Broken

April 13th, 2021

A few years ago I was visiting the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, and it was fascinating to see physical manifestations of technology almost disappearing before my eyes. Starting with huge chunks of metal, glass and plastic, pieces that probably needed a few people just to move around the room. Getting smaller and smaller into the 70s, the 80s, the 90s. A piece of silicon, an integrated circuit of some kind, right under the magnifying glass so that you could see the finer details. As if a human eye can comprehend anything at that scale.

As the layout of the self-guided tour took me closer to the present time, it traced another, perhaps untold aspect, of Moore’s law – consumerization of computing technology. Machines that were not only getting smaller and faster, but also cheaper. Cheap enough to become more affordable for personal usage at home. Maybe to do a spreadsheet or two to keep track of your expenses. And certainly to play a video game or two.

I’ve had a Mikrosha. It was amazing to be a high schooler and have a computer that you could call your own. I remember finding this place that sold software for it, maybe half an hour away from where we lived. They had a xeroxed printout of their “catalog”. Every piece of software for that computer came on cassette tapes. Mikrosha itself was an integrated plastic box with the mainboard, the keyboard and a mono speaker. You’d connect it to a TV. And you’d connect it to a tape recorder to load programs. And hope that your tape recorder wouldn’t chew up even one inch of that precious cassette tape. Because if that happened, that copy of the game was lost forever and you’d have to buy a whole new tape to replace it.

There are plenty of emulators and simulators of all kinds to let you play (legally or maybe not so legally) older video games from a few decades ago. But the thing is, it’s not exactly the same experience. There is no tension of waiting five minutes to have the binary code loaded before the game can start. There is no exhilaration that you feel at the end of it that the tape lived to survive yet another load. You might see the 16-bit, 8-bit or even black-and-white graphics, but it’s not the same. The grainy feel of the huge pixels, the color fringes of a cathode ray tube, the slight hum of the TV box itself – all have been sterilized away.

The games I’m playing today are orders of magnitude more sophisticated. For a number of reasons, technical as well as business, some of the game code is never found on my device. Maybe it’s the piece that aims to prevent piracy. Maybe it’s the piece that does the multiplayer thing. Maybe it’s the piece that the developers wanted to be on their servers so that they could update it at any time without having to issue a client-side update.

I have little to no hope of being able to play any of these games in a couple of decades. There’s going to be only so much that even the most dedicated fan base would be able to recreate, even before an armada of lawyers starts sending threatening letters. Our devices are lighter. Smaller. More powerful. But also more fragile.

Every few months I lose another piece of a “thing” that is not supported any more. Maybe it didn’t make enough profit, or no profit at all. Maybe the company decided to pivot into a more profitable niche. Maybe that single developer doesn’t have time or passion to support that library. You could say that I can stay on that old version, but even that is slipping away. That old version has dependencies. And as the world moves on, those dependencies start breaking.

I’ve been writing my desktop libraries for a bit now. Started back in 2005, which makes it 16 years and running now. I hope to have it going for another 15-20 years. Such a time horizon gives you an interesting perspective.

The most obvious and popular choice for any “thing” that a software project needs may be there for a while. Until it is not. It may happen almost overnight, like the shutdown of java.net. It may happen with a few months’ warning, like the shutdown of JCenter. It may be that the thing that you were using was not the best thing ever, and now all the cool kids are using some new thing. Maybe it’s the choice of the version control system. Maybe it’s the choice of the build tool. Maybe it’s the choice of the dependency management system. Maybe it’s the choice of where you host your “artifacts”. Maybe it’s the choice of the programming language, or the platform you’re building on top of.

Is Gradle going away any time soon? Is Git? Is Github? Can I be confident that I’ll be hosting my artifacts on Maven Central in the next five years? In the next ten? In the next twenty?

Having been around for a while gives you a different perspective. The more you become “invested” in a thing, the more painful it becomes to move to a different thing. Maybe the old thing is just old, and the new thing is measurably better. Or maybe the old thing is just not there one day, and you don’t have any choice to move to a new thing. Not because you wanted to. The old thing was perfectly fine for what you needed. But it’s just not there. Gone.

I try to depend as little as possible on these things. I don’t want to become invested in them to the point where the very existence of my thing depends on that other thing. I keep my build scripts as simple as possible. I don’t integrate with any of the Github’s hooks, flows or whatever they happen to call them these days. I even upload a copy of the binary artifacts for every release to the repository.

I don’t know which one of the things that I’m using today will simply not be there in 10-15 years. I know for certain that the probability of all of them being there is quite low.

Just yesterday I spent about two hours moving from this one thing to another thing. Both of them automate uploading snapshots and release binaries. That older thing is still around, but it’s not supporting the latest major release of yet another thing. So I either stay on older versions of both things, or move on to some thing that is still being actively supported. Until it, inevitably, is not supported any more. As a popular commercial goes, I know a thing or two, because I’ve seen a thing or two. At this point, it is as close to a certainty as it can get.

I may not know which thing will break next. All I can do is to try and minimize how much I depend on every one of those things, so that I can spend as little time as possible on all the things around the actual thing I want to spend my time on. Until I myself, inevitably, move on and my thing breaks as well.

Two quotes that I keep on coming back to. The first is a tweet from Nicoll Hunt from 2014:

The first step of any project is to grossly underestimate its complexity and difficulty

The second is from a German field marshal by the name of Helmuth von Moltke (formulated in the 19th century):

No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength

Which, in its more modern reconfiguration, is frequently referred to as “No plan survives contact with the enemy”.

Applied to design documents in the field of software engineering, one might say that “no design document survives contact with the codebase”. This has largely been true for myself, at least. Which doesn’t leave a lot of options.

The first one is to not write any design documents at all, and kind of discover-as-you-go. The code itself becomes the design document, hopefully by either being clear enough or by being well documented.

The second option is to write a document, and then keep on updating it as you’re discovering all the things that can only be discovered during the implementation.

The third option is to write a document, pretend that it accounts for every possible scenario, make an elaborate planning chart on how much time exactly the implementation phase will take, and then pretend to be surprised when the real numbers had little to do with that chart.

The fourth option is where the final implementation has nothing to do with the design document, and nobody bothered to spend any time updating that doc.

And the fifth option is to write a design document, do the implementation, and then write another design document that describes the actual implementation and compares the original approach with what actually worked. A post-mortem, if you will, on the original design document. What worked (probably nothing). What did not (probably everything). What can we learn for the next time (probably nothing, again).

 

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Frank Barrera. In this interview he talks about the magic of moviegoing experience, the intersection of art, technology and business in bringing stories to our screens, the transition of the industry from film to digital, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Frank dives into his work on the upcoming “Together Together”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Frank: I grew up in a suburb of New York City in the late 1970s, and I’ve spent most of my adolescent years in the ’80s in a movie theater. A ticket was about $2, and I’d go to see movies with my friends. There was and still is nothing like being in the theater, watching a film with a group of people. There’s nothing like that communal experience, and I grew up with that magic.

Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that this was the beginning of my film education. I didn’t know anybody in the film business. I don’t even think I knew anyone who knew anyone in the film business. It never even occurred to me that it was a job. Every once in a while I’d hear about a director, or maybe read something. This is before the Internet, and it was hard to come by information unless you happened to read a story in the newspaper about a particular popular filmmaker.

One day I had this experience that demonstrated to me the magic of this filmmaking process, and how powerful it can be. It was happenstance when I was a senior in high school. A teacher had given me a book that they thought I’d be interested in. It was called “Swimming to Cambodia” written by the actor Spalding Gray. He’s a comedic actor, and he wrote about his experiences acting in a movie called “The Killing Fields” by Roland Joffé which came out in 1984. Spalding Gray had a small part, playing the assistant to the ambassador to the United States.

The movie takes place in Cambodia in the early 1970s when the Khmer Rouge was coming to take over and all the Western diplomats were getting evacuated. There’s this particular scene, and Spalding Gray spends not even two pages on it. The scene has this limousine with a broken air conditioner, and the actor who’s playing the ambassador to the United States is a method actor. Spalding Gray sort of makes fun of him, and he winds up getting a conversation with the driver because they have to sit in the limo for hours before they actually film. He describes the evacuation scene, and it gives a lot of details about the artifice of it all, and all the smoke and mirrors.

I had read the book a couple of times before I finally saw the movie. That happened about a year out of high school when I finally saw it. So that scene comes up in the film, and I was blown away by how powerful it was – even though I read about all those behind-the-scenes details about it and how it was made. But to see that scene, a combination of the cinematography, the music, the editing, the special effects… The Khmer Rouge are attacking this area, so there’s smoke and sound effects of bombs in the background and far distance. Even though I knew how artificial it was, I still was moved by this scene – and all of a sudden it was like a switch went off in my head. It was at that moment that I decided that this is something I want to do.

I had no idea what I was thinking [laughs]. I had no idea what the next step would be. But that’s what started me on my path to getting to film school, and continuing my amateur film education with a professional film education. And I’ve never looked back. There’s nothing else I know how to do. This is it. This is my whole life. It happened in a moment.

Kirill: Jumping to the present day, now that you know about all the details behind that smoke and mirrors, does it diminish in any way your enjoyment from watching a movie?

Frank: If the film is successfully telling a compelling story, then the answer is no. Going back to my childhood, going to the movies is sort of a practice. You go in there, you sit down and the lights go down, and it’s almost like a social experiment. You keep on doing it and you become “addicted” to this activity. Our brains get accustomed to all types of activities, be it exercise, studying, reading about politics, gardening, beekeeping, etc. Whatever people decide to do with their lives, if there’s a positive feedback to it, you get accustomed to it.

If a film is working, it’s easy for me to slip into that viewer mode and not think about how the film was made. If it’s a really wonderful film, I will always try to see it again, and that second viewing is when I will allow myself to look at it more critically from a technical perspective, to wonder how they did a particular scene, how they did the lighting, or how they moved the camera.

If the film is not successful in a viewing, that’s when I start to think about why it’s not successful. It may well be a combination of things. A great film is a collaborative effort, but so is a bad film. There’s a lot of reasons why a film doesn’t work, and if it’s not working, that’s when I’ll get pulled out of it.

Kirill: How was your transition from the world of working with film as a medium to working with predominantly digital in the last 10 years or so?

Frank: I did study cinematography in film school, and I graduated in 1995. Back then in New York City there was quite a bit of independent film going on, and most of it was shot on a Super 16 and Super 35 mm film. I started out as a grip and an electrician, and slowly started getting work as a gaffer working on some of these films. I was trained to light film and that’s how I came up.

Once I started transitioning to operating camera and then becoming a DP [director of photography] myself, that’s when that quick transition to video happened. As I started becoming a DP, and I think we all did it at that time in the early 2000s, we held on to the protocols of shooting on film. That old lights-camera-action had a reason to exist. Back in the old days the lights had to be turned on, and then the camera had to start rolling, so you always said “Lights, camera, action” – but obviously not today. The camera never stops rolling and these LED lights are on all the time.

It was a nice transition for me. I hadn’t established myself as a cinematographer on film, but I had learned the fundamentals of lighting with film – and I’ve always kept that. To this day we still talk about the various aspects of how you light film and try to apply that to digital.

I feel like I had a natural progression from one to the other, and I’m happy I had that. I feel fortunate in the timing of it for me.


On the set of season 7 of “Reno 911!”. Courtesy of Frank Barrera.

Kirill: When somebody asks you what you do for a living, is it difficult to talk about what goes into being a cinematographer?

Frank: It is difficult to truly convey what the cinematographer’s role is. I can say that I work with the director and the producer to realize their vision of the film. But I don’t know if somebody who’s never been on a set can really understand that. And I say that because I didn’t understand any of this until I started working and understanding what a grip does, what an electrician does, how sound is recorded, what a production designer, etc. I’ve been in this business for 25 years, and it’s only been in the last couple of years where I feel like I’ve started to truly understand what an editor does. That sounds crazy [laughs] but I’ve never spent any time in post-production.

It’s difficult to truly express to somebody what all the parts are. I think that it’s almost impossible to explain to somebody what a producer is, for example. It all seems so mysterious…

Kirill: And they usually dominate the opening titles.

Frank: Well, it’s their film. I come from the school of thought that sees feature films as a producer’s medium. I’ve had debates with colleagues over this. Some people say it’s a director’s medium, and I say it’s a director’s medium when you see that the director is also a producer. But if the director is only a director and they have other people producing, it is the producer’s film. It’s their responsibility to make sure this whole thing is going to happen. That’s why they’re up there in the credits. When they give out the award for best film, it really should be – and often is – the producers who are accepting the award. It is a producer’s medium.

Kirill: How has this year treated you in your professional field with so many domino effect changes due to the global pandemic?

Frank: The pandemic has affected the film business like it’s affected many other industries. It put brakes to everything. It’s been pretty disastrous and terrible. There was no work for many months.

Obviously, you don’t want to have actors wearing masks, although some movies and TV shows are embracing the pandemic and are photographing actors with masks. But by and large, one of the great things about film is that you want to be taken away. You want to be transported to another place. Very few people right now want to explore the pandemic in terms of storytelling. I remember reading about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917, and very little art came out of that period – very little literature, very little film, very little painting. It seems that for with such a horrible pandemic, everyone just wants to forget about it. It will be interesting to see in the next year or two if there will in fact be a surge of films and/or TV shows that explore the pandemic.

We weren’t working for a long time, and then we started finally slowly getting back to work. It feels a little bit like a hospital clinic, with all the PPE, the protocols and testing. So much testing. It’s been incredibly disruptive.

But as a side note, I will say that when things like this happen, if you’re able to, hopefully there’s some positive aspect to it. On a personal level, I’ve been able to go back and review the old films that I loved so much when I was growing up. There are also films that you talk about over the years of your career, films that people consider influential. But another year goes by, those films get older and older, and they get further and further away. So I did take some of the last year to go back and look at some of those films. It was interesting. Some of the films held up, and some of them did not. It’s been an interesting educational and creative process to use this time to go back and revisit these films that, in my memory, were so important to me. And as we all know, memories are terrible. So it’s been an interesting experience to check in on some of my memories of these films that I grew up with.

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Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Andy Strahorn. In this interview he talks about his work in film and episodic television, the transition of the industry from film to digital, the rising expectations in the world of episodic productions, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Andy dives deep into his work on the first two seasons of “9-1-1: Lone Star”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Andy: My name is Andy Strahorn, and I’m the director of photography on “9-1-1: Lone Star”. I grew up in a small town in Australia. Out local movie theater had a single screen, and it showed movies three times a week. I remember seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” when I was eight years old, and that’s how it started for me. After I saw it, I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t know exactly how to articulate that, but I knew that I wanted to do something with images.

Fast forward to high school, my first job in the film industry was as a cleaner to that cinema that I saw “Empire” 12 years earlier. In some weird way, in that small universe back in the country town in Australia, I’d come full circle to taking my first step into the film industry – even though I started as a cleaner, and then worked my way up to projectionist and what not. Then I moved town to Brisbane, worked my way from production assistant into the studio system at Warner Bros into camera. It took close to a decade to do that.

Every weekend, any chance I got, I would be shooting film. Those were short films and some ideas. The culture of where I come from, growing up in the country, has that element of learning on the job. That’s how I learned to do what I do. It was learning on the job through repetition. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to shoot short films, and then independent features. A movie I did back in 2001 called “Undead” got a release in the United States, and several years afterwards I moved over here [US] and started this part of my journey.

One thing I find interesting about any technician, any head of department, or any creative is that there’s literally not one linear way of getting into the film industry. Every single person has an interesting story of how they found themselves in the film industry and where they are today. You can have passion, and drive, and all the rest of it, but you’re really talking about a career that is so fluid. It’s not like you do this 4-year degree, and then get the job, and that’s the way it happens. It’s too fluid. It vacillates too much.

My scenario is probably more common than not, but maybe not so much. It’s whatever you can do to get where you want to go. I think the backbone of that is keeping at it. It’s perseverance and working hard. I’m very grateful that my home country taught me that. The industry in Australia is a lot smaller, so your diligence and your commitment – as well as your talent – are constantly under the microscope, so to speak. There just wasn’t enough jobs, so if you weren’t efficient or skilled, you just wouldn’t get the call. I was fortunate to learn under those circumstances and to have that at the beginning stages of my career. There’s a lot of opportunity in the United States, and that puts you in a good position to seize that opportunity and to make steps forward.


Cinematography of “9-1-1: Lone Star” by Andy Strahorn. Courtesy of Fox Media.

Kirill: How has the transition of the industry from film to digital been for you?

Andy: It’s been an interesting time. I love film and I’m a total traditionalist in that sense. But what I’ve come to enjoy about digital in the last 10 years is the ability and the immediacy to creatively make lighting and color choices right there and then. When we did film, you would shoot, then you’d wait for the lab to process overnight, and then you might see something the following afternoon if you were lucky. What this does is it takes a lot of the guessing game out. You now have the immediacy of doing whatever you want right there and then with DIT.

I relish that. I can be in the moment creatively. I can make those choices in color, contrast or texture right there and then as I’m seeing it. You go down the pipeline with the studio, the producers, and the production company, and they can see the intention – rather than an interpretation – of the image right there and then. We work in so many situations and scenarios in present day. Cinematographers might be shooting in a different city with a different crew or a different post production facility. You might not have that shorthand that you ordinarily have in your hometown, as you’re trying to find that visual language in that new relationship.

The great thing about digital is the immediacy. I’m standing right there and then, I can put a bit more of this or take out a bit more of that. There is a control factor that we all want as cinematographers as it goes through the pipeline. We want the control the intent of the image. That’s the power of digital for me.

Film is obviously beautiful, but you need to see where we are and where the industry is heading. Digital is here to stay. It is a backbone now for most studios. We are playing by different rules, but it’s good to know that we can still shape the way we see the world. We want to protect the integrity of the vision as it goes through the system. That is what is important, be it film or digital. It’s all about that vision getting to the end result that you want, and trying to protect it as much so there’s less need for interpretation of the intention. It allows you to be true to yourself and have it the way you want to, rather than there being manipulation along the way.

Kirill: Is it difficult for you to talk about what you do for a living with people outside of your industry?

Andy: It’s just hard to quantify what is a director of photography or a cinematographer. It’s that person that helps a director, a writer, and a producer, that brings whatever the subject and the script is to life with regard to the power of a camera, and what does a camera say and do.

Sometimes I put it as simply as using blue to feel the sensation of a winter cold, and using yellow, orange or red to feel the sensation of a summer warmth. Then I talk about capturing that, putting the camera and the color and the contrast, manipulating all that and trying to get everyone’s vision through the tip of the spear which is the frame that I see. It doesn’t matter what happens around that frame. No matter what happens on the set around that frame, everyone only cares about what you see in the end product.

The cinematographer is the person that makes you feel, that invokes that emotion that you feel even when you turn off the sound. You turn off the sound, you look at the image and you feel sad for that person. Why is that? It’s the lens choice, the lighting, the texture, the way the camera moves that makes people feel a certain way. That’s what I tell people when they ask me this question. I choose lenses, lighting and contrast to invoke an emotion, to make people feel a certain way when they see an image in a scene in a movie. If you do your job right, people will feel it on a subliminal level.v

It’s not always the easiest question to answer. It’s complex. Cinematography is a weird combination of art and science, and you’re also dealing with money. Art in itself is the antithesis of money. Art is raw. It’s primal and instinctual. You can’t put a dollar price on that, but that’s the game we play.

You have 45 minutes for this lighting setup, and it’s in a room that had a certain scene in it that we shot last night. The scene needs to be moody, and the room has a certain physical size to it. How do you create the illusion of mood, drama and tension in a room of that size, with characters moving all over it? How do you shoot them in a truthful photographic way, but also flattering at the same time? That in itself becomes a logistical, technical scenario.

Shoots in the film industry are getting faster and faster than they were 10 years ago. You’re moving at such a speed, and you ask yourself how do you artistically get to put your stamp on that with all the other noise around you? We need to hit certain times, we need to keep moving, we need coverage. Look at films from 20-30 years ago, be it series of features, and you compare them to what we’re seeing today, we have more shots and setups. The expectation of the images is increasingly higher. We need more today than what we did back when I started in ’95.

You have these expectations and the needs from the production company and the studio, and you have to balance it with the artistic expression. How do I say something here with the image, knowing that I have to appease and do what I need to do over here for this production company, the studio, the director, the producers and the actors? It’s a juggling act between being truthful as an artist and working within the studio system.


Cinematography of “9-1-1: Lone Star” by Andy Strahorn. Courtesy of Fox Media.

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