Digital Production Buzz
March 19, 2015
[Transcripts provided by Take 1 Transcription]
(Click here to listen to this show.)
Keith Hanak, Vice President, A/V Solutions Group, Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company
Dan Kneece, Director of Photography
Ian Cohen, Songwriter and Composer
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Larry Jordan: From the media capital of the world in Los Angeles, California, The Digital Production Buzz goes live now.
Larry Jordan: And welcome to The Digital Production Buzz, the world’s longest running podcast for creative content producers covering media production, post production, marketing and distribution around the world. Hi, my name is Larry Jordan and, as always, we welcome our co-host, Mr. Mike Horton.
Mike Horton: Is it me or is it hot in here?
Larry Jordan: It’s because you have that all-wool suit on, that three piece.
Mike Horton: Well, it used to be freezing.
Larry Jordan: Well, it’s gotten warmer outside.
Mike Horton: For once; you had this place freezing two weeks in a row and I wear this and now I have to take it off. No, I’d better not do that because… for my white arms. I’ve got to put it back on.
Larry Jordan: We just got a vote from the live chat, they prefer the coat on, thank you very much.
Mike Horton: Put your jacket back on, Horton. Ok.
Larry Jordan: While Mike is continuing to get dressed on air, I want to introduce our guests. We’ve got Keith Hanak, he’s the Vice President for A/V Solutions Group at Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company. He handles their sales, solutions development delivery and recurring services. Recently, Panasonic installed new gear for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Keith joins us to explain what they did, because this is a massive project.
Mike Horton: They do nothing but massive projects. They do all those video boards on the sports stadiums.
Larry Jordan: And they have the world’s largest electronic digital display. We’re going to talk with him about that. His group did it.
Larry Jordan: Then Dan Kneece started filming motion pictures at age 13, when his mother bought him a Super 8 camera. In 1979, while finishing his Masters in Media Arts at the University of South Carolina, Dan learned Steadicam from its originator and inventor, Garrett Brown, which led to a 28 year career as a Steadicam operator, including three feature films with David Lynch. Tonight, he shares his secrets on successful cinematography and Steadicam work.
Mike Horton: If it makes you feel any better, I’ve never been able to say successful either.
Larry Jordan: And you have not been successful tonight either.
Mike Horton: Yes, exactly.
Larry Jordan: Ian Cohen is a songwriter and composer with over 30 years’ experience writing, arranging and recording original music. Ian is an avid recording artist, working comfortably in several genres, and currently recording tracks with touring artist Mick Mahan from ‘Pat Benatar’ and Neil Giraldo and Tony Pia from ‘Doobie Brothers’. Tonight, he talks about what it takes to write songs and compose music.
Mike Horton: I’m looking forward to that one.
Larry Jordan: And he’s going to be live in the studio, you’ll be able to shake his hand, it’ll be great.
Mike Horton: I know, exactly.
Larry Jordan: Remember, you can read text transcripts for each show, courtesy of Take 1 Transcription. Transcripts are located on each show page. You can learn more at take1.tv and thanks, Take 1, for making it possible
Larry Jordan: Mike, Garrett Brown is legendary in the filmmaking community, the first to make film cameras portable and yet still create smooth shots.
Mike Horton: He’s also one of the funniest human beings you’ll ever meet. He actually came to a LAFCPUG meeting.
Larry Jordan: Really?
Mike Horton: Yes, we had him demo. This was several years ago, a very, very funny guy. Did a lot of commercials too, voiceover back in the ‘80s. He’s an actor.
Larry Jordan: Everybody is an actor at some point. I want to remind you to visit with us on Facebook, at digitalproductionbuzz.com; we’re also on Twitter, @DPBuZZ, and you can subscribe to our free weekly show newsletter at digitalproductionbuzz.com for an inside look at both our show and the industry. It comes out every Friday afternoon, has links to both the audio and the video part of the show. Mike, it’s going to be a great show today.
Mike Horton: I’m looking forward to it.
Larry Jordan: And we’re going to be starting with Keith Hanak right after this.
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Larry Jordan: Keith Hanak is the Vice President for the A/V Solutions Group at Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company and he handles their sales, solutions development delivery and recurring services. During his tenure, the AV solutions team has delivered a number of high profile digital signage projects for a variety of clients and most recently for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Hello, Keith, welcome.
Keith Hanak: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
Larry Jordan: Keith, what does the Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company do?
Keith Hanak: Well, it’s interesting. I know people think about Panasonic and they think about all the products that we create. In simple terms, we’re a systems integrator focused on both the eco and AV markets at a high level and I manage the AV side of that equation. But we’re essentially an integrator that supports a variety of projects in a bunch of different market verticals. It’s not a product focused organization.
Larry Jordan: Now, I know that your title is Vice President, but what’s your role with the group? Is it principally managerial or technical?
Keith Hanak: I manage the whole AV solutions business for Panasonic, but my background and what I still enjoy doing is mainly on the solutions side, so it’s primarily technical.
Larry Jordan: I was reading that you and your team installed the world’s largest high definition television LED screen. What was that about?
Keith Hanak: That was actually a very fun project. It’s … certified, it was out in Texas and the goal of the particular customer in this case was to have the biggest one. It turns out the viewing distances and where these screens are located relative to the stands requires something very large in order to be able to cover an audience – I think they have upwards of 160,000 people attend the event, it’s located on the back stretch and it’s a very iconic display.
Keith Hanak: If you’ve ever been to a race, you’ll know that it does require some visual aids and some technology in order to keep track of who’s where on the course so that you can better follow your particular driver as a fan. I think it’s a great tool.
Mike Horton: Wait a minute – this is going to be a stupid question – how long does it take to first of all design something like that, then install it?
Keith Hanak: This one here was a ground up, so we started with bare earth and it took about eight months from start to finish. It was kind of like constructing a building. Obviously, the footings for the sign are probably 40 feet below grade, you hit bedrock and you build it just like you would a building and it happens to have an LED board on it.
Larry Jordan: How big is this thing?
Keith Hanak: It is 218 feet by right around 94 feet. I think it’s over 20,000 square feet.
Mike Horton: I want one of those.
Larry Jordan: Where in your back yard are you going to put it?
Keith Hanak: It’s very big, very bright. The customer in this case is Speedway Motorsports, it’s a Texas motor speedway, and they’ve been very progressive in terms of getting the fans involved. Typically, what you would see at a racetrack is a vertical pylon that actually has just the order of the cars and what you can do now with replays, and fan engagement, and sponsors, and activation and all of those things with this sort of tool is really pretty special.
Keith Hanak: It’s one of those things where, when something happens, everybody stops and looks at the board, so it really changes the way fans engage at the track.
Larry Jordan: I was just thinking, video people are obsessing about HD versus 2K versus 4K resolution. This has got to be a bajillion pixels across by two bajillion pixels high, hasn’t it? How do you measure the resolution of something like this?
Keith Hanak: In this particular case, it’s certainly greater than high def and it’s about 1300 pixels by something like 26 or 2800.
Mike Horton: Wow!
Keith Hanak: It’s very large, but because it’s far enough away, obviously you don’t have to have resolution like a television, so what I would say is it’s the right amount of resolution to make it work, certainly greater than HD, and part of the reason why that’s necessary is there’s a lot of data and information that fans are interested in, so you not only have to have the video picture, you also have to integrate in the information. Social media’s a big part of things that are now being monitored at the track, along with scoring and timing and placement data.
Mike Horton: Are we just talking about one big huge HD television set? Or is there technology that goes into this that’s completely different than what we’d have in our home?
Keith Hanak: The screen itself, it’s really a big monitor, and I’d say the magic behind a lot of the stuff is what we’re doing in the control room. It just so happens that this particular location where we built the largest screen, we also built the control room and there’s a bunch of different data elements that are integrated into the show and we happen to work with their production staff to produce the show for them for all of their events, so there’s a whole control room and it’s quite a process and, like you would see at any live event, it’s a very significant operation with a technical director, production teams, audio and so forth.
Larry Jordan: When you’re putting this together, are you driving it from a single computer? Or is it multiple graphics cards? How do you feed a signal to something that big?
Keith Hanak: First of all, as you know at sporting events a bunch of different cameras that are being deployed now. Some are actually in-house cameras, where others come from the networks that happen to be covering those events. They have replay systems that they use to play back special events. They also have pre-canned information like sponsors and advertising data and then also integrating in with scoring and timing data is a big deal. All of those things are going on simultaneously and you’re trying to find the right mix.
Keith Hanak: Then there’s the run of show and a lot of these advertisers and a lot of the stuff that’s done during the show is actually driven by some event that happens, so if there’s a caution flag that’s sponsored; if there’s a break in the action of some sort or a change in leadership, that causes some action to take place, so it’s actually a lot more sophisticated than you might imagine, and very well thought out.
Larry Jordan: Oh, I’m sure it is. It’s like broadcasting a network television show to a screen.
Mike Horton: The thing that blows me away when you go to these outdoor sporting events and you look at these giant screens that are out there in the daylight, in the sunshine – how do you deal with that sunlight? Because I can always see the image and I can see it perfectly clear.
Keith Hanak: The technology now is such that you can achieve brightness levels that, frankly, are more than sufficient for daytime viewing and far too bright for nighttime viewing, so what’s actually happening is at night you really have to turn it down or you’ll blind the drivers.
Mike Horton: Wow, there’s a guy turning it down. That’s really cool.
Larry Jordan: Keith, I want to shift gears to a different project, one that you just completed, which was for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Tell me about this one.
Keith Hanak: This one was certainly a lot of fun. It was actually a very important project for Panasonic – we just relocated our headquarters into Newark, New Jersey – and we actually sat down with the folks from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and looked at some of the objectives that they had in terms of being able to provide better services to their customers and came up with a whole list of actions that we mutually executed that we think are going to allow them to provide a lot better support to their clients now and in the future.
Keith Hanak: It wasn’t something where we came in and opened up our catalog and said, “Pick some parts here.” In their kind of facility, it’s a spectacular location and they’ve got a bunch of different spaces that are used for meetings, so the key there was connectivity and flexibility and we obviously added a lot of interfaces, a lot of internal fiber, additional cameras and we created some support acts that allow them to support different locations. Obviously signage and some of the visual elements are extremely important and I think in the end they’re going to have a facility that better serves their customers’ needs and their needs as they look to the future. It was a very collaborative project with the folks from NJPAC.
Larry Jordan: Let’s get specific. Tell me how big the job was. What kind of gear did you put in? Was it just digital signage? What did you install?
Keith Hanak: We actually started off with a lot of infrastructure, so we did a lot of the HD infrastructure, brand new cabling, a bunch of new interaction points for cameras that they would need for special events, certainly upgraded all the cameras and all of the camera interfaces all the way back from the control room to the key elements within the presentation areas. They had a bunch of stuff that they were doing that was temporary – temporary camera cables, temporary this and that – so the production… was very high.
Keith Hanak: All of that is now permanent and then we created what we call portable fly pack systems that we could move around to all of these new connection points so that they had basically several production systems in a box that they can move around to wherever the need is within that facility. It was a combination of infrastructure, a lot of image capturing equipment and then portable purpose-built production systems that allow them to do many of the same things we just talked about at the speedway.
Larry Jordan: There are a lot of system integrators out there. What was it that Panasonic offered that they felt was the reasons for going with you?
Mike Horton: Are there a lot, though? There’s Panasonic, there’s Mitsubishi and maybe a couple more. Are there a lot of them or what?
Keith Hanak: Where we like to think we’re a little bit different is that we have a lot of the advantages of being a great manufacturer, so we get the advantage of the fact that we have a great toolkit to work from, which is the Panasonic product set, which is very strong in broadcast and security and obviously I think everybody knows about our displays, so we have that advantage and then I think the rest of it is cultural. You’ve got to have the right folks, the right team and the right mindset where you go into work with the customers, in this case NJPAC, in a very collaborative way and, as I said, we weren’t trying to open up the catalog and sell it, we were really trying to apply the skills that we have from an engineering and design perspective to the business problem that was in front of them.
Keith Hanak: You need to do those things within a budget and be able to provide value back to customers and be able to do that in a way that makes sense to them and obviously to our company as well. In this particular case, it was very special because we’re new neighbors and much of the Panasonic equipment was provided by Panasonic at no charge and so it was a very important project to us because now we have a nice demo site in downtown Newark and I think they’re very happy.
Larry Jordan: I can just imagine. How big a crew and how long did the installation take?
Keith Hanak: This whole process has gone on, in terms of the evaluation with the folks at NJPAC, for probably more than a year. One of the things I will tell you is our initial thoughts were we were going to do something that was like a production facility for a TV station. As we dug into what the potential problems were and what their clients wanted, it turned out that where we started and where we ended up were very different.
Keith Hanak: What we ended up doing throughout the course of this is we probably went through and designed it two or three times until we got it right and then what we ended up with, I think, is what everybody believed to be the best approach to solving the problem and I think in the end allows us to scale and add on and meet future needs pretty gracefully from this point forward.
Larry Jordan: What was the biggest challenge in putting this together?
Keith Hanak: I think probably one of the biggest challenges for both them and us was that our initial vision was that it was going to be something that was fairly contained. We had an initial vision that it was going to be a production facility directly in the main area where they do presentations at the Performing Arts Center, and it ended up being a facility wide enhancement in terms of the infrastructure. It kind of grew tentacles, if you know what I’m saying, so it became pretty broad in the scope and scale and its reach in terms of the work that we did.
Larry Jordan: I was just reflecting, both at the Churchill Downs racetrack and for New Jersey, digital signage is a key part of what you’re putting together. Do cinematographers or videographers need to shoot or expose differently to have stuff look good on digital signage? Or do they just treat it like a television set?
Keith Hanak: I think it’s very much dependent upon the application. We’ve certainly had signage that’s not in the typical aspect ratio and it’s kind of odd because you see cinematographers who are filming sideways on the cameras, and that’s obviously always good to see, so I would say it depends on the content and the requirement that you’re dealing with.
Keith Hanak: But those things are generally pretty well thought through as we engage on these sorts of projects, so I think the content is key, so all of these things that we talked about in terms of signage and display technology, it’s an important element but it’s just the power and I think the content is what brings these things to life and keeps people interested and draws them to the display. The best stuff is done specifically custom for the application.
Larry Jordan: We used to have to worry with digital signage about smear and lag and just the fact that the signs couldn’t keep up with fast movement. Is that a thing of the past?
Keith Hanak: I think that the refresh rates have got to the point where it’s actually much easier. Compression technology also means that the files and the information you’re moving around is further compressed and I think it’s a very manageable problem in today’s world.
Mike Horton: I want to make sure that the viewers who are watching this get a chance to look at your website, especially for the viewers here in Los Angeles. If you go to a Lakers game or a Clippers game or a Kings game, you’ve got one of your big displays right there at the Staple Center.
Keith Hanak: Yes, and that’s one that we’re very proud of. That’s a great venue, not just the Staple Center, but the area around there, LA Live…
Mike Horton: Oh, you’ve got some of your displays at LA Live too?
Keith Hanak: Absolutely. In fact, at LA Live many of the displays that are out there are for hanging off the JW Marriott and so forth, those are also Panasonic displays. We’ve done not just the video board, but the control room at the Staple Center and it’s a great venue to go see an event. That video board we called the 4HD. I think that was one of the first center-hung video boards. One of the unique and distinguishing features on that is that this displays on the underside of the board.
Mike Horton: Yes, absolutely. Hopefully you’ll do the NFL stadium if it ever gets to LA.
Larry Jordan: Where can people go on the web to learn more about you and the products your team creates?
Keith Hanak: If you happen to be on the Panasonic website, we’re under Panasonic Solutions and we have a lot of our product profiles; and obviously while you’re there, there’s also a tremendous number of great products and other solutions… inside the company. Take a look at that.
Larry Jordan: Keith, thank you. That’s the panasonic.com website. The web address is on your screen. Keith Hanak is the VP of A/V Solutions at Panasonic. Keith, thanks for joining us today.
Mike Horton: Thanks, Keith.
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Larry Jordan: Dan Kneece started filming motion pictures at age 13, when his mother bought him a Super 8 camera. In 1979, while finishing his Masters in Media Arts at the University of South Carolina, Dan learned Steadicam from its originator, Garrett Brown, which led to a 28 year career as a Steadicam operator and ongoing work with director David Lynch on films such as ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Wild at Heart’ and ‘Mulholland Drive.’ Hello, Dan, welcome.
Dan Kneece: Hello, Larry.
Mike Horton: Hi, Dan.
Larry Jordan: We are glad to have you with us. We could probably talk to you for hours just about the films you worked on, but to start what got you hooked on cameras? We’re having a little bit of break-up, the mic is cutting in and out, we can hear about every other word.
Dan Kneece: Oh, ok.
Mike Horton: It’s usually a bandwidth issue on that end.
Larry Jordan: Hang on one second, Dan, we’re going to try to tweak this.
Mike Horton: Hey, Dan, do you have any apps running in the background?
Dan Kneece: Yes, let me see if I can…
Mike Horton: Yes, see if you can close them out to give us a little more bandwidth.
Dan Kneece: Yes, let me see.
Mike Horton: And, by the way, while you’re doing that, this is my Garrett Brown story. I run this local user group here in Los Angeles and he came to demo for us. He had that little Steadicam, I forget what it’s called, but he ended up selling it to Tiffen but he was demonstrating that thing. He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met in my life. He’s extraordinary, and a lot of people don’t remember, he did a lot of radio commercials back in the ‘80s, as well as developing the Steadicam and he’s a fascinating guy.
Dan Kneece: He’s the voice of Molson Golden.
Mike Horton: Right, that’s what it was, yes. He was terrific, a really great guy and obviously a master at what he invented.
Larry Jordan: Dan, what first caught your attention about the Steadicam and when was that?
Dan Kneece: I learned Steadicam in 1982 from Garrett. I took a workshop at Image Devices in Miami – I was living in South Carolina at the time, where I grew up – and I’d been enamored with it and I went there and I saw the first time Garrett picked it up, he let go of it and just hung it on an arm like voodoo, like it was floating up in the air, and I said, “That’s a really cool thing. I really am glad I’m learning how to do that,” and once I did that, then I went back to South Carolina and I started working in the North Carolina film business and I was the only one there at the time in that area doing Steadicam and so I started working… studios in Shelby, North Carolina and we’d make blow them up and shoot them up movies.
Dan Kneece: We’d get a… bombs and we’d shoot a person. We wouldn’t shoot them once, we’d shoot them a hundred times, we’d put a hundred hits on their chest and shoot them with a submachine gun and they’d just die in slow motion for half an hour. I did about six movies for Earl and then I got a chance to work on this movie, ‘Blue Velvet.’ I had been hitting up Dino… studio in Wilmington, North Carolina. They tried to hire me on a few films and then they said, “Well, we’ve got this movie, ‘Blue Velvet’ if you want to do it?” and I said, “Sure, I’ll do it,” and then I got there and I looked at the call sheet and I said, “Who’s directing this?” and they said, “David Lynch,.”
Dan Kneece: My buddies and I had seen ‘Dune’ and we thought ‘Dune’ was the greatest thing and had always said if there’s anybody in the business we can work with, we’d love to work with David Lynch, and there I was working with David Lynch. I couldn’t sleep all night.
Mike Horton: He’d done ‘Elephant Man’ by that time, too, which wasn’t a slacker movie either, so he had a pretty good rep.
Dan Kneece: Yes, yes. He’d done ‘Elephant Man’, he’d done ‘Eraserhead’; and ‘Elephant Man’ is a wonderful movie if you’ve ever seen that. That’s a great film, wonderfully done. And so I did ‘Blue Velvet’ with him, I only did a few shots on it, but that led to an ongoing career where I’ve done now ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Wild at Heart’, ‘Twin Peaks’: ‘Fire Walk With Me’, ‘Lost Highway’, ‘Mulholland Drive’ and some commercial work and stuff for the internet and things like that, and he’s getting ready to do nine more episodes of ‘Twin Peaks’ now.
Mike Horton: Yes, and then we just read that maybe not, there’s something happening that it may not be happening, I don’t know.
Dan Kneece: I know of a couple of things online, but I don’t really put too much faith in that at all.
Mike Horton: Yes, neither do I. So we figure you know, so what’s the answer? Is it going to happen or not?
Dan Kneece: I wish I had an answer for you. All I’ve done is said I would like to do them, and then if they happen maybe I’ll get a chance. That’s what I’m hoping.
Larry Jordan: Dan, let’s put your DP hat on for a second. How would you describe the collaborative process between the DP and the director, maybe between you and Mr. Lynch, but also between you and other directors? How do you work out that teamwork?
Dan Kneece: Different directors are different. Some are very technical and want to do a lot with the technology, some only want to work with the actors and some are good at both things. People are individuals, so you have to try to figure out how you can relate to this new person. I’ve had a lot of experience as an operator being in the inner circle with the DP and the director and us planning what we’re going to do together, so it’s just an extension of that really.
Mike Horton: I was an actor a long time ago, back in a past life. Steadicam operators, between a good one and a not so good one, the good ones can always anticipate an actor’s move and even though you’ve blocked it out and you’ve still got marks to hit and everything like that, that Steadicam operator can anticipate the actor is the Steadicam operator who gets all the work, and hopefully you’re one of those guys because that makes a big difference.
Dan Kneece: Yes, I did Steadicam for 28 years. I don’t do it any more, I figured 28 years was long enough.
Mike Horton: Your back is hurting you, yes.
Dan Kneece: Carrying 100 pounds for 18 hours a day for 28 years, you’re kind of ready to try something different after a while. But I was a very good Steadicam operator and I was in demand. In ’96, I turned down six jobs for every job I took.
Larry Jordan: What makes for a good Steadicam operator? What tips do you have to be successful?
Dan Kneece: You have to be a professional and you have to have an eye.
Mike Horton: Yes, that eye, it’s huge.
Dan Kneece: It really is, and you have to interpret things. I teach at a lot of universities, I go around and lecture at AFI and UCSB and the University of South Carolina, where I went to school, and other universities around, and I tell the students that our job is two percent what they hire us to do and 98 percent people skills, because you have to be a bit of a psychiatrist to really pull this job off.
Dan Kneece: If you’ve got a day job, you’ve got a couple of hours to figure out everybody on the set, who does what, what makes them work and how to get your job done amongst all these personalities. If you’re on a longer job, you have a couple of days or else you’re out of there. You really have to figure all that out.
Mike Horton: Yes, get along with people.
Dan Kneece: You do, and if the director wants you to do something, sometimes he’ll tell you, “I want you to do this,” but it’s really not what they want you to do. They want you to do something completely different but they describe it that way.
Mike Horton: That’s where interpretation comes in, right.
Larry Jordan: Oh man.
Dan Kneece: Yes, you have to figure out what they really want and then give them that. If you can do that, you’ll be working a lot.
Mike Horton: Yes, good.
Larry Jordan: This is one of those things where we’ve just barely got ourselves started talking and I need to invite you back, because there are so many stories and how this whole technology piece works and I think you’re exactly right when you talk about people skills. For people who want to learn more about you, where can they go on the web?
Dan Kneece: I’m on LinkedIn, also my website is www.dankneece.com.
Larry Jordan: That’s dankneece.com and the Dan Kneece himself is the face you see on the screen. Dan, thanks for joining us today.
Mike Horton: Thanks, Dan.
Larry Jordan: Bye bye.
Dan Kneece: Thank you.
Larry Jordan: Michael, your mic is in the way. Michael, people are working. You can dress him up but you can’t take him anywhere. Ian Cohen is a songwriter and composer with over 30 years’ experience writing, arranging and recording original music. Ian’s an avid recording artists, working comfortably in several genres and currently recording tracks with touring artists Mick Mahan and Tony Pia. Tonight, he talks about what it takes to write songs and compose music. Ian, it’s a delight to have you with us, thanks for being here.
Ian Cohen: Thank you very much for having me.
Larry Jordan: What inspired you to start playing music all those many years ago?
Ian Cohen: Well, way back when, when I was about four or five, my dad had this huge record collection, Django, Dave Brubeck, classical, all the different genres, The Beatles, all the pop artists, and literally every day after school I’d come home, put my headphones on and spend hours and hours listening to all of these great musicians, artists and songwriters and that went on for three or four years.
Ian Cohen: I remember distinctly that I got pretty inspired by John Denver – it’s kind of a funny story. I was listening to a lot of different artists and my parents were kind of on the B Plan with the lower middle class, so whenever I wanted to get something for a holiday, I wanted my big wheel, I never got that; I wanted my racetrack, never got that.
Mike Horton: You got a John Denver album?
Ian Cohen: No, I wanted the train set, all those things, K-Mart special, blue light would go off, and I remember distinctly everything was, “No.” But then we were walking through the mall in Schaumberg and I looked up on the wall in Music Land and I saw a guitar and I kind of pointed in there, I said, “Can I get a guitar?” and they dragged me right in there and it was like a $40 cheap guitar and that’s when I started.
Mike Horton: Electric or acoustic?
Ian Cohen: It was acoustic and I got…
Larry Jordan: But you were doing more than playing music. If I remember, when you were 16, you were inventing as well. What did you invent?
Ian Cohen: Yes, as I progressed I was really focused on innovation and writing my own book, so I didn’t want to emulate, I didn’t want to copy other people’s riffs. It was very important to me to actually be an original artist.
Mike Horton: At age 16, you decided that?
Ian Cohen: Well, I was doing that when I first started with the electric around 12 years old.
Mike Horton: Oh Lord.
Ian Cohen: And so what happened was I came home from a party – I probably shouldn’t say that because my family might be listening – but I came home from a party and was staring at my guitars and I started hearing these different sounds. I wasn’t hearing voices, I was hearing sounds, and I was looking at my guitars and these guitars, I used to sleep with them, I used to put them in bed with me and everything and I was just completely focused on music.
Ian Cohen: I thought, “What if I just saw the ridge in half on one of my guitars?” and I literally sawed it in half. I was in shop in school and I sawed it in half and I made two arms. That was the original idea and my mom actually worked as a patent legal secretary for Hewlett Packard and Xerox and at Xerox Park, when I was 13, I played on the Alto computer, I was right there in the middle of all this innovation.
Mike Horton: First of all, I can’t picture this. You have two arms, but we’re still talking about six strings?
Ian Cohen: Yes, yes, I took an electric guitar…
Mike Horton: Not 12 strings, six strings with two arms.
Ian Cohen: Right, so what the object was, was that if you were playing a song, everybody was always using it for all this crazy pyrotechnic guitar stuff and I wanted to kind of have a way to be able to incorporate it in songs, to subtly put it in there so it more instead of being completely a lead type of accent or color, you wanted to actually use it within your songwriting.
Ian Cohen: I had the idea and I drew a picture of it and did the prototype and then I met the patent legal guys, the major attorneys that also had science engineering degrees and they said go back, spend two weeks and brainstorm every possible way you could do this, and I came back with non-adjacent strings, I could divide up all the strings, for any stringed instrument. I could selectively control separate sets of strings simultaneously, so that was my invention and I built prototypes and I still to this day prefer my original idea, which is just to have the two arms.
Ian Cohen: I wrote the patent, I did all the drawings, I did drafting in high school so I was also very much involved in that, so I was able to do all my drawings. The only thing that the attorney did was right the claims, filed it and in 1993 the patent issued.
Larry Jordan: Mike, I don’t want to make you feel bad, but he was 16 when that happened.
Mike Horton: Yes, this was like Mozart doing stuff at five.
Ian Cohen: Well, no, no, no. The idea, the first time I thought of it, was 16. I filed a non-disclosure, so that way you do drawings, it’s not a formal patent, but what it does is if there’s an interference in the Patent Office, then it leapfrogs whoever filed. But by the time I had written it, I wrote the patent probably when I was about 18, I took other patents that were in the prior art and edited them and then constructed in a way that…
Mike Horton: Did this whole invention, this object, this double armed guitar become a muse to your music?
Ian Cohen: Yes. I’ve used it for years and actually, when I’m playing it, it feels like I’m in the new frontier. There’s not really an instruction manual for it. You’re playing it and there’s nobody that’s said, “Hey, this is how you use this thing,” so when you’re doing it, you’re actually doing something that’s new and it feels really amazing.
Ian Cohen: The problem is that people don’t really adapt new ideas or innovations quickly. There’s a cycle and so people are really focusing on traditional ideas. Innovators and people that come up with new things are not really always taken seriously, which isn’t what happened with my case.
Larry Jordan: Well, let’s shift gears and talk about your music, otherwise Mike, as we know, is a deep lover of technology and nothing except blinking lights gets his attention, which is just not true at all.
Mike Horton: There’s nothing happening here.
Larry Jordan: Tell me about your songwriting process. How do you go about it? You’ve written songs, you’ve scored films and you’ve scored commercials. Let’s start with songs. Do you start with the words? Do you start with the music? Or does it all just appear full blown in your head?
Ian Cohen: Usually what happens is I’m playing chords. Actually, let’s go back. It usually starts with something that’s affected you emotionally, something that’s happened in your life that causes you to say, “This has really affected me intensely,” and you express yourself. It’s almost like therapy, you start to think about what happened and the only way to really get it out is just to start to throw it out and the story happens simultaneously.
Ian Cohen: Usually, I’m playing acoustic guitar and the lyrics are flowing, almost in an improv manner, so everything is coming out and then I’m recording everything all the time, I’ve been recording everything since I was 14…
Larry Jordan: So you’re not taking notes, you’re just doing a recording?
Ian Cohen: I’m usually doing a recording unless I’m not near a recording device. Then I’ll have to work the part over and over until I remember it and then I’ll write it down really fast. But when the song seeds happen, they happen really quickly and they’re a fleeting moment, so if they’re not recorded it’s hard to recapture them or remember the melody and remember how it happened.
Ian Cohen: It’s generally starting off with acoustic guitar, could be sitting in any location – on the beach like when I lived in Hawaii or just anything that strikes you or you had a heartbreak in your life or you have something really positive happen in your life and then you end up starting to write about it and the lyrics flow, and then you start to evolve the song.
Ian Cohen: The song isn’t always pure, usually it’s not pure, it’s not a solid song. You’re throwing a lot of ideas around, so you’ve got to pick through and find them and then the song evolves.
Mike Horton: Even when you were 12 years old, you were talking about how you wanted to be completely different, you didn’t want to have the same riffs, you didn’t want to have the same chords. That’s really, really hard to do and that’s putting a lot of pressure on yourself to come up with that organic thing that’s happening, whether it be that heartbreak or whatever. You’re just saying, “It’s got to be completely different.” How does that stop you from being creative? Or does it stop you from being creative?
Ian Cohen: Well, this is the problem, there’s a lot of adversity, from my standpoint, in your life when people all want you to play cover music. They want to hear the popular music.
Mike Horton: Well, you’ve got to pay the bills too.
Ian Cohen: Right, you’ve got to pay the bills or, in my case, I’ve had a day job, like a lot of musicians have had, and they build up whatever career they might have around it. But the core is that you just have to maintain your integrity, you have to keep on fighting all of the voices that come in and say that you have to play what’s popular, yet you have to write songs that people relate to.
Ian Cohen: But if you’re writing something about something that happened, most people relate already because they’ve gone through that emotion in their life at some point, so you’ve just got to fight off all of the adversity.
Mike Horton: If you wanted to, could you write a hit song in the next hour or two? Just by what’s popular out there right now?
Ian Cohen: Well, that’s a loaded question.
Mike Horton: I know.
Ian Cohen: The definition of a hit song, what was a hit…
Larry Jordan: Well, let’s flip the question. How long does it take to write a song?
Ian Cohen: Sometimes a song is evolved over years, sometimes the first song seeds happen and then they happen really quickly. In the last two weeks, I’ve written a song called ‘Just One Win,’ that’s the chorus – Just One Win is kind of the melody of it and I start off with a melody and a seed and then I work the lyrics and then I have the idea of what it was about.
Ian Cohen: That’s taken a couple of weeks, written and recorded on the guitar and then with a voice, but I can go back and start building it, which is where Mick and Tony come in, because then I’ll start building up the composition, the arrangement, and I’ll lay down bass lines and I’ll do drum loops with the different parts and changes within. There’s no substitute for a guy like Tony Pia, who is a top notch touring professional with the Doobie Brothers and is with Brian Setzer and all kinds of other people, or Mick Mahan who tours with Pat Benatar.
Ian Cohen: These are friends of mine, so when they come off their tours, I have this battery of material. The question is how long does it take to write a hit song? I don’t have a hit song. I think in my repertoire I might, I don’t know, it’s hard to predict. You can’t really judge for yourself what is going to be a hit. Most people don’t know and people who write can try it in a way that’s contrived, but I don’t think that that’s really the right way to do it. I think it just has to be from the heart and if it happens to strike a chord…
Mike Horton: Do you like what’s popular right now?
Ian Cohen: Sure, yes. There’s a lot of material out there that’s phenomenal. You listen to the songwriting, the melodies, the lyricism, it’s phenomenal, so yes I do.
Mike Horton: I’m talking about what’s popular on the radio.
Ian Cohen: Yes. No, I like some of that, sure, but…
Mike Horton: …critically popular.
Ian Cohen: No, I’m trying to be open minded so some of it I like, some of it I don’t. Some of it, I think, might be a little overproduced, but some of it I think is really raw, some things that strike me. What I’m looking for when I’m listening is an emotional movement.
Larry Jordan: But that’s true for songwriting. Is it also true for the films that you compose for? Is there a difference between composing for a film and composing a song? The song is built on an emotional hook. Is there still storytelling with film composition as well?
Ian Cohen: Sure, yes. With the film, it is different because there are hits, there are parts in each segment of film that you have to score to in a way, there’s a vibe to it and you have to capture it. You have to look at each cue and look at the way the vibe of that is and if there’s a certain emotion that’s being portrayed, if it’s comedy or drama, whatever it is, you have to really try to key into the emotional effect.
Ian Cohen: Let’s just say we’re people that go watch a movie – what moves you or what causes you to react? When you’re composing, you’re trying to connect with that film and that scene in a way that is heartfelt and that the people that are watching it are drawn in more to it and it’s a whole movement. When I watch a movie, sometimes I’ll get the chills or chicken skin, I call it the chill factor.
Ian Cohen: That’s the art of the film composing, how you are able to match the music for whatever the scene is. With the advertising, it’s a little bit different because it has to be more subtle, it can’t be overpowering. Sometimes the music in a film could be maybe a little bit more predominant.
Mike Horton: A little bit more, because you’ve got 30 seconds to get that through.
Ian Cohen: That’s it, right, 30 seconds and actually writing 30 seconds of music is extremely difficult because it has to have a build up and end and stop at a certain point and there are going to be a lot of things happening within that whole thing, so when I do stuff it’s on spec most of the time, where somebody says I got the film and then I score to it.
Ian Cohen: I’ll give you an example, on my website I have a sample where there’s an Exxon commercial and in there, I was watching it, and they were talking about chemistry and Exxon, and how they’re trying to affect the environment in a positive manner, and so I’m watching these little cells run across the screen and I’m thinking, “How am I going to get that to sound chemical and how am I going to get it to sound like something that you would find in a lab?” Another one was a Betty White one where it’s a Snickers commercial and she’s running around, it’s got to be comical and there’s…
Mike Horton: Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum. Exxon and Betty White.
Ian Cohen: Yes, then on my site too there’s an iPod one where you look at the screen and there’s a dance troupe on there, so you’ve got to come up with a groove, you’ve got to look at the screen where there’s on music and you look at it and you say, “Ok, how am I going to do that?”
Mike Horton: We’ve got to get to this question from Caesar.
Larry Jordan: Caesar’s asking in our live chat, what music software do you use? How do you compose?
Ian Cohen: I use a combination of several different programs. I use Sebelius…
Mike Horton: Oh, cool.
Ian Cohen: …Logic and Pro Tools. Now, what I do normally, is it a film composing question?
Larry Jordan: Film or video, yes.
Ian Cohen: Ok, film or video, ok. So songwriting would be, I would say, pretty much writing the framework of everything in Logic and then move it over to Pro Tools for the…
Larry Jordan: For the mix.
Ian Cohen: Right, for the mixing and also the power of the plug-ins, the different things that I use, and other things in there, the sound samples. But as far as composing goes, I link up Sebelius with Logic, or I can export a midi file. You’ve composed it, you’ve taken the instruments – let’s say you have ten or 12 pieces and you’ve orchestrated the whole thing – and then what I do is bring the midi file in and voice it and I use all of the sound samples in Logic to voice it because the instruments that are in Sibelius are crappy.
Larry Jordan: So you’re using Sibelius to capture the midi and then you’re doing the voicing and texturing in Logic.
Ian Cohen: Well, to score it, so if you look in Sibelius, you’ll have all the staves, you can call it whatever instruments you want – violin, cello, flute, there’s a myriad, percussion, timpani, every instrument known to man is in there – and then what you do is, if you’re scoring, you have the film and you can open it up inside Sibelius and first you start to grunt and you’re looking at the film and you’re just trying to figure it out, you just make all kinds of noises and you try to figure out how to actually capture your interpretation of it, and then you put hits in.
Ian Cohen: You can also change the tempo in there. Let’s say it’s a one minute cue. In there, you can have 120 beats per minute, you can even have a different key signature, different time signature, and then you can all of a sudden have it shift to a different tempo, different time signature, because if it changes in the scene then you want to try and shift it around.
Mike Horton: I think that’s cheating.
Larry Jordan: You just be quiet.
Mike Horton: It is.
Larry Jordan: …listen to your music.
Ian Cohen: Let me give you an example. The phenomenal thing about Sibelius is then you can print out all the sheet music.
Mike Horton: Oh gosh.
Ian Cohen: No, but then you have an orchestra and you bring it in there, I’ve done this several times, and each instrument has…
Larry Jordan: You’ve got the score.
Ian Cohen: You’ve got the score, each player takes it and you get up and conduct it or do whatever, and they’re all playing it.
Mike Horton: Think what Leonard Bernstein could have done with that in the ‘50s. We’ve only got 30 seconds, but quickly, you’re a long time Logic user and this is what I always ask Logic people – do you hate Logic 10 or like it?
Ian Cohen: I’m not even using it.
Mike Horton: Yes, I knew you, ok. So you’ve not even gone to Logic 10 yet.
Ian Cohen: No, because I’m actually more focused in on Pro Tools mainly because of the card system with the HD.
Larry Jordan: Ian, where can we go on the web to learn more about your music?
Ian Cohen: Iancohenmusic.com.
Mike Horton: Easy.
Ian Cohen: Pretty self-explanatory.
Larry Jordan: That’s iancohenmusic.com. Ian, thanks for joining us today.
Mike Horton: Yes, it was good fun.
Ian Cohen: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Larry Jordan: Take care.
Ian Cohen: I really appreciate it.
Larry Jordan: You know, Michael, it is always fun to listen to the creative process and how the creative process works and how people create music or commercials or digital signage.
Mike Horton: Have you ever created music, Larry?
Larry Jordan: I did once. I did one piece of music.
Mike Horton: Really?
Larry Jordan: It really came out well and I said, “I am resting on my laurels, that’s as far as I’m going to go.” How about yourself?
Mike Horton: No.
Larry Jordan: Not even singing in the shower?
Mike Horton: I can sing in the shower. But, no, music, no. I was one of those kids who was bullied early because I played the accordion.
Larry Jordan: Are you serious?
Mike Horton: I did, I played the accordion when I was a kid. That was the instrument I chose.
Larry Jordan: I played baritone.
Mike Horton: My parents said, “Choose an instrument.” I chose the accordion.
Larry Jordan: You and Lawrence Welk.
Mike Horton: So I was playing polka, for God’s sakes. It was just… I look back and what was I thinking? Not the guitar, not the piano, the accordion.
Larry Jordan: Well, at least you could always play it regardless of where you were. It’s a portable instrument.
Mike Horton: It made me who I am today, a co-host on The Digital Production Buzz.
Larry Jordan: I prefer to think of it as a retired actor with a music career to look back on with great pride.
Mike Horton: Ok. An accordion player, oh my God.
Larry Jordan: I’d love to see you in shorts and polka outfit doing the accordion. It would be worth watching.
Mike Horton: I might post a picture one of these days.
Larry Jordan: I want to thank our guests this week: Keith Hanak is the Vice President for the A/V Solutions Group at the Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company; Dan Kneece, Director of Photography and Steadicam operator; and Ian Cohen, songwriter and composer.
Larry Jordan: There’s lot of history in our industry and it’s all posted to our website at digitalproductionbuzz.com. Here, you’ll find hundreds of past shows and thousands of interviews all searchable, all online and all available.
Larry Jordan: You can visit with us on Twitter, @DPBuZZ, and Facebook, at digitalproductionbuzz.com. Our theme music is composed by Nathan Doogie Turner, additional music on The Buzz is provided by smartsound.com. Text transcripts are provided by Take 1 Transcription. If you want to talk to Mike, you can email us at email@example.com, but we will question your sanity.
Larry Jordan: Our producer is Cirina Catania. Our engineering team is lead by Megan Paulos…
Mike Horton: If you want to learn the accordion, email me at michaelh.
Larry Jordan: …and includes Alexia Chalida, Ed Goyler, Keegan Guy, Lindsay Luebbert and Brianna Murphy. On behalf of Mike Horton, the accordion guy, my name is Larry Jordan and thanks for listening to The Digital Production Buzz.
Mike Horton: Goodbye, everybody.
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