Director of narrative, commercial, and virtual reality

Film Portfolio

Project Greenlight finalist | Short about sex, death, existence, time

Lily in the Grinder

Shabbat Dinner

Comedy short about coming out | Featured in 55+ festivals

Search is Back

Featured on TechCrunch | 7k users per day

Global event handing out nametags on first Sat in June

Nametag Day

Uber Forecast

Tracking Uber's surge pricing to guess what the weather might be

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Streamlining the design around Center Camp

This year, several threads tied together my Burning Man experience: a resolution to create love rather than seek it, to tell those around me that I love them, and that for me, the burn is about learning and practicing to be a better human.

Another theme presented itself over and over: bewilderment and frustration any time I walked near Center Camp.

Here’s Center Camp on a map:

Current map

Its glorious circular pendant sits atop the heart of the city, suggesting a vital community gathering place. Strolling along its promenade evokes a sense of importance amid information bureaus, administrative services, and purchasable ice and coffee. A regal pathway leads directly into the open arms of the man. If Black Rock City were a default-world US city, Center Camp would be its capitol building.

The elegance quickly recedes. Immediately surrounding this promenade are thick circular blocks overflowing with infrastructure, RVs, and trucks. It feels like a warehouse district, noisy and impersonal, choking the city off from its center. And surrounding these blocks is Rod’s Road, a tangle of awkwardly angled streets seemingly designed to confuse. Which streets are lettered? Which are numbered? I’m looking for D…

Radical self-orientation

Let’s look at three design principles which operate well in the rest of the city, and not as well here:

1. From every point it should be possible to orient yourself by looking around. Black Rock City is full of great examples: from each intersection the man can be seen in the distance, immediately orienting you. The curves of the lettered streets are clearly differentiated from the straight lines of the numbered ones.

On Rod’s Road, it’s hard to figure out where you are. Streets branch off in angles that are inconsistent with the navigation of the rest of the city. It’s confusing.

2. Central areas should be designed for human interaction at human scales. In areas like A, B, and the Esplanade, streets are filled with camps and outward-facing art, not cranes and impersonal architecture.

The roads surrounding Rod’s Road are filled with interactivity, yet this small back alley feels barren and desolate.

3. The values of a city are encoded in its overall shape and the way its structures work. The circular streets of Black Rock City immediately convey that it is focused around community, the Man, and the Temple, and that it is a non-standard kind of city.

For reasons mentioned above, this isn’t working right now.

A simple solution

New map

By removing Rod’s Road and extending the city to the promenade, it is now immediately clear where you are from every point. Visual cues such as the keyhole, the man, and the city grid, are available from all around Center Camp, which is now integrated with the city.

We’ve also reclaimed half of six blocks (B, C, D between 5:30 and 6:30), shaping them like the rest of the city where they were previously chopped up.

“But I like it that way!”

I’m not sure what these circular blocks are used for, but it’s possible they contain city infrastructure like ice. Whatever the reason, people-centered design is more important.

It’s also possible that you find the current layout pretty. That symmetrical round pendant certainly looks nice, but this is partly because it appears to be wide open space. Stare at the map again and remind yourself that these shapes are city blocks, not an open plaza, and then wonder what they’re doing right in the center of the city.

Several more options

Another option I drew up, which I’m not as excited about: Center Camp could be moved back one block:

One block back   One block back, no jut

This restores a feeling of symmetry at the expense of losing a block of city, which is not ideal since the population is continually growing. On the other hand, it could make Center Camp feel more accessible by reducing or eliminating the round frontage separating it from the playa.

If you’d like to see this new map become a reality, share this post and tell your Black Rock City representative!

(And if you dig urban design, I can’t recommend enough Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities.)

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Color grading is so great

Man I love color correction. I just finished a video, and it’s always remarkable how much a color grade can do. Check out the comparison below. The first image is a log image, so it’s meant to be flatter and capture more dynamic range. The second is the fully graded image.

(Slide the slider across the image)

In the comparison below, the first image is the primary overall adjustment I made. The second is after going into individual parts of the image and tweaking them.

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The biggest 360º video ever made

On Tuesday we dropped the #Catquarium. Check it out, two hours in a 360º cat cafe which you can watch on just your cell phone. No headset required!

catquarium-click-to-watchClick to watch the #Catquarium

• It’s a 360º Cat Cafe
• It’s two hours long
• It’s 1 trillion pixels big
• It’s in 3D with a Google Cardboard, which Amazon has for $10

Check out the 2500-word article in Nofilmschool about how it was made, and some of our press:

“The Catquarium is our favorite by a fluffy mile.”
Gadgette

“What better way to blast through Wednesday than spending two hours with a room full of cats? Nothing! Nothing is better. […] You have full control of where the camera goes. Wanna go stare at that cat that’s rolling around in his food for some reason? Have at it. Interested in that odd woman in leopard print and cat ears? Keep an eye on her, then.”
The Daily Buzz

“The video also claims to be “the biggest cat video in the world,” with a whopping 1 trillion pixels.”
Gizmodo

“For those of us allergic to Garfield and gang, we can visit KitTea Cafe without sneezing into our Earl Grey via this interactive video […] who is more entertaining — the felines or the hipsters playing with them?”
Cnet

“Featuring feedings, playtime, and laser pointer theatrics, the video puts viewers right in the middle of everything.”
Mental Floss

“And I stayed in the Catquarium until my phone died last nite! Way over an hour. SO amazing! SO surreal! SO mysterious! Probably I was there for 90 minutes or so…
You know who my favorite kitty is! Hint: she’s wearing a leotard!”
– Mom

“It was something to experience through the youtube app. Completely immersive I think people on BART thought I was nuts moving it all around until i realized I can scan by clicking”
– Joe

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Planning and Flaking: Can We Do This Better?

thinkingcapwhoa

I’m hosting a discussion on Jan 7 at The Embassy in San Francisco called “Planning and Flaking: Can We Do This Better?” Here are some thoughts to start the discussion:

The year is 1957. You’re sitting on the couch, eating a string bean casserole and finally getting around to reading the day’s paper, when the tele-phone rings. You race across the living room to answer it. “Hello, it’s me, George! (Oh hello George.) Would you like to have dinner to-morrow at six?” Of course, you say, penciling it in your datebook. And as Aziz Ansari puts it, if George doesn’t show up, your only fair assumption is that he must be dead.

It’s a no brainer that things have changed since then. Environmental factors have enabled a drastically different set of conditions: Cell phones allow us to change location and time or cancel at the last minute, blurring the line that used to demarcate flakiness. Facebook (and tools like it) has made us more likely to interact with casual acquaintances and more aware of their events — we have access to more social events each day, which are more likely to be public. Dinner plans (and even large scale events) can spawn, then mutate several times, at the very last minute.

I have several questions and several ideas. First, the questions:

  • Is the old scheduling paradigm dying? If so, what would a fully realized new model look like, with plans slipping and sliding?
  • What techniques or statements have people used which have been effective in mitigating planning-based issues.
  • Who wins and who loses?
    Some possible wins:

    • Greater choice of events
    • More interesting events (this model gives people the freedom to propose adventurous ideas and see who’s interested — when planning in advance people are more likely to just meet for dinner.)
    • Hyper-social / popular people have more choice
  • Some possible losses:
    • The ability to be intentional with relationships, because last-minute planning is more focused on what is immediate
    • Introverts and those with less friends or options
    • Do one-on-one plans get pushed out in favor of group events?
  • What other factors lead to and reinforce scheduling problems today?

And some ideas about what kinds of *constructive action* can be taken to make planning work better for everybody (these and more we’ll be discussing at The Embassy):

  • Clearer communication: “I’m going to this event” or (for some people) “I’ll see you at six” just doesn’t mean what it used to. If people were more explicit about what their actual plans were, others could plan better. Often this means admitting that an event isn’t your first priority, which is uncomfortable for some. But it’s far kinder than misrepresenting yourself, and I think we can work to become more honest to each other and ourselves on this.
  • More words (or, quantifying flakiness): Maybe we need new terminology which is designed to help us be explicit. Below are some things which are difficult to express yet common in today’s planning landscape. Can we think of ways to make these concepts easier to say?
    • I’d like us to really actually do the thing we’re talking about (I usually ask “Is this a Plan with a capital P?”)
    • Quantifying gradations from not going to going:
      • This is my backup plan if something else doesn’t pan out, which is {likely / not likely}
      • This is on my radar but I’m not 100% certain I will go, as opposed to “I’m definitely going.”
  • Norm setting. In discussing this with friends, several people told me that they just don’t make plans with flaky people. Setting norms about when and how it’s okay to change plans is one way to affect this trend, but where is the right place to set the line and what happens when each of us draws it in a different place?

As a quick aside, San Francisco has been known to be both the place where habits are predictive of global trends, and a privileged monoculture whose behavior can’t be extrapolated to predict the future of society. I suspect in this case we’re the former, but we may be the latter.

If you’re around in San Francisco, I hope you can join us in this discussion, but of course I’ll understand if you can’t make it. I might not even be there myself.

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Take Control of your Facebook: Search is Back

I love Facebook. Never before in the history of the human race have so many people been organized so well. Within seconds I can find reach out to almost everyone I’ve ever met, creating the start of a powerful hivemind. The UX of the site is generally well-done, and there’s almost no friction in using it.

I also loved Facebook’s graph search, a tool introduced several few years ago which allows custom, specific searches of people on the site: friends of friends who like rock climbing and live in San Francisco, people who have taken photos in Thailand, for example. It allowed users to take advantage of the type of detailed data that had previously only been available to advertisers, in actually useful ways.

Over the past year Facebook has been killing Graph Search, so I built a tool to replicate some of its functionality. Search is Back allows you to find people by location, school, job title, company, gender, and name. It also lets you find events near you with friends invited, a tool I use almost weekly to find cool things to go to. There’s no tool like it on the internet, and I don’t think there will be for a while.

In creating this tool, I wanted to open a conversation about users’ use of our own data online. Does a company like Facebook have an obligation to give its users advanced tools to interact with each other? I’d like to explore this question by offering this advanced tool.

Take a look and share if you enjoy. Search is Back can also be easily saved to your home screen on mobile.

Search is Back on my phone's home screen

Search is Back on my phone’s home screen

Controlling your attention

As much as I like seeing updates from my friends, Facebook on the desktop does have a tendency to suck me in the minute I open it, so I’ve found a solution to hide the timeline in the default view. I also got rid of the little images next to peoples’ names in chat (all those smiling faces felt creepy) and the “Seen at” notifications that would keep me on the edge of my seat, wondering if someone had read my message. I find that I see more than enough updates while using Facebook on mobile.

It’s easy for you to do the same thing:

  • Download Adblock Plus
  • Go to your custom filters and add the filters below.
    In Chrome:
    1. Right-click the red ABP stop sign and click Options.
    2. Click Add your own filters.
    3. Click Edit filters as raw text.
    4. Paste the text below in.
    In Safari:
    1. Click the red stop sign and click Options
    2. Click Add your own filters.
    3. Click Edit filters as raw text.
    4. Paste the text below in.
    In Firefox:
    1. Click the red stop sign and click Filter Preferences.
    2. Click the Custom Filters tab.
    3. Click Add filter group (and name it “hide newsfeed” if you want).
    4. Click Actions >> Show/hide filters.
    5. Click Add filter for each line of the text below, pasting it one line at a time.
  • The filters (text to copy and paste):
    facebook.com##div#pagelet_trending_tags_and_topics
    facebook.com##div._510g
    facebook.com##div._56p9
    facebook.com##div.rhcFooterWrap
    facebook.com##span._3jy5
    facebook.com##ul.nonDroppableNav
    facebook.com#div(id*=topnews_main_stream)
    https://www.facebook.com/ajax/pagelet/generic.php/LitestandMoreStoriesPagelet

It’s lucky that we’re able to tone down some of Facebook’s addictive attributes while still using this great product. I hope you enjoy these two hacks and they make your Facebooking easier and more enjoyable!

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Making Larry David happy

The Nametag Day Kickstarter ends today, and I’m experiencing a mix of excitement and relief. It’s not very much fun to be in a position of holding your hand out for money. I also would much prefer sending a single message: “Volunteer with us! It’s free!” rather than the mixed messaging of “volunteer and give money.” At the same time, those who have given have done so with excitement, and we are providing fifty people with the opportunity to feel ownership as this idea spreads across the world. It’s continuing to grow bigger than me, which is a wonderful feeling.

I hope to raise $10-20k from grants over the next year to endow Nametag Day, so we don’t have to ask for money and can focus on what we do far better: making a killer event that changes the city.

To celebrate today, I’m sharing an email chain from 2013. We reached out to *SO MANY* corporate sponsors and celebrities, hoping to get some uptick in recognition from their tweets or support (turns out that when we got press and public recognition it didn’t get us as far as I’d thought it would at all, but that’s a story for a different blog post.)

Here’s an email I sent to Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld, which had an episode where a character lost a mayoral race after running on a platform to give everyone a nametag. (I discussed this episode with Kevin Klein on the radio last week.)

You can see from my dreaded double-first-email that I was working rather frantically at this point:

Nametag Day (for Larry David)
From: Michael Morgenstern <[email protected]>
To: [email protected]
Date: Mon, May 6, 2013 at 10:25 AM

Hey Andrew,
Thanks so much for our conversation just now.
We’re organizing Nametag Day, where we will hand out up to 200,000 nametags to encourage New Yorkers to talk to each other, be open, and make connections. The best intro to what the city will look like on that day is our video at http://nametagday.com/
It was the front page of AM New York (image of the cover), featured on PIX-11 TVCBS Local, and 10-10 WINS radio.
We would be so thrilled if Larry were interested in helping to promote it with a tweet, or even being actively involved.
Thanks very much!
Michael


RE: Nametag Day (for Larry David)
From: Michael Morgenstern <[email protected]>
To: [email protected]
Date: Mon, May 6, 2013 at 10:27 AM

Hi Andrew,
I neglected to mention that I’m reaching out because in “The Non-Fat Yogurt” episode of Seinfeld, Elaine suggested to her boyfriend that David Dinkins make everyone wear a nametag, a suggestion that cost him the election.
We think Seinfeld was just ahead of its time.
Michael


Re: Nametag Day (for Larry David)

From:[email protected]
To: Michael Morgenstern <[email protected]>
Date: Mon, May 6, 2013 at 2:50 PM

Hi Michael,
Larry is going to pass, although he’s very happy to see that his idea has finally caught on…
Best,
Andrew


Re: Nametag Day (for Larry David)
From:[email protected]
To: Michael Morgenstern <[email protected]>
Date: Mon, May 6, 2013 at 2:57 PM

Hey Andrew,
Thanks for letting me know. Making Larry David happy is just about the best thing I could hope for in a day.
Best,
Michael


And it really was!

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Lily in the Grinder released on Vimeo

Here it is! Free at last!

After a year of work and over twenty film festival screenings, I am exhilarated to tell you that today, Lily in the Grinder becomes free on Vimeo and YouTube.

Watch it again. Watch it for the first time. Ponder existence.

Less than 5,000 people have seen the film so far in a year of festivals, and we want to double that in its first week on the internet. Word of mouth is the only way a film like this spreads.

Can you help by sharing the film?

You can also see it installed in galleries in Toronto and Louisville,
this month at the Museum of the Moving Image,
and a special-fx before and after video at this post.

Thank you and have a wonderful week,
Michael

“The closest thing I’ve experienced to dreaming”
“A Visual Feast”
HBO Project Greenlight Finalist

A visual film about existence, exploring themes of
sex, death, and time through a
live string quartet recording,
bridging narrative and
experimental form.
What if
a human life
is a static
four-dimensional entity
that cannot be said to truly begin or end?
What if we already are everything we will ever be?

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Color Correction before and after: Lily in the Grinder

As part of the Lily in the Grinder release, I’m making available a before-and-after comparison which will give you a sense of the weeks of work that happened between the raw camera video and the finished product.

Take a look:

Broadly, the video went through several stages during this time:

  1. Reframing: During shooting, cinematographer Judy Phu (one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with) and I developed a language around composition in the video. So much of the meaning exists in the comparison between frames, and we wanted some compositions to match exactly. She framed wide and we punched in in post, creating (for example) the eerie effect around 6:07 where the characters’ entire faces matched.
  2. Compositing: To make the people semitransparent, we shot an empty plate of the background and superimposed it over the video. I also added rain to a shot (8:05), a rug onto the floor (4:47), put a character into a picture frame (8:55) and even added a book to the table that we couldn’t buy in time (2:14).
    I took a few days to remove a fly from a shot (10:20). It’s winter, there are no flies!
    Mistakes can be fixed in post — it just takes a LOT of someone’s time!
  3. Stabilizing & adding shake — our schedule was inhumanly tight, not allowing us to do as many takes as we wanted.
    My favorite effect: there wasn’t enough room to do a slow track in move like we wanted, so our DP jacked up the shutter speed, put the camera on her shoulder and slowly walked forward, framing very wide. We punched in and stabilized, and it looks like an incredibly smooth track move (12:10).
    I also added shake to the sunset timelapse for a cool effect.
  4. Removing strobing — I removed the slow crawl artifacts from a misbalanced flourescent light in the bedroom shots (4:47). It can be easily seen when scrubbing through the video. I isolated the crawl from the unchanging edges of the frame, then spread it over the entire frame and subtracted it.
  5. Color correction — I was going for a painterly, instagrammy look. You can see the use of a secret color correction trick, power windows, to enhance the lighting on all the characters’ faces.

I’m open to making a special FX tutorial or two — let me know if you’re interested in any of these effects.

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Transparent JPEGs are within our reach. Can we make it happen? This month?

I built a website with a large image in the center and a CSS3 gradient behind it. It’s kind of silly that I’m spending 880kb on a PNG file just to get transparency, I thought. Transparency is just RGB channels plus an alpha channel. While JPEG doesn’t support it, there’s no actual reason that it can’t be done, and with so much use of transparency on the web, we’re piping giant images onto mobile devices all the time.

So I found this post by Jack Turner which explains how to accomplish it. As expected, it’s conceptually simple, and HTML5’s Canvas element allows us to slap the alpha channel of a PNG onto a JPEG, creating a beautiful image. I used it to reduce my 880kb PNG file to a 57kb JPEG + 55kb PNG file, or an 87% reduction in filesize. It looks the same.

Then I found Jim Studt’s article, which outlines an easy way to encode the PNG into the JPEG’s metadata, in a data element. His version begins with alpha0, which allows for nine more iterations of this standard to be built. The alpha0 specification uses a PNG’s alpha channel, which requires embedding an entire lossless PNG into the file, whose size is limited to either 32kb or 64kb. He recommends designing an alpha1, which allows for a JPEG file as alpha and allows it to span data elements, circumventing the filesize restriction.

It’s 2015. Jack’s article was written FIVE YEARS AGO. We should have transparent JPEGS already. This would be easy to implement for a developer. From my standpoint, what we need to do is straightforward:

  1. Implement Jim Studt’s suggestions for an alpha1 specification, which encodes a JPEG- or PNG-compressed single channel image into the APP7 metadata of a JPEG file.
  2. Package a javascript file that makes this work cross-browser. It has to work for very old browsers…we can’t go breaking images for them. Jack has a solution which uses Flashcanvas — we need an open source solution, or can just use a PNG fallback.
  3. Write programs, GIMP and Photoshop plugins, and webapps which convert PNGs to these special JPEGs.
  4. File bug reports with major browsers. If it becomes widely used, all software will support it.

This seems to me like about a day’s work for somebody much smarter than I am. I could be off by a day. Happy to help but I only code javascript.

So what do you think, internet? Could we have this in widespread adoption by February 28?

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The Everythingis Film Festival: Eight Curated Short Films

(Cross-posted with The Huffington Post)

Eight curated short films – an early holiday present!

I’m looking for scripts, hard. In addition to developing two features with co-writers and a few myself, I set out to find and connect with talented writers and see what they have cooking. We’ve set out to watch nearly every short film from 2012, 2013, and 2014 – Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, DC Shorts, and SXSW. It’s been fun and instructive, not to mention mind-numbing. In the end, connecting with even just one great writer would make this endeavor worth it.

Know a script? Send it over!

In the process, I’ve curated some of my favorites for you. Enjoy — more coming later!

Una Hora Por Favora, directed by Jill Soloway

I love Amazon’s Transparent, which she created, and Jill’s old shorts are just as good. A nuanced director with a great grasp of humanity. Enjoy this story about a yuppie and a day laborer:

Sleepover LA, directed by Lily Baldwin

I’m very excited to see what Lily does next, and I know she is working on a feature. It’s beautiful imagery and storytelling about a Los Angeles night-time world. It’s pretty, has dance in it, and you should watch it. If you like it, her new film Sea Meadow is available on iTunes.

Rolling on the Floor Laughing, directed by Russell Harbaugh

A family drama with such great acting, directing, and writing, that it feels very real. Made by the same team that brought The Mend to Sundance last year.

Late, directed by Jason Goode

Who says characters have to talk like people do? What if they talked like we wish we did?

Bear, by Nash Edgerton

A very strong film. I can see why VICE picked it up — there’s something very hipster about it.

Weighting, by Dustin Bowser & Brie Larson

In addition to being a movie star, Brie Larson creates some pretty awesome films with a strong voice and great production value.
“She wants to go. He wants her to stay. Neither gets quite what they want.”

I’m a Mitzvah, directed by Ben Berman

A cute character piece about a guy who tries to do something very good for his dead best friend, and nearly fails a few times.

Parachute, directed by Earnest Racket

A precocious young boy strikes up an unlikely friendship with a checked-out slacker in his thirties.

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