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Attention-Deficit Audiences and How New Media Might Be Affecting Traditional Filmmaking

11.28.12 @ 11:42AM Tags : , ,

There’s a big difference between what me might call traditional filmmaking and what Ray William Johnson does. Ray has over 2 billion total views and is the most subscribed-to YouTuber ever, but his work is definitely achieving its goals in a different way than some of the pieces we champion here at NoFilmSchool — especially when you consider its rapid-fire pace. In what ways does (or should) the micro-attention span of audiences drive and shape films that make berth on the web? Filmmaker Magazine has recently posted on the subject, with some interesting commentary and findings.

Here’s the video that accompanies Mike Feurstein’s write-up, a conversation-style brainstorm peppered with a few clay pigeons taking some shotgun fire:

These hyper-short forms — 5 Second Films comes to mind – can certainly occupy places in our hearts, but the big question is whether or not the hunger for brevity ‘infects’ cinema in some way — especially internet-bound work. Mike Feurstein had this to say about what can be learned from the bread and butter of the YouTube generation:

The web medium, one that demands attention spans shorter than most goldfish, will not destroy chances to tell stories that don’t adhere to YouTube parameters. But it has given us hopefully something to think about in terms of crafting our stories to their cores no matter what the length or method of delivery. The new rules are the old rules, just more intense:

A successful YouTube video is kept short, oftentimes funny, maybe riffs on pop culture, shows some boobs if possible, updates frequently and stays genre specific. All this means is what novelists and screenwriters and playwrights have known their entire careers: appropriate length, appropriate mood, relevance, stimulation or shock value, staying current, and knowing your audience. It’s just applied to a different mode of delivery: the digital short attention span.

As a side-note, it’s interesting that YouTube itself is attempting to expand the very parameters that Mike’s mentioning here, because as he says, everything has its audience and the trick is to unite the two — why not try for cross-over success? The infectious nature of super-short hyperactive new media may not warp what anyone expects of a film, instead it might just reinforce what most people are expecting from any media in the first place: to accomplish exactly what it sets out to at a pace and angle that doesn’t overstay its welcome or become overly self-indulgent.

Have you ever found yourself shortening work to better fit the modern model? In what ways has the new media approach affected the way you consider an audience’s attention span? How do you think shorter and shorter attention spans will affect filmmaking in the future? Will we see faster and faster paced films, or do you think traditional filmmaking will still have its place?

Link: Filmmaker Magazine — Spanned Attentions


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  • Great post. Filmmaking to me is a true exercise in focus. It’s one activity in which a lack of focus can seriously cripple the strength of the final product, whether it be a poorly written script, ineffective dp or simply a meandering story.

  • Great read. Sometimes had to shorten the videos I’ve worked on, but usually the clients ask me to lengthen the vids from my 1-3 minute edits up to 5-7 minutes. The conversations are always a bit awkward, especially when they refuse to believe that people will stop watching a promo video after 2 minutes.

    Shortened videos, especially for promos and so forth, are best – very quick and to the point, forcing you to get your message across like a 30-60 sec TV ad rather than drawing it out with beauty shots and redundant points.

    I think something interesting, but probably very destructive, are these interactive films and shows that send info to your tablet and phone. I personally haven’t seen anyone use those features yet (or QR codes lol), but I imagine constantly looking down at a secondary device for more info ruins the film/tv experience.

    • Amen, dude, I did a motion graphics piece this year. I strongly pushed for a super fast one to two minute piece before we started, in the end it was nearly hitting the five minute mark…

      • Chris Hedeen on 12.4.12 @ 2:10AM

        Same thing happened to me this past spring… shot a promo video for an event, and my original cut was around 3 minutes, but the client refused to believe me that people who are viewing videos online today, don’t have the attention spans of 2003. So he had me extend the cut to 8 minutes! That involved shooting additional footage and getting paid for shooting that footage, so it was all good.

        Sometimes I guess we just have to make sacrifices, and go against our creative intuition or our experience-based wisdom, to satisfy the man with the money. I suppose even Hollywood directors on multimillion-dollar budget films go through this same dilemma with their executive producers.

        Anyway, great read!

  • Photography is still a popular medium… beautiful framing can still capture the human spirit, I have less respect to verbal vomit in the name of getting more viewership.

  • This is great. I don’t see anything wrong with being concise. How many times have you been to a movie and thought, “Man, they could’ve shaved off the 30 minutes?” If anything, it’s teaching us all to become better storytellers and change with the times. Excellent piece.

  • Similar to telling a short or making a short film, Short films or atleast a good short is not always a simple task, because shorts have to/should convey a message, punch, and story in a shorter timeframe than a traditional film.

    At the end of the day you should always embrace your artform in various new ways, concepts, or fields.

  • marsupial_4k on 11.28.12 @ 3:04PM

    I’m not that interested in the YouTube mob. It seems people want to post there solely for hits, irrespective of the quality of people viewing or to garner inane and/or violent comments. In fact, violent videos, those showing someone’s demise, and hate and anger vids are all the rage on ‘Tube, repeated on Facebook for that gang’s delight.

    Nevertheless, filmmakers may target whatever audience they please, and if it’s the ‘tube mob, fine, to each their own. Consider, however, that quality work should probably vie for a higher standard, e.g., adage: “quality (of viewers), not quantity”.

  • Antoine Serviette on 11.28.12 @ 3:21PM

    Read that article. Pretty much, we are switching from a society of text and spoken word to a society of images and interactivity. So our brains are changing, and our attention spans with traditional medias are shot. Most kids in lower/average tier high schools can barely write coherent paragraphs anymore.

  • If we’re really in a short attention span age, then why are Hollywood movies getting longer and longer? This is a genuine question. I just don’t know how to square away the fact that we’re happy (mostly) to watch two-and-a-half-hour blockbusters, while at the same time we are generally paying attention in shorter and shorter increments. Doesn’t that seem contradictory?

    • Yes and no. I think part of the 21st century appeal of going to the cinema is that its one of the only pieces of media you can’t control once it starts. We can pause live TV, we can (and often do) choose to divide our attention between our smartphones/ipads/twitter feeds and whatever media we’re watching.

      Longer films and to a greater degree the Netflix/DVD TV show marathon are the equal and opposite reaction to the ADD phenomenon. We consume media in such small, controlled increments throughout the day that when we want to experience something special we want to make a ritual out of actually paying attention to something.

      Sure, watching Breaking Bad week to week has been great but sometimes I’m envious towards my friends that just started catching up on the show. Just the thought of experiencing that range of emotions in a few weekends sounds like the most luxurious, extravagant media experience imaginable. That kind of experience I think will become all the more appealing in the shadow of our rapidly increasing rate of media consumption in other facets of our life.

    • Also I think it’s about “bang for your buck” – if you’re going to be spending upwards of $20 per person at the theater, you better be there for a while.

  • Interesting debate.

    Web videos don’t have to be short. If the content is compelling enough, and the story is well constructed, people will stick around.

  • While I didn’t wholly agree with its mesage, there was no denying that the ‘Kony2012′ video was a very compelling piece of work. At 30mins in length, it changed my perception of Youtube being simply about short 3min videos. It was a ‘documentary’ (of sorts) though and I think the platform (Youtube) does lend itself to connecting more with the real world in this respect than a work of fiction.

  • paul herrin on 11.29.12 @ 6:46PM

    first, there will always be nostalgia and romanticism of times past that were slower and simpler which become attractive the further removed we become in this fast-paced electronic society. i’m not necessarily advocating that, nor futurism, just saying there exists a niche for escaping into an archetypical realm with healthy and unhealthy possibilities.

    secondly, the push for shorter and shorter work does have it’s benefits. it forces us more than ever before to really get to the heart of a story in thinking about its most condensed version. from there we can find the wisdom for a proper amount of time based on qualitative, emotional/psycho-spiritual impact plus a growing amount of quantitative data. we have a lot of guidance available.

    and act three, as it were, I think is what we’re already seeing the beginnings in a transformation of storytelling and by extension, culture. i believe this is closely connected to the movement towards successful ‘open’ networks, like wikipedia, as the next step away from the great democratization of filmmaking (and society). as we speak, rivers and mountains and caves are carving themselves out as seats of a new power structure that, hopefully, lends itself towards its own inevitable death in the great cycle of survival – or as the wise old man called it, “the circle of life.”

  • I’m not so sure anything’s really changed. When I first started studying videography, I was taught The Great Rule: a vid isn’t complete when you can’t fit any more into it, a vid is complete when you can’t take anything else out of it. If you are unable to follow The Great Rule on your own, find someone who understands it and have them edit your work for you.

  • I do a lot of promo and music videos, so the traditional narrative format of shooting/editing isn’t one I normally subscribe to. Though I will admit I find it easier to edit a project if I have a song as my “timer”. (When it comes to promos) Before I even put the first shot on the TL I decide on how long I feel the video should be (depending on how much footage I shot) and this is never more then 4+ mins long if it doesn’t have to be.

    For my line of work people don’t want to sit in front of their computer screen for more then a few minutes. They want to see what they missed and then move on to the next FB/Twitter/E-mail/Article. The more things I can compress into a 3 min video in an a exciting way the better. Not to mention everyone involved in that project gets their time to shine and shares the video with friends. So it’s a win-win scenario. I have no problem against long narrative films, but if I feel like I’ve been in the theater/couch longer than I needed to be then it takes me out of the story.