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November 17, 2005

WINDMILL CHASERS
An Interview With jadelr and Cristina Cordova

As the videoblogging movement grows and more voices arrive around the micromedia table, the creative field diversifies. What may once have been primarily a small group of people working out the technical jiggery-pokery of video compression and RSS subscription is now a rapidly growing population of service providers, content creators, and producers. Recent reporting at We Are The Media quote's vlogger Michael Verdi's description of the Yahoo Videoblogging Discussion Group as a rapidly growing online measurement of participants from an initial dozen to over 1600 this week.

The discussions of this large group, and the work created by them, follows the needs and interests of the communiy as it grows, a process that is organic and sporadic and can be hard to predict. A topic arising with more frequency in recent months is shorthanded with the word "Content." At times the debate is a combination of the philosophical and the political, around the question of what personally-created media can or should be about. I've written about this here before.

Some producers feel it's time to organize content into structured and themed approaches. Language used at times reflects the language of television ("shows"), which can make some of the more anti-establishment vloggers (like me) a little nervous. In a recent interview, Andrew Baron from Rocketboom made a case for this approach:
"The blogs I read have very intense, high-level information from experts that parallels the best in field, and it's this very important, very precisely thought out threads of information that I appreciate in weblogs and find reliable and trustworth enough to rely on .... unlike the random diaries that are just fine, I would like to see more people who are interested in a particular field use the medium to show off that expertise."
But the history of videoblogging (can you call something that spans less than 2 years a "history?") is deeply personal and unpredictable, and this early style of vlogging, uniquely suited to the medium, continues to influence how newcomers create their content. The Echo Chamber Project's Kent Bye offers an elegant and persuasive defense of this so-called "personal" vlogging:
"The relative value between the inward-focused versus outward-focused videos is dependent upon who is watching -- and what they are looking for from the experience of watching digitally-delivered videos. Diary-based vlogs happen to be a really great mechanism for building a community beyond your geography. "
This discussion is more nuanced than a simplistic either/or polarity. Chris Weagel has pointed out here that just because a vlog is about personal subject matter doesn't mean it has no theme or focus ("The lab's theme is MY personal investigations and thoughts"). Meanwhile more and more creators join the party with content that is diversifying and expanding, content that resists simplistic characterization and pigeonholing.

An example of a newer vlog (first posts last September) is the work showing up almost daily at Chasing Windmills. This is a "themed show" of sorts, but not one that resembles much of what I've ever seen on TV.

It is a fictional story that follows a regular pair of central characters in episodic form. Yet the episodes are short (2 or 3 minutes) and don't necessarily need to be watched in a linear order for broader themes and developments to emerge. It's a performance of fiction, but acted out by the writers themselves, drawing heavily from their own experiences and observations and hence very personal. Some episodes are conceptual and non-literal, like "First Date," while others deliver plot, such as in "Crossword."

In this interview with the Minneapolis-based creators of Chasing Windmills, I ask Cristina Cordova and Juan Antonio del Rosario (who goes by the handle jadelr) to talk about their vision of vlogging and how what they do fits within a new movement of creators pushing against definitions and boundaries in a way that combines old and new forms of storytelling.
Vlognik: I have recently discovered your vlog. I like what you are doing with your serial.

jadelr: It really is a learning workshop for us.

Cordova: jadelr has been wanting to do something like this for quite some time. He finally convinced me once I had time to really discover what it is all about.

Vlognik: How much time?

Cordova: About a year ago, I think.

jadelr: I actually started talking about a short format serial on the web before I knew that the whole vlogging thing was coming together. I guess my instincts were in the right place, even though my brain still hadn't caught up with what was going on.

Cordova: We toyed with different themes, then resorted to a simple format and theme that we could accomplish on our own, in order to get more familiar and comfortable with the medium before moving on.

Vlognik: Well, how come you aren't randomly videotaping yourself chewing potato chips and walking the dog like real video blogs are supposed to be about?

jadelr: We don't have a dog.

Cordova: Let's see... because we would be excrutiatingly bored by it and could only expect our viewers (if we even had any) to be just as bored -- or more.

jadelr: I don't think I am interested in posting my private life. I want to live my life, not vlog it.

Cordova: And because we are all about STORIES, no matter what we do. I figure you should have something to say before you set out to say it.

jadelr: I do see value in the personal vlogs, I find some of them compelling to watch. Recently I saw one from India documenting the monsoons on a neighborhood street. I think the kid was going to school. I like the idea of the accessibility of these images, of being able to see life on the other side of the globe.

Cordova: Everyone's life, no matter how interesting, needs editing. Video has to be more condensed than real life. Things have to move quickly, or I lose interest.

Vlognik: So these characters are not you then? This is not autobiography?

Cordova: Nope.

jadelr: No.

Cordova: It draws from real situations, as does most fiction, but NO thank god they are not us, we're not that interesting or amusing really... or disturbing.

As for our characters: Normal people censor thoughts, act in a more socially acceptable manner. Our characters act out the random thoughts many of us have, but know not to act upon (most of the time). That's what makes it amusing (we hope) and something to which we can all relate (we hope)... at least that's the idea.

Vlognik: It sounds like you have thought a lot about these characters and what makes them tick. You know, kind of like, whaddyacallem-- filmmakers. Is that what you are? Filmmakers who can't get a script sold?


[laughter]

Cordova: Good call. Not quite, but close. Storytellers maybe -- in any medium -- right now we like film. Actually, we haven't tried to sell a script.

Vlognik: How did this collaboration start? What was the genesis of your working relationship?


Cordova: GREAT question. We have been working together for about 5 years. We had an alternative newsweekly in Puerto Rico. We continue to explore new mediums, but we are interested in doing things "our way," which makes it very difficult to "sell" an idea or script, because we want to control the final product.

jadelr: Enter VLOGGING.

Cordova: Exactly. it's a step in a direction that we want to travel, without any necessary hand-holding.

jadelr: The great thing about the medium is that it really finishes the transformation of film from an industrial medium to a personal one.

Cordova: YES! And a good way to gauge whether anyone out there is actually interested in what we are doing -- whether we should continue this path at all.

jadelr: Film is now like painting, and now burgeoning filmmakers, or audiovisual storytellers, or vloggers...whatever you want to call them because in a sense they are all the same thing. They can now find their own voice in the medium the same way painters started to do once photography took care of recording history.

Cordova: The vlog we are producing really tries to take advantage of this intimacy of the medium, by bringing the camera into a more personal situation. We also have to consider where and how the viewer is viewing. This has a large impact on the experience. We are no longer in a movie theater, alongside many other people. However, we don't always have the lights out. But our hands move and we interact with the medium, in a way.

jadelr: I think we are going to see a real revolution about how we tell stories through images and sound and how we perceive them. If you think about it, it really isn't all that different from what has been happening in the other arts. The idea of hip hop using a sample to rap over is the first case of what eventually would become "cut and paste" music. Blogs now mix images and audio and video and text. We absorb tidbits of information, like media collages. It's a whole new language.

Cordova: Exactly; but one that incorporates bits and pieces of all the languages we've already heard (that sounds grossly postmodern).

Vlognik: You have mentioned the audience several times. The audience needs to be considered, the audience will let you know if you should keep telling your stories.

Cordova: Absolutely... I think. I guess you can tell them just for yourself. But...

Vlognik: I take it you don't subscribe to the philosophy that says something like, "I do this for me, nobody else, I would do it alone in a dark room with no one watching, I don't care if anyone ever watches."

jadelr: Then do it in a dark room. If you're out of the room it is because you want to communicate. That does not mean that you compromise your style or your standards. It means that you stop bullshitting yourself and take a hard look at your work and try to make it say what you want it to say effectively.

Cordova: I guess the important thing is not to get too caught up in the idea that your audience needs to be a particular SIZE.

Vlognik: Awareness of an audience is about communication, but just doing it for yourself is about expression. Do you think this is right?

jadelr: Yes.

Cordova: Yes, I do. I think they are both essential. I think the idea is to express and want to communicate it. We are all in a constant state of expression. It's all about finding a way of communicating that fact... or the details.

Vlognik: In order to communicate, there needs to be someone to communicate with. So who is your intended audience? Who do you imagine is out there watching your stories?

Cordova: NUUs

jadelr: New Urban Universals

Cordova: Universalists

jadelr: There you go. We are so perverse we speak in marketing lingo.

Cordova: Anyhow... no.. anyone really... It's not a "normal" demographic. It has more to do with style, with those who explore and strive to discover, without really knowing what it is they are trying to discover. Those who are "chasing windmills" just like us (like our characters).

Vlognik: I was just going to bring up the title, based on what you just said about striving. I take it that the title is a Don Quixote reference?

jadelr: YES!

Vlognik: Do you see a futility in what you are trying to do?

Cordova: In everything. But the joy comes from the effort, not the end result.

jadelr: I see a futility in trying to pursue everything I was taught to pursue growing up.

Cordova: In the end, there's nothing wrong with chasing windmills, i guess.

jadelr: There isn't one company out there that I would want to work for, Love is certainly nothing like all those love songs and romantic comedies -- well, maybe it is a little like a couple of Woody Allen movies.

Cordova: But that doesn't mean "there is something wrong with it." It's just... different.

jadelr: It is really about the delusion of trying to achieve a normalcy that doesn't really exist.

Cordova: Exactly.

jadelr: I have read a lot of comments of people saying how they have a hard time liking the characters, and going back to a previous point Cristina made -- they are are so irrevocably human. I find them vulnerable, and willing to lash out, out of insecurity and frustration. That's the thing, I never doubt that they care about each other, they just express a lot of things we supress.

That is what I like about the episode "Solitude" -- that the whole thing is like this lame sappy Hallmark card, but if you listen to it, it is just a list of serious complaints. Here is someone who does not feel appreciated, and who resents it, but she loves him - I think real love is closer to that kind of acceptance because in the end you know that someone's flaws, even when they hurt you, are not wrapped in malice. So it becomes a sweet postcard, in a really dark way.

Cordova: We see these things, and we dislike them, hence showing how unaccepting we are of these characteristics in ourselves. But they are real. They are us. And I'm not going to say that we have to learn to love ourselves, because that would be way too creepy, but... we have to accept who we are and look upon the world and ourselves in it a bit differently -- reassess.

jadelr: Phew!

Cordova: We're both just full of shit really. It's just fun!

Vlognik: I also have read the comments that the characters are unlikeable. And I agree they don't always come across sympathetically. This may be because they are being evaluated in limited, 2-minute chunks. As I watch more of the videos, I am developing a more nuanced appreciation for the characters' insecurities and frailties.

So why tell these stories in 2 minute chunks? Why does vlogging not seem to be working in longer formats?


Cordova: First of all, as a former teacher, I have closely witnessed the growing limits of our attention span. Second, people (like us) lack the time. Third, people (like us) lack the commitment. For a long time we kept going to see movies and leaving infuriated because we just wasted two hours. We keep doing it from time to time, don't get me wrong, but this requires less of a commitment and less of an attention span.

In the end,
everything comes in two to three minute chunks anyhow. It's all a matter of how many of those chunks you are receiving at once. You can break down almost every movie or sitcom into these chunks. And if you watch contemporary films... the action is more and more fragmented.

jadelr: But I think the short format is part of the evolution of the medium. If you think about it, the legth of movies developed as a way to make the movie experience more worth the trouble. You dress up, you pay, you go to the big movie house... So they would have news, and film shorts and serials and then the movie.

Cordova: The internet is all about processing information in chunks -- bits and pieces -- bytes, if you will. This is the evolution of the medium, of our brains, of us.

jadelr: I agree. I think nowadays, if you want to say something, say it fast, say it clear, and boldly. If you don't, people will tune out.

Cordova: Most teenagers can only process information in bytes now. That's the truth. The important thing is that in the end there is some correlation between bytes so that there is actual critical thinking going on. Otherwise, we lose that too, and that would be doom in my little world .

jadelr: It requires a certain discipline, to edit and polish your message to be effective.

Vlognik: The correlation is what I think is most interesting about Chasing Windmills. The pieces are too fragmented to be much about plotlines, but what emerges over time is the development of these characters as human beings. So using the vlog model seems to be well adapted to character more than plot. It's not about what happens, its about who the people are.


Cordova: We have found that to be true. We keep talking about introducing more plotlines, and i think that will happen.

jadelr: I agree that it favors the character, much in the same way television does...

Cordova: We're stilll learning. I think vlogs can still be about plot somehow, but we haven't quite reached that. I don't know if we necessarily want to in this particular case... but there ought to be plot-driven vlogs out there.. to experiment and play, if nothing else

Vlognik: You have many ideas and opinions and a rigorous curiosity about people and their lives, and this all seems to be telling me that you have "something to say," that this is not a random or frivolous exercise. You seem to be trying to take this new medium seriously as a way of communicating things that are important to you. Do I have that right?


jadelr: Definitely.

Cordova: Sure. It is both random and serious, as are we, with everything.

jadelr: One of the analogies I have used from the beginning are the comic strip serials like Prince Valiant, because to me the format is really a video comic strip. It can feed from that continued relationship with the audience. Think about the complexity that Charlie Brown acquires over years of short strips about unrelated incidents.

Cordova: We'll be introducing the dog and the annoying bird any day now.

Vlognik: I like your comic strip analogy, because I think this is something people understand. Calvin and Hobbes is funny in each short installment, but over time Calvin emerges as some kind of weirdly unexpected philosopher.

jadelr: PRECISELY!

Cordova: yes!

Vlognik: If a bird and dog are possibly in the future at
Chasing Windmills, what else lies ahead? A baby I suppose? Or not? What can we expect for your characters?

Cordova: Ahhhh... that is the question, isn't it? Well, just remember to expect the unexpected. -- That's lame!

[laughter]

jadelr: We still don't know about that phone number in his pants...

Cordova: There will be a birth, but it will not be an expected one.

Vlognik: Wow. CGI mutant baby? Messianic birth?

Cordova: Good call! Perhaps. They will conintue to chase windmills, and just... get by... the only way they know how. Is that evasive enough?

Vlognik: Yes. I'd like to ask about your writing method. It sounds like some things are planned ahead of time, and some things you make up as you go. How does that work? Do you write a script? improvise?


jadelr: Good question.

Cordova: Some episodes are very tight, others much looser (obviously). The tighter they are to begin with, the smoother the editing process. Time gained in one arena is lost is the next. If we overwrite, our acting sucks! If we underwrite, our shooting sucks. Can't win for losing.

jadelr: And the process is still evolving. The first episodes were very loose and improvised.

Cordova: We are still doing a balancing act and falling off the wire. At least there are fewer injuries at this point.

jadelr: There is now a combination. Sometimes we know where the scene is going, other times it just finds itself while we are shooting it. Because we post daily, we are trying to do a little more planning, but it is more in the process of shooting it than in the dynamic of the actual scene.

Cordova: We also really want to keep throwing in the more "random" episodes -- more metaphorical ones -- in order to mix it up a bit and have variety. We don't want to subscribe too strongly to any one style, just a consistent voice overall.

jadelr: There has to be this sense that this is a couple of lives offered in disorganized pieces, but still maintain a narrative thread that gives it coherence.

Vlognik: There is a new episode quite frequently, how often do you shoot and edit? Do you run off 25 of these things in a weekend and release them over time, or are you really acting a new scene every day or two?


Cordova: It's extremely time consuming. We do most of our shooting on Saturdays and edit during the week. But it's really a full time job. Sometimes I come home from work during the week, we shoot an episode, and still have to edit it that evening. That's when life becomes very difficult. But it's great fun, too. We try to shoot on the weekend and edit during the week. "Try" being the key word. It actually worked this past week. We hope to make a habit of it.

Vlognik: Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you guys would like me to include that we didn't cover?


Cordova: Just that.. hmm... we're really not that cool!

Vlognik: Perfect. Not being cool is the new cool.

Comments on "WINDMILL CHASERS
An Interview With jadelr and Cristina Cordova
"

 

Blogger Steve Garfield said ... (Sunday, December 18, 2005 9:27:00 AM) : 

Thanks for doing that interview.

Answered a lot of questions.

 

Anonymous Velmont said ... (Thursday, June 01, 2006 6:54:00 AM) : 

Wohoo! Very nice. I have been using almost half of my work-time watching and trying to find some "plotline" in Chasing Windmills. I found the video on blip.tv, and that site I found because they just introduced Theora-video (and I love open source and theora ;-) ).

Chasing Windmills looks very interesting and cool. I really like jadelr and Cristina, they come off as incredible interesting people.

I will try to follow this as it moves on. Soon I'll post my first video's out on the net in a blog-format, nice to get motivation. (although they are originally not made for online publishing).

Very nice interview, as Garfield said; answered a lot of questions. They should really link to it from they're page with a "What is this?"-link! :-)

 

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