Paul Falzone is the Founder and Director of Peripheral Vision International (PVI), a consulting firm devoted to fostering the development of media for social change. Currently operating primarily in Uganda, PVI is involved in the production and distribution of edutainment programs for audiences in East Africa. With a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School at Penn, Falzone is an award-winning producer of film and video, in addition to having conducted research on the uses of visual media for social advocacy.
In this interview, Falzone talks about the role of digital media in the work that PVI has been supporting in Uganda, with a special focus on a program called Newz Beat, in which the news is delivered by rapping ann9uncers. The program’s existence has been made possible by the availability of relatively low-cost digital equipment, used by the program’s creators to achieve a high level of technical quality. In that sense, digital media have broadened the range of participants in Uganda’s media system. At the same time, though, the distribution of Newz Beat is hampered by the limited reach of Uganda’s electrical network and the scarcity of digital screens in people’s homes. In response to this obstacle, the Newz Beat team has developed a system of physical distribution via DVDs that are exhibited on TV screens in public places.
PM: In what ways is News Beat a reflection of the development of digital technology for the creation of audio-visual media?
PF: To the casual viewer in Uganda, Newz Beat is a big budget production, taking place on a slick, glowing set. The reality is somewhat humbler. Newz Beat is recorded in front of a plain white wall covered by a green “chroma key” sheet. The futuristic desk that the anchors sit behind is a folding plastic table also covered with a green sheet. This “virtual set” liberates the media producers from the physical constraints of the television studio and allows them access to any visual they can imagine (or more accurately, to any visual they can download from the internet).
In the old days of celluloid film, cameras were bulky and difficult to use. Film had to undergo expensive processing that could take days. Filmmakers had to “shoot and pray” that the film was not damaged or put in the camera incorrectly and ruined altogether. Lighting was mathematically estimated based on light readings rather than seen in real time. Sound was captured separately, which came with a whole separate set of challenges. By comparison, Newz Beat’s producer, Shadie, films the program with a digital SLR camera. It shoots in all quality of light and provides him immediate access to the footage. Its digital storage is so cheap as to border on free. Within only a few hours, Shadie has filmed all of the “raporters” (rapping reporters), downloaded the video to his laptop and is headed back to edit the footage, where the real impact of the digital revolution is even more apparent.
PM: How affordable is the editing equipment that he uses?
PF: Though it has come down radically in price over the years, new professional editing software in the West can still cost a thousand dollars or more. But virtually all of the software one encounters in Uganda is bootleg. Even the high end hotels will often be running pirated copies of Windows in their business centers. Yochai Benchler once wrote that “Property is a hindrance, not an aid, when peer production of a public good like information is possible.” Whether you agree or disagree, the fact is that open and easy access to software is a boon to producers of media working on tiny or nonexistent budgets. And it allowed Shadie to overcome the last obstacle to becoming a mediamaker.
PM: What are the challenges involved in the distribution of Newz Beat?
PF: The dark side of digital democratization is a deepening digital divide, particularly in the developing world. Newz Beat provides us an entry point to explore this tension. After years of postponing, Uganda finally switched from an analog to a digital television signal in late 2015. This switchover required home television users to either buy a digitally compliant television, a costly decoder or a monthly digital television subscription. While the digital switchover has created more bandwidth for television networks to create more channels, it also seems to have actually decreased the number of people who can receive these channels, because of the extra expense.
Newz Beat can (and does) post its output to YouTube, Soundcloud and Facebook, while also distributing through mainstream broadcast channels, but if most of the audience isn’t online, what is the point? Newz Beat’s raporters can translate the news, but how do they translate transmedia distribution systems in a context that is not only largely pre-digital, but pre-electrical?
PM: How has Newz Beat dealt with this problem?
PF: In response to the challenges of distributing via traditional media, the Newz Beat team has created an approach to distribution that can be described as “parallel broadcast” or “parabroadcast.” In Uganda, ambient television is the primary televisual medium and can be found in buses, bars, restaurants, beauty salons, shops and small pirate cinemas called “bibanda” where customers pay about ten cents to watch action movies and music videos on television screens. Since its launch, Newz Beat has been distributed to more than 35,000 of these screens, many in the most remote regions of the country, via a straight-to-DVD program called Crowdpullerz that bundles Ugandan music videos with Newz Beat, Public Service Announcements and other social content.
In 2009, Guava Studios unofficially published a 16-second advertisement for Blackberry. The advertisement concisely and implicitly attacks its rival company Apple’s iPhone and highlights Blackberry’s unique selling proposition of a touch screen. It uses the “show-not-tell” method with simple but symbolic montages and photorealistic computer-generated images (CGI).
Opening with a black screen and the sound of a gun loading, the advertisement stimulates the audience’s curiosity and anticipation. Using the on-beat audio-sync editing—the perfect harmonization of the beat and the image— it then transitions into the long horizontal scene of an apple sitting in the center at the exact moment of an off-screen gunshot sound. This technique helps to enhance the audience’s interest in and attention to the advertisement.
Even though the advertisement does not explicitly show the logos of the two companies, the viewer can recognize them due to the use of associative montage that portrays these parties with two photorealistic CGI-generated fruits of their names— blackberry and apple. When the bullet—in the form of a blackberry— finally appears in the scene with fast-paced music, it penetrates the apple in slow motion and sudden silence. The immediate change in sound and filming speed leaves a lasting memory of this specific scene in the audience. Contrast montage also appears in the association of the blackberry with a fast and powerful bullet—rather than a tiny, feeble subject—that can crash and pierce through the core of a hard apple. Although this phenomenon is implausible, the believable CGI-generated depiction of the shapes and of the ballistic impact convinces the audience to believe in not only what they see but also the implied message—Blackberry is better than Apple.
The advertisement effectively conveys the controversial idea visually without being too offensive or tactless. However, it does not inform the audience much about Blackberry’s products—other than the text “The world’s first touch-screen Blackberry” at the end— and actually benefits Apple with viral marketing. Regardless of the lack of product information, this advertisement succeeds in using various techniques that cause lasting memory in the audience.
Google introduces an incredibly captivating advertisement, promoting their Google Maps App. The fast paced music animates the audience from its beginning. Moreover, the images on the screen are synched with the beat of the song, whose main theme is to move around; “Get up, get down, everybody’s gonna move their feet, everybody’s gonna leave their seat!”
Its outstanding aspect lies in the interactivity the ad offers. The audience is the protagonist, instead of some supermodel or superimposed actress. We arrive at an airport, get in a cab while opening our Google maps app. The words “Explore” pioneers a variety of categories; and, as we scroll down we decide to “play.” We go to a baseball game, hop on a train, go to a concert, go to a bar; essentially, the ad conveys everything the app allows one to do in a single day, no matter the time. At the end, after a game of pool at a bar and a motorcycle ride, a nice woman hands us a key and we go to our hotel room and crash on the bed. The genius aspect lies in simultaneously contextualizing the functions of the app within a mundane persons life. Many ads show how a product is relevant but fail to frame it in a way that could be relevant to everyone. This is the magic of the POV shot.
The only criticism against the ad is its pace as it could be too long for certain audiences to capture; the ad conveys 24 hours in less than 1 minute! The montage is simply spectacular. It targets a variety of audiences, conveys all the different things the app can do including satellite detection for traffic updates. People, beauty and sex are not the focus of the ad; the viewer is the subject and the montage of sights is the motivation.
In this ad for the new Microsoft Xbox One gaming console, the director employs several visual techniques meant to target the ad at a very specific population of consumers: young males. A successful advertisement is likable and memorable, and Microsoft’s “Immersion” ad achieves both for its intended audience.
First, the speed of the editing between the gamer’s virtual world and his reality is exceptionally fast, making the ad more dynamic and powerful to a viewer, particularly a male one. The virtual fight scenes are visually compressed into just a few frames, adding to the excitement.
Next, the camera angles chosen for the gamer’s moment of crisis also cause a viewer to identify personally with him. The camera is set behind the gamer, looking into a mirror; knowing the camera is showing a reflection, seeing the gamer’s close-up, fearful look after every apparent injury causes a viewer to experience the same panic that he does. Though this effect would likely be achieved better through subjective, first-person camera, the director’s choice of camera angle still increases the viewer’s level of engagement with the ad (and it therefore makes sense that a young male gamer was chosen as the protagonist).
The subject matter of the ad also makes it more likable for young males; the ad’s director chose a violent video game (and a rather gruesome advertisement) to demonstrate the realism of the Xbox One. Research shows that gamers, particularly youth and males, enjoy virtual violence.
Finally, the surreal nature of the commercial makes it readily memorable. The absurdness of the ad’s montage (the premise that one could experience in-game injuries in reality) enhances viewer recall, according to a 2012 study. Another study from the same year showed that absurdity in a commercial montage improved attitudes towards the ad among males.
It is important to note that the ad is not without its weaknesses. Most importantly, by targeting it so specifically at one population segment, Microsoft has likely alienated female consumers. Furthermore, the ad’s protagonist appears to be having an unpleasant experience switching between realities, which might cause an engaged viewer to draw a negative association with the gaming system. However, overall, this ad seems well-suited for its ideal consumers.
Without any human subjects or dialogue, this 2012 advertisement for Microsoft’s Surface tablet consists almost entirely of shots of the product from a variety of positions, set to electronic background music. Yet, despite the lack of an overtly exciting premise, the ad is surprisingly successful at capturing the attention of the viewer through the use of rhythm-enhancing editing and non-diegetic montage.
A key feature of the ad is the way in which the visual editing matches the erratic but intense accompanying rhythm. The majority of shots last less then one second, and are separated by abrupt cuts which occur on the beat. In addition, certain movements are deliberately timed with the background music, such as the tablet ‘clicking’ into the keyboard at 0:20. Though the extent to which these techniques convey a strong sense of rhythm may perhaps be undermined by the beat’s lack of continuity, the quick and sporadic cuts likely increase overall viewer arousal, particularly among a younger, more technologically savvy customer base.
The ad also includes a good deal of peculiar non-diegetic montage – instances in which shots of the product are intermittently cut with seemingly unrelated images that cause the viewer to draw conceptual associations between the two. Although the images in the ad seem unusual and obscure, it is plausible to derive reasonable analogies from them that help improve viewer perception of the product (for instance, the image of a sharp tool smashing a piece of rock could be meant to emphasize the ‘groundbreaking’ nature of the new tablet). Nonetheless, even for viewers who do not comprehend the subtle analogies being implied by the images (if any), utilizing bizarre and abstruse montage is known to increase viewer recall. As such, the ad not only effectively engages the viewer’s attention but also retains it.
Most technology enthusiasts wouldn’t hesitate to call the OnePlus One the best Android smartphone of 2014, if not just for its incredible value. But if you’re like most people, you’ve probably never heard of it. Unlike most technology advertisements which aim to reach as many potential consumers as possible and win their allegiance, the sole promotional video for the critically acclaimed OnePlus One is largely inaccessible to the general public. Like the video, which is unlisted on YouTube and can only be accessed from the manufacturer’s site, the phone is only available for purchase to those with highly coveted invites. To put it into perspective, in half a year, OnePlus has sold just 500,000 units, while the Apple’s iPhone 6 – released under three months ago – has sold nearly 40 million units. OnePlus has done all this with a marketing budget of a mere $300 – the same cost as a single device. Research shows that this obscurity and exclusivity is part of the two-step flow of advertising, in which incomprehensible or difficult to comprehend advertising is made more accessible by select influential people.
The first half of the advertisement features just one person, the creator, along with a montage of the designing, prototyping, and manufacturing process. We get a glimpse into the minimalistic, yet sophisticated and experimental thought process that went into choosing the materials, form factor, and hardware of the phone; we see the precision and delicacy in the manufacturing and also the elegance and quality of the phone itself. The frequent cuts and edits provide a dynamic and powerful experience that engages and draws the viewer in. However, little in the edited montage sequence informs the viewer of anything about the device; it isn’t until after halfway through the advertisement that any information is shared with the viewer. Here, subtle use of computer graphics imagery and effects provides seamless transitions between information blurbs and further conveys the sense of sophistication and modernization the company wants associated with the phone.
When Google glass was announced in 2012, it was puzzling how the user could use the product to interact with the world in which we lived. Google released an advertisement to combat this insecurity using subjective camera and identification to prove the functionality and relevance of their new product.
When the ad begins, the viewer immediately notices that it is shot in the subjective camera, showing what the user would be seeing, leading to direct identification with that character. As the main character goes throughout his day in New York City, moving through various tasks, the ad shows the different functions of the product, such as providing directions and taking pictures. By looking through the “eyes” of the main character, the viewer is able to identify themselves with the main character’s actions and emotions throughout the day . This technique of subjective camera is particularly useful in the case of Google Glass, as it directly hinders your viewing capabilities, thus allowing you to imagine the glasses on your own face.
The addition of music during the first two-thirds of the advertisement instills the idea that the main character is listening to music, as one would be when they walked through the streets of New York. It is as if you have seen an entire day through the main character’s eyes, allowing you to become emotionally connected to him, especially at the end when the ukelele music is being played to his lover. However, the main drawback to this promotion is if the viewer were unfamiliar with New York City and Manhattan, many of the context clues for the functions of the product would be lost to the viewer.
A 2014 Microsoft advertisement pits its Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro directly against the Apple MacBook Air. The advertisement features the two devices in an “epic dance-off” that takes the viewer through several comparisons, such as the design and versatility of each device. In this growing age of digital media, which began with the advent of Photoshop in 1989, the ad represents yet another example of contrast montage through the corporate attack model. Contrast montage is a subset of propositional montage in which the editing of an advertisement creates a connection, in this case a contrast, between two images. Each sequence in the ad serves as contrast between the two devices. For instance, “the tent” demonstrates that the Yoga 3 Pro is convertible between tablet and notebook while the MacBook Air is rendered useless in this position, making the ad effective. Additionally, this advertisement demonstrates that editing speed is more effective than content. While the visuals themselves are not particularly enthralling, the speed at which the ad is edited makes for a captivating piece. Within each contrast sequence, there are several cuts that make the ad fast and exciting, while the digital media edits do succeed in anthropomorphizing the devices by giving them human-like dance movements. A very effective moment of video and audio sync occurs when the MacBook Air’s lack of touchscreen is shown as a defeated-sounding noise is played the moment the user (who we see through effective use of subjective camera) touches the screen. However, if the audio followed the visual in the slightest – rather than syncing perfectly – this shot would have been even more effective due to the gratification associated with this offset. Lastly, by solely using commercial attack montage, the ad is weakened by ultimately giving its competitor 30 seconds of free advertising.
Google’s ad for their smart eyewear, Glass, features a wide range of people using Glass while participating in everything from flying planes to performing ballet. This ad utilizes montage and first-person perspectives well to emotionally connect with viewers. On the flip side, some aspects of this ad could also hinder message clarity.
The entire ad is a montage, with snippets of activities (through Glass) cut together. This montage is effective because it advertises the diverse functionalities of Glass in disparate situations, letting viewers see its possibilities in their own lives; the different interspersed scenes are also engaging, as all of the fast cuts and content draw more attention – the speed and variety of content is more entertaining to watch than a continuous cut of one activity. Additionally, the first-person perspective immersive, since it allows viewers to vicariously experience Glass. Both techniques make for an emotionally engaging ad featuring gorgeous imagery to highlight Glass’ capabilities by putting the viewer in the experience – through first-person immersion and diverse examples from a montage.
However, this ad also has a small drawback: the fast cuts. The speedy scene changes engage the viewer, but sometimes, speed interferes with information retention. The cuts slightly obscure the ability to see what function Glass is executing sometimes (e.g., recording or maps). This criticism, however, is minor, since the ad is primarily supposed to be engaging (rather than educational) – which is achieved through faster cuts. Overall, the Glass ad is successful in emotionally engaging viewers and showing off Glass’ capabilities with some fun and flare.
Canon subtly, but powerfully, markets their new camera through this creative commercial that follows a man’s journey through various scenes in his life that change from normal speed to slow motion. This is extremely effective as the advertisement captivates the audience’s attention by displaying the ways in which scenes of everyday life can suddenly be seen in this surreal, amazing alternate reality. The “EOS Knowledge” text displayed on the upper right hand of the advertisement and the protagonist with a Canon camera slung over his shoulder associate the camera with this dreamlike perspective of life. Additionally, at the end of the advertisement the protagonist uses his camera to show the precision of the pictures taken and the touchscreen technology, and the actual camera itself is displayed. However, Canon is still using associational montage as they primarily rely on the creative editing (rather than technical specifications) to market the camera.
It is also interesting to note the function of music in this advertisement. Video-audio synchronization occurs at the most critical points of the advertisements—at each instance of the man having the “power to see things differently.” For example, how the music changes from instrumental to vocal right as the dog leaps across the frame. Furthermore, the music’s tempo picks up right as the hose begins to thrash around in slow motion. The video-audio synchronizations takes us through the storyline of the advertisement, emphasizing and dramatizing the transitions from normal life to life through the lens of the Canon EOS 650D.