Successful Fundraiser

Successful Fundraiser from Brandon Smith.

With your help, I was able to raise $2,132 for charity: water. I made a brief video ti thank everyone who donated. I really appreciate your generosity and I know the folks in Rwanda will appreciate your generosity even more.

I’m doing much better. I’ve finally got enough stamina to allow me to switch to full-time at work. Not only is the a sign of physical improvement, it also means more income which takes a tremendous amount of stress of my mind.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Not Just Another Wedding Film

Bleibaum/Mallott Wedding from Brandon Smith.

Bowers/Thomas Wedding from Brandon Smith

Most independent filmmakers cringe at the idea of making a wedding film. And for good reason. Generally, all creative control on the filmmaker’s behalf goes out the window in favor of how the bride and groom want the end product to look. Not the case with my friends Amanda and Aaron, Todd and Kathy. Here’s the skinny: each couple saw the work I did for my other long-time friends Lance and Jenny and wanted something similar. It’s certainly not uncommon to receive RFP’s from friends based on recommendations from other friends when you’re in the freelance game. It’s a tough line to walk when mixing money and friends though. Fortunately, both couples had money set aside in their wedding budget to pay me, but one of the most important parts was this line in an email I received from Amanda: “I just want something on video to watch years down the road of one of the best days of our lives. Can you help us out?” I was intrigued. What filmmaker doesn’t want to make something timeless? Add in the fact that both couple were willing to let me follow my own vision with how I wanted to capture the day and I was sold. Giving me their trust was a huge compliment. I felt free to shoot, unfettered by any restraints. When I started to edit, their trust gave me the confidence that what I was doing was right because I was expressing myself using their wedding as a platform. I felt engaged as an artist. One of my biggest problems with wedding videos is that they’re generally pretty unwatchable for anyone but the couple and the couple’s immediate family. So I challenged myself to make something that would be palatable to an audience outside of each couple’s inner circle. Also, I wanted to use it as a calling card for the world that I’m willing to shoot your wedding if you’ll give me complete creative control. You have to trust me. If you want to be able to make suggestions and have any sort of control, hire a videographer. If you want something that’s going to be timeless and interesting to your grandkids and beyond, hire a filmmaker. So did I succeed? Let me know in the comments.

PROOF

I was invited to attend a wedding in the Finger Lakes on June 29th. I’ve been dealing with a lot of complicated issues since the accident last September so attending was exactly what I needed. Not only did I get to witness a joyous couple wed, I got to spend some quality time with a few friends who I’ve known since my time in Bolivia as a US Peace Corps volunteer. I rode to the ceremony with Dan Wright and met up with Kerby & Amber Smithson. We all had a blast. There was much laughing and positivity. I had seriously doubted humanity’s capability of kindness before this weekend, but spending time in a loving, idyllic environment with close friends offered me verifiable proof that life is worth living.

As they say, “pictures are worth a thousand words” so here is over 10,000 words to see just a glimpse of what I saw.

I'd say they're a happy couple.

I’d say they’re a happy couple.

ampersand

Who doesn’t love a giant red ampersand?

 

Father-daughter dance

 

Evan serenades his new wife

kate-and-evan

And then he kissed me

idyllic

So idyllic.

groupshot

Family comes first

walking

What does this rock feel like?

kerby-water-fall

Are you coming from heaven, Mr. Waterfall?

footprints

Leave no trace, but barefoot footprints.

Distance Learning Resources

On April 15th of this year, I received an email from Mercedes Bell. She identified herself as a writer who had a piece published to http://www.onlineuniversities.com entitled EdTech in the Third World: Distance Learning. She asked me to read her piece and share my thoughts with you, dear reader. I asked for her patience. I had, and continue to have, a lot on my plate as I recover from the TBI that I sustained last September. 

Image

She granted me my wish, but this did not stop her from following up five times over the next six days to ask me how I was coming along with the piece. I finally had time to get around to it this weekend since I’m staying home to rest while I wear an ambulatory EEG device. 

 I went to the site via the link which Ms. Bell provided and the article contains the byline “Staff Writers,” which to me indicates Ms. Bell is on staff for this website. However, her email address remains anonymously sent from gmail so this remains but a suspicion. I suspected that this was a sales pitch, but I was confused because my blog certainly doesn’t have the kind of circulation that a more noteworthy website has. Perhaps Ms. Bell has been denied by other, more mainstream blogs though so she’s feels this is the only viable option left on the table. 

 I will say that many of my readers are folks with strong educational backgrounds and admirable social status so maybe Ms. Bell is targeting quality readers over quantity. This is an trait that indicates decency in my book so I went ahead and gave the article a once over. 

 As I suspected, the article ends with a call to action to help make distance learning a more viable option for young people straddled by poverty in developing nations. While I think this is certainly a noble effort and one that I could have utilized during my service in Bolivia as a US Peace Corps volunteer, I think the focus is off. Many young people in the US – myself included – are burdened with financial debt from pursuing college and grad school degrees. This is financially crippling to us personally and it has a palpable effect on the national economy. If young people are still paying off hefty loans they took out to enable themselves to become educated, how are we to expect them to buy other things like houses and cars to infuse the economy with capital? I submit to you, dear readers that this is an impossible task. 

The bottom line here is that while I think Ms. Bell’s efforts are noble, I wish she and her colleagues would first focus on trying to alleviate the crippling debt of recent American collegiate grads. Once that problem is fixed, I’d be happy to turn my attention to the needs of the world’s poor.

Is Anonymity Becoming More Valuable Than Fame?

I recently spoke on the phone with both author Parmy Olson, and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger. I was quite moved by what they told me. I think it’s impossible to take a perspective because so little is known in these early days of the group’s existence, so I’m attempting to provide the insight I was given so that you may make an informed decision. I ask questions that occurred to me after speaking with Ms. Olson and Mr. Knappenberger. I think these are the kinds of questions that need to be asked right now so the general public may become more informed about what Anonymous stands for.

Surely you’ve heard about their recent attack on the folks at Westboro Baptist Church for the church’s intention to picket the funerals of those killed in the blasts during the Boston Marathon. This isn’t the first time they’ve been attacked either. Read on to learn more. I hope that it will do you good and shed some much needed insight on Anonymous.

Picture the early days of the Internet as pre-conquest America. Its vast, undiscovered frontiers are simultaneously awe-inspiring and daunting.

People are finding ways to get by. They are organized and flourishing. They live in balance with their surrounding ecosystems and have an unyielding respect for that which sustains them.

If this vision of a virginal, pristine land is the Internet, then I posit that hackers are the natives. Their survival skills are rooted in a deep understanding of and connection to the ecosystems which sustain them. However, like any collective, their cultural norms can be varied and difficult to interpret. We see in them only what our perceptions allow us to.

In her book We Are Anonymous, author Parmy Olson is at once journalist, anthropologist and documentarian, recording and recounting primary interviews with members of the hacker collective responsible for several high-profile online attacks over the last few years.

Parmy Olson                               we are anonymous                           we are legion

Beginning in 2003 and recently working to ban an alleged pedofile from Twitter, Anonymous has targeted the U.S. Department of Justice, the Chicago Police, India’s Supreme Court and Congress, the Church of Scientology, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Tunisia’s Prime Minister, Westboro Baptist Church, Sony, Fox’s The X Factor, PBS, Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), British tabloid The Sun, the CIA, and oil companies Shell, Exxon Mobil and BP. With such an impressive list of successful attacks to its name, it’s no wonder Anonymous made it to the top of TIME’s Top 100 People public poll.

But who comprises Anonymous? How is this collective structured? And how were some of the hackers caught?

Olson tracks the group’s rise and fall by delving into the online and offline lives of the major players and underlings who fill out the ranks. She pinpoints its genesis on 4chan image boards and traces its many splinter groups like AntiSec and LulzSec.

“I’ve always been fascinated by secret cultures and societies, underground groups of people, parts of our civilization that are not spoken of that much or understood that well, but can be a driving force in things that happen in our lives,” Olson explains to me.

Olson highlights one of the shining stars of Anonymous and LulzSec, Jake Davis. Before his arrest and unmasking, he achieved almost mythical status. Using the screen name Topiary, his clout gave him the platform to assert his beliefs about online ethics, digital culture and what the Internet should be — often in front of thousands of adoring online fans.

Through personal interactions with Davis, Olson learned that his coding and hacking skills weren’t as good as some of the other notable members. Instead, it was his writing prowess, raw wit and natural ability to create narrative propaganda that catapulted him into a leadership role. From the get-go, the group fully grasped the importance and power of well-crafted communication. They saw it as integral to recruitment and the dissemination of their ideals and plans.

“Jake Davis would probably be fine at a PR company or advertising firm somewhere, but he found it more fulfilling to use his talents for something original instead of doing it somewhere behind a desk,” Olson tells me. “Simply put, he didn’t want to work for the man.”

Davis and the other hackers associated with LulzSec instead felt more comfortable roaming the primitive lands of the Internet on image boards like /b/ on 4chan and the vast array of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks. But, even escapades on the Internet cannot escape the adage, “what goes up, must come down.” Davis eluded American and European authorities for months, but was finally caught in his home in the Shetland Islands of Scotland.

Details are still emerging about what ultimately led to his capture. It could have been the culmination of a few tiny mistakes or a former friend’s betrayal. It could have been something as seemingly harmless as allowing his real name to appear briefly in an IRC chat, or a connection error with one of his many VPNs (virtual private networks) — all mistakes that would allow authorities to pinpoint his location. Rumors have also surfaced that a past friend may have recognized his voice during his notorious video prank of the Westboro Baptist Church, or that a former hacker colleague-turned-informant offered Davis up to lessen his own punishment.

“Among the things Jake noticed during his interviews with detectives was that the police seemed to see Anonymous as an organized criminal group. When the detectives questioned Jake, they seemed to want answers that fit that point of view. Jake tried to explain that Anonymous was not a group, was not organized, and did not have a structure. It was more of a culture or an idea than a group,” Olson writes of Davis’ experiences once arrested.

Olson continues, “[H]owever, hackers are known to occasionally share nicknames to help obfuscate their identities or even flat-out lie.”

Since Olson herself admits that the information given to her during interviews may be suspect, it’s important to corroborate the ideas disseminated from members of Anoymous to gain a better picture of their intentions and what they stand for.

Security strategist and researcher Joshua Corman essentially agrees with Davis’s assertion.

“Anonymous should be thought of more as a brand or a franchise. It can be used for good or it can easily be corrupted and used as a veil to disguise other unrelated hacks,” Corman explains. “In today’s day and age, it’s startling how much power is assigned to the individual. We’ve never experienced this sort of unbalance assigned to someone that may just want to see the world burn. The flurry of attacks over the last year or so from Anonymous and all its splinter cell groups should serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If we don’t do something to secure and educate ourselves, it could be only the first wave of online backlash towards a system that is viewed as corrupt.”

Some who follow Anonymous are concerned that the correct information isn’t reaching the public. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is trying to change this in his documentary We Are Legion.

“I think of myself as a foreign correspondent,” Knappenberger says. “They’re a community and I think it’s worth looking at them as a culture. There are plenty of aspects to them that you don’t hear about.”

Olson again. “Hackers don’t own the Internet, but they feel a sense of ownership of it. More and more people feel like a citizen of the Internet than they do a citizen of their own country. I think perhaps this only applies to a minority of people, but I think that number is growing. The internet is connecting so many of us that there is a real sense of belonging to it and a real sense of community. And Anonymous is a great example of that sense of community.”

During a recent hiking trip, I reflected on Olson’s book, and it occurred to me that my urban and digital survival skills are much better honed than my wilderness survival skills. A person living in New York City need only venture into the great outdoors overnight to remember the power of unbridled nature.

“That’s the main thing about life,” Davis wrote in a letter to Olson. “People think we are superior to animals. And they’re looking for this missing link, but what if we are the link to animals and real human beings haven’t evolved yet? It’s pretentious to think we’re superior in the universe because we can communicate with each other.”

Upon realizing the woods could gobble me up without hesitation, I felt a burst of deep respect and reverence for the unknown, and for those who thrive in nature’s organized chaos.

Maybe that same sense of reverence should be offered to hackers, or should I say, digital natives?

The Power of Human Connection – Kasasa Gas Giveaway

Kasasa Gas Giveaway from Brandon Smith on Vimeo.

Campaigns that help people connect with one another are right up my alley. When I first got in touch with Jenna from CSG PR in Denver, Colorado I knew this would be a great fit for my skill set. Jenna and her team were very well-organized and made capturing the mood and tone of the event a breeze. Plus, watching folks learn that they were going to be getting twenty bucks worth of free gasoline was quite a joy.

Since I already knew the strategy behind the piece, I just had to execute it on screen. It had to be lighthearted, but it also had to show the power of using face to face meetings in a branded way to create a memorable experience for potential consumers. I think the combination of warm smiles, a sunny day and upbeat music struck the right chord.

I shot this using my new Canon 5D, Mark iii set up and I enjoyed every minute of it. The workflow is easier than I’m used to with the Panasonic HMC-150 and the picture just jumps off the screen.

Do you need a video like this? Call me, let’s chat. I’m sure we can make it happen.

Long Form Content Is Finally Hip

A while back, my friend Kym Perfetto approached me about doing a demo reel for her. I’ve done demo reels for myself before, but never for someone else. Kym has an array of talent and the potential to become a household name before the next tachyon violates causality. I was excited about the possibility of furthering someone’s career that I believe in. It would also be an opportunity to promote the fusion of digital strategy with documentary-style editing, a style that I wish to see more of in the world. It looks as though it’s a trend that is catching on, too. Both Forbes and Tech Crunch have recently featured stories about the rise of long-form content on the web.

It’s no secret that the question of how to captivate an ever-diminishing public attention span keeps digital media strategists awake at night. The same can be said for an actor trying to break through. The public has never been more saturated with content and I’ve heard directly from friends in the PR industry that casting directors know exactly what they’re looking for before they even start sorting through video reels. If they don’t see “it,” they’ve often moved on before the video has even finished loading.

If that’s the case, what difference does it make if the reel is two minutes long or eight minutes long? Not. One. Bit. So, I chose to approach Kym’s reel in a radically different way. I chose to go long form and create a more comprehensive, artistic profile.

During a Q and A session after a screening of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris mused “If you already know the answer to a question, then why ask it?” If talent scouts and agents are looking for something in particular, then why do people even go to the trouble of creating reels? It seems like a futile effort at addressing a question the powers that be already have an answer for.

For comparison’s sake, check out these examples of reels that are available on the web:

Savvy websites have taken this cue by creating a place where they write and produce work for you to show. Nevermind the weird binary lighting that strikes the subjects with harsh blues and reds and the other low-rent production values. The second part of Jonathan Ohye’s reel(second, above) where he speaks with a heavy, unidentifiable Asian accent is reprehensible and works to perpetuate stereotypical casting that we should be moving away from.

This style of reel doesn’t fit Kym’s current career arc. Kym has been on shows that these actors are trying to break into like The Wire and Homicide. She also has an ever-expanding list of credits on IMdB including a role in a major production called Premium Rush starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She’s trained many notable A-List celebrities with her own brand of fitness at Soul Cycle and her band, No Way Josie had over 40,000 downloads of their debut EP in its first week.

So positioning her is tricky. She’s got mainstream experience in supporting roles, but she’s looking for something where she’s featured more prominently. If I was going to present her as the next big thing, I had to be bold. One of the boldest things about going long form is eschewing the present day standard of bowing to the almighty page view. While I think this metric is a great way to measure resonance, I don’t believe that quality is determined by page views alone. I’m not the only one looking for different ways to measure quality. Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann championed forging new paths during a panel discussion at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin last week.

“I think it was my days at Google that inspired my audacity of thought. I was inspired by their boldness.”

I share Ben’s idea that quality is something that you achieve by tinkering endlessly before you feel comfortable that you put the best product forward. Quality is something that gives you a sense of pride about your own work. Quality is telling great stories in a way that connects with an audience.

“The idea of communicating who you are doesn’t get old and shouldn’t be randomly accessed. Every company cuts it’s own path but there’s always a lot of pressure to look like the last successful company. It’s hard to have the boldness to be different,” Ben added.

So with that in mind, I offer you Kym’s reel. My guess is that it’s drastically different than the other reels floating around Los Angeles right now. Who cares? I think it tells Kym’s story. And if you’ll indulge my boldness, I believe that you won’t mind spending a little bit of time watching it.

Think I’m off my rocker? Let me know in the comments below.