Do the Robot: My Mash-up and Reflections

On composing my first mash-up:

Graduate school has been all about firsts for me: first website build, first memoir written, and now, first mash-up video mashed up. First video of any kind ever for me, actually. There were both good experiences and bad trying to create a five-minute video in the newest version of iMovie on my 5-year-old MacBook, but nearly all were valuable lessons learned in composing texts.

In writing, the author need only produce words. In a mash-up, however, the author not only communicates through clips culled from outside sources, but he or she must also consider the audio and its relation to the images appearing onscreen. And because the cadence of the audio track determines the longevity and frequency of the video clips, I knew I had to start by selecting a song first.

Something I had not anticipated but became immediately apparent was how trimming one video clip, even by a tenth of a second, or by switching clips between places disrupted the video’s entire flow. Trying to sync the clips to the video was such an arduous and time-consuming process that, at times, my arm got so sore and stiff that I would have to walk away from my computer and stretch it out for a few minutes before I could get back to it.

It also never occurred to me just how much time was required just to gather my materials before I could even think about mashing any of them up together. In a way, I suppose such a scavenger hunt isn’t so dissimilar from researching journals for a written article, but, with text, at least you can start with reliable search terms and not have to feel around in the dark on the off chance you might find something pertinent to your mash-up goals. I found some videos useful for my purposes from memory, but not nearly enough to carry four minutes and 43 seconds of video. The lack of readily available material forced my thinking, though, because I then had to ask myself “What can I compare these images to? What can I contrast them with to craft the message I’m delivering?”

Shuffling and reshuffling video clips in a movie editor seemed easier than doing so with text, and I think it’s because I can physically see the text unfolding, so non-sequiturs are even more apparent. I watched and rewatched my video in its various stages so many times at this point that I could probably recite the order of events from memory. Trying to be so exacting with each frame is exhausting, but a part of you wants to make the puzzle pieces fit. I think the reason why I don’t normally obsess over editing and revising my written work is because the words I put to the paper are from my own mind, making me more hesitant to judge them and admit they may be flawed or ineffective, rather than borrowed from someone else’s composition in which I have no emotional investment in deconstructing. Or, rather, perhaps it’s not the words written that are my own but the sentiments expressed in those words that I’ve adopted from the creators of language that are my own, so maybe composing in the written word isn’t so different from making a mash-up.

The more I think about it, the more I find similarities between mash-up and writing than I realized existed. When I’m writing, I often struggle with writing enough for the reader to feel invested, but not revealing so much as to make the reading predictable and boring. The same is true of mash-up; you don’t want to be too overt, yet you also don’t want your viewers to have to make such great leaps in reasoning because your construction was too ambiguous. I repeated central images, such as computers and webs, for the sake of reminding the viewer that all other images relate to a bigger picture.

When composing in a new space, such as a movie editor like iMovie, I usually find that my rhetorical bones grow faster than my technical know-how muscles can carry me. Thankfully, iMovie affords enough control for beginners like me to create an entire mash-up without having to master the whole program to create a decent video. It took almost an entire month, but I’m happy with the finished product and pleased with myself for sticking to it, even through all the lagging, skipped frames and unexpected restarts. Here’s to hoping still images for our photo essay are a bit more cooperative.

On semiotics and my rhetorical strategies:

Creating “Do the Robot” was far more difficult than I expected. Fun, but challenging. The song in my mash-up, The Gorillaz “Empire Ants”, suited the tone I wanted to convey. It begins with a soothing, ethereal piano ditty and, about halfway through the song, changes into a crunchy, unrefined synthesizer sound. The shift in sound matched my idea of the web starting out 25 years ago as this awe-inspiring “information superhighway” that was going to revolutionize civilization, and now it’s become such a central part of our culture that anyone, including the government, can spy, monitor on or steal any piece of information about you that you make available online, whether it be your credit card or your address.

To represent the dotcom boom age, I used popular videos from the era, some from before the word “viral” was used to describe them. For example, at 0:09, 0:38 and 0:55, I use clips from the “Numa Numa Guy” video, “The End of the World” and alien “(I Will) Survive) videos of yesteryear, respectively, to create synecdoche for pre-video hosting website web videos. In the same way, I use footage from the trailer for You’ve Got Mail and a Dell commercial featuring Ben Curtis or the “Dude, you’re getting’ a Dell” guy at 0:13 and 0:14 to harken back to turn of the century computer pastiche. Rather than use computer models themselves to represent their respective eras, by using recognizable mascots of their time, I can invoke nostalgia in the viewer and instill a level of emotional investment in the video’s message.

Also pervasive throughout my mash-up are similes we’ve adopted for web and computer use over the past decade and a half. At 0:26, for example I show a shot of a net (short for “Internet), a clip from Super Mario Bros. 3 at 0:56 of Mario sliding up warp pipes (to show how we instantly travel from one place on the web to the next) and reoccurring footage of a spider spinning a web (0:007,1:55) to create the comparison to the world wide web. I increase the frequency of the repetition of the spider web-building shot in the latter half of the video (2:05, 2:25, 3:20) to stress how the web of today is a little too perfect and that we’ve become trapped in it.

Closure becomes key in the second half of the mash-up, as well. At 2:07(?), I insert of clip from the video game Mass Effect 3 in which Commander Shepard dives into a portal to synthesize organic and synthetic life, his transformation evident as a green glowing grid overcomes his body. At 3:02 I begin using the simile of surfing the web with a shot of a surfer falling off his board under a huge wave. In the gutter between the clips of fisherman catching tuna (3:15, 3:22), the clips of the surfer wiping out (3:04, 3:11, 3:18) and the clips of Shepard fusing his body into both man and machine (3: 21, 3:28) lies the message that the further we rely on the web-connected technologies, the more we make ourselves vulnerable to those who would look to invade our privacy online.

(3:00, 3:30) To incorporate the idea of a surveillance state through technology, I used clips from a Sloman Shield commercial that demonstrates a home camera system. Of course, people pay Sloman shield to help keep their homes safe, not to intrude on their daily lives. But, in the context of the video, when the shots are juxtaposed with clips of men in hard hats trying to hammer down a door and shots of an eerie shadow appearing in the doorway, it looks as if the technician is pointing to the monitor and gesticulating “Look at how easy it is for me to see into your life and watch everything you’re doing at all times.” Twisting the intentionality of the clip worked so perfectly, given the employee’s carefree body language, that I had to include it.

Finally, and perhaps the inconspicuous message in the video, there’s the series of clips with the cartoon police officer shooing off the young boy who tries to steal the apple from the market (beginning at 2:30). After the boys runs off for fear of being arrested for theft (3:00), the officer finds the apple just as attractive as the boy did (3:11) takes the apple for himself and eats it, without paying and committing the same crime the boy was ready to commit (3:40). The apple, signifying temptation, vibrancy and health, is a metaphor for the double standard placed on the people by the law. A teenager can be sued for thousands of dollars for posting copyrighted material, such as a musical composition or video game, yet the government can read our emails and text messages, basically any communications we should assume to be private, with impunity.


Mash-Up Reflection (Part Two)

Putting meaning into a video mash-up isn’t only easy, it’s inevitable. Two pictures, videos, words, or even sounds can’t be placed next to each other without altering each other’s meaning—or creating an entirely new meaning for matter. Effectively controlling the meaning—in a mash-up for instance—is the harder part. When making my mash-up, I wanted to really hit it home that scientific debate has no place in politics. And I implored some semiotic methods to do so:

At 2:05, Michelle Bachmann is standing before congress giving a speech. Following her at 2:07, Gary Busey appears giving his speech at the Comedy Central Roast of Larry the Cable Guy. Understanding Sean Hall’s definition of intratextuality in This Means This, This Means That as “the internal relationship between different parts of the same work,” the viewer can see these relationships: both are standing behind podiums, making similar hand gestures to an audience.

Through the intratextual relationship between the two clips, the viewer can interpret that I am making some sort of comparison between these two. However, the comparison can take on heavier meaning if the viewer can recognize Gary Busey as a symbol of ‘crazy.’ Such an understanding of Busey would require the reader to not only know about his erratic behavior, but also of the popular understanding of him as crazy that would sustain his symbol-status as such.

Assuming the viewer is attuned to Busey’s symbolic qualities, the viewer can finally interpret the metaphor. A metaphor, as Hall defines it, is “an implied comparison between two similar or dissimilar things that share a certain quality.” If Bachmann=Busey, and Busey=Crazy, then Bachmann=crazy. Ultimately, this emerging metaphor acts to do one of two things effectively: introduce Bachmann is crazy to a viewer that might not know much about her (or thought otherwise), or reaffirm any of the viewer’s existing thoughts that she is crazy and show it in a new way.

I applied a good level of intertextuality to this mash-up. According to Hall, intertextuality is “how works of various kinds (e.g. books, paintings, sculptures, designs, advertisements, etc.) make reference—often in clever ways—to other works”. I did some reference of my own when I used a clip from Breaking Bad wherein Huell, a crooked lawyer’s henchman, falls onto a pile of money. Assuming a good amount of viewers have seen this show, they can know that the pile of money that Huell is falling onto is dirty money—obtained through selling methamphetamine and murder. Using the meaning that Breaking Bad’s producers have already created around this widely-known scene, I inserted it into my mash-up to add an important layer of meaning: dirty money fueling the religious and political attacks of science.

Now, that dirty money scene will influence what meaning is made in the gutter—or the space between two separate items (video clips in this case)—preceding and proceeding it. For instance, when juxtaposed to the scene of billionaire Charles Koch (:40), the gutter contains the following implications: the money that pumps into dark money groups like Americans for Prosperity is dirty itself. By themselves, these two clips probably wouldn’t suggest that much for my purposes—probably only facts and ideas that people already knew. Now, however, my viewer is able to see political funders like Charles Koch in a way that challenges their ethics not just politically, but morally. Ultimately, Koch’s lack of morality that I implied will carry into the greater point, politics and science, and suggest something new: dark money groups are funding anti-science politicians. Now, the issue isn’t just who is crazy or uninformed, but also corrupt.

I use the word “viewer” a lot in this reflection, so I should probably do some analysis of whom I’m speaking of and how they are interpreting my work. Obviously, this mash-up is very political, and in terms of American politics, is critically aimed at the Republican Party (Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin are all Republicans). Knowing this, I have to understand that different viewers may have different conceptions about what I’m saying. A conception, as defined by Hall, is a “thought” about something that can be very different from another’s due to “different information coded into the concepts that they use.” A person who regularly follows politics might have a different understanding of the clip I used of Mitt Romney, and know that was when he mocked President Obama for wanting to “heal the planet.” A person who doesn’t watch politics, however, might not know how loaded that clip was. I tried to set my mash-up so that people across different levels of contemporary political knowledge can follow my point. I did this by making sure I used clips of recognizable, high-profile politicians who are not only widely recognizable, but also whose agendas are clear. I believe doing this made my mash-up’s message accessible to a larger audience.

Mash-Up Reflection (Part One)

One thing that took me a while to realize while I was making this mash-up is that I need to not only consider the ideas I’m putting across, but the actual genre in which I am composing. My first drafts seemed to get a clear point across, but seemed more like a series of blunt and uncreative juxtapositions and montages. When I started to make the music and clips speak to each other—general things more in line with mash-up conventions—I started to see a much more interesting and clear product. For instance, I started to make the people in the video dance to the music (Rick Perry rocking his head at :18, Mitt Romney rocking his head at :31, Gary Busey at 1:32). Doing this engaged the ‘characters’ into the ‘play.’

Not only is this more entertaining, but if forces the viewer to engage with the song as well as the video. And once the viewer becomes the listener, a whole new mode of communication opens up for me contribute to the main idea: science + politics = bad. Oingo Boingo’s song, “Weird Science”, is a perfect way to play with this idea, so I decided to make the song speak to the video and vice versa. For instance, when the singer goes, “It’s my creation,” I made it match up to what was going on in the video (once at :48 when it goes to a clip of Mrs. Garrison from South Park teaching evolution, then at 1:47 when electricity passes through the doll which eventually gets turned into a person in the movie, Weird Science).

This was far from easy to do. Every time I’d change just a second from one point in the mash-up, everything else after it would be changed. I decided to adapt to this by replacing certain clips with clips that were exactly the same length of time. Doing this had its own problems, though. Some clips needed to be longer whereas their replacement clips would need to be a tad shorter. So, with that, I’d have to take a fraction of a second off of one clip, and then another fraction of a second off of a different one. After a while, editing this mash-up turned into juggling numbers—almost like balancing a budget for a business. Perhaps that’s just one essential part of video editing that I didn’t know about.

I did a lot of reflecting on the technology that goes into certain types of composition while making my mash-up. Certain technologies are more stable—or at least generally more dependable. I’ve never had even close to the same technological frustration with a pencil as I have with video editing software. With a pencil, I don’t need to format a .mp4 to .avi or vice versa. Nor do I have to make sure my trial subscription to the program hasn’t run out. It’s a fair trade, though. The compositions you can make with newer technologies are so much more engaging and can simultaneously utilize different modalities to zoom in on an idea or message.

Reflecting even more on the technology, I wonder if a lot of my frustration wasn’t necessarily from any inevitable difficulty of editing software, but rather from the time I’ve taken in developing literacies in different modes of writing. For instance, is video editing software any more sophisticated—or at least harder to use—than Microsoft Word? The more I think about it, the more I think not. The only difference is that Microsoft Word serves the function of a much more institutionally-dominant mode of writing: alphabetic text. If I had spent one percent—and I’m not being hyperbolic with that number—of the time I have spent writing essays on Microsoft Word and used that time to use video-editing software, I’d be pretty proficient at it. Furthermore, I’d probably be a lot more perceptive of the different elements of composition as a whole, outside of alphabetic texts alone.

Using different technologies to write has also brought to light my use of other people’s expressions of ideas. I have to admit that I felt a bit uneasy as I binge-downloaded video after video off of Youtube, but the more I thought about what I was doing with them, I realized that I was doing nothing wrong. I like to think about it in the same way I’d consider intellectual property when writing an essay: you don’t feel uneasy about using any excerpt as long as you cite it. It would seem so absurd for novelists to get together in movements to stop people from using their excerpts. Of course when money is being made, different issues arise. However, when people are making statements, ideas, and messages all for the sake of communication as we are with our projects, the sky should be the limit. When downloading these videos, I was merely participating in a conversation. And ultimately, the more that I saw was out there for me to use, the more liberated and enabled I felt in getting my point across.

Super Saiyan Goku

Dragonball Z, nu metal and the rise of the online mash-up

In just a few days, on April 5, the world will observe the memory of  singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain, who took his life 20 years ago. As the frontman for Nirvana, he brought muddy, sonic riffs and screaming until your voice was hoarse into the forefront of popular music, influencing every rock band to come after him. But, whereas Nirvana was known to intersperse reserve into their songs as part of their quiet verse/loud chorus formula, the bands that followed in his wake took a more aggressive route. When post-grunge bands like Bush and Live fell off just as quickly as they appeared, they were soon followed by the Korns and Limp Bizkits of the world, establishing the genre we’ve come to know as nu metal. For better or worse, this hyper-masculine fusion of metal and rap/rock ruled the world in the late ’90s and early aughts, celebrating excess in noise and adrenaline.

Also making waves in the years before and after the turn of the millennium was Dragon Ball Z, an anime by acclaimed cartoonist Akira Toriyama, which had just been localized for western audiences. The show, adapted from the popular manga, proved popular in the States, as well, featuring, again, hyper-masculine heroes and villains, excessive screaming and plenty of martial arts-meets-sci-fi violence. In conjunction with the advent of Napster, fans of the show were able to download both nu metal songs and Dragon Ball Z episodes and movies and fuse together the sweaty defiance of western MTV hits with the melodramatic choreographed fighting sequences the show was known for (they just cut out the many scenes of comic relief). With Napster now shuttered, the legacy of the Dragon Ball Z mash-up lives on on Youtube. Perhaps it’s only appropriate to start with the most popular nu metal band of all, Linkin Park.

Though many critics and pop music fans now lament the nu metal wave, it wasn’t too long ago audiences couldn’t get enough of it. Linkin Park’s 2000 debut Hybrid Theory is one of only 20 albums in the past 23 years to go diamond (10 million copies sold) and was also the best-selling album of 2001. The hit single “In the End” became an anthem for the millennial generation, and finds its way into many DBZ montages, including this one:

Though many characters in the show sport spiky hair, this particular character highlighted in the video is Vegeta. In Dragon Ball lore, he is a prince of the endangered Saiyan race, obsessed with his own pursuit of power and besting fellow Saiyan and series protagonist Goku. Though Vegeta and Goku were once mortal enemies at the show’s outset, they’ve since sworn a truce in the interest in preserving their race (though that doesn’t mean their rivalry isn’t revisited every now and then). Despite his royal lineage and his dedication to becoming the strongest warrior in the galaxy, he can never best Goku, fueling his rage even further. How fitting, then, that the song’s chorus echoes the internal strife Vegeta faces throughout the series:

I tried so hard

and got so far

but in the end

it doesn’t even matter

We can see, in both the first and second verse, Vegeta’s mouth synched to bits of the lyrics as if he is singing them himself, suffering one crushing defeat after another. Particularly poignant is the lyric “Remembering all the times that you fought with me” as the camera cuts from Goku’s face to his over the monosyllabic rapping, conjuring all the memories of their bad blood. Fans of the show will recognize the lyrics “Things aren’t the way they were before/you wouldn’t even recognize me anymore” play over the shot of Vegeta grinning during his possession by villain Majin Buu. Finally, during the bridge, once the power chords come back in full effect, Vegeta transforms into a Super Saiyan, waves of light energy rising around him as Chester Bennington returns to wailing. Speaking of wailing, let’s move on to a no. 1 billboard hit with plenty of screaming, “Headstrong” by Trapt:

This particular sequence in the anime shows the end of the Majin Buu saga, with Goku and Vegeta teaming up to defeat the titular foe. The song perfectly suits the animation not only because the characters do plenty of grimacing and howling (which you’ll find plenty of in a nu metal music video), but also because this particular battle features plenty of headbutts, perhaps most notably at 3:14 and 3:26. The heavy chugging of the guitars aligns with each blow delivered, and the video ends with the reverb of the final note fading out as Goku launches the tried-and-true spirit bomb and obliterates Buu into tiny pieces. Let’s move on to tribute video to another series mainstay, Gohan:

Gohan is Goku’s son, who viewers watch grow up from child to teen to adult as he continues his father’s legacy across the series. As is a common theme across these videos, Gohan emits a powerful swirl of energy at the bursting first note of the chorus, but unlike other videos, we get a touching look at his relationship with his father. At the bridge, as Gohan is about to be crushed by his foe (whose name I don’t know, I haven’t seen the film in question), Goku frees him and holds his injured son in his arms as the Evanescence leader singer Amy Lee sings “Frozen inside without your touch/without your love darling/only you are the life among the dead” in their hit single “Bring Me to Life.” On more than one occasion, Goku sacrifices himself for his son (and he is revived just as many times with the power of the dragon balls, which can grant their possessor any wish, including resurrecting the dead), so the words lend themselves to the history the two share. With the help and compassion of his father, Gohan then finds the strength to vanquish his foes.

The list goes on and on, as the breadth of both the series and nu metal tracks is larger than you might think. Even though some of these videos have timestamps from six years ago, I can remember watching similar videos before the days of Youtube through downloads or on sites like ebaumsworld back on my family’s first PC in 2001. I could keep going with analyses, but the amount of DBZ mash-ups are so numerous, dare I say they’re … over nine thousaaaaaaand!