Monday, December 29, 2008

Cre-Comm grad learns how Flash works!

Red River College recently posted its annual holiday card (check it out here).

If I'm not mistaken, I believe some of the fine voicework (and perhaps Flashwork) is by none other than Nathan Bueddefeld: the first and only Cre-Comm grad to learn how Flash works and then do things with it.

And if Nathan didn't do the holiday card, it's OK, because I know he could have done it. Way to go, Nathan!

Nathan's first animation tour de force was called "Mortonomous," which he did for his IPP (Independent Professional Project) in second year. He was the first student to ever take his IPP into the world of animation, and he did a great job.

And now I must go, because even the word "Flash" makes me roll up into the fetal position under my desk and weep.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Great things about being alive in 2008

Reading: The New York Times

I realize that I say the words “New York Times” in class about a million times a year. I’m trying to cut down, really I am, but this paper shows regularly why the news matters, and how to cover it with class and style.

It also made me happy when CTV’s Murray Oliver stopped by the classroom earlier in the semester and said the same thing – even after all but two students said they’d heard of CTV Newsnet. Yipes – but that’s another story.

In Canada, the NY Times Sunday edition costs a fortune, and you get it a day late, but the Times’ Public Editor, the Ethicist, and Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column make it all worthwhile.

Best issue of the year included the magazine’s exploration of new media, called: “How we watch stuff now.”

Add a Starbucks chai latte to the mix, and I’m in Heaven (should that be a separate entry?).

Theatre: Sitting in the front row at Spring Awakening on Broadway

I’ve never before sat one foot away from a 12-year-old Broadway performer, especially one screaming, “You’re totally f***ed!” into my face, but everyone should experience it at least once.

“Yes,” I thought. “I am totally f***ed. Thanks for reminding me, young, talented person with your whole life ahead of you.”

Construction: The Canadian Museum For Human Rights. And (sigh) IKEA.

The first national museum outside of Ottawa will be right here in Winnipeg, and it looks like no one is going to be able to take it away from us before it’s built – not even the Globe & Mail and 208 survey respondents. Bastards.

And IKEA is coming to Winnipeg. It’s sad that the second story gets all the press, but at least we can move on as a people: we’ll never have to look at an empty lot again and silently wonder, “Could that be the future site of an IKEA?”

Film: WALL-E and Man on Wire

The two best films of the year made me forget how much I hate the modern-day theatre-going experience, what with the cell phones, the air hockey, and the frigging kids (how I hate “the kids:” always text messaging, yapping, and playing in my JELL-O tree).

WALL-E was the best interspecies romance since a rat asked out Brooke Shields in the Muppets Take Manhattan, and the environmentally friendly storyline about the last plant on Earth and the bloaty bloat bloaties who ruined it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Man on Wire was the best documentary – and film – of the year. Like all the best films every year, this one comes close to explaining the meaning of life. At the very least it ponders the question as it chronicles Philippe Petit’s illegal tightrope walk across the World Trade Center buildings in 1974.

The best part: the New York City cop looking shell-shocked and awestruck at a news conference as he explains what he’s just seen at 110 storeys up, and how he’ll likely be the only person who ever gets to see something like this.

TV: Letterman gets mad; the Shield and the Wire come to an end

Letterman is at his best when he’s angry at authority. And he went nuts when John McCain went AWOL from his show – ostensibly to go back to Washington to deal with the economic crisis, but really to hang out with Katie Couric on her “more important” show.

Letterman’s hilarious (and downright courageous) rants for the next week – up to and including McCain’s two “apology appearances” - were incredible. “I haven’t had this much fun since my last interrogation,” said the contrite McCain.

The Shield and the Wire are the two best TV shows of all time. One high octane (the Shield), the other more contemplative (The Wire), they came to an end with gripping and fitting series finales. Best of all: no cut to black. I wrote about the Shield here and the Wire here.

Food: Bistro 7 ¼ (Winnipeg); L’Enoteca (Radisson Hecla Oasis Resort)

Bistro 71/4 is one of Winnipeg’s few authentic upscale New York experiences; the owner working the grill like his life depended on it, the noisy and intimate room packed with advertising and fashion professionals, and the best mussels I’ve had in a long, long time.

L’Enoteca at Hecla was a huge surprise; one of the best steaks I’ve had in my life and great, personable service. BUT could we solve the problem with the reservations? The hotel front desk can’t take reservations for the restaurant, and has no idea whether it’s booked. No one answers the phone at the restaurant or, apparently, checks the messages. This should be an easy fix, guys. Hell, I’ll do it for one free meal a night. Result!

Videogames: Grand Theft Auto IV, Xbox 360

I found myself addicted to very few videogames this year, but GTA IV was the one that did it last summer, and offered the most bang for the buck. Great writing (check out those ad parodies on any of the radio stations) and a long, rewarding story arc that kicks the crap out of other “free roaming” games, like Mercenaries 2 (a great-looking game with a story that you can resolve in an hour).

My beef: I will never again roam a virtual world for upward of 10 hours shooting pigeons to get the big reward of…nothing!

Concerts: Secret Machines (Pyramid); Holy F**k (Park)

The Secret Machines put on the best show in front of virtually no one that I’ve ever seen (and that must make me "virtually no one!"). My article about it is right here.

And Holy F**k knocked my socks off at the Park Theatre. Until the sound guy told them that they couldn’t come back for an encore. No, because that would have brought us pleasure.

Comedy: Bill Cosby; Red River College’s Comedy Writing classes

I still can't believe how much Bill Cosby rules. More than Bob Dylan, according to my original article.

And what can I say about RRC's comedy writing classes this year, other than the fact that they ruled the school and the King's Head in equal measure? One first-year student told me that the first show was better than anything he's ever seen at Rumor's, and I would extend that to Just For Laughs. Who needs Russell Peters when you've got these guys?

Advertising: BzzAgent

Finally, we can charge people for "word of mouth media." And it's fun and you get free samples too! Check out how this works in my original article.

School: Creative Communications at Red River College

Yes, I know I'm instructor at Red River College; but if there's a better communications or media program in a better college with better students, then I don't know about it. And I don't want to know about it, or I might have to apply for a job there (har, har)!

See you in '09.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is "word of mouth" finally an advertising medium?

One of the great things about being a teacher is watching information transform over time; what's "true" on the true-or-false test today, is often "false" tomorrow.

Case in point:

For the past six years, I've started the Introduction to Advertising class the same way: by asking the ludicrously simple question, "What is advertising?"

The question is great, because everyone thinks they know an "ad" when they see one. But very quickly, we usually get into some questionable territory:

- Is the logo on your T-shirt an ad?
- Is an instructor name dropping "Nabob Coffee" in class an ad?
- Is a guy dressed up as a Hostess Munchie on a street corner an ad?
- Is a product placement on a TV show an ad?
- Is a free sample an ad?
- Is a post to a message board about a product an ad?
- Is a fake post to a message board about a product an ad?
- Is your friend who says that the Dark Knight is a great film an ad?

After much debate, someone usually brings up the big question: "Is word of mouth advertising?"

For the past six years, I've said the same thing: it's not advertising - or even an advertising medium - because you can't go into an ad agency and say, "Give me $5,000 worth of word of mouth." Plus, it's not measurable. So there.

Next year, I may have to change my answer. And be a little less smug than usual.

Enter BzzAgent, a Boston-based, word-of-mouth agency that is, in fact, "selling chitchat."

I first heard about the company in Rob Walker's great book, Buying In. It's a must-read for anyone even marginally interested in advertising or the new methods that marketers are using to get more of our money without us knowing about it. The chapter on BzzAgent originally appeared in Walker's article in the New York Times, which you can see right here.

In a nutshell, BzzAgent connects marketers with its network of volunteers to talk up whatever the marketers are selling. BzzAgent says it has 500,000 of these volunteers, which it calls "Agents." Agents register themselves for free on BzzAgent's website, then volunteer to take part in buzz campaigns; they file reports and earn points, which they can cash into rewards.

Here's the trade-off: Agents get to be the first to try products, and marketers get to spread discussion among "the right people" to create brand interest, which is something that ads stopped doing a long time ago. And BzzAgent gets to brag about transforming conversation into "a targeted and measurable media channel." Pretty neat trick.

Being unable to resist a good deal, I registered as an Agent about a month ago. I first got BzzAgent's brochure in the mail, a handy dandy guide that includes a code of conduct (Don't lie about being an Agent!) and two pages of bumble-bee stickers. Another marketing trick, if I ever saw one.

A few weeks later, I got an e-mail asking me to be part of a buzz campaign for Nabob Coffee, which - you're right - I buzzed about earlier in this post. I registered online by answering a few questions and - voila - today I got my two free packages of environmentally friendly NABOB Coffee in the mail. Result!

A BzzAgent brochure in the package explains NABOB's sustainability commitment and its relationship with the Rainforest Alliance and suggestions about where an Agent might want to create buzz:

1. When others are discussing the environment;
2. When you're making, buying, or eating breakfast;
3. When you're waiting for a meeting to start at work;
4. When you're shopping for groceries, especially in the coffee aisle;
5. When you're recycling something;
6. When you're watching a coffee ad.

And suggestions, re: what to do with your free samples:

- Serve it to guests;
- Brew it at work;
- Re-use and display the container;
- Etc.

So, next semester, when I talk about this in class as a case study, will I be teaching, creating buzz, or both? And - if I'm honest about it - does it matter? Fascinating questions, and more complicated than "What is advertising?" I just hope I can cash my points in for something really cool - like a NABOB baseball hat.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Larsen's best songs of 2008

And the songs that changed the world forever in 2008 (disclaimer: for me) are:

1. Hot Chip - Ready for the Floor

Forget a posthumous Oscar nomination for Heath Ledger: this video features the definitive portrayal of the Joker AND Two-Face at the same time - months before the Dark Knight came out. And the song is groovy too. Take that, Prince, what with your goofy Batdance and all.

2. Weezer - Pork and Beans

Another year, another weak Weezer CD with a fantastic single; would this band release a Greatest Hits already, so I can trade in and consolidate everything but the Blue Album?

I love the Internet-inspired mayhem at the end of the video; including the Lightsaber sfx was a stroke of genius.

3. The Hold Steady - Sequestered in Memphis

"In barlight, she looked alright. In daylight, she looked desperate." What more do you need to know? Other that that leader singer Craig Finn is the unholy offspring of Bruce Springsteen and Andy Kindler...

4. Magnetic Fields - Too Drunk to Dream

The song that asserts: "sober, life is a prison/shitfaced, it is a blessing."

It's worth watching the above YouTube clip just to see the band's awkward banter before the song; I saw them in Minneapolis a few years ago, and was treated to one of the oddest shows ever.

Apparently, lead singer Stephin Merritt has a hearing disorder, which means that applause is actually banned at their shows; honestly, when anyone claps, he runs from the stage, hands over his ears. Talk about your tortured genius: "Nooooooo....applause makes my ears bleed!"

The two guys in the middle never say a damn thing, except sharing the occasional glance and rolling their eyes.

5. Los Campesinos! - Death to Los Campesinos!

I love a band that wishes themselves dead on their first single. As I mentioned in "best albums of the year," the ugly guy, cute girl dynamic in rock never ever gets old. Right, Sonny and Cher?

6. The Feeling - Turn it Up

The band whose aim is to be as great as Hall and Oates finally is with "Turn it Up." This tune first stuck me as "by the numbers," but eventually had me hitting the repeat button about 50 times in a row in the car, for two days straight. Out of my head, fowl temptress!

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Dig!!!, Lazarus, Dig!!!

A great song with a "joke title" delivered with classic preacher-man aplomb from the man himself.

8. Sia - Soon We'll Be Found

I caught Sia on Letterman a few weeks ago (see the above link) and was blown away by the performance. She brought along her own backdrop to the show, signed in ASL, and couldn't contain her unbridled delight at meeting Dave and Paul at the end of the song (NOT included in the above link - too bad). Charming.

I noticed that this song turned up on the last episode of the Hills (Uh, I saw it by accident. Yeah, that's it!), so she might even have a hit with this thing eventually. Let's hope.

9. Charlie Haden - Spiritual

I'm not usually one for "Jesus" songs, but this one works. Charlie's son, Josh, sings lead vocals and makes me feel guilty for everything I've ever done wrong in my life ever. Sorry!

10. The Raveonettes - Dead Sound

The Raveonettes played the West End Cultural Centre about a month before their latest great collection of songs came out. Tortured teenage love, speeding cars, and death are back - it's a great time to be a teenager!

Magazine round-up: the Weakerthans and Leonard Cohen

Some cool Winnipeg-related news in this month's magazines:

1. The new Blender with its new and not-improved minuscule size and typeface features the 33 best CDs of the year, the 144 best songs, and "the 1001 greatest songs to download right now."

Hidden away in the 1001 list, under "awesome songs by Canadians" is the Weakerthans, for "One Great City!" Sez Blender, "Winnipeg punk rockers turn a tourism slogan into a sad, beautiful acoustic gripe about the wave of gentrification sweeping their frost-bitten prairie bug."

And in last month's Q Magazine, the Weakerthans were on Billy Bragg's current playlist; he may have picked up their album right here in Winnipeg when he came through town last year.

Blender gets bonus marks for sandwiching the Weakerthans between Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)" and the Hidden Cameras' "Awoo." Blender loses bonus marks for saying that Lil Wayne has the best album and single of the year. Wah, wah, wah.

I'll always love the Weakerthans, not just for their music, but for their guitarist Stephen Carroll's generosity last year, when he came in to Red River College to talk to Creative Communications students about the band, then read through their publicity plans for the band's then-new CD "Reunion Tour." Great guy. Great band.

2. Leonard Cohen shows up on the cover of this month's Uncut Magazine. It's a great interview with him, his partner, band, and collaborators. Among the insights: Leonard eats healthy food, except when he sneaks away for an occasional Filet-O-Fish at McDonald's. Can you imagine the voice that sang "Suzanne" coming through the drive-thru speaker? "McFish, please." Awesome.

Most exciting is that at the end of the article, Cohen says he will end his current world tour with a swing through Western Canada. I saw his two shows in Winnipeg in 1993, and the first of the two was probably one of the best concerts I've ever seen. The show was hypnotic, at times hilarious, and he even sang "Hallelujah" (just rounding out that last "h").

Due to my cousin's inadvertent generosity (he was then president of Sony Canada), I had 14 free tickets to the second show, and I treated everyone I knew (and some who I didn't know) to a free Leonard Cohen show. It was only later that I found out that those tickets had been left for me accidentally, and no one from Sony could get into the show on the night of the concert. Sucks to be them! Har, har...

Let's just hope that karma doesn't boot me in the arse this time...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Vic Mackey suffers a fate worse than death

According to the writers of the Shield, there's a fate worse than death or jail, and that's an ill-fitting suit and a cubicle.

This week (in Canada), the seventh and last season of the Shield came to its exhausting conclusion in a 90-minute Tour de Force that left little doubt that this series, not the Sopranos, is probably the best TV show ever (OK, maybe it's neck and neck with the Wire, but that's another blog).

After watching every episode of the Shield through seven seasons, the finale was in many ways expected and - in many more - shocking. So visceral is the show that after the credits rolled, just after 1:30 a.m. on a work night (thanks, Showcase), I felt so shaken that I couldn't sleep.

Entertainment Weekly sums up the feeling nicely in its review: "S#@! As in, Holy."


After Lem's death two seasons ago, we knew that the Strike Team would eventually implode. The big question: would the guys live, die, or go to jail? Who would've guessed all three?

Who dies?

The biggest shock in the finale came early, setting the scene for the quiet scenes later on: Shane, seeing no hope for himself or his family, takes his own life in the bathroom as his former colleagues burst through the door.

The sad reveal: off-camera, he's also taken the life of his wife and child, who are positioned on the bed clutching flowers and the toy police car that Shane bought him in an earlier scene. A real heartbreaker.

Who goes to jail?

That would be Ronnie, who survived two seasons longer than Lem and became a fan favorite late in the show's run, after saying virtually nothing over the first six seasons. Betrayed by Mackey, he's so shocked, he stammers and then completely loses it.

The last time we see Ronnie, he's scrapping with the officers trying to lock him in the cage as Vic walks by without so much as a glance in his direction.

Who lives?

Vic, but he's sacrificed everything. In the end, he's a schmuck in an ill-fitting suit in a jail cell all of his own: a drab and poorly lit cubicle with a PC(!) on which he's told to produce daily 10-page reports, single spaced! The horror!

After some excruciatingly long and quiet close-ups in two key scenes (one at the Barn, one in the cubicle), we can't be sure what Mackey is thinking. Does he feel sorry? Does he harbor regret? Would he do everything all over again? We expect to see a tear roll down his cheek, but it doesn't happen.

In the closing scene, Vic looks out the window as cop cars speed by with their sirens blaring. It looks like he might also take his own life...until he packs his gun into his belt, gets that old snarl on his face, and walks out of the building with renewed purpose.

It's too bad the show is over, because I'd love to see Vic get himself out of this one. Because if there's one thing I've learned from watching the show for seven seasons, it's this: Vic Mackey is much smarter than me.

Other stuff

- One of the show's disappointments is that it never resolved the storyline about Julien's sexuality versus his religious convictions. We see him checking out a couple of guys in the finale, but is he still married to a woman? And going to church?

- We know that Claudette will die soon, but it didn't happen on the finale. I would've bet otherwise.

- Dutch caught his boy serial killer, but I expected a little more cat-and-mouse shenanigans than what we got. The kid's final line is a good one, though. Why have all serial killers spent at least some time in southern California? "Because everyone who goes there wants to be famous."

- As well, the famous scene in season three, in which Dutch chokes his cat to better understand the mind of a serial killer, made me wonder if maybe Dutch did kill the boy's mother in order to frame the kid and get him off the street. Turned out there was no hint of that happening, but it would've been potent storyline to see Dutch go to jail while the Strike Team beat the rap.

- In a nice bit of continuity from a couple of other great cop series, actor/director Clark Johnson, appeared as the witness relocation officer for Vic's wife and kids. An actor on two other classic cop shows: Homicide: Life on the Street, and the last season of the Wire, he also played football with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL.

- It's also pretty nifty how the surprise crime that happened in the first episode, Vic's murder of officer Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond, also from Homicide) permeated throughout the seven-season arc. In retrospect, it seemed like the crime had been forgotten, until Shane killed Lem, that is.

Dense with plot and more emotionally satisfying than the Sopranos' bait-and-switch finale, it'll be really sad to not have the Shield around anymore. Never has there been a TV show that kept the tension and stakes as high; that it happened in a genre that seemed played out over a decade ago makes it all the more remarkable.