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Blog Interview

Cinematographer Priyanka Singh on COVID-19, Her New Documentary & More

Cinematographer Priyanka Singh jumped on the phone from Mumbai more or less exactly at the moment that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was locking down the country—and its’ 1.3 billion residents—on March 24. “Right at this very minute, our Prime Minister is addressing the nation and saying, ‘It’ll go on for three weeks,’” Singh said. “There’s a country-wide lockdown for the next three weeks. This means a curfew, a state of emergency. We just have to figure out what to do in the next three weeks. We need to get a little creative, a bit more innovative, and figure things out. This is unprecedented.”

As we’ve all learned in the era of COVID-19, everything, from time itself to the decrees issued by our leaders, is fluid. Many of us are more or less frozen in place, yet things are changing rapidly and all the time. That three weeks that Prime Minister Modi has been extended until at least May 3. For Singh, one of the most talented cinematographers working in India, that means more time to consider her most recent documentary, which under ordinary circumstances would be top of mind.

The documentary, titled Kicking Balls, is about a soccer program in rural India for young girls, where the practice of child marriage, although illegal in the country, still takes place.

“When it started, it was a very tiny idea, which came about because our director, Vijayeta Kumar, had come across this nonprofit organization, Mahila Jans Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), that works out of Rajasthan,” Singh says. “They started this football training camp for girls from remote areas, places that haven’t seen a lot of development. One of the vices these villages still suffer from is child marriage, which is illegal, but still happens due to social and economic pressure. They’ve been continuing to do this under the guise of maintaining culture. So MJAS had started this football camp for girls in an effort to help make them independent, to give them some idea of freedom, to open their mind to other possibilities in life. Because when they’re married off, they don’t understand anything that’s happening to them.”

Cinematographer Priyanka Singh on the set of ‘Kicking Balls.’ Courtesy Priyanka Singh.

 

Like the nonprofit itself, Singh and her crew had to figure out how to work within this cloistered local community. The goals of the documentary were in line with the nonprofit; how do we empower these girls without making ourselves instantly odious to the rest of the members of the community? Filming in a cloistered, rural community sets up a series of challenges, cultural and logistical. Doing so when the film you’re aiming to make is touching upon a taboo subject that is kept secret increases those challenges tenfold.

“There are a lot of challenges about this documentary because child marriage is not supposed to come out in the open,” Singh says. “People are really guarded about it. It’s really challenging to be able to shoot in these villages without hostility. Any little mistake can tip things over. But we succeeded in getting more depth than we’d originally thought we might, and getting some people to actually come on camera, including the grooms.”

Once Singh and the crew began filming, she said it was like opening Pandora’s box. “There were so many girls and so many stories,” she said. “Listening to these girls about why they got married or how they’ve been engaged, and seeing their performance on the field and the possibilities that they have, we just realized the film had to cover a much wider scope of their lives. So we started expanding on it, and we went back to shoot what their actual lives in their villages are like, what kind of families they come from, how is it these marriages are still going on, what’s the logic people use to defend child marriage? It now has so many layers.”

Cinematographer Prinyanka Singh and the crew in rural India, on the set of ‘Kicking Balls.’ Courtesy Priyanka Singh.

 

Singh’s experience wasn’t all that different from her previous documentary work. You go into a new film thinking you’ve got a decent understanding of your subject, and you get to work and find out how little you actually know.

“Reaching out to these areas and finding out what these peoples’ lives are actually like, it’s an entirely different experience,” she says. “I love shooting documentaries. I’ve done a lot of work in both fiction and non-fiction, and this is one of the most challenging films I’ve ever done. Not just challenging, but at the same time, bringing out something you think doesn’t exist because it’s not supposed to, because it’s illegal. So many things that we take for granted are a privilege for somebody else. That’s what this documentary is about, it’s about the future these girls can have. The dreams that they do have. Most of them are very ambitious, but then their dreams can get killed by decisions made by grownups who think they know better.”

Working on the doc gave Singh a chance to hear from people actually defending the practice of child marriage, which then made her think about the privilege of being able to make your own decisions about your life. “The conditioning is so deep-rooted, they’re not able to realize it,” she says. “This is done in the name of culture, in the name of tradition, and all these tools are used to maintain the status quo. When you listen to people who speak in favor of it, you think about the things we take for granted, like the privilege of being able to make a decision about your life, on your own. The decisions are made by society, by your socioeconomic position, and, most of the time, these decisions are made by men. And all these things are something you cannot change overnight. You can’t just get rid of patriarchy in a year.”

Yet Singh still found reasons to hope. The fact that the nonprofit, MJAS, was able to operate in the region and get these villagers to allow the girls to play was remarkable.

“Sports in India, in general, are not really possible for girls. Even in the city, you’d hardly ever see girls playing football,” she says. “Even the one sport which is very famous here, cricket, is not even considered a lucrative career option for women. So to tell people in the village that your girls should come to this football camp, from villages that are hugely patriarchal, is amazing. Everything in these girls’ lives is dictated; how they should dress, how they should behave, who they should marry, all because the elders say they should. So for the nonprofit to convince these girls to come out and play football in shorts, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I could see it in the girls when we filmed them in the camp, versus when we filmed them back in their villages. They were so different. This exposure has given them a sense of freedom.”

Kicking Balls is currently in post-production and will be completed once the spread of COVID-19 is deemed under control by the Indian government.

Featured image: Cinematographer Priyanka Singh on the set of ‘Kicking Balls.’ Courtesy Priyanka Singh.

This article was originally published in The Credits.

 

Categories
Blog Copyright Industry Intellectual Property

World IP Day: Time to Forge a Global Solution to a Global Problem (Blocking of Pirate Streaming Sites)

I am writing today to mark World IP Day, April 26 and, as part of this salute to the work being done in protecting IP rights around the world, to highlight a growing global problem affecting IP stakeholders, streaming piracy. While the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) does a great job of promoting an awareness of IP and in moving forward (usually slowly) with international remedies, the technological revolution has been changing the landscape for IP rights-holders at break-neck speed, in the process often benefiting those who make a business model out of free-riding. A recent study in the US indicated that streaming piracy in 2019 cost Over the Top (OTT) providers (i.e. content platforms like Netflix that deliver content through the backbone of the internet) and pay-TV companies $9.1 billion (USD) in losses from piracy and illicit account sharing. The report appears to be limited to the US and it is not clear what percentage of the losses come from piracy and what is from account sharing (if you want to pay $7,500 to acquire the report, you can get this information), but there is no question that streaming piracy is a major source of income loss for content distributors and forms a significant part of the estimated cost of overall piracy and counterfeiting.

And the situation is not getting better.  A recent study by research firm Sandvine estimated that 6.5% of households in the US and Canada access subscription television piracy services, where the consumer either pays a subscription fee to an unlicensed video provider for access to illegal content or makes a one-time payment to purchase a box that comes fully loaded with software enabling access to pirated streams. This form of “subscription piracy” is estimated to cost legitimate providers over $4 billion annually. A study undertaken for the Global Innovation Policy Centre (GIPC) of the US Chamber of Commerce in 2019 estimates the cost of video piracy to the US economy alone at almost $30 billion annually (on the low end), and cost upwards of half a million jobs;

The study shows that all of the benefits that streaming brings to our economy have been artificially capped by digital piracy. Using macroeconomic modeling of digital piracy, the study estimates that global online piracy costs the U.S. economy at least $29.2 billion in lost revenue each year.”

The high-end estimate is over double this amount!

So what is to be done about it? Since there is no international treaty that deals with streaming piracy (unlike counterfeiting where there is an Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement or ACTA, signed by 31 countries although never brought into effect because of popular opposition and lack of ratification), anti-piracy remedies have been developed on an ad hoc basis country-by-country. Some governments have been much more active than others, but a common approach has been to use what is often called “site blocking” legislation to combat the distribution of pirated content streamed from offshore sites. A more accurate description of the measure in my view would be “disabling access to pirate sites”, since the term “blocking” unfortunately has unwarranted negative connotations. “Site blocking” has been criticized by advocates of total internet freedom as being an infringement of free expression on the internet and a violation of the concept of net neutrality.

This is a smokescreen. Net neutrality has been trotted out by cyber-libertarians and anti-copyright advocates as an excuse to do nothing to stop piracy. There are various definitions of “net neutrality” but one posted by the Canadian broadcast and telecoms regulator, the CRTC states that “Net neutrality is the concept that all traffic on the Internet should be given equal treatment by Internet providers with little to no manipulation, interference, prioritization, discrimination or preference given.” Unfortunately that definition, and the definition used by many, fails to differentiate between legal and illegal traffic. In fact there are many precedents for limiting certain forms of internet traffic, such as content promoting criminal activity, child pornography, terrorism, racism and so on. It is clear that the concept of net neutrality has to be interpreted sensibly. While there are already limitations on content that are widely accepted as being in the public interest, there is also wide agreement that the decision as to what restrictions to impose should not be left to internet providers to decide unilaterally.

This brings me to the remedy increasingly being adopted in many countries around the world, namely “site blocking” (I will use this term since it is the common reference, even though I have my doubts about the message that it conveys). Site blocking orders are achieved either through the courts, or through administrative means that allow due process and appeal. As I noted in my submission on international site blocking to the Parliamentary Committee reviewing Canada’s Copyright Act, more than 40 countries world-wide now employ some form of site blocking and this has proven to be highly effective. Two countries with very similar legal systems to Canada, the UK and Australia, have both implemented site blocking mechanisms through the courts. In the case of Australia, specific legislation permitting site blocking was passed by Parliament while in the UK, the courts determined that they had inherent jurisdiction to issue blocking orders. The initial experiment has proven successful in changing consumer behaviour and in both Australia and the UK, the courts have permitted blocking orders to be “dynamic”, i.e. they can be modified to defeat the tactics of pirate operators who, once a site blocking order has been issued, change their internet identifiers slightly in order to create clone sites.

In Canada a coalition of content owners, coming together in the Fair Play Canada coalition, petitioned the CRTC to establish an administrative agency to review and recommend blocking orders for pirated offshore content. After a successful adjudication of a blocking request, it was proposed that the CRTC would issue an order to ISPs requiring them to take blocking action. However, it didn’t work out that way. The Commission decided it didn’t have the jurisdiction to issue orders, and instead referred the matter to the courts and to the ongoing Parliamentary review of the Copyright Act. It was in that context that I submitted my brief urging the Committee;

“to recommend the enactment of amendments to the Act that will permit rights-holders to obtain injunctive relief against internet intermediaries (platforms and internet service providers). Specifically the Act should be amended to allow copyright owners to be able to obtain injunctions, including site blocking and de-indexing orders, against internet intermediaries whose services are used by third parties to infringe copyright.”

I did so in the belief that absent specific authorization in legislation, the Federal Court would not issue a site blocking order. I was wrong. In November of last year, the Court issued Canada’s first site blocking order against two sites (GoldTV.biz and GoldTV.ca) that were providing pirated streaming content to Canadian households from offshore servers. None of Canada’s major ISPs opposed the order, the only exception being a small internet reseller based in Ontario, Teksavvy. Teksavvy has now launched an appeal of the order. Given the current COVID-19 crisis plus the usual court backlogs, that will no doubt take some time to resolve. In the meantime Canada has joined the international consensus of using its national laws to restrict access by domestic consumers to pirate streaming sites located offshore, beyond the reach of national jurisdiction.

So if more than 40 countries are either implementing transparent site blocking, or have the mechanisms to do so, who isn’tusing it? Surprisingly, it is the US, which is fast becoming an outlier on this issue. It’s not as if the country doesn’t have a streaming piracy problem; it does. Apart from the losses to the industry I mentioned earlier, as reported by the online publication TorrentFreak the US is the leading source of visits to pirate streaming sites globally. It thus has the dubious distinction of leading Russia, China and Brazil as the home of the largest number of pirate streaming site users, with 1.2 billion pirate site visits in December 2019 alone. So why isn’t the US doing something about it? It has long been a, if not the, leading advocate for better IP protection globally. In fact the rankings produced by the US Chamber of Commerce’s annual GIPC Report consistently score the US in first place as the leading IP-friendly country. But lack of any effective site blocking mechanism in the US is an anomaly and an obvious blind spot.

It’s not as if a site blocking provision doesn’t exist in US law. It is in that seminal piece of US legislation, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 as Section 512 (j). If this sounds a bit arcane, blogger David Newhoff (The Illusion of More) has a good explanation here. He also offers some background as to why this provision has seldom if ever been used. Now that the US Senate Judiciary Committee’s IP Subcommittee has launched a year-long review of how the DMCA has been actually operating in practice, there is an opportunity for a reset—and for the US to join the growing global consensus on using site blocking injunctions to combat streaming piracy. Independent filmmaker Jonathan Yunger is advocating for a change to the DMCA, pointing out that Google (owner of YouTube) receives more than a billion take-down requests each year, imposing a huge burden on the platform but also on copyright holders who have to police the system and issue takedown notices. Much of this could be avoided with an effective site-blocking regime.

Will this totally stop streaming piracy? Of course not, but it will block a significant loophole. When copyright stakeholders find ways to incentivize consumers to patronize legitimate content, everyone (except the pirates) wins. Credible academic studieshave clearly documented the impact of site blocking in not only reducing access to pirated content but increasing uptake of legitimate content when site blocking measures are applied consistently.

So on this World IP day, let’s focus on how a global problem facing copyright stakeholders—offshore streaming piracy—can be curtailed and defeated by implementing a global solution. Site blocking works in Europe, it works in Asia and Australia, it now has a foothold in North America through Canada’s first successful case. The United States should be next. The review of the DMCA is an opportunity for the US to get on board and complete the picture. Let’s make this a global effort to combat a globalproblem (just like the coronavirus).

That seems like a very worthy goal on World IP day.

This article was originally published in Hugh Stephens blog.

Categories
Climate Change Interview World IP Day 2020

One Movie Settled the “Debate” About Climate Change

When I saw the theme of this year’s World IP DayInnovate for a Green Future, I will admit that it was hard not to be cynical. In light of the reinvigorated political assault on science—let alone to be thinking about climate change in the middle of a pandemic—it is tempting to believe that the debate about global warming still rages—or has even been lost. But that’s not quite true. The debate was settled a very long time ago. Or to be more precise, there is no such thing as a debate about scientific evidence, there is only understanding, misunderstanding, willful ignorance, or malignant deception.

While it is stultifying to see that a truly vindictive brand of ignorance and deception are the cornerstones of the present administration, there remains one avenue of hope for at least mitigating—because it is almost certainly too late to reverse—the effects of global warming. Oddly enough, that avenue of hope has more to do with market dynamics than environmentalism per se, and I would assert that it was a single documentary film that opened the window to a market-based transformation, which, even now, represents a path forward. I am of course talking about An Inconvenient Truth.

An unlikely movie pitch, the centerpiece of the documentary is former Vice President Al Gore presenting his climate change “slide show,” which he had developed over several years after he was first introduced to the science in college in 1966. Not long after conceding the painfully-contested presidential election in late 2000, Gore devoted himself fully to the climate issue, taking his laptop and talking points on the road, offering free admission to anyone willing to listen to him discuss the fate of the planet.

“The slides were originally black and white,” says the film’s co-producer Lawrence Bender, whom I interviewed for this article. “They weren’t visually appealing, but they were almost scarier, like something you’d see in a science lab, when we first saw Al’s presentation in Los Angeles.” Bender and others who would eventually join the production team were invited by producer Laurie David (now Lennard), who had arranged for Gore to come to L.A. after she found herself captivated by his lecture in New York in May 2004.

“Gore’s show left us with a sense of urgency about the issue,” says Bender. “We knew we had to make what we had seen into a movie, but it was not easy to convince many people in the business that it was a movie. Try telling someone you’ve got former VP Al Gore, who lost the election, doing a slide show about science, and that you need a million dollars.” Enter Jeff Skoll, who founded Participant Media in 2004 with the fortune he had made as eBay’s first employee and first president. “Jeff financed the whole production without blinking an eye,” Bender tells me.

Less than a year after that initial presentation in Los Angeles, An Inconvenient Truth was ready for the screen. It became an international blockbuster (for a doc), earning two Academy awards, one for Best Documentary Feature, the other for Best Song, “I Need to Wake Up” by Melissa Etheridge. And for any cynics, who may be tempted to criticize the movie as a vanity project—Hollywood glamor with little substantive effect—I would direct your attention back to the 1990s and early 2000s.

Waking Up Tens Of Millions

Hurricane Katrina. August 28, 2005. NASA

When the Kyoto Protocol was ratified in 1997, calling for a modest 5% reduction in greenhouse gasses by developed nations, global warming was not an especially bright blip on the public radar screen. General perception, such as it was, loosely divided along the left/right political lines that are usually drawn through environmental issues; but overall, the average citizen (and quite a few politicians in both parties) could be described as somewhere between ambivalent and unsure about the alleged causes or effects of a warming climate.*

It probably did not help that this was the same period when we all first logged onto the internet, which would prove to be a wonderful tool for obtaining information and disinformation at the same time. And to be sure, the extractive industries, and other vested interests bound to fossil fuels, were eager to provide erudite sounding counter-narratives to the mountain of evidence proving that human activity was in fact changing the climate in dangerous ways. Then, on January 24, 2006, An Inconvenient Truth debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by Davis Gugenheim, the film’s most effective quality, in my view, was that it reintroduced the purportedly “wooden” politician Al Gore as a relatable, flesh-and blood human being, whose humor and humility rescues the didactic lecture from becoming either dry or a ninety-minute scold. Upgrading Gore’s visual aids to high-resolution slides using Apple Keynote certainly provided enough color and scope to fill the big screen, but the critical element was Gore’s humanity.

“Davis was adamant that the film had to work emotionally,” says Bender. “It’s a deceptively simple movie, but we spent a lot of energy in post-production trying to find the right balance between this man’s personal journey and the science.” By interweaving Gore’s presentation with glimpses into his life story—anecdotes in which he admits his own frailties and errors—the overall result of the film was that it turned carbon dioxide into a kitchen-table issue. And that was the significance of An Inconvenient Truth.

Seemingly overnight, as a direct result of the movie’s success, concepts like “carbon footprint” entered mainstream conversation and classroom curricula across the U.S. and abroad. While the opposition was by no means silenced, the film awakened enough public consciousness that multiple business segments suddenly needed to respond to a new consumer demand to “go green.”

Consumer Change Leads to Corporate Change

To be sure, not all business initiatives were substantive, but by and large, the mandate to promote green led to tangible and lasting changes in corporate culture and governance. Sustainability went from a crunchy, esoteric notion to a board-room best practice, and this, in turn, spawned new investment in the development of alternative and more efficient energy solutions. “Practically every Fortune 500 company has a sustainability officer or sustainability program today, and that was not true fifteen years ago,” says my longtime friend Jeff Turrentine, a writer and editor for On Earth, the publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

An Inconvenient Truth was not the first conversation about the economics of sustainability, and Gore was hardly alone in asserting that carbon reduction, aside from being existentially mandatory, is compatible with economic growth. Many environmental experts, technology innovators, and political leaders (even bipartisan ones) had a solid grasp on the two uncontroversial facts about carbon mitigation: 1) that burning less fuel saves money and is, therefore, profitable; and 2) that green innovation represented a whole new sector of untapped economic opportunity.

That conversation was already taking place in various pockets in the both the public and private sectors for at least a decade or more before An Inconvenient Truth was released. But the film gets credit for igniting those latent sensibilities in the minds of the general public and for spawning the aforementioned consumer demand for change. The movie was catalytic in fostering market conditions in which multiple industries and municipalities discovered what many environmentalists had tried to explain for years—that working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions happens to be good for business.

So, while the Trump administration has arrogantly stumbled backwards on environmental policy—evangelizing climate science denialism out of sheer spite—the green investments made by both the private and public sectors over the last decade and a half are unlikely to be reversed—especially when those investments are yielding positive returns. It is still not enough, but it is most likely where the best hope still remains. And perhaps there is no better example of this paradigm than the city of Georgetown, Texas, featured in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2016).

Mayor Dale Ross proudly tells Gore, on camera, that his city is powered by 90% renewable energy (at the time of filming), despite being “the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas.” Why? Because, to paraphrase Ross, it saves his constituents money, and because you don’t need to be a scientist to understand that less pollution in the air is a good thing. This is why I will argue that An Inconvenient Truth went beyond merely “raising awareness.” It directly created a public mandate that led to the kind of common sense approach taken by Ross, who reminds us that there is nothing “conservative” about waste or higher prices.

The countless market effects that can be attributed to a single film—in which the information was neither new nor hard to grasp—remind us that creative expression is essential. In a time when IP deniers argue that copyright functions solely as a barrier to information, the story of An Inconvenient Truth belies the naïve, tech-utopian assumption that access to information alone is sufficient—least of all when utter nonsense gallops across digital platforms like a fifth horse of the apocalypse. Facts alone do not speak meaningfully to people. Invariably, it takes creativity to inspire us, even when it comes to saving our own lives.


*It must be acknowledged that the climate issue had Republican champions in those days, and there is an extent to which Gore, as the most prominent messenger, became a more attractive political target after the 2008 election, when the GOP became more dependent on the fossil fuel industries.

Photos: “Al Gore” Lisbon, 2017. By G Holland.

“Earthrise” Apollo 8, December 24, 1968. NASA.

Featured image courtesy Markus Spiske via Unsplash

This article was originally published in The Illusion Of More.

Categories
Interview

Never Have I Ever Director Kabir Akhtar on Filming Mindy Kaling’s New Netflix Series

When director Kabir Akhtar heard the news that producer/writer/star Mindy Kaling was, along with co-creator Lang Fisher, putting together a new series at Netflix that would focus on a first-generation Indian American teenage girl, he thought, I need to be a part of this.

“Just the idea that a show could be made about a first-generation South Asian American,” Akhtar says, a first-generation South Asian American himself, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, “I was sitting at home, by myself, and I instinctively raised my hand as if to say, ‘Oh, me!’ Growing up in the 80s and 90s, there were no stories like that being told anywhere. Nobody on TV looked like me. I was really, really excited to get connected to this project.”

So that’s precisely what Akhtar set out to do, get connected to Kaling’s project. He reached out to his agent and manager to see if they could get him on her radar.

“I was jumping up and down, saying we have to find a way to get connected to this,” he says. “I like my agent and manager very much, and truly do not understand their jobs at all (laughs), so they waved their magic wand and next thing I knew I was filming two episodes.”

Akhtar has been a steadily working director, and helming episodes five and six of a story focused on Devi (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an overachieving high school sophomore with a short fuse, felt like a really perfect fit. And it was. He began his career as an editor—a very good editor—winning an Emmy for cutting the pilot for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and nominated for two more, one of which came from his time cutting one of the most brilliant comedies of the modern era, Arrested Development. The switch to director has gone smoothly, with Akhtar helming episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Grown-ish, the Beverly Hills reboot, the High School Musical series, and The Unicorn. Then everything changed.

“Watching Never Have I Ever now, it’s crazy to think just a few months ago was a different time,” Akhtar says. He was set to begin work on the reboot of Saved by the Bell when the spread of COVID-19 meant production had to be stopped. Looking back on his work on Kaling’s new series, he marvels at how odd it now seems to see characters hugging or high fiving. “It suddenly feels surreal. We’re all in this crazy place together.”

Director Kabir Akhtar attends the 2016 Creative Arts Emmy Awards Press Room Day 1 at the Microsoft Theater on September 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.

 

“I was mid-way through filming an episode of Saved by the Bell a few weeks ago when we got shut down,” Akhtar says. “Everybody got shut down. It’s really wild to think that less than two months ago I was shooting an episode of a show with scenes with 200 people! And it’s really, really eye-opening to consider not only how recently everything was so different, but also to consider when the world might be like that again. When and if.”

Never Have I Ever is slated to begin streaming on Netflix on April 27. Akhtar noted how promoting things right now seems, well, odd, and how the usual process of rolling out a new series has been altered significantly, at least for now.

“Normally, when I’ve worked on a show and it comes out, the one thing you always see is billboards and bus ads, but nobody’s driving around,” he says. “Will there be billboards, and if so, will anyone see them? Even new shows that I’ve been watching since being at home, I’ve just found them all online.”

Not only is promoting your work during a global pandemic odd but so, too, are the other aspects of his career, like taking meetings for potential new jobs.

“Talk about the new normal, I had a Zoom meeting about a job a couple of days ago. Just the whole thing is a little strange, it’s not just that you’re meeting someone for the first time on a video call, but also people on these calls are hanging out in their bedrooms to get a little peace and quiet,” Akhtar says. “This meeting was about a show I was excited to talk about it, and they were talking about planning on filming in June in Vancouver. Part of me is like, Great, that sounds awesome! And part of me is like, is that really going to happen? Can that happen?”

Another weird aspect of the new normal is how every conversation begins and ends with talk of the coronavirus. Even the most mundane ritual of the working world, the email, has been transformed by the stampeding virus. Vulture even wrote a piece about our new pandemic etiquette.

“It seems unthinkable a month ago, but now every single conversation you have with someone starts with, ‘How are you holding up? Are you guys okay? This thing is crazy,’ Akhtar says.

For streaming shows, you’d think the pandemic might actually be a boon, and if you’re the folks behind Tiger King, you probably agree. “A very big part of why all of us watched Tiger King wasn’t that we were all really into tiger cubs, it was we’re all trying to stay connected to each other,” Akhtar says. “Since we can’t go out with friends now, at least we all felt like we were doing something together. There’s definitely a bunch of shows that are airing now that have been in the can for a while, and a bunch that coming through the pipeline, and I think all of us are going to need that.”

L-r: Darren Barnet and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in NEVER HAVE I EVER. Photo by LARA SOLANKI/NETFLIX

 

“We’ve all lost our cultural touchstones temporarily, there are no sports to watch, we don’t have movies to go see together…the only thing we’re all really able to do together is watch TV, and try to feel connected,” Akhtar says. “Never Have I Ever is a very smart comedy, the writers did a fantastic job. I was really, really proud of the work and, I guess, on the one hand, seeing a South Asian lead character just be a quote ‘normal’ American kid, to me that’s unusual, you never see that on television. But the good news is that it’s totally normal now. I’m excited for people to check it out.”

While we’ve all been social distancing, washing our hands (over and over and over), absorbing an endless amount of truly terrifying news, and marveling at the folks on the frontline of this pandemic, from nurses and doctors to the people delivering our food and working in our grocery stores, Ahktar hopes that Never Have I Ever can play a small but important role in peoples’ daily lives; making you laugh.

“I think it’s hard to remember, I know it’s very hard for me to remember, that it’s okay to laugh, even now,” he says. “I know that we’re surrounded by terrible news, and I don’t find myself watching comedies that much, but when the mood strikes, I have to remind myself to not feel bad about it. It’s important for all of us because we’re all collectively going through something very traumatic, and it’s not healthy for me to read the news all day long, even though it’s what I’m doing. So I hope that people are okay, and when they need an outlet they have a place to turn.”

Featured image: L-r: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Richa Moorjani, and Poorna Jagannathan in NEVER HAVE I EVER. Photo by ARA SOLANKI/NETFLIX.

This article was originally published in The Credits.

Categories
Interview Media Report

COVID-19 : The Many Shades Of A Crisis

Categories
Interview Piracy

How a ‘Line Art Duo’ Survives in a Cutthroat Indie Comics Industry Where Piracy is Rampant

In their acclaimed comic book series, Crowded, the self-described, British-born “comics line art duo” of Ro Stein and Ted Brandt flex an illustrative panache so breezy you could sail on it as they bring to life the sci-fi tale of a plucky young woman mysteriously targeted by a crowdfunded assassination campaign.

It’s a potentially pretty dark story that Stein and Brandt help make absolutely delightful to read, with an exuberant drawing style that helps it all go down like soda pop. But the comic’s fizzy smoothness belies an enormous amount of effort behind the scenes.

The duo spend all day every day hunched over an iPad or drawing table, clutching their implements of choice as they design, choreograph, draw, and polish panel after panel after panel. A single page can take up to three days to complete, and the average issue runs 24 pages. Setbacks are frequent and hazards arise that they could never have predicted. Last summer, for instance, Brandt got a repetitive strain injury in his hand when a heatwave kept drying the ink on the end of his nib, forcing him to re-dip at a far higher rate than usual.

They make a living from all this effort, but it’s far from luxurious. Crowded is beloved by critics, but hardly a bestseller. That’s why it stung so much when Brandt recently discovered a comic book piracy website where their beloved creation had been stolen more than 95,000 times. If even a fraction of those illegal reads were converted to sales, it would have made a huge difference in their income for the year.

“I was like, ‘Holy s**t,’” Brandt told CreativeFuture, reliving the incident during a recent interview. It was the droll capstone on an enlightening conversation with both artists that touched on everything from 3D modeling in comics to the dangers of signing with the wrong illustration agency…

JS: Together, you form what you call a “comics line art duo.” Let’s break that down. Ted, you are an inker of comic books, and you, Ro, you are a penciller. What does each job entail?

RS: The job of the penciller is to take the script and create the visual language of the page. The pencils aren’t finished art, but they define choreography of the page, as well as body language, expression, space, form, lighting and pacing.

TB: My job is to make finished line work, to take all the stuff that Ro’s put onto the page and unify it, make it consistent, fix things, or develop things further so that it becomes print-ready. For instance, while Ro has gotten quite good at arm shaping, she’s still a little bit hesitant on the muscles. So, I’ll go in and add in muscle tone where it’s needed or make small alterations.

JS: How did you settle into these roles?

TB: It was a fairly obvious split, really. I am better at fixing things, and Ro is better at creating them. Ro is better at putting things together, but also messier than I am.

RS: I am so messy.

JS: Let’s talk about process. How do you begin illustrating a comic together?

TB: We work out the layouts for the pages together, which is kind of establishing the visual “choreography” of the panels. We work out how big each panel is going to be, and what angles each image will be, and that sort of stuff. That’s the layout stage.

JS: Let’s see this in action. I’m looking at the first issue of Crowded, which has a really cool page featuring the home of one of the main characters, Vita. You have chosen to devote an entire page to an illustration of the house, opening it up like a diorama so we can look into its interior. How did you decide on this layout approach to introduce us to the house?

RS: The writer of Crowded, Christopher Sebela, wanted to have a kind of doll’s house motif to depict Vita’s house.

TB: Choosing to open it up from a three-quarter angle, rather than front on, was purely a practicality issue – so that we could get the most visual information in.

That was quite the project, that house, because we built the whole thing in a 3D modeling program called Sketchup, from the ground up – up to and including all the joists in it, standard thicknesses of floors, and what sort of beam length and type they would have been constructing with for this style of house.

 

 

JS: When I think about illustrating comics, I don’t picture using a 3D modeling program. Do you use Sketchup regularly?

RS: Yes. Once we have the layouts, I will begin by making “sets” in Sketchup for each scene. It’s mostly for consistency because there are a lot of scenes that will happen in the same room or setting over and over again. Using these sets, I can get the “shots” for each scene figured out from the layouts we’ve done, then get screen shots of them to put into pages that are in a drawing program called Clip Studio.

JS: Then what happens?

RS: Then I will figure out the body language and designs for the characters who are going to occupy those pages, and draw them into the background, and develop, from the screen shots, the backgrounds for the pencils.

We then print those digital drawings out in a very pale blue, so, even though they were digitally rendered, it looks as though they’ve been done in pencil. Ted then works over them using actual, traditional pen and ink.

TB: Once my part is done, we scan those inked pages and I run them through Photoshop to filter out all of the blue and turn the drawings into solid, black line works. Then our work is done, and the finished drawings get sent off to a colorist.

JS: That’s such an interesting merging of digital and traditional techniques. How long does it take to complete one issue of Crowded?

TB: You’re looking at about six to eight weeks. For a standard, 20-page superhero comic, you can expect about four weeks for what we do – line art, pencils, and inks. But Crowded issues are about four pages longer on average, and much denser. The average panel count for a superhero comic is 100 panels per issue. For Crowded, it’s around 200.

JS: Why is it so much denser?

TB: The writer, Chris, has a very dense storytelling style. Sometimes there are so many people doing something in one of his panels, some of them need to be siphoned off into their own panels to make it clearer. Or sometimes he writes it a bit like a movie screenplay. He’ll be describing a big action from a character and there’s not necessarily a clear way to represent that in one panel, so we might split that up into several panels to make it easier to follow.

JS: When did you two start working together?

TB: We were in the same class at university for a while, then dating by the final year, but we didn’t start working together until two years after we had finished school. I saw a job posting on Tumblr of all places, from Jeremy Whitley, writer of the Princeless comic book series. His original artist was experiencing some personal issues that had forced him to drop out and they needed a fill-in. We realized that neither one of us was fast enough to illustrate a comic for print, with multiple issues, on our own. That was when we decided to try doing it together.

 

JS: What is Princeless about?

TB: Jeremy started writing Princeless for his daughter because he was worried that comics weren’t offering a lot of strong female protagonists for girls her age. Princeless is about a black princess called Adrian who is the middle child. As per her family tradition, she has been locked in a tower to await a prince. But instead of waiting, she teams up with the dragon who is guarding her, breaks out of the tower, and goes off rescuing her sisters so they don’t have to wait for anyone either. It’s a great series for kids.

JS: Did you know Jeremy before getting the job?

TB: Not at all. I had been following him on Tumblr for a while, but that was it really. We didn’t even have any proper samples to send in. None of our comics were particularly relevant at that time. We ended up just sending in a bunch of stuff that we had lying around.

RS: And we did some character designs specific to the series.

TB: Yeah, I think that’s what got us the job. Jeremy told us later that we were the only ones who explicitly said, “Could we have a script to do some sample pages and show you what we can do?” That seemed to be enough to convince him we would probably be a good bet.

JS: What sorts of comics had you been working on prior to that? Did you have a particular niche or genre you were aiming for?

RS: [Laughs] Not really.

TB: Our body of work was… eclectic. We hadn’t made any comics at all since university. We both had signed with this disastrous illustration agency, who had promised that they would help us develop work and that most of their illustrators worked full-time, and all that. Well, in 18 months they got each of us exactly one job – which wasn’t very big. Only after we had finally extricated ourselves from them, were we able to pursue jobs like Princeless.

JS: Was it hard diving full-on into an established comic book after such a long period of relative inactivity?

TB: It was definitely a very intense learning experience. The initial job was artwork for four 24-page issues – the longest project by far that either of us had done.

RS: [Laughs] I’m certain that volume of pages was more than the three years of university work I’d done combined.

TB: In school, I produced the most output in our class – certainly not the best but the most – and I made about 60-70 pages of finished comic by the end of a two-year program. Princeless was 96 pages – and we had about six months to do it. It was very low-detail work that now we could turn out quite quickly, but the learning curve at that time was very steep.

JS: How did Crowded come about?

TB: Desperation, largely [laughs]. We had been doing work for Marvel in a sort of on and off capacity, doing short-order Avengers jobs. If they needed a hand, we’d pop in and knock out an issue and then fade away again.

And it was fine. The pay is pretty good – certainly the best pay we’ve had in comics – and the deadlines were mostly survivable. But the problem with that sort of work is that there came a day when they just didn’t need anything else from us, and we started to get a bit worried.

I was talking to someone I knew, who is now the editor on Crowded, and I was saying, “I’m getting really worried now. It’s been a couple of months and we haven’t had any income.”

RS: And she said, “My friend Chris is looking for artists to pitch stuff with. Let me put him in touch with you.”

TB: So, we had a Skype chat with Chris where he outlined five potential projects.

RS: Crowded was the second one he brought up, and we were like, “That’s the one we want to do.”

JS: So, you helped him develop the idea – does that mean you guys co-own the rights to the book with Christopher Sebela? 

TB: Chris was the guy with the initial idea, and he was the one who pitched it to Image and is their first point of contact. But it was pitched as a full-team effort and each of us working on it owns a chunk of the book. There’s the three of us – Chris, Ro, and myself – and then we’ve got an absolutely incredible colorist, Trina Farrell. Then there’s our letterer, Cardinal Rae, who also does a brilliant job for us.

JS: There are multiple creative minds behind every comic book, whose livelihoods are supported by its sales. Something to keep in mind when buying comics or, on the flipside, choosing to steal them. Ted, you yourself recently posted a rather shocking tweet about Crowded’s piracy data. What happened there?

TB: A comics journalist did a twitter poll asking, “How many times do you think your book has been pirated?” along with some data on the topic. I asked him what site he was getting his information from – when I went and had a look, I was like, “Holy shit.”

Over its first 10 issues, Crowded had 95,000 pirated reads.

RS: We were expecting a couple of thousand at most.

JS: Your tweet was picked up by the blog Geeks WorldWide, who did the math on how much money that amounts to losing – $370,000. That seems like a lot.

TB: I’m assuming by now, since that article ran, that the number of pirated reads is at least at 100,000 copies on that one site alone. So, at a conservative estimate, we could round it up to $400,000 in lost sales – that would mean $200,000 dollars to the retailer and $200,000 back to our publisher, Image. Image would have collectively taken their due, and then something in the low six figures would have come to the team, to us.

JS: For a lot of artists, that kind of money can be a real difference-maker.

TB: That’s just the start of it. My understanding is that there are somewhere between three and five major sites at any given time where known comics can be pirated in significant numbers. We could probably assume that if there are 100,000 pirated views on the site mentioned, that there are probably in the range of 300,000-500,000 overall, across all the top sites.

JS: You asked in your tweet if anyone knew how to get their works off these comic book piracy sites. Did you get any responses?

TB: Yes, and basically you have to pay to do it. You have to pay $50 per issue to get it registered as belonging to us. So that would be $500 just for the registering, then we’d have had to take that information and pay to effectively litigate the site. It would be a logistical nightmare.

We’ve shown the piracy sites the copyrights and said, “These belong to us, take them down,” and they just wouldn’t listen. Why would they? They’re registered with fake names and often outside of the US. So, the short answer is, “Good luck, you can’t stop the piracy.”

JS: That is really depressing. Let’s try to end on an upbeat note. What advice would you have for someone who, even after reading about these dismal piracy numbers, wants to pursue comic book illustration as a career?

RS: Have a safety net when you’re starting out.

TB: Yes. There is no shame in working a job and trying to break into comics around that. A lot of people I’ve spoken to over the years have been like, “You know, I’ve been thinking about just ending my job soon and going into comics.” And I’m like, “No. Don’t do that.”

But besides making sure you’re financially stable, my advice would be to learn storytelling – for comics specifically. It doesn’t matter how well you can draw a single image, or how well you can write prose, comics is a very different beast, with a brand of pacing and storytelling all its own. No matter how good all your technical skills are that seem related, you will make a bad comic without an understanding of storytelling in comics. Pretty but hard to read is your best-case scenario without storytelling ability.

And, if anyone reading this is interested in talking more about this career, my DMs on Twitter are always open to people who are new to this craft and want advice!

This article was originally published in CreativeFuture.

Categories
Piracy

COVID is Not an Excuse to Throw the Accepted Rules Out the Window: Copyright as the Canary in the Coalmine.

As I write we are in the depths of the COVID pandemic. Each day brings new and more frightening predictions of what is to come, what we all need to do to “bend the curve”, and how it is affecting people globally from both a health and economic perspective. The pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime challenge to the increasingly globalized world in whiche have grown up, and could have long-term ramifications for the way we conduct ourselves and interact in future. Thus it is all the more important that the accepted and established rules governing our behaviour be respected.

At present, we are all doing what we can to get through the next few weeks, and hoping for the best. The economic impact has been very hard on many industries and workers, and the copyright world has been no exception, with widespread layoffs owing to the need for social distancing which has resulted in closing places of entertainment, libraries, galleries, book shops and so on. At the same time, as I reported in a blog posting a couple of weeks ago, the creative community has responded through offering new online resources for distance learning and entertainment, and there has been an explosion of interest in streaming services for music and audio-visual content. E-books have suddenly leapt in popularity again. As we hunker down in self-isolation, we are relying more than ever on the internet for access to our news, entertainment and education. Content and creativity has never been more important.

For this reason, it is extremely disappointing to see special interest groups taking advantage of the COVID crisis to push their personal pre-COVID agendas. In the case of copyright, this consists of using the crisis to attack the fundamentals of copyright protection, namely the right of creators to control distribution of their work, and thereby to earn a return on the sweat equity they put into the creation in the first place. The anti-copyright forces are not the only ones that are taking advantage of the pandemic to push their objectives; we are already seeing anti-immigration and trade protectionist elements play the same card, using a global health crisis to try to shape the post COVID world. This is unconscionable, and must be resisted by calling it out for what it is; taking advantage of people’s fears and a health crisis to stampede through “emergency measures” that their proponents hope will permanently change the regulatory landscape once things return to “normal”.

In the case of copyright, the first shot was fired by the Internet Archive which declared that it would make its collection of 1.4 million copyright-protected books freely available through its online Open Library, using the COVID pandemic as the pretext. The Open Library’s self-professed goal is to make all works ever published available in digital format. To do this, it scans any works it can get its hands on, and inventories them in its digital library. While it has over 2.5 million public domain works in its catalogue, it is not too particular as to whether a work is in copyright or not; it’s all grist to the Open Library’s mill. While the Internet Archive’s methods and objectives have already come under scrutiny by organizations such as the Author’s Guild, which has questioned the Library’s statement that it respects copyright in its lending practices, the Archive has gone even further under the guise of responding to emergency conditions created by COVID. Although the Library “lends” digital copies to users without having licensed the rights to do so from authors or publishers (when the works are still in copyright), it at least followed the basic lending rules by limiting access to “one-user-at-a-time” in the same way that a normal lending library restricts the number of licensed copies in circulation by digitally recalling copies from users once the lending period has expired. Now however, in addition to helping itself to copyrighted works without authorization (using fair use as its justification), the Archive has announced that it is abolishing any restrictions on lending so that even if a work is out “on loan”, the Open Library will make additional copies available on demand. In other words, it is engaging in unlimited, unauthorized copying and distribution, using the pretext of the COVID pandemic to justify this action.

The Copyright Alliance, an association based in Washington DC representing copyright stakeholders large and small, has called this “copyright looting”, and that is an apt description.  The Internet Archive’s justification is that the pandemic is a national emergency. Its announcement of March 24 lifting all restrictions on access to its collection states, “We hope that authors will support our effort to ensure temporary access to their work in this time of crisis.” Did they ask authors whether they agreed to relinquish their right to be compensated for use of their works? No they did not. The Archive instead unilaterally decided to be generous with someone else’s property. The creative community has responded to the pandemic crisis by making many online resources available either free of charge or at discounted rates, and some authors may indeed be willing to forgo licensing revenues for the duration of the emergency. But surely that should be up to them to decide, not the Internet Archive.

The reality is that many authors are themselves struggling to make ends meet. The Author’s Guild points out that the mean annual writing income of an author in the US is currently just over $20,000. In order to survive, many writers work at other jobs, and many of these jobs have been suspended or terminated in the current crisis. At a time when there may be an increased demand for their work, and the chance to bring in a few extra bucks to tide them over in these unusual times, writers are having their work given away by someone else in the name of responding to an emergency.

The Archive states that it will sunset the new measures on June 30 or when the US national emergency is declared to be over, but they are using them as a further tool to weaken the protection that copyright affords to creators.  Even a pandemic does not provide justification for doing this. It’s not as if there are no other resources available for students or others who are stuck at home. University, community and school libraries are all continuing to operate online. Online bookstores are busy fulfilling orders. No, this is a power grab under the guise of providing a community service during an emergency. It must be condemned for what it is so that when–hopefully soon–this pandemic is under control and life returns to a semblance of normality, the “new normal” will not include institutionalized, widely-accepted copyright piracy.

The Internet Archive is not the only one playing this game. On April 3 a letter endorsed by a wide variety of what can only be described as the “usual suspect” list of anti-copyright organizations and players (including the Internet Archive, former Pirate Party Member of the European Parliament Julia Reda, Young Pirates of Europe-Pan European Youth Organization, and many academics and organizations from the US, Canada, Europe and elsewhere) petitioned WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry “to take urgent action to guide Member States and others in their response to intellectual property issues that the coronavirus is raising”. Among the steps suggested in the letter  is a call on governments to widen exceptions to copyright protection and on rights-holders to remove licensing restrictions that “inhibit remote education, research …and access to culture, including across borders, both to help address the global pandemic, and in order to minimise the disruption caused by it”. This is loaded language.

The suggestion that the licensing of content “inhibits” education and research reveals the true mindset of those behind the letter. From a creators’ perspective, licensing of content has just the opposite effect from inhibition; rather it is an incentive to produce and distribute content more widely. The letter closes by asking WIPO to take “swift and clear action to ensure that the global intellectual property system promotes research, education, access to culture, and public health”. The system does that now so what action is needed? It is not clear what Gurry and WIPO are supposed to do in the name of fighting COVID, but the letter is a broad-brush attempt to smear the entire system of international IP protection. Whether a problem even exists is not substantiated, but for the letter signatories COVID is too good an excuse not to trot out the old anti-IP, anti-copyright arguments. The letter is a solution in search of a problem, using the COVID pandemic as a pretext and smokescreen. The thinking seems to be, “Let’s see how we can use the tragedy of a global pandemic to advance our own anti-IP agenda”. That must not be allowed to happen.

The coronavirus pandemic is both a tragedy and a challenge. We all need to resort to our better angels and pull together to defeat it, not use it to divide one group from another or as a chance to advance whatever hidden or not-so-hidden agendas that one is pushing.  Special interest groups will try to use the coronavirus to deepen the cracks that are already showing in the rules-based system and to use it as the excuse to roll back the accepted and agreed rules of conduct. Whether it is an open, rules-based international trading system, or internationally agreed upon norms to protect intellectual property, or respect for creators and a copyright system that motivates and enables the creation of new content for learning, research, cultural deepening and entertainment, the COVID pandemic must not be used as the pretext to suspend and then fundamentally change the accepted rules of the road. When this pandemic is over, and it will be over, we will need the established rules and practices more than ever as we work to revive the domestic and global economies and restore hope and security to so many people.

Copyright is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to attempts by special interests to use the COVID pandemic to throw the accepted rules out the window in pursuit of other agendas that have nothing to do with fighting this global crisis.

This article was originally published in Hugh Stephens blog.