Mining the Internet Archive

If you watched the video posted above, you wasted 96 seconds of your life, and for that, I apologize. There’s so much more that you could have been doing with your time, and nearly all of it would have been of more value to society.

I put the above video together using footage I found on a website called Internet Archive, which is a free resource that contains public domain, archival movies (and other media). The primary reason I put the video together is that it was more fun than doing actual work. But also, I wanted to test out how to work with materials from this site, which I learned about from Dr. Chris Mayer, interpretive consultant and director of the National Association for Interpretation’s Spanish Section.

It turned out to be surprisingly easy. I searched for certain terms (like “baseball” and “park ranger”), found some videos with narrators who sounded like they wanted to be my friend, downloaded them at the resolution of my choice, and spliced snippets of them together in iMovie.

The original footage comes from four different movies—Story of a Forest Ranger, a 1954 US Department of Agriculture film; Heading Home, a 1920 silent film starring fat old man with little girl legs Babe Ruth; Good Eating Habits, a 1951 instructional film; and a classic Tom and Jerry cartoon called Piano Tooners—all of which (along with many, many others) are available for free download, some at high resolution.

All of the videos I’ve used are in the public domain, either because their copyright has expired or they were produced by a government agency, so they can be used for the sort of nonsense I’ve posted here (or they can be used for something of actual value). The Internet Archive offers versions of these videos (and many, many more) at varying resolution free of charge for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, but I’ll certainly take it. On its website, the organization describes itself like this:

The Internet Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. Its purposes include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format.

And the Internet Archive features more than just video:

The Internet Archive includes texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages in our collections, and provides specialized services for adaptive reading and information access for the blind and other persons with disabilities.

Some of the content found on the Internet Archive is not in the public domain, so it can’t be used in media that you produce, but it’s still awesome and you just want to watch it over and over instead of doing real work. The stop-action video Extreme Lego Breakdancing falls into that category.

I’m not sure just yet how I plan to use this resource in any real way, but it’s a great way to track down free stock footage or create a certain tone for historical pieces. If you use this resource in the future (or if you have in the past), please share your product with us. I’m curious to see what the possibilities are.

Papyrus’ Avatar in Avatar

Since December 18, 2009, I have been checking the IBD website daily, patiently waiting for someone to ask a question or post a comment about the use of Papyrus in the movie Avatar. Until July 19, 2010, at 10:17 AM, I had been following rule number three of many unwritten rules about this blog, which states: 3. Quit writing about Papyrus because people will think you are an obsessive freak and may confuse you with Paul. The number two rule is: 2. Sausage is an acceptable commodity for the exchange of ideas and/or information in relation to IBD the book not the blog. The number one rule is: 1. Show total disregard for the proper use of the serial comma in order to annoy Paul.

Cal Martin (whom I will refer to in this post as Cal, the Chosen One, Chosen, or the One) finally posed the question on our Ask a Nerd! page. The question made me happy on multiple levels. First and obviously he asked about the use of Papyrus in the film, and second, there is someone who actually saw Avatar after me. Due to the age and number of children that I have, along with a wife with no interest in going to the cinema to see a movie that doesn’t involve talking dogs or sparkly vampires, see a movie like Avatar is a practical impossibility. I digress, here’s the Chosen One’s question/comment. Cal Martin says:

Hi nerds!

Okay, this is embarrassing. Or else I’m extremely rebellious and worthy of great praise, depending on your world view. I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time. That’s right – half a year later on DVD on my 27 inch tube television. It felt like I was right inside the picture!

Anyway, please, please tell me that I didn’t just see subtitles in Papyrus throughout the entire movie. I wanted to scream, “Good God, no! Papyrus?!?! Kill me now!” but I was afraid that it might expose me as a geek, and result in my sleeping on the couch.

My question – do you have other examples of huge projects (movies, large scale exhibits, multinational company signage, etc.) that had budgets of millions of dollars, yet made a basic gaffe such as this?


One, it wasn’t that long ago that I too saw Avatar at home and had that same reaction. I had heard about the unfortunate choice of Papyrus being discussed in certain design circles. (On occasion Paul and I hold hands, a perfectly acceptable custom in India; it forms the design circle of which I am referring to.) For this reason I had purposely avoided the movie. That, along with an unfortunate dream I had involving Smurphs when I was younger, has forever changed my view of blue people.

Chosen, I did make the mistake that you avoided in post-film conversation with my wife by saying it was pretty good despite the Na’vi speaking Papyrus. To which my wife replied that I had successful ruined everything. Which, in my opinion, is a bit presumptuous.

Back to the question at hand, the typeface used in all promotional materials, posters, and even the subtitles in the movies is not exactly Papyrus (seen above in yellow) but some sort of adapted version of Papyrus (seen above in blue). What is surprising to me is that movie with a budget well over $450 million (including promotion) didn’t search from a more original typeface to represent the film. Paul and I would have gladly provided the producer James Cameron this same advice for an amount much less than $10 million.

At the very least someone tried to alter it some in an effort to customize the typeface. Upon closer investigation you will notice that elements of Papyrus have been slightly altered.

The problem isn’t really Papyrus itself. In fact I think it represents the Na’vi and the movie well. As we have stated before in conversations about Comic Sans and Papyrus, it is the overuse that has made it ubiquitous. The real problem is that is also represents Italian restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors, and churches. As a standard default font found on PCs and Macs worldwide the typeface has found its way into countless designs and lost the intent it was created.

My personal complaint with the use of the version in Avatar is that the subtitles are just too difficult to read. The first goal of subtitles should be legibility. Now if you were watching it at an IMAX theater you could probably read it better than on my or Cal’s home theater screens.

The One, I don’t really have an answer to the second part of your question. I don’t know of any other gaffes that have had an impact in the design community as much as Avatar and Papyrus. It is a really good question and perhaps some other members of the Nerd Herd can provide examples. In the meantime this is a reminder that we should consider every design decision we make important.

If someone had placed more of an effort into researching the use of Papyrus and shown Cameron this connection, I have no doubt that more effort would have been placed in finding an original typeface.

Rule number three has been re-implemented for the future of IBD. Oh yeah, if you haven’t seen it (Avatar not The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course) the movie is really good.

The Perfect Chair

Improving on something that we use every day is never easy. However, there is always room for improvement. The chair is the perfect example. For years designers have worked tirelessly to create the perfect chair. The basic elements of the chair have been around for centuries. The arms, seat, back, and legs are all parts that make up a chair. Why is it that ever since I learned this I have also had the desire to build the perfect chair? As with most questions I ask, even the rhetorical ones, my wife answered the question for me. So why is it that designers feel the need to improve on something that is already designed? The movie Objectified will help you answer that question.

The thought behind creating the perfect chair is what really intrigues me the most. (That along with how they make the tiny marshmallow rainbows in Lucky Charms cereal so magically delicious.) We have all sat in chairs where little thought was placed in how comfortable it would be, how long one could sit in it before becoming fidgety, and how close the back of someone’s head can be to your face on an airplane. With 2 billion people in the world with an equal number of backsides, there will always be room for improvement (in chair design, not the backsides—okay, perhaps some backsides). So despite my wife’s opinion about my un-handiness, my quest will continue. In the meantime, the supplies I purchased for the chair will remain in the garage next to my industrial-sized food dehydrator and ThighMaster.

Objectified is the second film in a “design trilogy” of related films from Gary Hustwit, the creator/producer/director of the 2007 film Helvetica (the single greatest movie about the typeface Helvetica ever). The film is shot and presented in the same format as Helvetica, which practices the minimalist impact that the movie presents. The film highlights the who’s who of the design world interviewed in the movie providing insights and perspectives to products that you know from faces and names that you don’t. (Paul knows most of these designers’ names, along with the names of the players currently playing baseball for the injury-prone team formerly known as the Philadelphia Phillies.)

The interviews with designers of BMW, IDEO, and Apple display the amount of thought, time, and effort to make their products better, more appealing, and sell better. Fiona Raby says in Objectified, “I think in many ways design is about looking at a diverse range of problems and solving them. But the designs we make aren’t solving anything; they’re meant to ask questions. There’s a lot that’s unknown about these new technologies, so we’re very interested in using design to explore what we don’t know.” The time spent on the details of everything from potato peelers to computers may shock you, unless you have ever worked with a graphic designer on a logo. I have rushed through enough projects to know there is a big difference when time is appropriately appropriated for success. It is the difference between creating an iPod and a Zune. Each part of the process should be about solving problems and making good decisions.

One IDEO designer in the film laments a time when she had just completed a much celebrated toothbrush redesign and less than a week after it went to production, while on vacation in Fiji, she found one that had floated up on the beach. Even with all of the time and effort that went into that design, and less than a week later it was refuse to someone else.

Her story reminded me of an incident that took place involving me and some pyromaniac campers that I came in contact with while conducting a campground round. It hurts to admit it but I found visitors using the brochures that I had written, produced, and designed to start their campfire. It took all that I had within to keep from physically shaking them vigorously and verbally letting them know about all of the time, research, money, and effort that went into producing those brochures. But when I approached them with tears in my eyes (from the smoke, not crying about the total disrespect to my beloved brochures) I could only muster, “May I have a s’more?” There’s no problem that chocolate can’t solve. In Objectified, Alice Rawsthorn spoke on the subject of sustainability:

Sustainability isn’t just sort of a glamorous process of using recycled materials. To design may or may not be the color green. It’s about redesigning every single aspect of a company’s process, from sourcing materials to designing to production to shipping, and then eventually designing a way for those products to be disposed of responsibly. That’s a mammoth task, so it’s no wonder that designers and manufacturers are finding it so difficult.

Visitors don’t always appreciate our work but we can only hope that a part of the theme or mission is what stays with them. We should still strive for sustainability in our products on multiple levels. I strive to produce products that visitors want to save, scrapbook, or share with someone else, not start their fire with.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie is by Marc Newson, who said, “I wish people would be more critical of design, and of designers, who are responsible for designing some pretty nasty stuff.” I can’t wait to see what the third film in the “trilogy” is about. Filming is underway, so it is safe to assume that it won’t be IBD III: Revenge of the Nerds.

Podcasting: What is it and how do you do it?

I recently tried to end a long relationship, and that’s always difficult. What’s worse is that while I was ready to end the relationship, the other party, whom I will not name, desperately wanted me to stay. But I had moved on to party #2—sexier, newer, and, most importantly, less expensive. We eventually arrived at a tentative agreement, wherein I would stick with party #1 while continuing to cultivate and explore my relationship with party #2, but only until the end of the baseball season—then it was really over.

Party #1, whom I have decided to name after all, was XM Radio. Party #2: podcasts.

I listen to the radio while I work. For a long time, I listened to exclusively to satellite radio, which has hundreds of channels (though I only listened to ESPN Radio because I’m a dope and was too lazy to change the station). Then, as ESPN Radio started to drop all of its interesting and unique personalities and replace them with a sports robot who hosts every show they air, I started to download the occasional podcast on my computer for variety.

Podcasts are digital media (audio or video) distributed online, usually through some kind of syndication service that allows an audience to subscribe. When I discovered podcasts, I was able to pick and choose the shows I cared to listen to, and I could listen to them whenever I wanted to—without commercials, no less. (One thing that XM offers that I cannot get through free podcasts is live radio broadcasts of baseball games, which why I’ve postponed severing ties with XM until November.)

Eventually, podcasts completely replaced satellite radio for me. One day not too long ago as I left work, I realized that I had not turned on my radio once. Instead, I had listened to podcasts of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” (which I love but normally miss because it’s a weekend show), ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” (in the afternoon for me!), “The Tony Kornheiser Show” from some local station in Washington DC, HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “The Dan Patrick Radio Show,” and a must for all podcast fans, John Hodgman’s  “Today in the Past.”

Suddenly, there was a lot more diversity to my listening day, and all of it was completely free (unlike XM Radio). And I quickly learned that it’s not just national names and celebrities who can offer podcasts, but any joker with a recording device and access to the internet. Soon I was downloading weekly Phillies-related podcasts that seemed like they were recorded in the hosts’ basements.

I realized that those nerds in my high school’s AV club are the most powerful people in the world.

We’re in the midst of a nerd-powered age of enlightenment, with nerds writing blogs, making podcasts, and writing electronic and print-on-demand books that can be self-published and made available through sites like Amazon and the iPad book store. (NAI Executive Director Tim Merriman wrote a serious, grown-up post about NAI’s online book program on the NAI blog, so I won’t get into that here.)

At NAI, this got us to thinking, “Hey, we’re jokers with recording devices and access to the Internet. We should do a podcast!” We also have access to smart, interesting people like Sam Ham, author of the seminal book Environmental Interpretation (as if you don’t know who Sam Ham is). Sam is the first victim subject of NAI’s “Voices in Interpretation” podcast series, in which we videotape interviews with leaders in the field, edit out my snarky comments made from behind the camera, and post what’s left online. We’ll do one of these a month, starting here:

Obviously, the better the equipment, the better the final product will be. This was recorded with a hand-held, point-and-shoot video camera with a built-in microphone in a hotel ballroom, so it’s not exactly studio quality.

The original plan was just to post these on YouTube, which will still happen, but I’ve been curious about how difficult it would be to also create a free, subscription-based video podcast available on iTunes. It was surprisingly easy.

Creating a podcast can be accomplished in these steps, most of which can be circumvented with a tip I’ll divulge below:

  1. Create content. Be a joker with a device that records audio or video. Edit said audio or video in the software of your choice. I use iMovie to edit video because it’s simple and intuitive, and because it bugs Shea when I do fun, creative things on my Mac while he uses his PC to make spreadsheets and order bowties from
  2. Post the content somewhere online in the appropriate format. If you have a web host or server, you can post your files there. If not, you can upload them to a free source online, which I’ll get into below.
  3. Create an RSS feed. I’ll be honest: I had heard this term bandied about. I knew what it meant to subscribe to an RSS feed, but was not sure how to go about creating my own. So again, I circumvented this step. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it’s very useful. If you have the wherewithal to create your own RSS feed, then bless your heart. If not, see below.
  4. Submit your podcast to iTunes. This is very simple. Go to the iTunes store, click on “Podcasts,” then “Submit a Podcast.” It will ask for your RSS feed, which you will plug into the one form field in that window.  (I know, simple and intuitive, right?)
  5. That’s it. You’re done.

As I mentioned above, to make NAI’s Voices in Interpretation video series available as a podcast on iTunes, I kept the fun, simple steps (1, 4, and 5), but circumvented the boring, technical steps (2 and 3). What I did for steps 2 and 3 was look for an online resource that would do those steps for me.

In this instance, the resource is Blip.TV. Blip.TV is great for this sort of thing for multiple reasons. First, if your video is posted on someone else’s server, it completely removes any concern over bandwidth. If your web host limits the amount of traffic on your website or charges extra if you exceed a certain amount, you don’t want a bunch of podcast subscribers downloading large video files from your server. With Blip.TV, you create a free account and post your media on their servers.

Second, and for me this was the important part, it creates an RSS feed for you. When you upload a video to Blip.TV, it gives you multiple distribution options, one of which is iTunes. When you click on that distribution option, it asks for some simple information about your video series (title, author, short description, etc.), then it says, in a big, blue box, “Your iTunes Podcast URL is….” Just copy and paste this into iTunes and you’re off an running. It takes a day or two for iTunes to sync up with your Blip.TV account, but once it does, all of that information you plugged into Blip.TV shows up in the iTunes store. When you upload a new episode, it shows up in iTunes shortly thereafter and subscribers will download the new episode automatically.

Podcasts are becoming increasingly popular at interpretive sites. They offer a way for visitors to learn about a site before or during a visit, and to stay connected after a visit. And most importantly, podcasts offer yet another avenue for those without a lot of resources to get their voice out there in the world.

Dynamic Typography: As Seen on TV!

So there I was, sitting on my sofa, watching football and drinking beer (or maybe I was watching Golden Girls and drinking apple juice, I can’t really remember). I recall thinking, “I wish the freaking Eagles could score just once!” (or possibly, “Oh, Rose, you’ll never learn!”) and this commercial came on:

It stopped me in my tracks. I was shocked, not by the truck, but to see type used so interestingly in a purely commercial venture. I’m not a truck commercial sort of guy, but I always watch this one, purely for its visual aesthetic.

Moving type is not new, dating back as far as cinema itself, but a specific vernacular of moving type, commonly called dynamic typography, has sprung up in the last four or five years. It usually involves slab-serif or sans serif all-caps type appearing in exact synchronicity with spoken words. The words on screen fit together like puzzle pieces, with quick pans, rotations, and zooms. Frequently, words on screen will reflect their meaning through movement (e.g., if the word is “fall,” the word will actually fall off the screen).

Picture-7I think that the music video below, “Ya no sé qué hacer conmigo,” which my wife tells me translates to “Would you please shut off your stupid computer and come help with the dishes,” is a visual masterpiece. It was made in 2007, when this particular brand of dynamic typography was relatively new.

A quick search of dynamic typography on YouTube will turn up countless student projects that set type to music or movie quotes in this style. Here’s an example from student Linzi Bergmann, set to audio from the movie Zoolander:

While I really enjoy this style visually, the interesting thing about this type of moving typography is that it directly violates one of the tenets of good visual communication. Any presentation expert will tell you not to read the words on screen, that it’s redundant to visually represent words that exactly replicate what is being spoken. I look forward to the growth of this movement, when these beautiful and intricate typographic treatments are more than just visual reinforcements, but rather add their own element to messages.

Slumdog Millionaire, in a box

This confession will most likely not be a surprise to most of you. I collected comic books right up until the time I got married. My getting married later than other friends was directly related to my comic book collection. I loved reading comics as a child and as a young adult. Okay I still like them. While growing up my mother was simply happy that I was reading anything, so she supported my subscriptions and collecting of comic books. My wife did not support me in the same way, but did get behind the effort of selling them on eBay.

One of my favorite elements of comic book collecting was the organizing and preserving of back issues. I had the collection placed on acid-free backing boards, in acid-free bags, in acid-free boxes, and stored them in an archive-quality box within a room with consistent temperature, humidity, and limited exposure to light. I had them in alphabetical order by name, followed by numerical order by issue. To me, there was something reassuring about keeping the comics a certain way at that point in my life. The sad part is that I still find reassuring feelings in keeping things a certain way. Now that I put that into type, I realize how abnormal I am.

Why do things have to be a certain way? On IBD we deal with many absolutes about how things should be and the way things should be designed or produced. Rules are good, right? But in the book IBD we include a section on breaking the rules. I have this constant battle waging in my head. Part of me likes consistency and structure, the other part likes breaking the rules and stepping outside the grid or what is readily acceptable. Sometimes you just have to mix prints and plaids.

Keeping within the topic of graphic design elements in movies that Paul started on Monday, it excites me when movies aren’t a certain way. Slumdog Millionaire breaks the mold in many different ways. I’m not here to talk about the non-linear storytelling, universal ties, emotional and intellectual connections, truthful approach or amazing performances that made the movie great. The movie is great and if you haven’t seen it, rent or add it to your queue soon. I’m here to take on the unusual use of subtitles found in the movie. Wait, please don’t leave. Subtitles are an interesting topic. I’m sure of it. Especially when presented in a comic book style.

The first things that come to mind for me on the topic of subtitles is a type set in sans serif that is hard to read, in a small point size that is yellow or white, found at the bottom of the screen. I also think of really bad movies that make poor use of subtitles stand out even more. Things don’t have to always be a certain way and Slumdog Millionaire proves that point even within the typography used in the subtitles. The first noticeable change to the Slumdog subtitles is that they are not rigidly centered at the bottom of the screen, but are placed more appropriately near the person speaking. In a style reminiscent of comic book typography, minus the use of Comic Sans, the change brings the watcher’s eyes up to where the action or emotion is actually taking place. It makes it easier to watch, keep up with what is being said and by whom, and process the dialog along with the acting at the same time. It just makes sense.

As with most things, I was behind on seeing the movie and we watched it at home. If you haven’t seen it or have a copy, here’s something interesting and fun to do. Pause the movie during one of the scenes with subtitles, get really close to your television set and recognize that the director chose a typeface that has serifs. I live in a small town and what is considered fun is relative. I wish I knew why the director chose this typeface or that I had something more to add here but that’s all I’ve got. The typeface is not aggressively serifed but more passive aggressive serifed. It works fine.

Much like my comic books, things are better in boxes, but colored boxes?  The third drastic difference that Slumdog took in the realm of subtitle greatness was placing the text in text boxes filled with color. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of text in color-filled boxes. As much as I like things in boxes, in most cases I prefer type free from the confines of a box, filled with various levels of saturation. In this instance, it worked because the color helped on different levels. Primarily, the color boxes improved legibility in scenes where type could have easily been lost. Without the boxes the text would have just been difficult to read. Secondarily, the colors echoed the mood of the scene. The colors used seemed to be picked from elements of the scene and fit in aesthetically and reflected what was taking place.

I’m pretty sure I now know why Slumdog won the Oscar for best picture; it was the subtitles. I no longer read comic books, but when I’m at Barnes and Noble and tell my wife I’m headed to the graphic novel section, she has no idea that I’m perusing the comic books.