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.