Michael Jackson’s hovercraft moonwalk would cap an electric evening full of drama. Singing Billie Jean, he spun, shimmied, went ballet pointe, evoking universal praise. That boy can move, one of Hollywood’s eponymous dancers Gene (Kelly) would remark.
In the background to Motown’s 25th musical extravaganza were a litany of sub plots. MJ almost didn’t perform and was Diana Ross going to bury the hatchet and sing with the trio that made her, the Supremes? However, most of all the would the man who created Motown turn up to his own party, having felt deeply unappreciated.
The latter is the in media res for Motown the Musical, whose plot then performs the cinematic equivalent of a dream sequence reminiscing how Berry Gordy, an unspectacular boxer, punched his way to a musical svengali.
In the West End show’s interval, looking around at the make-up of the audience, I would ask my self a supposedly seamlessly pointless, “doh” question. How could you transfer the reception of this event to a media conference?
“Doh” because well ‘its a musical, genius!”, and a media conference, is well, a media conference.
Where ideas come from
Innovation we now know from evidence emerges from ideas tapped across disparate, as much as, analogous fields.
The modern day incubator was hatched from a farmer wanting to keep his livestock alive and productive in cold weather. Your mobile phone’s GPS originated from two inquisitive US scientists at the Applied Physic Lab, Laurel, Maryland, doodling around trying to listen in on a Russian craft Sputnik orbiting the earth in 1957, and cinema famously pulled itself away from being a solitary peep show affair to a proscenium inviting mass audience viewership. What it did differently is to create different framings to the fixed seated locations in theatres.
Couple of years ago, I conducted an experiment that would be part of my submission for my doctorate. I made two news films of the same subject depicted as (1) and (2) below and asked a class of MA which one they found more attractive and immersive. Almost all of them chose (1). What they didn’t know was that the production values and approach I used for (1) came directly from cinema. The conclusion I built up with proof from around the world was if you want to create strong news films produce cinema, though I acknowledge it’s not as easy as you think.
The question then is what could you take from Motown the musical and why was it necessary. Firstly, an analytical breakdown of its elements.
- The spectacle: lighting, use of colour, changing spatial arrangement of the stage, dynamism on actors, and props that keep my attention.
- The story: the content itself — rags to riches — but also the manner in which the narrative unfolds indexing scenes of dialogue to music.
- Perception and memory: an inherent play towards nostalgia and play on memory by drawing on songs from another era.
- Audience feedback: encouraging audience participation and inducing laughter — releasing hormones that aid memory.
The conference roller coaster
A quick scan on google will provide an array of media conferences urging participation to learn the next new thing. It’s a veritable tread mill to imbibe knowledge, or indeed earn a living from them talking at them. Yesterday I posted an article about the Shiny Syndrome theory that ought to invite caution, but in this piece there’s some thing else.
Many conferences re characterised by common features. A super narrative broken into themes inviting 15–30 minute presentations, followed by a cosy fire-side like studio discussion, and sometimes there’s a break away hack.
We love going to them, but how many can you really remember as having an indelible affect on us. How many have immediate memory recall? How many I ask myself do I remember in the same way I do Motown?
Notwithstanding the content and the skill of speakers, conferences are constrained by a model. They’re predicated on a form which adheres to a standard approach. How many speakers do you remember may sometimes yield the outcome that not all great CEOs are great storytellers.
These question are not just merely academic. We often use conferences as a template to introduce similar ideas in our networks. Recently I had my first of several discussions with a world leading broadcaster about staging a tech-media conference with a difference — one that challenged the approach of a conference.
Similarly, I have been attending media conferences since 1993 when I was based in South Africa, but as I recall, 2005 onwards was a turning point with the likes of Wemedia in London and Online News Association conferences, like this I spoke at in 2005, before selfies had become term.
And SXSW in 2009 Austin Texas where I spoke about new forms of journalism
In 1999, as part of a team of diverse media folk the Creative Collective, we produced our first media industry conference, supported by the now defunct freedom foundation and since then I have hosted sessions of various sizes, but here, as a producer and researcher, now I’m asking myself a different set of questions.
- How do you maintain the experience for attendants after they’ve left?
- How does it become more participatory, translated to long term memory?
- How can you transfer ideas, so there applicable in other territories.
For the last question, I’m looking to collaborations to transfer these ideas to South African, with the Bureau 7 to the West Indies, and Ghana, West Africa, where my previous work in the late 1990s included relaunching day time television on the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation’s network.
In part this stems from work a previous MA student of mine is doing in Jaipur. Avinash Kalla is behind a media conference called Talk Journalism, which in India is fast becoming a calendar event pulling international speakers together for two days of conferencing. Could the idea, or Motown, translate elsewhere? And that doesn’t literally mean having your speakers sing.
The aformentioned incubator example is instructive. Whilst its benefits are universal, cognitive designer Timothy Pretsero noticed a flaw when said equipment was donated to developing countries, or territories that did not share parallel infrastructure. After a while when the incubators broke down, the absence of spare parts or onsite engineers meant the equipment would go to waste.
Their solution was to work with local producers, designing for how locals used the incubators, as well as what happened if it broke down. For the latter, Pretsero noticed that most developing countries may not have spare medical parts, but motor vehicle spares were in abundance. Hence the incubators were designed from motor spare parts and looked like this.
The equivalent happens when external consultants translate ideas across regions without understanding the recipient’s needs. In Russia, recently, it was easier for the cohorts to understand filmmaking if it could be filtered through frameworks they knew about, such as Pudovkin and Eisenstein’s montage theory. It India’s case, I have recently learned of the independent work my niece and a former BBC Journalist is doing with disabled children in Jodhpur, which has international news worthiness written on it.
Adopting the West’s use of television news to confront and show ‘disaster’ stories, Ghana in the 1990s gradually transformed its television output from a social tool around cohesion and education e.g. Osofo Dadzi to one that swung towards adversary programming and news.
This week, I meet with a network to plan a series of idea network points in which I’ll share some of my ideas.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB. His interests include cognitive behaviour, and producing memory narratives.