I enjoyed this documentary on legendary sound designer and editor Walter Murch. Kinda makes me want to rewatch The Conversation and The Godfather.
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
Here’s a BBC adaption of that J.G. Ballard short story I recorded. It certainly feels like a story for our time.
Monday, March 23rd, 2020
While we’re all confined to quarters during The Situation, Gary Hustwit is offering one of his films for free every week. The fantastic Helvetica is just about to finish its run, but every one of Gary’s films is worth watching (and rewatching): Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized, and Rams.
Filmmaker Gary Hustwit is streaming his documentaries free worldwide during the global COVID crisis. Each week we’ll be posting another film here. We hope you enjoy them, and please stay strong.
Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020
Telling the story of performance
At Clearleft, we’ve worked with quite a few clients on site redesigns. It’s always a fascinating process, particularly in the discovery phase. There’s that excitement of figuring out what’s currently working, what’s not working, and what’s missing completely.
The bulk of this early research phase is spent diving into the current offering. But it’s also the perfect time to do some competitor analysis—especially if we want some answers to the “what’s missing?” question.
It’s not all about missing features though. Execution is equally important. Our clients want to know how their users’ experience shapes up compared to the competition. And when it comes to user experience, performance is a huge factor. As Andy says, performance is a UX problem.
There’s no shortage of great tools out there for measuring (and monitoring) performance metrics, but they’re mostly aimed at developers. Quite rightly. Developers are the ones who can solve most performance issues. But that does make the tools somewhat impenetrable if you don’t speak the language of “time to first byte” and “first contentful paint”.
When we’re trying to show our clients the performance of their site—or their competitors—we need to tell a story.
Web Page Test is a terrific tool for measuring performance. It can also be used as a story-telling tool.
You can go to webpagetest.org/easy if you don’t need to tweak settings much beyond the typical site visit (slow 3G on mobile). Pop in your client’s URL and, when the test is done, you get a valuable but impenetrable waterfall chart. It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d want to present to a client.
Fortunately there’s an attention-grabbing output from each test: video. Download the video of your client’s site loading. Then repeat the test with the URL of a competitor. Download that video too. Repeat for as many competitor URLs as you think appropriate.
Now take those videos and play them side by side. Presentation software like Keynote is perfect for showing multiple videos like this.
This is so much more effective than showing a table of numbers! Clients get to really feel the performance difference between their site and their competitors.
Running all those tests can take time though. But there are some other tools out there that can give a quick dose of performance information.
SpeedCurve recently unveiled Page Speed Benchmarks. You can compare the performance of sites within a particualar sector like travel, retail, or finance. By default, you’ll get a filmstrip view of all the sites loading side by side. Click through on each one and you can get the video too. It might take a little while to gather all those videos, but it’s quicker than using Web Page Test directly. And it might be that the filmstrip view is impactful enough for telling your performance story.
If, during your discovery phase, you find that performance is being badly affected by third-party scripts, you’ll need some way to communicate that. Request Map Generator is fantastic for telling that story in a striking visual way. Pop the URL in there and then take a screenshot of the resulting visualisation.
The beginning of a redesign project is also the time to take stock of current performance metrics so that you can compare the numbers after your redesign launches. Crux.run is really great for tracking performance over time. You won’t get any videos but you will get some very appealing charts and graphs.
Web Page Test, Page Speed Benchmarks, and Request Map Generator are great for telling the story of what’s happening with performance right now—Crux.run balances that with the story of performance over time.
Measuring performance is important. Communicating the story of performance is equally important.
Friday, January 3rd, 2020
Thursday, January 2nd, 2020
The Rise Of Skywalker
If you haven’t seen The Rise Of Skywalker, avert your gaze for I shall be revealing spoilers here…
I wrote about what I thought of The Force Awakens. I wrote about what I thought of The Last Jedi. It was inevitable that I was also going to write about what I think of The Rise Of Skywalker. If nothing else, I really enjoy going back and reading those older posts and reminding myself of my feelings at the time.
I have to admit that my first reaction was …ambivalent. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.
Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time.
This time there were very specific things that I could point to and say “I don’t like it!” For a start, there’s the return of Palpatine.
I think the Emperor has always been one of the dullest characters in Star Wars. Even in Return Of The Jedi, he just comes across as a paper-thin one-dimensional villain who’s evil just because he’s evil. That works great when he’s behind the scenes manipulating events, but it makes for dull on-screen shenanigans, in my opinion. The pantomime nature of Emperor Palpatine seems more Harry Potter than Star Wars to me.
When I heard the Emperor was returning, my expectations sank. To be fair though, I think it was a very good move not to make the return of Palpatine a surprise. I had months—ever since the release of the first teaser trailer—to come to terms with it. Putting it in the opening crawl and the first scene says, “Look, he’s back. Don’t ask how, just live with it.” That’s fair enough.
So in the end, the thing that I thought would bug me—the return of Palpatine—didn’t trouble me much. But what really bugged me was the unravelling of one of my favourite innovations in The Last Jedi regarding Rey’s provenance. I wrote at the time:
I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands!
What bothered me wasn’t so much that The Rise Of Skywalker undoes this, but that the undoing is so uneccessary. The plot would have worked just as well without the revelation that Rey is a Palpatine. If that revelation were crucial to the story, I would go with it, but it just felt like making A Big Reveal for the sake of making A Big Reveal. It felt …cheap.
I have to say, that’s how I responded to a lot of the kitchen sink elements in this film when I first saw it. It was trying really, really hard to please, and yet many of the decisions felt somewhat lazy to me. There were times when it felt like a checklist.
In a way, there was a checklist, or at least a brief. JJ Abrams has spoken about how this film needed to not just wrap up one trilogy, but all nine films. But did it though? I think I would’ve been happier if it had kept its scope within the bounds of these new sequels.
That’s been a recurring theme for me with all three of these films. I think they work best when they’re about the new characters. I’m totally invested in them. Leaning on nostalgia and the cultural memory of the previous films and their characters just isn’t needed. I would’ve been fine if Luke, Han, and Leia never showed up on screen in this trilogy—that’s how much I’m sold on Rey, Finn, and Poe.
But I get it. The brief here is to tie everything together. And as JJ Abrams has said, there was no way he was going to please everyone. But it’s strange that he would attempt to please the most toxic people clamouring for change. I’m talking about the racists and misogynists that were upset by The Last Jedi. The sidelining of Rose Tico in The Rise Of Skywalker sure reads a lot like a victory for them. Frankly, that’s the one aspect of this film that I’m always going to find disappointing.
Because it turns out that a lot of the other things that I was initially disappointed by evaporated upon second viewing.
Now, I totally get that a film needs to work for a first viewing. But if any category of film needs to stand up to repeat viewing, it’s a Star Wars film. In the case of The Rise Of Skywalker, I think that repeat viewing might have been prioritised. And I’m okay with that.
Take the ridiculously frenetic pace of the multiple maguffin-led plotlines. On first viewing, it felt rushed and messy. I got the feeling that the double-time pacing was there to brush over any inconsistencies that would reveal themselves if the film were to pause even for a minute to catch its breath.
But that wasn’t the case. On second viewing, things clicked together much more tightly. It felt much more like a well-oiled—if somewhat frenetic—machine rather than a cobbled-together Heath Robinson contraption that might collapse at any moment.
My personal experience of viewing the film for the second time was a lot of fun. I was with my friend Sammy, who is not yet a teenager. His enjoyment was infectious.
At the end, after we see Rey choose her new family name, Sammy said “I knew she was going to say Skywalker!”
“I guess that explains the title”, I said. “The Rise Of Skywalker.”
“Or”, said Sammy, “it could be talking about Ben Solo.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
When I first saw The Rise Of Skywalker, I was disappointed by all the ways it was walking back the audacious decisions made in The Last Jedi, particularly Rey’s parentage and the genetic component to The Force. But on second viewing, I noticed the ways that this film built on the previous one. Finn’s blossoming sensitivity keeps the democratisation of The Force on the table. And the mind-melding connection between Rey and Kylo Ren that started in The Last Jedi is crucial for the plot of The Rise Of Skywalker.
Once I was able to get over the decisions I didn’t agree with, I was able to judge the film on its own merits. And you know what? It’s really good!
On the technical level, it was always bound to be good, but I mean on an emotional level too. If I go with it, then I’m rewarded with a rollercoaster ride of emotions. There were moments when I welled up (they mostly involved Chewbacca: Chewie’s reaction to Leia’s death; Chewie getting the medal …the only moment that might have topped those was Han Solo’s “I know”).
So just in case there’s any doubt—given all the criticisms I’ve enumerated—let me clear: I like this film. I very much look forward to seeing it again (and again).
But I do think there’s some truth to what Eric says here:
A friend’s review of “The Rise of Skywalker”, which also serves as a perfect summary of JJ Abrams’ career: “A very well-executed lack of creativity.”
I think I might substitute the word “personality” for “creativity”. However you feel about The Last Jedi, there’s no denying that it embodies the vision of one person:
I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.
JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has done his utmost to please us. I admire that, but I feel it comes at a price. The storytelling isn’t safe exactly, but it’s far from personal.
The result is that The Rise Of Skywalker is supremely entertaining—especially on repeat viewing—and it has a big heart. I just wish it had more guts.
Monday, November 11th, 2019
I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.
Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.
If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?
You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:
Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.
Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.
It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.
But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.
The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:
This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:
- Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
- Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.
This is the raycat solution.
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
This is quite a beautiful homage to Kubrick’s masterpiece.
Friday, August 23rd, 2019
Brendan describes the software he’s using to get away from Adobe’s mafia business model.
Thursday, July 4th, 2019
Summer of Apollo
It’s July, 2019. You know what that means? The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is this month.
I’ve already got serious moon fever, and if you’d like to join me, I have some recommendations…
Watch the Apollo 11 documentary in a cinema. The 70mm footage is stunning, the sound design is immersive, the music is superb, and there’s some neat data visualisation too. Watching a preview screening in the Duke of York’s last week was pure joy from start to finish.
Listen to 13 Minutes To The Moon, the terrific ongoing BBC podcast by Kevin Fong. It’s got all my favourite titans of NASA: Michael Collins, Margaret Hamilton, and Charlie Duke, amongst others. And it’s got music by Hans Zimmer.
Experience the website Apollo 11 In Real Time on the biggest monitor you can. It’s absolutely wonderful! From July 16th, you can experience the mission timeshifted by exactly 50 years, but if you don’t want to wait, you can dive in right now. It genuinely feels like being in Mission Control!
I mentioned how much I enjoyed Mike Hill’s talk at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf:
Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park.
Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.
This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.
I realised that Mike’s monomyth talk aligns nicely with my workshop. So I decided to prep my fellow Clearlefties for the workshop with a movie night.
Popcorn was popped, pizza was ordered, and comfy chairs were suitably arranged. Then we watched Mike’s talk. Everyone loved it. Then it was decision time. Which of three films covered in the talk would we watch? We put it to a vote.
It came out as an equal tie between Jurassic Park and The Dark Knight. How would we resolve this? A coin toss!
The toss went to The Dark Knight. In retrospect, a coin toss was a supremely fitting way to decide to watch that film.
It was fun to watch it again, particularly through the lens of Mike’s analyis of its Jungian archetypes.
But I still think the film is about game theory.
Monday, July 1st, 2019
Friday, May 24th, 2019
Ooh! A documentary on Claude Shannon—exciting!
I just finished reading A Mind At Play, the (very good) biography of Claude Shannon, so this film feels very timely.
Mixing contemporary interviews, archival film, animation and dialogue drawn from interviews conducted with Shannon himself, The Bit Player tells the story of an overlooked genius who revolutionized the world, but never lost his childlike curiosity.
Saturday, April 27th, 2019
Thorough (and grim) research from Chris.
Wednesday, April 24th, 2019
There’s a new reissue of the twenty year old documentary on Justin Hall’s links.net and the early days of the web.
Sunday, April 14th, 2019
Monday, April 8th, 2019
An online documentary series featuring interviews with smart people about the changing role of design.
As technology becomes more complex and opaque, how will we as designers understand its potential, do hands-on work, translate it into forms people can understand and use, and lead meaningful conversations with manufacturers and policymakers about its downstream implications? We are entering a new technology landscape shaped by artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and synthetic biology.
So far there’s Kevin Slavin, Molly Wright Steenson, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, with more to come from the likes of Matt Jones, Anab Jain, Dan Hill, and many, many more.
Saturday, March 9th, 2019
Sunday, February 17th, 2019
The scrollurbation is so excessive on this site that Reader Mode is pretty much a requirement. A shame, because the actual content buried underneath is pretty great.
Saturday, February 16th, 2019
I linked to this a while back but now this great half hour documentary by Jessica Yu is ready and you can watch the whole thing online: Tim Berners-Lee, the birth of the web, and where the web has gone since.
In the scenes describing the early web, there’s footage of the recreated Line Mode Browser—how cool is that‽