What’s happening with film distribution during this pandemic is pretty fascinating. There are first run movies debuting on all kinds of services and at all kinds of price points. Earlier this year I rented “The Assistant” (superb) on iTunes for US$5.99. Just a few weekends ago “Bill & Ted Face the Music” debuted for home viewing for US$19.99. And Disney is even charging a hefty US$29.99 to rent “Mulan” to customers who are already paying a monthly subscription fee for Disney+. In contrast to the pre-pandemic world where the cost of a ticket was more or less completely dissociated from the actual movie you’d be watching, the perceived value of a given film is more apparent than ever in these rental prices.
I’m not exactly sure then what to think when a movie is free, but I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised when Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s independent film “Bacurau” debuted on The Criterion Channel last month. I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber of that service since it launched but I’ve thought of it primarily as a terrific catalog of classic and international films, not a platform for releasing new movies that, in a pre-pandemic world, would have debuted in theaters.
I’d heard a lot of great buzz about “Bacurau” and in fact had hoped to be able to see it in a theater one day, so it was a treat to get to watch it from home at no additional cost. It’s a truly odd movie that combines elements of social documentary, science fiction, spaghetti westerns and more to tell the near-future story of a village in Brazil that, soon after burying one of its matriarchs, suddenly finds itself missing from regional maps. That description not only fails to do justice to the premise, but is only a hint of what follows, which I found to be thrilling and weird—so weird that when legendary weirdo Udo Kier shows up halfway through, I was shocked to realize that there would be even more weirdness to come. The movie is not perfect, but it’s so fearless in its willingness to mash up and subvert genres that it seems to be reinventing itself as it unfolds. If you have an appetite for disorientation, I recommend it highly.
It’s worth remembering too that “Bacurau” represents just a tiny fraction of the immense wealth of worthwhile film to be found on The Criterion Channel. Even if you subscribe for only a month or two to watch a few films, you’re coming out way ahead.
All told, I watched nineteen movies in August. Here is the full list.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) ★★★★½ Rewatched. Like a TV season finale so transcendent there’s no need to watch all the episodes that preceded it.
“The Little Prince” (1974) ★★½ Not without its charms, but sunk by the irritating titular performer.
“Big Hero 6” (2014) ★★ Rewatched. Its reverence for tech is not holding up well.
“Never Goin’ Back” (2018) ★★★★ A morally reprehensible but briskly made triumph.
“Extra Ordinary” (2019) ★★★½ Yet another Irish indie in which an unattached driving instructor speaks to the dead and battles a one-hit wonder rockstar, to largely amiable effect.
“The Report” (2019) ★★★★ Setting aside the vanity of a screenwriter directing a movie about a guy writing something so important that middle-managers and executives want to water it down, this meticulous reckoning with Bush-era torture is terrific.
“Speed” (1994) ★★★½ Rewatched. A good example of how a dumb movie can achieve greatness.
“Top Gun” (1986) ★½ This thinly plotted recruitment film remains aesthetically undimmed, but it’s also still just as empty-headed as ever.
“Uncle Buck” (1989) ★½ Disappointingly few laughs; I added a half-star out of fondness for John Candy.
“Revanche” (2008) ★★★★ A taut, expertly directed subversion of the revenge thriller form.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) ★★★ Rewatched. A pointed declaration of ideals about comedy vs. realism that’s not particularly funny or realistic.
“Bacurau” (2019) ★★★★ Bonkers B-movie set in Brazil that continually reinvents itself, thrillingly.
“The Truman Show” (1998) ★★★½ Rewatched. Charming but maybe most commendable for neutralizing Jim Carrey’s insufferability.
I’ve been in a bit of denial about the end of summer so I’m having to catch up quickly here on our two latest episodes of “Wireframe.” You can listen to them below but you should also subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe or in your favorite podcast app.
First up is this newest installment, just out this week, all about designing apps that purport to help people rest easier at night. Sleep is a multi-billion dollar industry so it’s no wonder that there are a host of apps out there that are trying to help all of us sleep more soundly—especially in this time when the world seems to be constantly on edge.
It was fascinating to hear from folks like Ian McConchie, VP of design at Headspace, about the way they think about calming people, relieving stress and improving sleep. We also talked to Lucas Guarneri, who’s working on sleep trackers at Withings, Ania Wysocka, a designer who created her own app—Rootd—to help people manage anxiety, and more.
A couple of weeks ago we also had this terrific episode (one of my favorites this season) on designing the streaming media experiences that are consuming so many hours of our quarantine living this year. We had a terrific, illuminating conversation with Thomas Williams of Ostmodern, a design shop that specializes in video streaming experiences. We also talked to Dan Rayburn, an analyst and journalist who knows the world of streaming media—and streaming apps—inside and out. And we talked to writer Suzanne Scacca about tracking the Netflix user experience and how it impacts what we choose to watch.
For that episode, the “Wireframe” producers and I also did a trial run of a service called Scener, a free Chrome extension that makes it easy for remote groups of people to co-watch content on services like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Prime Video etc. This way of consuming video has become more popular lately for obvious reasons, and in fact I had a more in-depth experience with Scener just last weekend when we used it to host a remote movie-watching birthday party for my daughter. She and eight or so of her friends used Scener to video and text chat while the app also kept a stream of “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” in sync. It was a bit janky at first, especially as I was scrutinizing it for all of its UX and design imperfections. But ultimately it worked really well, and you could absolutely imagine this becoming a much more common way of friends spending time together, pandemic or no.
Netflix is the multiplex now, and it feels like a bit of a gift every time the service rolls out a new original movie direct to our living rooms. In July I was enthusiastic about getting to see “The Old Guard” and “Da 5 Bloods” in their “first runs.” Both were made exclusively for Netflix, and both feature pedigrees I’m inclined to favor: Charlize Theron giving, again, everything she has in an action thriller; and Spike Lee diving into the legacy of the Vietnam War with an unhinged, transfixing performance by Delroy Lindo. But both left me unimpressed and worse, with this nagging feeling that the filmmakers just didn’t think it mattered that much whether they delivered the best possible movies they could. In fact, looking back over the past few years of Netflix’s original films, with the clear exception of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” they almost all fit this description: flashy, star-studded productions that just didn’t feel fully committed to their own success. Forget it Jake, it’s Netflix.
To be fair maybe this isn’t just Netflix; maybe it’s just another kind of “new normal” we must all accept in this time where everything is up for revision. Take Tom Hanks in “Greyhound” (the first thing I’ve ever watched on Apple TV+). It’s a taut, efficient little wartime thriller and a fun ride, but at its edges—the perfunctory love story, the rough CG effects, the scant running time—it still felt lower stakes and less ambitious than a “true” feature film release. As a genre, direct-to-streaming is higher profile and frequently higher-budget than direct-to-video, but I’m not sure it’s proven yet that it can be higher quality.
I watched seventeen total movies in July. Here’s the full list.
We’re halfway through our third season of “Wireframe” already! You can listen to the third episode embedded below or in your favorite podcast player, and of course you should subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe.
This installment tries to unpack the role of user experience design in crowdfunding and charitable giving. Of course it’s a particularly relevant question now with so many people under so much duress from COVID-19 and the volatile economy that has accompanied it. From the episode notes:
As the pandemic created health and employment crises, a lot of people found themselves in urgent need of financial help. As a result, crowdfunding platforms are proving more popular than ever—creating personal connections between those of us asking for help, and those of us with money to give. We look at how platforms like GoFundMe, Kickstarter, Patreon and Chuffed deploy different strategies in their UX design to encourage us to give, and give more.
You can find Wireframe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PocketCasts, Castro or wherever you download your favorite shows, and you can listen to previous episodes and find out much more at adobe.ly/wireframe. And come back in two weeks for the start of our second half of the season; we’ve got a terrific episode on the design of those streaming video services that are enabling all your binging marathons through this pandemic.
There are plenty of tools to edit photos on iOS or iPadOS but surprisingly few to help you edit them to exact pixel dimensions. This is a particular source of pain for me because I do a ton of work on my iPad, which is otherwise my favorite productivity platform. To fix this, I created a tool called ExactPic; it’s actually a suite of Shortcuts that work together seamlessly on your iPad and your iPhone. You can download it here, free.
I made ExactPic because I regularly find myself needing to output images with precision for this blog, or needing to resize or crop images for smaller downloads, or needing to add a frame or a letterbox to a photo. I’ll also occasionally need to size a profile or background picture to specific requirements for upload to various sites or services. On an iPad it’s also harder than it should be to save a JPG as a PNG or vice versa, or to increase or decrease the compression of a JPG. And performing multiple combinations of any of these edits on an iPad or iPhone usually requires several steps and saving out various versions of a single image. That’s just a lot of friction for anyone who works with images regularly.
Over the past few years I’ve created specific shortcuts to solve various of these editing challenges. I made one to resample an image, another one to add a frame or letterbox to an image; I even made one to rename an image in a specific format and upload it to WordPress for me. They all did their job but in isolation of one another, with none of them able to pick up seamlessly from where another left off. ExactPic fixes all that by bringing them all together into a single, comprehensive suite that, within the capable but fairly bare bones constraints of Apple’s amazing Shortcuts platform, unites them into a single cohesive experience.
The principal shortcut is called simply ExactPic. When you run it from the Photos app or your Files app or anywhere you can work with image files, it will quickly present a simple info window like the one below. Then it presents four options for editing that picture, each one launching a separate shortcut:
Resize the image
Crop the image
Frame the image
Save the image
When you run each one for the first time, you’ll be prompted to download that shortcut to your device. (If you have iCloud syncing turned on for your Shortcuts app, downloading these on your iPhone makes them available on your iPad too, and vice versa.)
Once they’re all installed, you can run multiple of these shortcuts on your image in just about any order (though the last one, “Save the image,” exits the suite when you’re done). This makes it possible to perform several sequential operations to get exactly the image file you want in basically one session.
How might you use this? Let’s say you take a picture on your iPhone, which produces fairly high resolution images in HEIC format. From your Photos app, you could use ExactPic to resize or resample that image so that it’s lighter weight; then crop the image to a specific dimension and preview that crop so you can be sure you’re isolating the area that you want (see image above); then add a black, white, gray, red or even transparent frame or a letterbox to the image: then compress it as a JPG to make it as small a download as possible; and finally name it and save it back to Photos, out to Dropbox or iCloud Drive, or even upload it directly to WordPress. All in one go. Here’s a video that demonstrates this in action.
I readily admit that a good deal of the motivation behind creating ExactPic was just the fun of nerding out with Shortcuts for a while. ExactPic is in fact easily the most ambitious shortcut I’ve ever created. To make it work, I had to learn how to read and write dictionaries, pass multiple variables from one shortcut to another, create an ersatz while loop and various other programming techniques that are usually way over my head but are made incredibly approachable by the Shortcuts framework. Though it’s lacking in some usability affordances for both makers and users of shortcuts, I’m endlessly impressed by the power and elegance of what Shortcuts can do today. It’s easily one of iOS’s crown jewels (if hidden in plain sight), and its potential to grow in capability and scope is awesome.
To make installing ExactPic as easy as possible, the suite automatically downloads some assets (very small PNG files to serve as image shims) from a GitHub repo to your device, so you’ll need to give it permission to access iCloud Drive. ExactPic also reads and writes to a JSON file that is automatically created and stored on iCloud Drive. As you run each of the shortcuts for the first time, you’ll also be asked for various permissions to access certain websites, run other shortcuts, save to Dropbox etc.
Another caveat: working with large pictures, especially when performing multiple operations on them, can push up against the memory limitations of Shortcuts. I’ve found it reliable on my iPad Pro, but on my three-year old iPhone X, resizing then cropping then framing a large image can cause the shortcut to quit unexpectedly.
Finally, ExactPic was built on iOS 13 but I’ve been able to test it on public beta releases of iOS 14 too, and it seems to work fine. Of course if you run into any issues there or in any other aspect, or if you have any thoughts on using ExactPic, please let me know.
The second episode of our third season of “Wireframe” is out right now. You can listen below or in your favorite podcast player, and you can subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe.
At some point or other we’ve all been guilty of poking fun at the inability of older loved ones to grasp various technical concepts or navigate various apps or websites. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating—and tragic—for everyone involved. This episode digs deep into the generational divide that often determines the usability of tech products and tries to understand the role that design plays a role in perpetuating this difficulty. From the episode notes:
Your dad’s dog is barking in the background, but he doesn’t know how to mute his video chat. Your uncle can’t get Netflix working on his new SmartTV. And grandma still can’t find where her favorite songs are stored on her tablet. Why is your family always depending on you for tech support? Sometimes design, technology, and getting older doesn’t add up. And if design is failing older generations, it will eventually fail us all.
Here’s the first of six episodes in our third season of “Wireframe,” the podcast about the stories behind product and UX design, hosted by yours truly. You can listen below, in your favorite podcast player, or subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe.
This season also marks the debut of our new collaboration with the amazing team at Pacific Content. They bring the editorial and production firepower that make each episode’s reporting, research, interviews, storytelling and sound production so uniformly excellent. Every episode is a massive undertaking for the producers at Pacific and I’m so lucky to be working with such an amazing group of people.
And as a special bonus, you’ll notice new, bespoke show artwork for each episode, courtesy of the amazing Łódź, Poland-based illustrator Klawe Rzeczy.
Before I run down what I watched, let me talk about what I read. After about two long years of good intentions and sporadic attention, I finally finished Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to do it but that’s only because the book itself is 1,200 pages long and weighs over four pounds and it’s not available on Kindle or iBooks or even in reliably readable pirated e-book form (I tried). When I did pick it up though, every page was fully transporting and engrossing, so vivid and luxurious is Caro’s deeply researched, minutely detailed writing.
Who knows if an ambitious director or an enterprising star will ever make the mistake of trying to adapt “The Power Broker” as a narrative feature, but I would bet money that there will never be a documentary made from it. The sheer richness of detail and expansiveness of the story that Caro tells would break any documentarian. There would just be no hope of capturing in a measly two-hour documentary the scope of Robert Moses’s life and work, especially the way Caro tells it, when even the wide physical expanses of the entire New York region itself could barely contain the breadth of the master builder’s creative and destructive genius.
All of which is just a roundabout way of making the point that, over the years, I’ve lost interest in the documentary as an art form. Like most people, I’ve enjoyed my share of them in the past—“When We Were Kings” and “Gimme Shelter” come to mind as standout film watching experiences for me—but these days more often than not I find documentaries intensely dissatisfying. They’re either too short, in which case they never seem to get to the level of detail in their subjects that I as a viewer want to see, or they’re too long, in which case they’re probably still too superficial for my taste while also managing to be boring.
If I’m going to watch a movie, I’d much rather watch something that’s declaratively fictitious, that has no pretenses to being factual. This isn’t about a bias against non-fiction, either; in fact what I find most frustrating about documentaries is that they’re not as rigorous or detailed as any given feature article in any give issue of say The New Yorker.
What’s worse, there are so many diverse and frankly elastic interpretations of what a documentary is, and so when it comes to journalistic integrity, I rarely know what I’m getting into. It’s obvious to say but worth repeating because so few people seem to acknowledge this, but documentaries are not journalism. They’re not fact checked and multiply sourced and in fact they’re more often than not opaque in their methods and research. And yet because they have the veneer of reality, they’re presented as fact much more often than they should be.
All of this came to mind as I finally finished “The Power Broker” mostly because reading it felt very much like experiencing something truly cinematic, where “cinematic” connotes a level of fulfilled ambition and emotional impact so overwhelming that you have no idea how it was ever done, much less dreamed of. There’s not a single documentary that I can think of that comes close to that, except perhaps for Ric Burns’s eight-part mini series “New York: A Documentary Film.”
If you enjoy documentaries, then more power to you. I acknowledge that there are things that the documentary form can do that the narrative form can’t, and I know that my aversion to them means I’ve missed out on some truly good ones every year. But for me watching documentaries just doesn’t seem like the best return on my time investments. I’d seriously rather be watching some silly popcorn fare or reading a real piece of journalism.
Okay, now on to what I watched in June which, ironically, included a documentary! That was “Kedi,” which tells the “stories” of several street cats in Instanbul. Intellectually I justified the time by reminding myself that “Kedi” makes no pretenses to being factual and also it’s freaking adorable, people.
The rest of what I watched, frankly, wasn’t all that impressive. In total I managed to see only thirteen films, only one of which was a new release. That was Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” a black comedy about a Long Island superintendent of schools who meets with scandal. It was a fun ride that didn’t quite stick the landing, and also a bit of a letdown after Finley’s very impressive 2017 debut “Thoroughbreds,” which everyone should seek out.
The real standout for my June was probably the little-noticed but crackerjack 2018 thriller “Arctic,” which follows in the man-versus-nature tradition of “All Is Lost.” (At the risk of belaboring my point from above, I’d much rather rewatch these two fiction films than have to revisit a totally bogus man versus nature documentary like say “Free Solo”.)
Halfway through the month I discovered that my AT&T cellular plan entitles me to a free subscription to HBO MAX, so that’s my excuse for rewatching three of the horribly misconceived Batman movies from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. It’s a kindness to say that they haven’t stood the test of time; even Burton’s “Batman Returns” is awful. I thought I was going to work my way from the worst of the series to its “best,” Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” but after the first three, I couldn’t bear to do it.
After many, many hours spent recording in my basement, we are just about ready with a new, third season of “Wireframe,” the podcast I host about how design shapes technology to fit into our lives. The first episode launches next Monday, 13 July. Until then, you can listen to the trailer below and you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PocketCasts, Castro or anywhere you get your favorite podcasts.
This season we’re looking at how design is changing in a world that is itself undergoing massive change. We have episodes about designers coping with the pandemic and social unrest; about the UX decisions that make it hard for families to connect in a world of social distancing; about the design of crowdfunding and charity platforms in a time when giving is more vital than ever; about whether user experience makes a difference in the streaming platforms that we’re all glued to; about how design might—or might not—help increase mindfulness; and about the design of elections, which is probably another fun surprise that 2020 has in store for us.
It’s a lot of really terrific stuff. As usual, we’ve got great guests, it’s all deeply researched and thoughtfully reported, and it makes for fascinating listening for anyone who practices, consumes and/or thinks about design. I’m incredibly proud of this new batch of utterly unique design stories and I think you’ll enjoy them too. Subscribe today, and if you haven’t listened before, you can catch up on the previous two seasons at adobe.ly/wireframe.
During much of the five years or so I’ve worked at Adobe, alongside my “day job” leading the design team behind Adobe XD, I’ve also been pursuing an unusual “side hustle.” It was a bit of a far-fetched idea that was almost completely outside of my expertise, and one that very likely would not have been possible at any other company except Adobe: the creation of a scholarship fund specifically to help aspiring designers from diverse and underrepresented groups pursue design educations.
After several years of planning, persuasion and paperwork, a few of us dedicated to this idea managed to put together the Design Circle Scholarship, announced late last year in this blog post by my colleague and collaborator Kari Norder. We were incredibly moved to receive over a thousand applications from new, vibrant talent all over the world. We were also lucky enough to get a generous contribution of time from the members of our Design Circle forum of industry leaders to carefully and thoughtfully review each application and portfolio. Today, Adobe announced the ten lucky, deserving, promising, amazing winners. You can see their pictures above and read more about them in this blog post at XD Ideas.
Of course, a cohort of ten scholarship winners is a modest start and it’s not going to change the industry overnight. But it’s a meaningful one for these students: they’ll each receive up to US$25,000 for four years of undergraduate study in design. The fund is intended to allow young designers to access the education they deserve, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, economic or cultural background.
For me, the animating idea is that if we can open the doors wider to those seeking to enter the design field, if we can make design education more affordable and accessible to more and different kinds of people, then we can make a material impact on who ultimately gets to practice design. That is the difference between a design industry that wants to be more diverse and inclusive and a design industry that is more diverse and inclusive. We have a lot of work to do still, but these ten burgeoning talents are proof that we can change this industry if we match actions to our intentions.