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Some people find their favorite flavor of ice cream early in life and stick with it. Me, I go through phases. For years my favorite was strawberry, then it was praline, then pistachio, and then, for a while, vanilla bean. (Not regular vanilla, or French vanilla, or cherry vanilla or vanilla fudge, but vanilla bean. I wanted to see dark specks of what looked like dirt throughout the white cloud of cream.)
Now my flavor of choice is coffee. I’ve sampled coffee ice cream from a variety of manufacturers, including Ben & Jerry’s (mediocre at best), Häagen Dazs (passable but too subtle for my taste), Double Rainbow (sadly, Coffee Blast is more eh than a blast), and Starbucks (which, since it’s in the business of selling masstigecoffee, should really produce more piquant coffee ice cream than it does). Sadly, none of these brands truly satisfies the discerning coffee ice cream palate. What disappointment.
Mitchell’s Ice Cream does produce a delectably smooth Kahlúa Mocha Cream — (Kahlúa being a well-known Mexican brand of coffee-flavored liqueur) — but unfortunately Mitchell’s is only available in the San Francisco Bay Area. (This is a great loss to everyone outside this region, and we hope that one day Mitchell’s expands its local empire without sacrificing the superlative quality of its many unusual flavors.)
Thankfully, I eventually discovered Mashti Malone’s, a little-known brand that produces an impressive, pungently flavored Turkish Coffee ice cream. It tastes like real Turkish coffee with ice cream added to it, rather than a diluted shot of weak coffee added to vanilla ice cream. Each bite packs a bittersweet punch that simultaneously wakes you up and leaves you feeling happily mellow.
The brand description on the Mashti Malone’s carton reads "exotic ice creams and sorbets" and manufactures other unusual flavors such as Creamy Rosewater, Lavender, and Orange Blossom with Pistachios. Be prepared for its hefty price tag, though: each pint retails for over $5.
Sometimes animal lovers are in the mood to see kittens — lots and lots of kittens. Still photos of kittens may offer only partial satisfaction for your desire for cuteness. Fortunately, there’s plenty of video footage available, showing all the wobbling, bouncing, chasing, batting, squealing, head-tilting, cat-napping silliness you can stand.
With visual access to so many kittens, is it possible to rank them in order of cuteness? kittenwar seeks to do just that, by encouraging users to click the cuter baby feline subject of two photos. One selection leads to another, and another, and another, and pretty soon you’ve found a new way to procrastinate with this addictive activity. After selecting the cuter of two kittens, kittenwar informs you of the percentage of how many users agreed with your assessment of the previous pair.
kittenwar compiles the stats of photos that garnered the most clicks (or "Winningest" kittens) and the least clicks ("Losingest" kittens). The collection of Winningest photos showcases those kittens — (often seen looking directly at the camera with wide-eyed expressions of innocence, sleeping in a pile of siblings and playmates, or curled up in a household object) — that have been statistically deemed cutest by kittenwar users. By contrast, the Losingest kittens tend to possess features that most people judge as unattractive in felines: hairlessness, bulging eyes, long snouts, long ears. Many of them are at least part Siamese, and some almost look like Chihuahua dogs.
Complicating matters is the battle of photo quality perception. Many of the Winningest kitten photos are of a high enough quality to be made into posters (the kind found in offices and dorm rooms with cliched captions like "Hang in there" or "Easy does it"); whereas the quality of the Losingest kitten photos are often low (over- or underexposed, "red eye" reflections, unappealing backgrounds, poor composition). So I wonder if, given a choice between two equally cute (or non-cute) kittens, Kittenwar users subconsciously choose the one in the higher quality photo? In any case, proud kitten guardians may want to upload images with only the best photographic quality.
When a big crowd amasses on the street in the Castro District of San Francisco, it’s often to protest something. But last night, instead of actually protesting, a big crowd pretended to protest. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing more fun than pretending, especially when a professional film crew is there to capture the make believe.
Because it’s so difficult to assemble and manage a large crowd of enthusiastic, costumed extras, directors and crew will often reuse the same crowd, albeit with a few position and prop changes, to create and film different scenes. Last night’s crowd was used to film a rally, a march, and a riot for the Harvey Milk biopic, currently in production.
After the documentary, Gus Van Sant introduced Cleve Jones — longtime gay activist and founder of the NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt — who asked the audience, "So who was there back then?" A surprising number of middle-aged men and seniors raised their hands and cheered. Cleve led us in practicing various gay liberation slogans of the 1970s: "When they attack, we’ve got to . . . fight back!" and "Hey hey, ho ho: Anita Bryant has got to go!" Then assistant director David Webb outlined the scenes to be filmed and technical instructions for the extras.
Hundreds of extras squeezed into the mezzanine of the Castro Theatre for the catered dinner: heaping bowls of pastas and Caesar salad, gigantic pizza pies, toasted garlic bread, and, for dessert, gourmet carrot cake with thick cream cheese frosting. In the food line, I chatted with Huffington Post blogger Lane Hudson and his boyfriend Jeff — both wearing vintage ’70s outfits they’d bought for the scenes — who’d flown from their home in Washington, D.C. to participate in the movie.
One of two dozen production assistants stood on a chair and announced that filming would soon commence, so we scarfed down our meal and rushed out to Castro Street, which was lit with huge white spotlights. Hundreds of volunteer extrasamassed at the southwest corner of Castro and Market Streets where a plywood wall covered with vintage political posters had been constructed to block the view of the modern underground MUNI station, an area now known as Harvey Milk Plaza. A giant camera facing the crowd and a boom mic were positioned on top of a platform in front of the plywood wall. An unimaginably bright spotlight, right next to a second camera, shone from atop the Twin Peaks Tavern building across the intersection, and a third camera captured wide shots of the street scenes from the balcony above the Castro Theatre marquee.
I was surrounded by folks of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations, all in a variety of ’70s garb: tan leather and suede jackets, sport coats and wide neckties, Levis and corduroy pants, plaid flannel button-downs, long cotton skirts, bandannas and wool caps. For my part, I was wearing an earthy wool sweater with a wide collar, a plain pair of brown pants, gray hiking boots, and a navy bandanna as a kerchief. Some extras were given hand-painted demonstration signs:
"Gay Rights Now"
"I’d rather fight than change"
"Human rights abroad, human rights at home"
"Save our human rights"
"We are your children"
"Gay Veteran: I defended your rights, now defend mine"
The props department had made more signs than were needed, and one of the directors announced over the loudspeaker that there were "too many signs" and instructed a production assistant to remove 35 percent of them (which seemed like an unusual, and therefore precise, number to me). One of the extras asked, "Hey, where’s Frank Chu?" Locally famous for showing up at events with big crowds, Frank Chu usually carries a sign that features the non sequitur 12 Galaxies. The number of "galaxies" displayed on the sign has inexplicably increased over the years, so another extra quipped, "Back in the ’70s, there must have only been, like, three galaxies."
After the surplus signs were collected, Cleve Jones explained over the loudspeaker that in the years between 1976 and 1978, there were antidiscrimination laws enacted in various parts of the country. This wave of progressivism inspired a massive backlash by social conservatives, who sponsored, and often passed, laws hampering the civil rights of homosexuals, especially openly gay teachers, civil servants, and adoptive parents. We, acting as our 1970s counterparts, were thus gathering in protest of these regressive laws. This particular demonstration that we were recreating was in response to the June 7, 1977, vote in Wichita, Kansas, that repealed a seven-month-old local gay rights ordinance that barred discrimination in housing and employment.
Gus Van Sant and David Webb took turns announcing instructions over the loudspeaker. Soft-spoken Van Sant provided general feedback, and Webb gave most of the actual direction. One of them announced over the loudspeaker that cameras were rolling. "Action!" Webb yelled, as we all faced the platform, eager to perform.
"Back to [position] One," he instructed, and P.A.s in the crowd yelled, "Back, back, back!" I found my original place in front of a long-haired guy carrying a Gay Rights sign and beside a young hippie woman wearing a crocheted poncho, beaded earrings, and a decorative headband.
After a few minutes of collaboration between the directors, consultants, and principle actors, Webb announced, "OK, we’re going to try it a different way. Instead of all of you anticipating Harvey’s speech and greeting him like a rock star," — this drew laughter from the crowd — "you’ll be milling around, waiting for something to happen and not knowing that Harvey will be giving an impromptu speech. So just mill around quietly; don’t talk, just pantomime your conversations. Remember, you’re gathering because you want to do something [in protest], but nothing is planned beforehand."
So we milled around and pretended to have conversations. "I don’t know what’s happening," I mouthed. "Want to grab something to eat?" I saw a young guy and pretended that he was a good friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and we hugged.
Then Penn/Milk jumped up again on the platform and yelled in to the bullhorn, "Are you angry?!" We stopped milling, drew closer to him, and repeated the scene. Milling around beforehand seemed to work better, so Van Sant and his assistants took several takes, with Penn flawlessly jumping onto the platform in the same manner each time.
After Van Sant got enough takes of the scene filmed in this direction, we took a break so that the crew could reposition the massive camera — removing it from the rig so that the operator could hold it on her shoulder, cords and doohickeys adangle — this time to face Penn on the platform and repeat the scene from the opposite perspective. For the wide shot, a member of the crew climbed a ladder to affix an old-style WALK/DONT WALK facade to the the pedestrian light to cover its modern icons.
Another scene involved us shouting "We have the power to . . . fight back!" in unison toward the platform, punching fists and shaking demonstration signs on the words fight back. It took us a few moments to get the rhythm of the slogan correct, but we learned it quickly and performed a few takes of that.
Between takes, a number of volunteer extras lit up large pipes of a common illegal herb. Inhaling the pungeant second-hand smoke, we joked that the atmosphere even smelled like the ’70s.
After Sean Penn’s big crowd-rousing scene, principle actor Emile Hirsch, playing a young activist Cleve Jones, took his turn performing on the platform. I couldn’t take my eyes off little Emile, so petite that he could be stashed in a coat pocket, mouthing his lines into the vintage bullhorn before his first take. He angled the bullhorn to his right side and practiced smoothly turning his head as he spoke. For those of us who have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time, this seemed vaguely impressive.
"Do you want me to be in the frame?" he quietly asked the director. I thought, Why wouldn’t you be in the frame? Why are you up on the platform if you’re not going to be in the frame? But what do I know, I’m not a filmmaker.
Hirsch was flanked by a couple of twenty-something extras dressed as mustached politicos in stiff trenchcoats. I guess such young politicos at the time grew mustaches to appear older and more professional.
When the cameras rolled, quiet Hirsch became a nervously energetic Cleve Jones and enunciated into the bullhorn, "In Nazi Germany, they took away our civil rights –"
We responded with a resounding BOO.
"– and now they’re taking away our civil rights in Wichita!" Hirsch/Jones continued. "And as we’ve been taught, when we’re attacked, we fight back!"
After the first take, though, the directors decided that the sequence of events looked too planned. We were supposed to be recreating an impromptu demonstration, after all. So, during subsequent takes, we were directed to listen for the word Wichita in Hirsch’s/Jones’s speech and use it as a cue to turn toward Market Street and start marching and chanting. A whistle was blown to make sure we’d turn en masse on cue. With each Wichita turn, I grabbed Alisa‘s hand, and we pretended to be "girlfriends" marching together toward social justice.
The director asked us to mouth the word BOO silently during a couple of the takes, but most of the extras kept forgetting and yelled it out loud anyway. One extra got frustrated and accused everyone else of being too mentally challenged — (he used a less socially acceptable term) — to follow a simple direction. I laughed at the just-barely contained chaos of it all.
After repositioning the camera on the street in the intersections of Castro, Market, and 17th Streets, Webb announced that in this scene, we’d be beginning to march from the Castro down Market Street to City Hall. Since Market Street couldn’t be blocked off at this time in the evening, however, he instructed, "OK, everyone, now you’ll be marching this way and turning onto 17th Street" — so that we’d give the appearance of turning a corner, even if it wasn’t technically the correct corner.
We chanted our signature Gay Rights Now! line, again punching fists and shaking signs as we marched past the camera. The assistant director yelled "Cut! OK, good — back to ‘One’!" Production assistants and assistant directors scattered in the crowd instructed us, "Back to ‘One.’ Back, back, back." As we returned to our original positions, we joked that we were so energized that we would have actually marched all the way to City Hall if the director hadn’t yelled Cut.
In a gentle voice, Van Sant said, "You guys are doing great; you’re looking great in the monitors." He continued, with a bit of awe, "Your energy is just incredible; I can see why your movement was so successful."
"It ain’t over!" shouted someone in the crowd, garnering cheers and applause.
During one take, I marched past two extras dressed as macho riot cops in vintage police uniforms and white helmets. (Tangentially, as a sign of how times have changed, the actual San Francisco police officers guarding the set were two women with butch hairstyles.) One of the extras was perfect as an obnoxious cop, raising one eyebrow and sneering at us — as if he were thinking, Look at all these queers. What are these criminals planning? We need some law and order to protect decent society from these freaks! (Many of the protestor extras were convinced that these were actual police officers — probably because of their realistic portrayals.) Another cop, however, was smiling and looked as though he was about to burst out laughing.
At the end of the take, on the way back to ‘One,’ I said to the obnoxious cop, "You’re perfect! I’m scared of you!" He smiled at me, demonstrating that he was indeed an actor and not a homophobic cop.
"But you!" I said to the other extra, "You keep cracking up! That’s not right!"
He replied, "Well, you guys are like, ‘Gay! Rights! Nee-ow-ooh!‘!" He danced to emphasize our silly version of chanting. "You guys can’t be smiling! You’re supposed to be angry. I can’t do my job if you’re smiling. Don’t be smiling, don’t be smiling!" he joked.
After that, during every filmed march in that direction, I thought of the cop dancing to Gay! Rights! Nee-ow-ooh! and felt the urge to laugh. A funny extra named Walter was no help. Carrying a No Hate sign, he chanted, "Smoke some dope! Shut your trap!" How could someone not laugh at that? Laughing in such a situation was natural; after all, in the classic science fiction film The Blob, teenage extras could be seen smiling and laughing as they were fleeing, supposedly terrified and hysterical, an alien menace in a movie theatre.
I reminded myself that telling the story of Harvey Milk was serious business, even if I didn’t feel very serious, and I squelched my natural response. It wasn’t easy. When you watch these scenes in the movie, you may be riled, or even moved to tears. You will have no idea that we were laughing hysterically and enjoying a uniquely sublime night in modern-day San Francisco, at what is now known as Harvey Milk Plaza.
Actors and extras took breaks while waiting for cameras and equipment to be repositioned. Production assistants wandered through the crowd, instructing us to put away our cell phones and digital cameras before upcoming scenes. Steve Rhodes remarked that this was a thankless and never-ending task. The extras couldn’t resist capturing the once-in-a-lifetime experience of making a movie in the Castro with Hollywood celebrities — but even just one single digital device spotted in the crowd would have betrayed the period on film. (The citizens of the ’70s might have felt ripped off if they had known that thirty years into the future would only bring handheld gadgets instead of, say, ubiquitousflyingcars.)
The community of LGBTs and allies is a small world: during the many breaks, I caught up with old friends and acquaintances who were participating as extras in the crowd scenes. I ran into Joey Cain, former president of the board of San Francisco Pride, as well as a member of the Glide Memorial Church choir carrying a giant Gay Teachers stand up! sign. John Lewis of Marriage Equality USA carried a big white sign with Committee for Homosexual Law Reform in blue letters. His partner Stuart Gaffney recounted the romantic story of their first drinks over two decades ago at the bar formerly known as The Elephant Walk, a block away at 18th and Castro Streets, now appropriately named Harvey’s.
One extra, a former member of the National Religious Broadcasters during the ’70s, told me the deliciously juicy story of trying to fulfill a request to play Anita Bryant’s "Thou Art." When he went to retrieve the LP, the entire Anita Bryant section was missing from the shelf. Bryant’s songs were thus quietly removed from playlists across the country after she’d become such a vocal opponent of gay rights. The NRB (and broadcasting in general) comprised many gay men, and most of the religious community wasn’t focused on homosexuality before 1980 or so. Hate just wasn’t a "moral value" among mainstream churchgoers back then.
The next shot was a continuation of Penn’s first crowd scene, this time taken from a different angle, involving a closeup of Penn, other principle actors, and paid extras (i.e., extras in professional wardrobe). The shot required us to chant Gay Rights Now! three times to "get the energy," and then continue to march while quietly mouthing the words. I could hear men behind me whispering the chant while, at the front of the crowd, Penn and the other actors yelled the slogan aloud.
After that, the directors would jump ahead in time to continue Hirsch’s crowd scene, which was the near-riot associated with the Wichita protest. Demonstration signs were collected from extras, and production assistants changed the posters on the plywood backdrop — (which was designed to hide the current Diesel storefront) — behind the speaker’s platform. (My guess is that there wasn’t a platform at the original events in the ’70s — Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones just showed up with a bullhorn and started speaking in the middle of the crowd — but principle actors look much more dramatic on film when elevated above a crowd.) Apparently small prop and set changes like these, viewed through the frame of film, are enough to create the movie-magic time shift.
During another shot of the Wichita protest march, I walked past the giant cameras set on a rig in the middle of the street — and tried desperately not to look at it, which is notoriously challenging for non-actors. I walked right past, within inches of, the boom operator — and, again, tried not to look at his microphone overhead.
When the crew had turned around the camera, the assistant director announced that they’d be lighting a flare for the riot scene (to mimic the unique look of raw electricity). "Don’t look at the flare," he instructed. I was getting used the challenge of not looking at something that most humans, under ordinary circumstances, would find themselves staring at.
We marched up to a vintage streetcar — (the kind that the San Francisco transit system only started running again several years ago after its long absence) — where protesters tore down the electrical cables connected to the trolley. Fortunately, I wasn’t even close enough to see the flare (and conspicuously look away from it).
The next scene required the dwindling number of extras to line up against the store windows along Castro Street. The camera would be shooting us from inside Twin Peaks Tavern, and, again, the assistant director instructed us not to look at the camera. "I know it’s hard," he acknowledged.
One no-nonsense P.A. ordered women and older men — (some of whom had participated in the original Gay Rights movement in the Castro during the ’70s) — to position themselves away from glass, at least four people deep into the crowd. We were thus reminded that the Gay Rights movement of the 1970s was comprised predominantly of young gay men. Ironically, because of the severe gentrification of the Castro over the past three decades, such a sociopolitical movement may not have been possible in today’s Castro:
While the extras were trading places, the no-nonsense P.A. stared at my eyeglasses for a long time, deliberating over whether the frames were acceptably "retro" enough to pass as authentic ’70s-style. Making her decision, she nodded and commanded, "Take them off." Well, then.
Dismantling a rig and setting it up somewhere else, as well as getting all the equipment and key crew members into place, takes a while — sometimes even longer than the filming itself. It’s during these times when actors and extras hang out and get to know each other. While waiting, I chatted with some of the professional extras, secretly envying their custom-made ensembles. One sweet-faced young extra was transformed into a perfect gay hippie/flower child, sporting a purple shirt, long hair, and a headband. He hung around with a couple of young hippie women who snacked on candy bars stashed in their fringed prop handbags.
Ryan, a professional extra with a few acting classes and movie gigs under his belt, told us the story of working in the coffeeshop scenes when Milk was running for supervisor. To convey Milk’s frustration with losing one of his earlier races, Penn took off his hat and threw it. During one of the takes, the hat hit Ryan in the face. Another extra boasted about ad libbing with Sean Penn, pretending to be a potential constituent. [Update: After seeing the movie, it appears that neither of these scenes made it into the final print, alas — but I believe that both actors played "friends" of the young Cleve Jones, walking with him when he first met Harvey Milk. They waited patiently on the sidewalk while Jones rebuffed Milk’s flirty encouragement to get involved in local politics.] The extras compared their impressions of Penn: "He’s definitely intense," said one of them. The other described Penn’s "evil eye."
Because we were standing next to the storefront windows, we marveled at the window display props for the businesses that had been there in the late ’70s: a hair salon, replete with hair net, shower caps, and big pastel hair curlers; a real estate office that featured listings with shockingly low prices; the famous Double Rainbow ice cream parlor.
When the directors eventually commenced shooting, a few of the young P.A.s and crew members joined the crowd of extras, perhaps to add more bodies to the crowd scene. They were dressed in all black — so they wouldn’t have been noticed on screen — but, despite not being dressed in ’70s wardrobe, they added marginally to the overall body of motion.
The crowd, now noticeably more sparse than it had been several hours earlier, comprised professional actors and only the most dedicated extras. I found myself milling around with Steve Rhodes and three beautiful professional extras, one of whom advised, "Trust me, just walk around in circles. That’s all you do." Another noticed me shivering in the cold — (we weren’t allowed to wear jackets with modern textiles like Polarfleece or Gore-Tex) — and hugged me, trying to keep me warm. The pros talked shop with me about the acting classes they’d taken, San Francisco casting agencies, and working on other locally shot films like the upcoming Four Christmases (which, compared to Milk, seems lame and forgettable). Professional acting, especially in small, insignificant roles, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, they told me, with its fourteen-hour days of waiting and walking around in circles.
Finally, at 11:30 PM, after a long evening of take after Sisyphean take, the director yelled, "That’s a wrap!" Gus Van Sant, sounding even more tired than we were, thanked us for our volunteer work. I was amazed to see that he would continue to work well into the night with the professional extras and P.A.s, who were all exhausted. As I left to walk home, I was grateful not to be a professional actor.
If my visage makes it even briefly onto the big screen — (instead of more likely onto the cutting room floor) — you won’t notice me, and you won’t want to: the big crowd scenes will be emotionally charged and moving. But it doesn’t matter. I am proud to have even a tiny part in making what will no doubt be a very important film.
I accidentally invited bleeding-edge tech journalist Robert Scoble to a private Kyte party. How it unfolded is a little embarrassing, but suffice it to say that the moral of the story is, don’t be Twittering first thing in the morning when you should be busy getting some work done anyway.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, and, to be honest, I probably would have been more excited at the outset by a presentation of Aliens of the Deep or Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon. With a movie of a U2 concert, I assumed I’d get bored and space out, wishing I could be Twittering from my mobile phone without being rude to my fellow attendees who’d prefer to sit in pitch-darkness. (I was wrong about the movie; read on.)
It’s not that I dislike U2. In fact, in the ’80s I used to listen incessantly to War on vinyl, lifting the needle at the end of "Seconds" and setting it down at the beginning of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" over and over again, sometimes taking a break from this two-set to listen to "Drowning Man" or "40." When I lived in "Oblique House," a small temporary co-op in Oberlin, Ohio during the summer of 1989, a friend who was a studio musician tuned his guitar to The Joshua Tree and played impeccable renditions of "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For," and "In God’s Country." He emulated The Edge’s signature textural style (although neither of us remembers if he’d used delay taps to mimic the "shimmer" effect). Better even than listening to the album on a top-of-the-line sound system, it sounded like a private U2 concert in our house. Later, when I traveled through the southwest, I couldn’t look at any of the ubiquitous Joshua trees without thinking of the eponymous album. Tangentially, Boo owns an original Negativland’s U2 EP (rereleased under another title), purchased just before U2’s former label Island Records sued Negativland, a controversial lawsuit that the U2 members themselves thought was "very heavy."
But I stopped buying albums after Achtung Baby and years later realized that I’d quit listening to U2’s newer stuff altogether — with the possible exception of "Beautiful Day" from All That You Can’t Leave Behind (simply because it was unavoidable in the media and the public sphere). It wasn’t intentional on my part; perhaps it was because the anger and intensity of War (still my favorite U2 album) appealed to me more than the sweeter, feel-good material of later years. (It’s analogous to — though not as extreme as — my erstwhile enthrallment with Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy in the early ’90s before Michael Franti turned into a hippie peacenik; his sound mellowed out and got boring, at least compared to his previous musical incarnations. If I wanted tepid, unchallenging music, I’d listen to smooth jazz.)
Nevertheless, it’s fairly easy to get in the mood for a U2 concert, virtual or live. U2 is like The Beatles, comprising a solid, talented quartet of British Isles musicians with names memorized by millions around the globe, known for their iconic radio hits as much as for their social activism. At this point, U2 is classic — and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t like their music.
U2 3D is a masterful cinematographic tour de force — the first of its kind in the realm of music concert films — combining cutting-edge 3D video recording technology with clever, larger-than-life post-production graphics. We, the movie audience, have a far better perspective of the concert than anyone in the actual live audience, as we omnisciently fly through the arena like a ghost with perfect hearing, hovering above and around the musicians, following them as they strut onto curved catwalks extended from the main stage. We suddenly find ourselves amid the concert audience, hands in front of us thrusting high into the air as we, too, yearn to throw our hands skyward, would that we weren’t in a movie theatre. I’ve never been to an actual U2 concert, and I was convinced that this experience must be even superior — but Kyte founder and CEO Daniel Graf (a hardcore U2 fan who’s attended five concerts and seen U2 3D twice) later assured me that there still was "no comparison" to seeing U2 live and in person, even if occupying just one small spot in the audience.
The state-of-the-art video equipment coupled with the IMAX theatre brought the images so close and clear that we could see every wrinkle in Bono’s face, every strand of hair on The Edge’s arms (these dudes are hairy), the wedding bands on their ring fingers, every pockmark on the surfaces of Larry Mullen Jr.’s rack and floor toms, the coiled cords of their musician’s ear plugs, the scuff marks on the stage, glimpses of video captured on mobile phones from the audience. I found myself becoming obsessed with spotting quotidian details, trying to sneak a peak at the set list taped to the stage, recognizing the major chords Bono was playing during one of his few guitar performances: Hey, that’s a C! And a D! Wow, he plays a G like that? He’s got big hands. The more access they gave us, the more I wanted to know. (Boo was instead busy paying attention to the actual musicianship, The Edge’s sublime arpeggios and harmonics and Mullen’s comfortable triple-stroke rolls.)
I peered inside the vertical receptacle for Mullen’s spare drum sticks and stared at the big box of tissues he kept within easy reach of the drum set (did he have a cold? wouldn’t a towel work better for sweat management?) and the large glass of pale yellow liquid (ginger ale? Orangina? Gatorade?) in ice. I looked for the camera operators: at one point it became obvious that the movie was spliced together from footage of different concerts, as in one moment we’re hovering above and behind Mullen and in the next, we’re in front of him at drum set level, but — poof! — the camera from the last cutaway was nowhere to be seen. (I should mention, though, that the editing was so competent that it was almost impossible to distinguish audio breaks within or between songs.)
The proximity became intense as Bono looked directly into the camera — into our own eyes — so closely that we could see the reflection of his pale hand in his trademark sunglasses, and the irises of his eyes behind them, as he reached out to us, gently singing Wipe your tears away in "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Here are some other tidbits you might like to know about Bono’s performance, if you’ve never attended a concert, or if you were stuck in the nosebleed section: he dances like a stripper, alternately running a hand through his greasy hair (Mullen’s hair was greasy, too — what’s up with that?) and sliding it down his slowly gyrating hip. He vogues a lot, tilting his head back and singing into the microphone à la Roger Daltrey, conjuring the iconic silhouettes of iPod ads. He also changes jackets often — donning a Sergeant Pepperesque getup later in the show — as well as sunglasses (apparently he has more than one pair). At one point, he gently caressed Adam Clayton’s face and then, obviously confident in his heterosexuality, gave him a European-style man-kiss, almost on the mouth. After that, Clayton was visibly happy, smiling broadly and bouncing around with renewed energy. (Does Clayton, too, have a crush on Bono, as the rest of the world seems to?)
In addition, U2 integrates messages of various socialcauses into the music and the graphics on the giant backdrop, so be prepared to be preached atinspi(red). During "Yahweh," Bono donned the Coexist bandanna and chanted, "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed, it’s true: all sons of Abraham." Well, that’s nice — something I’ve known and agreed with for years — but, as a writer, I’m bothered by unparallel list of religious terms. Jesus and Mohammed were both prophets, but a Jew is someone who belongs to the religion of Judaism or the Jewish ethnicity/heritage. There is no prophet named "Jew." The father of the Jews was Abraham, but I realize it would be recursive to say "Jesus, Abraham, Mohammed, it’s true: all sons of Abraham," because Abraham can’t be his own son. Would it have been that difficult to recite the name of another Jewish prophet? There are many to choose from. Moses, despite his fascist tendencies in his later years, was revered for leading the Jews out of slavery. David won a fight, became a king, lived in some fine real estate and, like Bono, was a respected poet and musician. I suppose, however, that Bono was trying to maintain a simple rhythm as well as to rhyme something with true; I concede that it works musically, even if it doesn’t logically.
Overall, it’s hard to decide whether I was more impressed by the tight performance of these seasoned musicians (with nary a backup musician in sight) or the spectacle of the concert itself, with its bright visuals continually projected onto the huge screen behind the stage. Or perhaps it was the concert audience(s), as our perspective panned over and glided through teeming fans jumping in unison, occasionally just a bit out of synch with each other, so that they formed the surface of a giant human ocean, three dimensional waves rippling randomly through the arena. I was mesmerized by the galaxy of lights (glowing blue from mobile phones, golden from old-school lighters), and stirred by the ecstatic exhilaration of tan young women in cotton tanks and bikini tops perched atop the shoulders of strong young men, waving arms to and fro, mobile phones in hands, swaying to the rhythms of "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "One" and singing along with the crowd’s roar of melodic white noise.
After the final encore, as intense white lights shone in our eyes, Mullen whispered something in Bono’s ear. It was one private moment we didn’t have access to, and I was dying to know what he said. Here are some possibilities of what it might have been:
"This movie is gonna rock!"
"I have to pee. Let’s go."
"I’m a little tired of some of these songs; aren’t you?"
"Do you think Kleenex will pay us for product placement?"
After the virtual concert, in the lobby of the movie theatre, I asked Scoble what he thought. "It was f**kin’ awesome!" he gushed. Assuming he must be a devoted U2 fan, I asked, "Have you ever been to an actual U2 concert?"
Only days after my initial careless omission of TWiT (this WEEK in TECH) in the list of the best free tech industry podcasts, I was fortunate enough to see Leo Laporte — who has a background in media, including radio and television — give an insider’s talk about podcasting at last week’s MacWorld. Here are some professional tips I picked up for current or would-be podcasters:
Bring passion. When developing a subject idea for a new podcast program, don’t try to game the media market — find what you love or care about and talk about it. If you focus your show on what you’re passionate and knowledgeable about, you’re much more likely to generate interest and be successful.
Specialize in a niche. There are thousands of audio shows available, and, for every topic you can think of, there’s at least one podcast for it. So instead of starting a new program about old cars, for example, start out by focusing on old Corvettes. Interview Corvette owners, dealers, and restorers. You can always expand your focus later. Also, don’t worry about getting a huge audience right away. If you have an audience of 1,000 dedicated listeners, you’re doing well. One thousand is a lot of people; if you were speaking to that many in person, it’d be an impressive crowd.
Overcome self-consciousness. The way your voice sounds to you — i.e., how it sounds literally through your own head — is very different from how it sounds through a microphone or recording. This is because mics and recordings are not "accurate"; they boost some frequencies and eliminate others. Many people hate the sound of their own voice on a recording and become very self-conscious of it. Laporte advises novice media professionals to stop worrying about what their voice sounds like, and similarly, if they’re videocasting, to stop worrying about their hair, their clothes, their physique, and so on. His secret? Remember that your function is to "serve the audience." The audience isn’t there to judge your voice, your hair, your age, your looks; they’re listening, giving you their time, because they’re interested in what you have to say. When you understand this, it becomes much easier to stop worrying about what you look or sound like and instead to focus on serving your audience with the enthusiasm and knowledge you have for the subject. (I later remarked to Laporte that "serving the audience" sounds like a Buddhist approach to audio programming; he replied that he tries to live his life this way. Perhaps he could write a how-to book titled Zen and the Art of Podcasting: East meets Web?)
Be genuine. Along the same lines as overcoming self-consciousness, Laporte warned against developing a fake persona to hide your true self. He described the talking heads you see and hear in the media, with their gel-sculpted hair and veneered teeth and "early-morning disc jockey voice." (You know the sound: think of "Duffman" from The Simpsons, or any cheesy radio commercial for a dubious get-rich-quick scheme.) Laporte said that he’d relied on such a fake voice when he first started in radio because he was so nervous. Eventually, though, he realized that being himself — and focusing on serving the audience — garnered much better results, including a bigger, more dedicated audience, and more personal enjoyment. People want to connect with a real human being, not a superficial facsimile of one.
Speak extemporaneously. Of course, you want to plan, research, and prepare a bulleted list of points and topics for the show — but once you’re live, don’t read. Reading is considered "radio death." The exception to this rule, Laporte mentioned, is acting; a good actor can read from prepared text and make it sound improvisational. (In fact, Laporte recommends taking improv classes and has done so himself; improv helps you learn how to listen, which makes you a better commuicator and, again, better able to serve the audience.) But the vast majority of radio personalities use a combination of solid preparation before the show and spontaneity during it. In fact, Laporte said, some of the best talk show hosts are on in the middle of the night, when very few listeners call in (and often the ones who do can be a bit nuts), because they can "B.S. for hours" and sound comfortable and natural.
Avoid verbal crutches. Verbal tics like you know, sort of and like, if used often, distract your audience from what you’re trying to communicate. Of the ubiquitous um, Laporte theorized that speakers rely on this vocalized pause to fill silent time in between thoughts — because, in our culture, when one person stops talking, someone else will take the temporary silence as an invitation to start. "Saying ummm . . . is a way of holding the floor so that no one else jumps in and starts speaking." Toastmasters — (find a local club near you) — helps many speakers reduce or eliminate their filler words. In addition, Lifehacker advises practicing public speaking to overcome nervousness, and the referenced Mother Tongue Annoyances article recommends reviewing video recordings of yourself speaking (the Reddit comments for this article contains a collection of excellent tips).
Invest in a good microphone. Experienced in both video (television) and audio (radio, podcasts), Laporte says he prefers audio. The connection to the audience is more intimate, and — especially if a listener is hearing the program via earphones — the communication travels directly from the host’s voice to the listener’s brain, without the distancing effect of a video screen. To this end, it helps not only to develop a professional sounding voice, but to enhance that voice with the best recording equipment. Each make and model of microphone is unique, with its own set of specs and sound. Mics can run between a couple hundred bucks on the low end to several thousand dollars. (Laporte describes the podcasting equipment he uses in detail, including photos.) Try out different mics to find one that flatters your natural voice. Women and others with a high-pitched voice would benefit from using a mic with warmer tones to reduce any shrillness (although Laporte joked that Gilbert Gottfried has made a lucrative career out of his "annoying" voice). If you have a call-in show, don’t worry too much about the quality of the incoming calls, even if it’s featured guests who are calling in for interviews and discussions. As long as the host sounds good, the show will sound professional.