Convergence: Interview with Jason Wishnow

Posted by Anna Husted on 9.29.2012

By way of introduction for NYFF Convergence and Jason Wishnow—whose keynote conversation will close the program this Sunday and whom The New York Times calls an "online video virtuoso"—the Film Society's own transmedia expert Matt Bolish shared:

A lot of people still talk about media in terms of "old" and "new," but with Convergence we like to consider all media. We have creators from across an incredibly wide spectrum of disciplines—theater, music, film, advertising, novels, and newspapers. In order to understand how storytelling is evolving you really have to consider all the ways audiences get their stories.

We couldn't ask for two better people to kick off and close out our first NYFF Convergence. In Tommy Pallotta and Jason Wishnow we find a pair of accomplished creators that engage, enlighten, and entertain audiences by blending two very powerful elements: technology and good, old fashioned storytelling. That's key to their success and key to the mission of Convergence—all the bells and whistles in the world don't matter without a killer story.

Here's a preview of what Wishnow has to say on storytelling, a glimpse at what goes on at TED, and the way Instagram is changing how (or what) we eat. Join us Sunday for even more!

You pushed for TEDTalks to go online instead of TV, in that sense you saw where storytelling was going. So what’s next?

In a lot of ways the question you’re asking has to do with distribution platforms. We’re at a point where distribution outlets themselves possess incredibly nuanced textures. It used to be, when you were making a film, you would choose your film stock which would influence your color palette and so forth, and that’s what people meant when they said “texture,” only now we can make decisions along the lines of: Is this right for the web? Is this right for handheld? Is this right for television? IMAX 3D? Projection mapping? All of these formats are similar in ways, but the trick will be deciding on what’s the right nuanced platform you want to use. Interactivity comes into play.

For instance, some of the most innovative music videos I’m seeing now have layers of interactivity, which can only exist on new distribution platforms like your phone or computer. There’s obviously still a place for the old format and the visual language hasn’t been lost in either yet, but new technology is opening up new doors. Creators down the line will say: Do I want to make something more interactive or less interactive? Do I want to create something for a single person to view or many people to view at once? Or for many people to view simultaneously while alone?

I am inspired by the notion of collaborative storytelling and finding new ways for people to engage. What it all boils down to is people want to connect with other people and with the stories and media they feel close to. Now there are more tools to allow that.

How do you predict trends?

Predicting trends is like black magic. (laughing)

You seem to be good at it.

Thanks. (pause) It’s actually a mystery, but sometimes it’s nice to have little mysteries in the way you work. There’s targeted research and there’s gut instinct. I tend to rely more on impulse than anything else.

With TEDTalks, how did you find the experts? How do you decide who the experts are?

At its core, the TED staff consists of a surprisingly small team of remarkably brilliant, well-connected, and forward thinking people. In programming the conference, TED looks to thread a narrative through all four days, linking speakers by sometimes taking the approach of, "we need to find a brain scientist to speak after the humanitarian but before the hitman." I’m joking, TED’s never hired a hitman, but they also haven’t heard the speech I’ll be giving this weekend. One incentive behind launching the TEDx program was to allow for other people to look within their communities to find presenters that the TED staff may not readily have access to. There’s also a link on the site for submitting speaker recommendations, in case there’s anybody you’d like to recommend.

I was amazed that you found Bryan Stevenson the law professor at NYU, and it’s shocking that TED would know he’s a formative voice on injustice.

You described exactly why Bryan Stevenson was such a surprise, runaway hit at TED2012, because he is such a formative voice on injustice. Some of the most memorable speakers at TED are the ones you may not have ever heard of before, but they all share a couple things in common: they do remarkable work and they know how to describe it with captivating potency.

It’s also impressive how tight and effective every TEDTalk is.

That’s something I will be speaking about this weekend. Think about the best teacher you’ve ever had in school and how that person affected you in both an intellectual and an emotional capacity. We developed a cinematic shooting style to capture the speakers with the type of emotional resonance you might be more used to seeing on the big screen. There’s a feedback loop of presenters learning from what they’ve seen online, honing in their presentation styles, and so watching a TEDTalk from 2002 versus 2012 is a drastically different experience. I will explain why, exactly, at the film festival.

This is interesting because I have a related question that pertains to the idea of how we perceive information and how we get information, and how that is changing us as a society or as individuals.

On the one hand, I love that there are so many voices and so many avenues for transmitting those voices. The frequency, the different styles in which we receive information, the mediated and unmediated routes through which we receive information are very interesting, but they can become noise. It’s important to have mediators and curators in the world. We’re definitely at a flux with that. What the next five to 10 years have in store will be fascinating.

What do you think about younger generations and their use of Instagram or multiplatforms?

I know people who are extremely open about laying out every minutia of life and sharing it in a digital way. And I know people who are very open privately, but closed in that public forum. With younger people they don’t seem to have filters. I have filters.


Instagram photo of a black bean sandwich from palate/palette/plate food blog.

How do you think perceiving information has changed for you personally? It’s hard to have that collective introspection.

Now everybody has the opportunity to track where I am, what media I’m consuming, and what I’m eating. Entire platforms have evolved catering to that. Recently a friend said, “Instagram is very useful for certain types of photography, such as pictures of food.” (laughing) Last week I had this great conversation over dinner in Hong Kong about how we’re in for trouble if the emphasis shifts from the flavor of the food or what goes into the food to the presentation of the food, how light plays off my sandwich, or which filters are best for capturing the crudités. I’m a very visual person, so I’ve always paid attention to those sorts of details, I’m happy other people do too now, because we have more to talk about. But we shouldn't let that get in the way of substance.

It’s funny because one of the first things they teach you in journalism school is get the details. So if you’re talking over lunch make sure and note what they’re eating and drinking.

Right. It used to be that would be a quirk. I’m interviewing so-and-so, who is having the vegetarian dinner. Then suddenly the reader is like, "fascinating, he’s a vegetarian." Instead now it’s "click." But there’s a time where you want to talk about it in words and there’s a time where just a picture of it will do. It depends on the format. In a long format New Yorker-style interview with someone I’d be curious about what they’re eating and why it takes them 20 pages to eat it. It all comes back to nuance. I’m eating nothing right now.


Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap.

My last question is what is a film you like and why should I see it? [This is a question I got from Jason’s website, and is something he would ask you if you met in person.]

Nice. I was going to ask you the same question. One of my favorite movies is Brick so I’m excited about Looper coming out this week. If we want to keep it close to the festival, I stand by this but people always think I’m crazy: Rob Reiner is possibly the greatest director of the 1980s. I am excited you’re showing The Princess Bride. Seriously. Everything he did from 1980 to 1990 was not just a different genre but a genre-defining film, with Spinal Tap at the start and Misery at the end of the decade. What about you?

I always suggest In the Mood for Love.

Which is so good.

Watch it for the choreography and the music, but it’s also a great melodrama. For the festival I’m interested in Ginger and Rosa because Sally Potter does interesting things. But I need to go back and check out Rob Reiner now.

Oh! When Harry Met Sally. See, genre-defining.

After Pallotta animates and before Wishnow (TED)talks, check out one of 19 other opportunities awaiting: use laser pointers to find your way home in the NYC Premiere of Renga, see New York as you've never seen it before in Whispers in the Dark—a Bill-Murray-Man-Who-Knew-Too-Little film experience—learn from Andrea Phillips on how to structure your own audience participation story, or take storytelling into the 21st century with geotagging

Don't miss our Keynote Conversation with Jason Wishnow, which will close out NYFF Convergence on Sunday, September 30.

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