Roden
Issue 051
February, 28, 2021

Photo Newsletters, 4k Mirrorless Video, Toast-based NFTs, Nice Letters

Launching a new photo-centric newsletter, thinking about nice letters, pizza toast on the crypto-chain, and rhapsodizing on the state of video



Fine Rodenians —

Let’s dig right in: I’m Craig Mod, and this is your monthly Roden.

February has been productive!

Up top is a rundown of recent work: New newsletter, new podcast episodes, membership program updates, and a pizza toast NFT. And down below is a small essay with some thoughts on the state of mirrorless video, and the astounding rate at which it’s improving.


Photo Newsletter

I have a new photo-focused newsletter launching on Wednesday, March 3 — Huh, A Cafe With a View of the Waterfall. That link has a signup form and welcome essay.

Basically — it’s a newsletter run in seasons, each season is twenty weeks long, one photo a week. But it’s also a newsletter about looking closely at the world, and so you’ll get the alt-text of the image in your inbox — just a sentence (I swear, although it might be a … erm … long sentence) — and the photos will live on my homepage in high resolution, with a nice javascript-aided interface for poking around and zooming and, you know, looking closely.

The newsletter is one part hack to get me to go through my voluminous photo archives, one part to create a home for photos outside of Instagram, and one part hoping to get more photographers to do something similar.

I know you’re dying for yet another new newsletter, so feel free to sign up.


Podcast

I released two new episodes of On Margins (after an 18 month hiatus), both with Sam Anderson. (I just like talking with Sam.) The first was recorded in March 2020, right after entering lockdown. And the second in January 2021, a few weeks after the riot in DC at the Capitol.

Episode one is about writing processes, Sam’s excellent Boomtown book, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, and more. Episode two is about Sam’s writing in 2020 — which was diverse and prolific, ranging from a Weird Al profile to a symphonic and affecting piece on the last white rhinos in Africa, to the NBA bubble, to eating Doritos.

If you enjoy these pods, consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts, which mainly makes the landing page there feel less lonely. Oh, and with these episodes we’ve now handily crested 100,000+ listens, which is a neat line to crest. Thanks for all your ear-time.

Oh! Also, I put On Margins up on github — so educators / students / folks can slurp up the whole archive easily and use the audio in classes / projects. Please, remix / use as you’d like.


Memberships

Thank you to everyone who joined SPECIAL PROJECTS this last month. We’re about 35 people away from crossing 1,000 Simultaneously Active Members.

Random note to active members: It looks like renewal emails have been finding their way into Gmail spam folders; if you get a chance, please peek in there and mark any SP-related emails as Not Spam. Many thanks!


In the last month I ran an SP “board members” meeting on Zoom (twice, for timezone kindness) wherein I gave a twenty minute presentation on my plan for 2021 and then fielded questions. That was much more fun than I would have estimated, and marked the first time in my life I’ve “planned” a year. Unsurprisingly: What a useful activity!

I also ran a couple spontaneous members-only livestreams, mainly Final Cut Pro work, going through Kissa by Kissa book production footage. Those livestreams and board member videos are archived online for members.

The new photo newsletter, this newsletter, Ridgeline, On Margins, and upcoming video work — all of this stuff — is made possible by SPECIAL PROJECTS memberships. Thanks for your support.


Sort of related: Do you mind if I quote a few nice things people have recently written in to me about my work / the membership program? I collect these snippets in a big text file because — honestly — there are days where I wonder what the hell I’m doing, and this text file is like pure manna, and I dip in on occasion to buoy a sinking spirit.

Thanks for doing the kind of work you do; you probably get this sort of praise all the time, but the things you make occupy a certain kind of moodspace that is extremely life affirming and curative. I always look forward to the art / craft / angle of your projects, but there’s something quite special about the fact that I always come away from them feeling better about other people and the world as a whole.

!!

I’m 24, I started reading Roden as a late teen and now on student SP. Thank you for sharing your approach, your stories, your living.

!!! (The idea of long-term Roden readers beginning as teenagers is something I had truly not considered. I am delighted! And please, if you’re a “student” and want a membership, just reply to this email.)

I love the specificity and decency of your voice, it feels very much your own and like a proof for the fact that kindness can be successful. I mostly wanted to write you that you, doing your work, the way you do it; following through and making yourself seen, gives people like me permission to do so, too, for their work. That’s really beautiful and means something to me. Thanks for that.

!!!!

During the “board meeting” earlier in February, I distilled the “purpose” or goals of SPECIAL PROJECTS as being two-fold:

  1. A continuous and rigorous production of book-shaped things
  2. “Education”

Education is in quotes because it’s less about tutorials or classes and more about archetypes — defining and helping folks understand archetypes by — ideally — becoming one (through the work required to achieve goal #1). So: this is such a wonderful email to get.

I’m also sharing these little messages in the spirit of showing folks what/how you can write to people. In fact, I recommend cultivating a habit of writing to artists / filmmakers / actors / authors / whatever if you are moved by something they’ve produced. The key points: Keep it short, write well (i.e., clearly!), and think of it like a text-based high-five. Trust me, they will appreciate it, no matter how “famous” they are.


Pizza Toast Tokens

Apropos of pretty much nothing more than Robin Sloan’s chained-block curiosities and the fact that more and more of my deep-geek friends have been poking me about the “creepy” world of “non-fungible tokens,” I undertook the necessary, anachronisticly command-line based, quite frankly shockingly expensive, and wholly inscrutable divinations (“mainnet,” “gas,” bla bla bla) required to “mint” a single order of “pizza toast” to the chain of blocks using the, uhm, Zora protocol. Phew. (Anyway, I think that’s what I did.)

I had never so much as glanced in the direction of Etherium before, and so the whole process took me about four hours (??). It felt like playing a video game more than anything else, and in that sense was quite fun. Regardless, the best way to feel out of the shape of an ecosystem is to engage directly. I now have a better sense of what an NFT is, how the chained-blocks work, and why people might be excited about these things. Frankly, it’s astounding how much money is tied up in a system that feels so fragile. Robin has sold a few thousand dollars worth of poems (er, amulets) in the last week. And someone named “worm” has offered me $222 for that slice of pizza toast from Bugen. Wut.

Let’s juxtapose the above with a quote from Hayden Herrera’s most excellent Noguchi biography, “Listening to Stone”:

Noguchi said that he didn’t see why anyone would want to collect. The idea of possessions appalled him. “You see,” Noguchi told Owens, “this is why I like to do architectural things; because they are not in anyone’s possession really. They belong to the whole public.”

The mind whirls with so many under-formed thoughts about this crytographically-unique token world; I’m just putting my little pizza toast “object” / experience out there as a public-facing: huh.

(* In a nod to how quickly this is all evolving, Zora, just a few days later, now allows for minting right on the platform website, no command-line tools required.)


Video Tech, Doc Explosion

Video is amazing. I mean, both video the (120+ year old) technology in general, and the state of video in consumer-facing devices today, Feb 2021.

Consider this: A basic 4k Arri setup (Arri cameras are one of the gold standards for Hollywood digital shooting) starts at like $60,000 or $70,000, but more realistically is easily $100,000-$200,000+ with a couple cinema lenses and monitors and microphones. With developments by Sony, Canon, Blackmagic and their ilk in these last two or three years (and this last year in particular) you can whip together a full-frame 4k rig for about $5,000 - $10,000 that, sure, it won’t be Arri-level refined or have Arri-level color science or Arri-level glass or built in timecodes or whatever, but, damn — nothing about that $5-10k rig will be a hindrance to you shooting / telling just about any story you can imagine.

1/20+ the cost, achieving, say, 70% (?) of the quality (this can be quibbled to death, but let’s just say it’s significantly higher than 5% of the quality).

That’s crazy. That’s … an interesting equation.

In fact, Netflix just approved the Sony FX6 as a “Netflix-grade” camera. The FX6 is basically a built up A7SIII or FX3 (the sensor is identical) — meaning, Netflix is implicitly approving a $3500 camera (A7SIII) for production shooting.

This last year, having now investigated and touched the world of video (X100V → XT4 → A7SIII), and having looked more closely at filmmaking than ever before, I’m left: jaw-on-the-floor-style gobsmacked. The ability for professional — truly professional — filmmaking at accessible prices is one of the most inspiring things to happen in the camera industry in the last decade.

It’s relentless, this forward march in video. Stills, we nailed that six years ago (ten years ago?). Sure, if you’re a specialist photographer and need unique functions, certain cameras have been cheerily ratcheting up their technical capabilities: IBIS and in-lens stabilization and ever-higher ISO ceilings and ever-lower noise floors and 60fps full-frame bananas shooting have all made difficult shots easier. But video? Ten years ago? Compared to today? I’m in a continuous state of awe.

24fps@720p to 60fps@1080p to 24/30/60fps@4K to 120fps@4K full-frame, and now 8K sneaking in. At this point, the 8k resolution is interesting simply as archival data. 1080p HD probably gets most folks most of the way to their vision, but one does have to admit, 4K is glorious when done well, and offers copious cropping and frame cleanup opportunities. And like I said: There’s something anthropologically interesting about those extra pixels.

Compared to a decade ago, SSDs make editing this footage less painful — both in speed and price. A MacBook Air M1 can wrangle properly-encoded 4K video without breaking much of a sweat. Final Cut Pro is a wonderful piece of software. Divinci Resolve is available for free.

And audio has come full-swing as well; it’s dizzying, the options for recording high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

But the point isn’t to simply geek out over the hardware, it’s to say, rather — we’re now beginning to see the dividends pay out in storytelling. Because without the story, none of this advancement is meaningful.


Let me point you to A Concerto is a Conversation by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. It’s a near perfect ten minute doc in tone and scope and both smallness and largeness of scale. It swoops and zooms with admirable control. But important to note is how much the tech elevates the story; shot on an Arri Alexa LF body and vintage Canon lenses (I assume rented for a princely, but accessible sum):

The sound of the grandfather’s voice, the intimacy of those closeup shots of the two in conversation. Those low-light interior shots in the shop; the expert color grading into a kind of blue twilight. The dark shots in the concert hall. This is technology deployed with purpose and the result is something that swells in the chest. I couldn’t stop tearing up — the kindness in both of their faces, seen so directly, made lucid by the camera in hand.

Would this have been made ten years ago? I dunno. Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t think it have resulted in an artifact of such craft and clarity.

That’s exciting.

Of recent indie-Hollywood (A24) note is the gorgeous Minari. Also shot on Arri cameras, with a budget of about $10 million. It’s a gem.

The thing is: I can’t help but wonder if / how both Minari and A Concerto is a Conversation could have been done with even less. Primer was shot, scored, and produced for $7,000 16 years ago. How close could you get to Minari quality with an FX3 and a few lenses? Just the fact you can now eyeball many of these scenes and go, Well, I bet you could get most of the way there with X, Y, and Z — all consumer grade and close at hand — is kinda nuts.

And if you want to learn about cinematography or film craft or technique there is YouTube, warts and all. Folks like Gerald Undone give freakishly precise technical breakdowns, Mark Bone — the rare YouTuber who is also a working director and cinematographer — deploys meta and craft tips, Tyler Stalman has great Final Cut Pro tutorials, Philip Bloom is all about the forty-five minute philosophical look at gear, Potato Jet and Lizzie Pierce are fun and practical … and on and on.

In the slightly tangential vein of pure photography: boy, what I would have given to have had something like Alec Soth’s new YouTube channel twenty years ago.

Basically, the rate and accessibility of knowledge transfer today — if you choose to engage with it, and not get distracted — is bonkers.

Because, 20 years ago, I spent all my free time — hundreds of hours — sitting in the computer lab at Waseda University, inhaling photo.net’s forums to learn how to shoot stills. Figuring out what used camera (Nikon f801s) and lens (50mm f/1.8, natch) to buy, what film to use (Velvia ISO 50 for some masochistic reason), how to meter, the zone system, et cetera, et cetera. A year later, when I studied photography formally at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt like I could breeze past most technical instruction and go straight for story. That was such a boost. Today — the YouTube scene for demystifying cinematography and technique feels nearly infinite. I am certain there’s a whole generation of filmmakers coming up now that will never go to film school, entirely self taught, soon to be on the production end of award-winning docs and features.

Anyway — it’s all just to say that it’s a lot of fun to keep an eye on the mirrorless video world right now. It’s evolving in fast, furiously, and in empowering ways.


Whew — OK. That’s that. I actually had another giant essay grow out of part of the video section above and the launch of Huh, A Cafe with a View of the Waterfall. I’m going to put that up online tomorrow, and will send another little bonus Roden alongside.

Oh, and a few weeks ago marked the tenth anniversary of my dad’s death. Over on Ridgeline I wrote about a late-night walk I took a decade back, while I was deep in the throes of funeral planning. (It’s not quite as depressing as that sounds.)

Thanks, as always, for your support. And if you have the means, please consider helping us get over the 1,000 person mark on SPECIAL PROJECTS.

Cheers,
C