sister home, I’m not sure I ever understood the motives of the characters. The opening, which gave me nothing, told me everything I needed to know and I chose to ignore it.

Nope is more of the same. A trailer which is eerie and mysterious but gives away little of the plot coupled with an opening of a 90’s television show where a chimpanzee has gone berserk and hurt/killed several people. No explanation is given, no clear reason why this is being shown in relation to the larger story being told. Only to then find out that the little boy in the 90’s show is the neighbor of our main characters and he’s trying to use the UFO as part of his rodeo show. I feel like I am belaboring my point here. The sum of the parts of this movie adds up to very little and the opening made this clear. I went back to both of these works because I doubted my initial impression, largely because I am often wrong (just last week I made this mistake with Everything, Everywhere All At Once which has a terrible first ten minutes but becomes a great movie). As we all know our moods, time of day or even the weather can effect our viewing experiences and I try my best to enjoy things. Only that doesn’t always work and you end up watching ten hours of something that leaves you with a shot like this.

Or, you know, this…

Is Comedy Really Harder?

A short post on the complexity of comedy.

Recently I connected with a local filmmaker and shared a few short screenplays I have written. I wrote these with the intention of getting a local director interested in making one of these projects. Why not me? At the time I felt that trying to direct something with (gasp) actors would be too difficult and challenging – in part because my main role presently is watching my children.

In my discussions with this filmmaker about the shared scripts and filmmaking in general both of us came to a similar conclusion: while the serious, dramatic, films are interesting and appealing what we’d both like to make is a comedy. Being the writer of the pair I was then tasked with coming up with something comedic to make.

Flash forward a few months and no screenplay is finished. Why is this? In part it is because I have been attempting to complete other projects, continue the work I do with a non-profit and that day to day life with two young children is challenging. The truth though is that writing comedy is hard.

Why is it hard? First, the expectations. When people list great movies, when they list their favorite movies, usually (if they are thinking of posterity or the other people in the room) they do not mention comedies. Why is this? Why are comedies dismissed as not being great films? As being important films?

I do not have a good answer. I do know that there is a film that tackles this very subject and it does it better than I ever will – Sullivan’s Travels. If you have not seen this film you should. It’s interesting, it’s funny and it has a fairly important message. If I had to try and convey the message it is this: most people have fairly unpleasant or depressing lives, so when you try and make your important, realistic film, that makes the audience suffer as the protagonist suffers – they don’t enjoy the film. Most people want to watch a movie for some form of enjoyment.


Michael Moore said something about this in his article “13 Rules for Making Documentary Films”

And the audience, the people who’ve worked hard all week — it’s Friday night, and they want to go to the movies. They want the lights to go down and be taken somewhere. They don’t care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even challenge them to think — but damn it, they don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained.

The awards season is pretty much here again and with it the usual nonsense of each site or magazine publishing variations of the same stories about the same films and people. And each one is about an important movie or an important actor and the incredible important film they are in. Which is not to diminish films that have something they wish to say – I enjoy films with purpose greatly. I do, however, question the need to make films that torture the audience.

What annoys me is how there are entire genres that are dismissed out of hand when it comes time to hand out praise. Not that awards are a reason to make art. Not that praise from critics or even the general public are a reason to make art. But given that filmmaking is largely a business, whether some of us would like to admit this or not, if you wish to continue making films they have to be successful. If you wish to be given the opportunity to make films in the first place you have to sell others on the idea that the finished product will be successful.

Which is why when you look at what Blumhouse has done and how they are thriving, regardless of what you think about the films they make, you have to applaud them for figuring things out and making it work. The movies they release make money, which allows them to keep making movies. The same can be said for Tyler Perry (and of course other people and production companies). I mention these two as they have been successful financially but less so with critics and award committees.

Coming back to comedy all I can say is it is a challenge. Filmmakers and actors like Judd Apatow. Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler and Taika Waititi all are struggling to connect with audiences. What worked before no longer seems to be working. I’m not sure if, in part, this is due to the flood of short form content on social media that is largely comedic. Feature length films and sitcoms are entirely different animals that fulfill different needs. I know there a plenty of sitcoms that are airing and are successful. I’m not sure if the people watching those are bothering with the films being released. Why is this?

I don’t think anyone really knows. What I do know is that sitting down and trying to write a funny scene is much harder for me than trying to write a dramatic one. Creating characters who are struggling to get through a funeral is an easier task then writing a humorous cooking scene between a mother and teenage daughter. It is an interesting situation to find myself in and I can’t help but wonder if it is a personal limitation or if comedy really is that much harder to do.

Ridley Scott

Recently social media was ablaze with two topics: Russia invading Ukraine and people praising a sequence from West Side Story (the Spielberg version). It was weird. I have nothing to say about the war happening in Ukraine. I do, however, have a few things I’d like to share about the odd “can-you-believe-this-Spielberg-guy?” thing that was happening.

First and foremost this notion of an artist being mainstream and popular somehow taking away from their talent and contributions is bizarre. It’s been going on forever and it makes no sense. The fact that filmmakers and Twitter trolls alike were staring slack-jawed at a sequence from West Side Story is not surprising. The fact that nearly all of them had to then try and wrap their minds around the thought that Steven Spielberg made it happen is maddening. The man has been making amazing motion pictures for forty years. He’s successful, he wins awards, everyone watches his movies. I know it’s the Internet but, come on people, start making sense!

So in this vein I’d like to take a moment to write about Sir Ridley Scott. A few months ago I was shocked to discover that he was the director of House of Gucci. For no reason other than The Last Duel had already come out and he is the director of that, as well. I’ve yet to see House of Gucci but I feel confident in saying most directors will never have a year where they have two films of this caliber appear. Ever.

Ridley Scott is probably more similar to Steven Spielberg than any other living director. They make huge films. They work constantly. Their films never reflect the effort put into making them. Perhaps this does not seem like an accomplishment but if you watch a lot of films, especially large budget films, it becomes apparent how difficult it is to make big and beautiful look effortless.

As I said Mr. Scott had two films come out this past year and, pandemic aside, neither of them fared very well. The reviews were mixed, people said little about The Last Duel until it was out of theaters and House of Gucci was given a lot of flack. Having seen The Last Duel all I can say is that audiences are incredibly spoiled. If this film had come out in 1992 people would never stopped talking about it. It is a wonderful film with fantastic performances and an it is done on an enormous scale. The only positive thing I read about the film was that “all of the money was right there on the screen”. As though it looking expensive (or that the production was lavish) was all it has going for it.

I like to try and spread the good word when I can and in this particular case I’d like to call attention to the numerous films of Ridley Scott that should receive more love and attention than they do.

To begin:

The Duelists

Full disclosure I have not seen this film. I know. This is a bold move on my part. I am including it (and starting with it) based off of a video I watched on the Corridor Crew channel. In this episode they spoke with a swordsman (I’m keeping this title!) who said this is one of the best films about sword fighting ever made. You should watch this episode as the insights into what makes a good sword fight and why this film is excellent should be seen and heard by all (they also praise Troy which makes me happy).

Black Rain

I am not sure the last time I watched this film, it’s been probably thirty years. I am sure there are aspects of it that have not aged well at all. What do I remember? Andy Garcia as the young reckless police officer who is beheaded in front of his partner. Michael Douglas being Michael Douglas. Motorcycles. Beautiful night-time images.

Maybe there is nothing more to this film than what I can remember. What I do remember is so vivid and colorful that I believe it to be worth watching.

Black Hawk Down

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Black Hawk Down. I did not expect to love it. I certainly did not see it when it came out. When did it come out? 2001. The same year that Hannibal, by Ridley Scott, was released. Which happened to be one year after Gladiator. What kind of energy drink was Mr. Scott consuming during this period? Hannibal is by far the smallest of the three pictures and I think for most directors it would be considered a “big” movie.

Black Hawk Down strikes me as being such a complicated film to make. So many actors and sequences and locations. So many things to organize and move and prepare. From a logistical perspective it must of have been incredibly difficult. As a film? It’s an easy watch. You quickly get a sense of the main characters and what they are about. Even during some of the craziest action sequences you know where you are and where the characters are. It’s impressive. Simply put: this film works.

I try not to delve into the world of Rotten Tomato scores and box office revenue when talking about films (now, I used to try and it was a mistake). It may have been well received on all fronts. What I remember was hearing quite a lot about Hannibal (and seeing that in the theater) and hearing little to nothing about this film. There was a lot of talk about the make up and prosthetics used on Gary Oldman in Hannibal and not so much about the intense crashes and firefights in this film. It feels familiar to what happened with Mr. Scott’s films this year and I find that strange.

Kingdom of Heaven

This is another film that I have not seen. In trying to recall why I did not watch it at its release I have two thoughts: 1) Alexander had come out the year before and was savaged. There was a general sense of these epics being overblown and not good. 2) Orlando Bloom burnout. After the Lord of The Rings and Pirates of the Caribean Films (and all of the tabloid nonsense) there was a feeling of needing a break from Mr. Bloom (at least for me).

This is another film that Mr. Scott released a director’s cut of and I can’t help but wonder if that did not hurt its reputation as well. I have no doubt that watching this film will be a masterclass in all aspects of filmmaking, I’ve just not done it yet.

A Good Year

A great example of what happens when a director subverts expectations, A Good Year is a lovely film that people do not seem to respond to. I don’t get it. The scale is small, the performances as wonderful – there is nothing to find fault with in this movie.

I’m not sure how faithful an adaptation this is to the book, the could be part of the issue. As I have not read the book I am not burdened with this problem. Of the many wonderful things in this film I find Russel Crowe to be my favorite. He has not played many roles like this and it is wonderful to see him play a relatively normal person (Rough Magic, Breaking Up, The Sum of Us and Mystery Alaska are other films where he shines in a “normal” role).

I am not sure if there is a definitive Ridley Scott movie. I am sure for some people it would be something from the Alien franchise. For me I tend to equate it with larger productions with multiple locations and violence. Neon signs. This film has none of those things. It’s lovely though and quite human.

Body of Lies

This is a film I want to watch whenever I see the poster or icon on a streaming service. I want to watch it right now looking at this poster. I think it is an incredible movie that was largely ignored. Made just before Leonardo DiCaprio began his interesting run of films starting with Inception, it sees him playing a role he had not really done before. That coupled with Russel Crowe in yet another atypical role makes for an interesting combination.

I love this film because it does not take a side on the issue of terrorism or how a country should respond to it. Perhaps this is why it was not well received. I think if you watch this film with an open mind you’ll find that the Russel Crowe character makes as many valid points as the Leonardo DiCaprio character does. I think if you are really paying attention you’ll see that Mark Strong’s character might make the most sense of all.

So what does all of that nonsense mean? This is such a well-made film. It’s divided into sections that could feel unrelated to one another but don’t. Whereas the different sections of The Hurt Locker feels like different films with some of the same characters, Body of Lies manages to maintain several threads of plot while veering off into different directions. The first twenty minutes feel nothing like the section with the blossoming love story. Russel Crowe with his family, which is truly like something on Mars, is grounded in the reality of what all of the characters are dealing with. The film is cleverly constructed and the characters, though typically apart, are always connected.

I think this is one of Ridley Scott’s best films and it amazes me that it does not receive more praise or attention.

Robin Hood

This film is another great example of people bringing their own baggage to a movie and ruining their good time. I tried to watch this with my wife, who grew up on Errol Flynn, and it failed miserably. I think we made it twenty minutes before she paused it to explain everything wrong with the movie. A few weeks later I watched it alone and thought it was great.

Again, it’s Ridley Scott, so the sections that are big and battle-filled are absolutely in his wheel-house. Cate Blanchett is wonderful as always. Russel Crowe delivers. The story isn’t the same as every other version of Robin Hood, which is a good thing. In many ways this is similar to Guy Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a familiar retread and if you go in expecting something different I believe you will be pleasantly surprised.

This post took on a life of its own. What began with my confusion regarding people on the Internet reacting to Steven Spielberg became a mini-appreciation post of Ridley Scott. I did not see that coming. I am glad it did, as seeing the comments and reviews of his most recent films I could not help but feel people have begun dismissing his works. To operate at the highest level as an artist – which I believe both Mr. Scott and Mr. Spielberg do and have done for a long time, tends to bring expectations and a sense of familiarity to the work. It feels similar to when spectators become accustomed to the excellence of professional athletes and take their weekly feats as something to be expected.

If anything I am glad to have written these words as a reminder to myself. I continually watch new and lauded films and television shows. Many of them disappoint. Many are chasing trends or fads and they feel lesser because of it. I am happy to reminded of these filmmakers and their films because they stand outside of these trends and they rarely disappoint.

iPhone Cinema – Life is But a Dream (Park Chan-Wook)

A short post about a great film made with an iPhone.

I am once again writing about a film made with an iPhone. I don’t feel like I need to do this but after watching Life is But a Dream I want to do it. For those of you unfamiliar with Park Chan-Wook he is an incredibly successful Korean filmmaker. I’ve not seen all of his films but those I have seen certainly made an impression. The Handmaiden in particular knocked my socks off. If you have not seen it do so – and go in knowing as little as possible.

Today I want to share the video he made with the iPhone 13 Pro – Life is but a Dream. I had assumed, incorrectly, that after the Lunar New Year video Apple would not be trying to promote anything else until next year. I am happy to be wrong.

What can I say about this film? It’s interesting. It does not feel like a film made with an iPhone. It tells a unique story and it is not a small production. I certainly could not have made this film. I am posting it below.

I appreciate that they now share the “making of” videos to accompany these films. It is interesting to see how they are made. It’s more than just the gear being used, you are able to see the techniques and tricks they employ.

At this point it really is just a behind the scenes video about making a film. The capture device is simply different.

Let’s Talk About Drones

Some thoughts and musings about drones and filmmaking.

To begin: I am not (yet) a licensed drone pilot. I want to get this out of the way as it means I cannot make money from anything related to drone photography/videography. Since I do not make money from this site I can post images and videos here from my drone flights without violating any rules or laws. I have registered my drone with the FAA and I do follow the rules everyone must follow in order to fly a drone legally. Let’s all rest easy knowing we are standing on the right side of the line.

Christmas 2020. My wife listens to months of hints that I would like to finally buy myself a drone but I feel it is an unwarranted expense. She removes the guilt and gives me a DJI Mini 2. I am beyond pleased. I unwrap it and get things charging so I can take my first flight. Three minutes into that first flight I know that I was correct (I love it) and that I should have asked for the mid-level model, the Mavic Air 2.

So I spend the next two days flying the drone and taking pictures and getting video while I place an order for the new drone. I return the Mini, get the Air 2 and fly away like the little drone pilot I was meant to be.

Why write about this? I’d like to share some insights and thoughts I’ve had since getting a drone and flying it. There are a number of people on YouTube who make great videos about choosing a drone, or how to get set up for your first flight. I am going to put two videos I found helpful below.

If you have already chosen the drone you want and would like to watch a comprehensive video that walks you through every aspect of the device watch one from Jeven Dovey. I’ve put the Air 2S above but he’s made one for all of the DJI drones. As I mentioned I have now owned two different models and his walkthroughs for each helped me tremendously. He’s thorough, if you watch the entire video all basic aspects of the physical drone and how to use it will be covered.

Aside from having a channel name that I dislike there is nothing but goodness with QuickAssTutorials. He talks fast, doesn’t waste time with nonsense and offers practical advice. If you are looking for something other than a walkthrough about basics I would recommend looking at his videos.

I always say this but I think it is true – if you are anything like me then buying a drone probably does not make sense for you. I wanted a drone for impractical purposes. I keep writing screenplays and having establishing shots, the town center or the lonely house on the hill, and when I think about how I would execute these shots I am stumped. Or I was. Because I would need something like a drone to capture these images and I did not have one.

Now I have a drone and largely I am still not shooting these projects because this $1,000 device I own did not solve the other problems keeping me from making that short film. Namely that I don’t have actors or locations or a crew. So to bang this drum one last time – if you are anything like me (thinking and hoping but not actually doing) reconsider the purchase.

Some Things I Did Not Realize About Drones That I Should Have

My primary interest for drones concerns videography. So if you are reading this as a photographer, I am sorry, most of my thoughts and comments probably are not that interesting to you. Let’s state the first obvious point that escaped me: drones do not record audio. I know that this is glaringly obvious but if I can help one other person realize this then my job is done.

When you watch a video with drone footage and there is sound: ambient, voices, whatever, that’s all coming from elsewhere. The drone is capturing nothing. Most of you (maybe all of you) know this. I did not. It’s not major but I was surprised as I filmed my kids only to later discover I had no audio to go with it. It means an extra step if you are looking to capture audio at the time of capture.

The next big point: most drones have a fixed aperture. I’ve written about this with the iPhone. If I ever write about my action camera it will come up there as well. People do not address this enough: the aperture is fixed. What this means is if you are flying in some difficult lighting conditions, which you most likely will, you only have the ISO and shutter speed to control the amount of light hitting the sensor (it is another reason why having ND filters for your drone are a must).

This only applies if you are buying the lower end models of the DJI line. The Mavic 3 and the Mavic 2 Pro allow you to control the aperture. This is important to remember because if you try and rely on the auto features it could mean some really wonky settings for your video. For photography it is less of a big deal.

Something else to consider would be the obstacle avoidance feature. The Mini 2 does not have this (despite being the entry level drone) and what that means is the drone will not protect itself from flying into things. My Air 2 does have it and it is a wonderful feature. I am not overly careful when I fly (the video here shows that) and even with this feature engaged I still end up in trees. I’ve only found one person on YouTube who stressed this point and I think it matters. If you are just starting out it is helpful to have features that protect you from yourself.

Final point of this nature – internal storage. The Mini 2 does not have this feature and the Air 2 does. I cannot tell you how many times I have left my SD card in my computer and gone out to fly. I now keep a second SD card in my bag but before that I was so pleased that I could record onto the internal storage for the drone. It holds 8 GB which is ample and allowed me to do what I wanted to do. This is a really wonderful feature to have especially if you are traveling for the express purpose of shooting drone footage.

All of this is well and good but it is information you could get from anyone else – so why am I writing this? What I have learned about done videography over the past year is that it is a small part of filmmaking. Much like owning an action camera, the number of shots you actually need one of these devices for is quite low. I keep using my drone because I like it. I take pictures whenever I fly and I shoot a lot of video. But for me, a person who presently is only a hobbyist, I have little to no use for any of these things.

I post to Instagram and occasionally Twitter. Largely I edit together clips and they sit on a hard drive. If I make a short film I put a shot or two into the video and that is it. I love the drone, I love flying the drone but I am continually amazed at how little I need it.

Who you are and what you do is going to differ, greatly I imagine, from me. What I have found since getting a drone is that when I watch films or even YouTube videos (that are not reviews of drones) is that the shots are quick and few. If you were to look at the average length of a drone shot in a YouTube video that is not a review I would guess it is about three seconds long. Even the travel videos designed to highlight drone footage cut very quickly. Often they will incorporate a person is these videos, standing on top of a car in the middle of an empty expanse, and still the quick cutting.

Matti Haapoja is a master of standing on top of things.

In films they tend to be longer but there are perhaps three to five shots over the course of a feature length film. Which is not me disparaging the shots. Only to point out that I thought this would be a huge component of everything I would be making, now I find myself with a lot of footage and nowhere to put it.

These are specialized shots, almost on par with something like that probe lens that took over the Internet two years ago, for particular situations. I write this to offer up something that should have been obvious to me – this isn’t going to be the tool that allows you to suddenly make everything you want.

It’s fun, it just isn’t necessary.

Top down shots for life!

Doubles, Reflections and Age

A brief review of an interesting show.

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I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to have the same person appear opposite themselves onscreen. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time trying to talk people out of doing this unless they have an interesting idea to explore (which is not to say my concept satisfied this condition – I had no one else to work with and made do). I’ve done this because to pull off this technique requires planning, time and effort. All things that I never utilize properly. I also advise against playing around with doubles because it’s something that has been overused and often feels a bit silly.

That being said I recently watched The Innocents and found they did a good job of incorporating this technique with a concept that felt fresh and interesting.

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What I enjoyed most about this show was the choice to spend time with all of the characters and not focus solely on two sixteen year olds. By having three distinct age groups of characters and letting the story wander between these groups gave the show depth and interested me more than if had just been about the young lovers.

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I can’t help but feel that when you have great actors, adults in particular, capable of portraying complicated emotions and dealing with “grown up” material, that this is the correct approach. I do not mean to be dismissive of the younger actors, they did an excellent job. I think I am reacting largely to a trend I see on sites like Netflix, where a great deal of programming seems to be aimed at an audience much younger than I am. I imagine this has been going on as long as there has been television and movies, but to see wonderful actors who are now shunted into the role of mom and dad and given nothing to do is depressing.

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I started writing this post some time ago so my memory of this show has faded. I recall liking it but not loving it. The big “twist” is interesting in so far as they took a concept that most of us are familiar with and made it feel new. It’s easy to dismiss something like that but it is not easy to do and I commended the filmmakers for their work. Guy Pearce is always interesting and the rest of the cast was, for me, expected and welcome. If you are looking for something different and unusual, something that the algorithm has already forgotten and most likely will not send you way, I recommend checking out The Innocents.

Zhang Meng – Lunar New Year (iPhone Cinema).

Yet another excellent short film from Apple made to showcase the iPhone.

Show of hands, who knew that Apple had been commissioning films for Lunar New Year for the past five years? It wasn’t just me? Great. Moving on.

Last week I discovered a new film, shot on iPhones, made to celebrate the Lunar New Year. You may recall I gushed over Lulu Wang’s film, Nian, which was also made on iPhones to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This is neat.

I really enjoyed this film despite being a bit put off by the beginning. It is big and fancy and not what I was expecting. Turns out, that was the point. Stick with it.

I love this kind of film. It has a simple story told in a heartfelt manner. I’m sure this why I like the Nian so much, these are just my kind of movies.

I also love seeing the videos that show how these films were made. There is a lot of ingenuity and creativity in their filmmaking process. Simple solutions to get interesting shots. I am posting both videos below – enjoy!

A Man and His Mug

So I started shooting this short in March. I quickly lost interest and gave up. Then, sometime in October I realized that other than random drone footage I really had not shot much this year (I only just realized that my last post on this site was February 14th 2021). So I tinkered and rethought what I wanted to do.

Let me link this video before I say more –

It isn’t Citizen Kane but it also isn’t terrible. I’m happy about that. 2021 was supposed to be a year where I did some formal interviews and took the test so I could use my drone footage to make money. Neither happened. A lot of homeschooling happened as well as a lot of waiting for a vaccine (June for me) and all of the other nonsense we’ve all been dealing with.

What made me happy about taking a break from this video is it went from being a lot of footage of brewing coffee (I shot about an hour’s worth) to being something kind of fun and playful. It’s absolutely the kind of thing I wanted and needed to see and do this past year.

Hopefully someone watches this. If you do and want to tell me what you think I’d like that.

YouTube and Me

A new plan for making short videos.

In an effort to be more productive and stop skulking around the house I’ve decided to start making short films and upload them on YouTube. As a result I will be posting here about that process and linking the videos. What. A. Treat.

This past week the company Moment uploaded a review of the new Sony A1 camera. The review was made by the filmmaker Joshua Martin . He’s made a number of videos for Moment this past year and I’ve enjoyed his laid-back style. He started this review with a cinematic short film to demonstrate what the A1 is capable of. I enjoyed that greatly as most reviews are just a person sitting and talking at the camera.

I enjoyed the short so much that I stopped the video when that ended and found myself thinking about how I would like to make a similar video and the proceeded to daydream about what I would do for quite some time. The following day I had time to myself so I went out and shot two hours worth of footage and make my own version.

Once I had everything ingested into my computer I went through the footage and saw all the mistakes I had made. I shot near noon, which is never a good idea, but it was a sunny day. For portions of the video I was shooting handheld and moving the camera in front of my face and body. Shadows of the camera and mic kept playing on my face and chest, ruining the shots. There were a number of other mistakes I had made, forgotten shots, things being out of focus and it became obvious that I would have to reshoot most of the footage.

I spent the night brooding on this and thinking of how to improve the story I was telling while also adding new elements and not making mistakes. A number of firsts came out of this process, like making a shot list and mounting my gimbal onto a tripod for shots in my car and I am pleased with the results.

Did I get it all right? Not even close. I still forgot shots, misunderstood the placement of my camera and shot at a terrible time of day in unflattering light. As tempted as I was to redo everything again I didn’t, I worked with the footage and came up with what I think is a decent video. It’s not perfect but it’s done.

So this is part of my new plan, I hope to write more here that isn’t just about cameras or plugging my videos – in addition to making videos on a regular basis for YouTube. There is more certainly a stigma attached to doing such things and interestingly I am finding freedom in this particular act of self-publishing. There is an audience, not cost to the creator and absolute unchecked creativity in what is possible. It’s kind of amazing.

Please take a look and let me know what you think.