(james benedict brown) on the road

Countdown

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 13 September, 2008

Here’s a subtle little urban observation for you. This is a pedestrian crossing on Argyle Street in Glasgow. While I lived on the hip and trendy Avenue du Mont Royal in Montréal in Canada, the city installed coutdown timers on a busy intersection near the Mont Royal metro station. The idea being that there would be fewer pedestrian / vehicle conflicts if crossing pedestrians knew how much longer they had priority. That’s because In North America the countdown ticks away on green, telling you how much longer you have left to cross. But here in Scotland, it ticks down on red, telling you how long you have to wait until you can cross.

What does this say about the Scottish people, as opposed to North Americans? I’ve never seen a countdown crosswalk like this one anywhere else in the UK. As far as I know it’s the only example of its kind in the country. Could this be the one and only example of a countdown pedestrian crossing, and also the one and only example of a misunderstood technology?

In my eyes, it’s the wrong way round, but it suggests an alternative appreciation of the dangers at the crosswalk. It doesn’t warn you that the lights are about to change and that you shouldn’t start to cross… quite the opposite: it placates you by telling you that you don’t have long to wait until the green man reappears.

I noticed a similar tactic during a cross country drive today. The A66 is a major east-west road that crosses from the M6 at Penrith to the A1M at Scotch Corner, linking the two north-south axes of Britain’s motorway network. It, however, is a partially upgraded A-road, and is only partially dualled, with many long sections remaining as regular two lane road. There are a number of four lane dualled sections, where faster traffic can pass slower vehicles (namely caravans, at this time of the year). Naturally, traffic tends to clog on the two lane section, because with only one lane in each direction and precious few passing opportunities, just one slow vehicle can affect the entire flow of traffic.

A few miles in advance of the dualled sections, however, road signs advise you that there is a dual carriageway ahead. What purpose do these signs serve, except to persuade you not to risk a dangerous passing on a two lane road? Patience, they implore, you’ll be able to sweep past this tractor in just a few miles.

Patience, the Scottish crosswalk implores. You can cross in thirty seconds. But like in Montréal, no-one pays any attention. They cross whenever they themselves judge it safe to do so.

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Globalisation part II: your local news goes on tour

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 August, 2008

Following his observations on the evolution in news delivery (i.e. mass redundancies of journalists) at Global Québec and my post about virtual newsroom architecture Steve Faguy makes some interesting observations about what a green screen to do for local newscasts during the regular newscaster’s vacation. If a newscaster can go on holiday and be replaced by another presenter in another province in front a greens creen, why not just get Jamie Orchard to pack a fold up green screen to take with her to Punta Cana?

Globalisation: more virtual newsroom architecture

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 25 March, 2008

A few weeks ago I wrote about the relocation of the Canadian Global National newscast to a “virtual” studio in Ottawa. One interesting question being, what’s the point of moving your news anchor to the nation’s capital, when all that indicates that Kevin Newman is in Ottawa is a computer-controlled image of the Canadian Parliament behind him?

I’m very interested in the architecture of television news, because it crosses into all kinds of interesting fields of study to do with architecture and the projection of power, security and knowledge. It’s also one of the most readily accessible situations in which virtual architecture finds environment in which it is ready to demonstrate its potential.

The “virtual” treatment of the Ottawa studio has now been applied to the Global Television affiliate CKMI-TV in Montréal. Even when I lived in Montréal I didn’t watch CKMI much, mainly because TV didn’t play much part in my life, but also because the channel’s principal evening news bulletins were broadcast too early in the evening for me to watch. The concept of a 17h00, 17h30 or even 18h00 English language news bulletin in Montréal being to catch the captive audience of anglo housewives waiting for their partners to come home. From that any Montrealer or Montréalais(e) reader will know exactly what sort of political leaning Global Québec takes.

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Here’s a shot of Global Québec anchor Jamie Orchard opening an edition of the evening news. See that bustling newsroom behind her? Yep. It’s a hive of activity down there at Global Québec. Or so you might imagine. The physical set isn’t the only thing that has been put out to pasture. A number of control-room and on-screen staff have been laid off as well, victims not only of a remotely controlled programme (the news studio is now controlled from Vancouver) but also of the cancellation of This Morning Live, CKMI’s breakfast programming. The creation of a virtual newsroom doesn’t just dispense with the need to have that buzzing newsroom behind the anchor, it also dispenses with the need to have people working in every regional news studio controlling the cameras and cue-ing up reports.

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If there is one good point to note about the application of this virtual studio, it’s that so far the design has been better applied in Montréal than in Ottawa. This opening pan shot, looking down on the anchor and the desk (the only real things in the entire shot) works better than the acuter angle of the opening shot on Ottawa: the perspective is, at least, more believable. That said, I imagine there have been a few instances in which Jamie Orchard has or will be tempted out from behind her desk to stand in front of another hideously mis-proportioned long shot of the non-existent studio.

I can’t claim to be close to any informed sources in the Canadian media industry, but Global has no made no bones in announcing that Global Edmonton, Global Calgary and Global Toronto will be the next affiliates to welcome virtual newsrooms. And that means control-room staff there might do well to start refreshing their resumés.

Virtual architecture: Kevin Newman moves to Ottawa

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 February, 2008

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A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the concept of power and security being expressed through the architecture of nineteenth and early twentieth century British banks. In an age when architectural languages were decidedly more monosyllabic, banks would ensure that their branches projected a bold, strong and ultimately secure impression on the people passing in the street. Above is a photograph of the United Counties Bank in central Sheffield, photographed some time around 1909. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the man crossing the tram tracks on the bottom left of the photograph, and you can understand why the United Counties would have impressed you as a safe place to entrust your money. It just looks safe because of the heavy, permanent and solid architecture.

I have a theory that a similar concept can be applied to the architecture of television news rooms. Although it hasn’t come up in my own studies to date, I’ve been working around some ideas on the side, and something deeper and perhaps more academic could emerge from this in the months or years to come.

In this modern day, we are often assured that knowledge equals power. With the reach and diversity of internet and mobile telephony spreading into our lives, we are now capable of leading incredibly knowledge-intensive lifestyles. For instance, this morning I wanted to discover the area covered by all the Schengen countries in Europe. It took me less than six seconds at a computer to discover the statistic (4,268,633 km², if you’re interested).

The traditional suppliers of knowledge are the outlets of the mainstream media, and it is in the television newsroom that architecture and knowledge have come together. For more than fifty years we have become used to the visual arrangement of a man or woman sitting behind a desk in view of a camera reading us the news. Here in the UK, John Craven was the first newsreader to stand up and move around his studio during a newscast in the early eighties (BBC Newsround, a short bulletin for children that still runs every weekday to this day) inspiring Kirsty Young to do the same thing with a bit more panache on the young Five News several decades later.

The sets have gradually become more and more complex, with rolling news channels such as CNN in the USA and Sky in the UK building increasingly complex structures with different levels and depths that combine the video recording of news with real or staged office environments. We are now subconciously assured that if we can see people beavering away in an office behind the newsreader, then this news team is obviously well staffed and up to the job. I could go on – because this is an interesting and largely unexplored strand of architecture. However, here’s an interesting development from that big old country I used to live in – Canada.

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Here’s Tara Nelson opening Monday night’s Global National. That might sound like a contradictory name for a newscast to be called, but it’s because it’s the only newscast on the Global Network that is broadcast nationally across the country. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have a similar programme later in the evening which is simply called The National. But I digress. Note the set. A modest construction with flat screen televisions and a liberal application of the Global > motif (apparently suggesting that Global is ‘greater than’ everyone else…). The use of an wide and acute camera angle in this opening pan shot sets the scene before a second camera closes in on the anchor, suggesting a much larger space than there actually is in the studio. Once we focus in on her, we can see a busy newsroom behind an apparently frosted glass wall, with flickering TV and computer screens and fuzzy figures moving about.

So we have scale and depth. A small corner set is made to look much bigger, and the connection between newsroom and studio (which for all I know, may not even be physically there) can be suggested by a back projection that looks like a window. But this set is no more, or at least not for Global National. Until this week, the set was shared with a local newscast in British Columbia, making for a hectic switchover between national and local broadcasts throughout the day. Searching for some kudos for being the only newscast from the nation’s capital, the network has moved its national newscast to studios in Ottawa.

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And here is Kevin Newman, in the new set. But here’s the clever bit. Actual interior architecture is no longer needed. Apart from the desk behind which Kevin is seated, the entire set is computer generated. This has been done before, most notably in the UK by the old blue BBC news set and the current ITV news studio, which features an almost terrifying virtual wall that can induce nausea and vertigo in one quick swoop from a view over London to a wall of outside broadcast shots.

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Moving The National to Ottawa hasn’t required as many moving vans as you might think. Not only is the set virtual, the entire broadcast is still being produced by the team in Vancouver, almost 5,000km away. They cue up the reports, control the cameras and wrap the production. Only Kevin Newman and a skeleton staff of studio hands needs to be in Ottawa, allowing the programme to continue being produced by the same people without any expensive relocation costs (other Mr. Newman’s, of course). Another trick played by the new virtual set is that of scale. Clever camera angles are no longer needed to fool the eye into thinking that the set is bigger than it actually is. The only problems noticeable in the first broadcast from Ottawa were hard studio echoes (probably caused by a room painted entirely green with no absorbant surfaces) and some squashing of that Global > logo – no doubt an expensive graphic designer will be on the phone insisting that it’s returned to its ‘correct’ proportions.

But it does seem that the computer programmers have been getting a little carried away with the perspective tools…

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…”Hey! Look how big our hard drives are! There’s his desk! All the way over there!”

If the set is virtual, the production team is in Vancouver and the picture of Parliament Hill behind the anchor is edited in virtually, does it even matter that the programme is filmed in Ottawa? Couldn’t all this have been achieved in front of a green screen in Vancouver? Newman assures us that this will allow a much greater contact with the day to day activities in the Candian parliament, and that all this is the application of decentralised news production.

This suggests an important shift in the use of interior architecture in the delivery of television news. The design and form is still important, but it is now easier, more cost effective and more sustainable to build a news studio in a computer. And this apparent lack of actual place has allowed a news team to move its anchor to be ‘closer to the action’. The freedom of virtual architecture promises some interesting developments in the way our news rooms look and feel, and the way that the news is presented to us.

The ontheroad podcast episode 06: Pimp My Shopping Mall, West Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 3 February, 2008

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The Ontheroad Podcast returns for 2008 with episode six, the ‘lost episode’, thought to have been wiped by a grumpy iPod after being recorded last November in Edmonton, Alberta. James tries his best not to sound like Louis Theroux, and explores North America’s largest shopping mall…