Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 18, 2010

Zoom in: Hand Clicks Mouse

Sometimes I wish I worked for a company that made things, anything: farm machinery, toilet mechanisms, flashlight batteries. Or maybe beer! You see, the great thing about things is that you can take pictures of them. You can show them being manufactured, being packed in boxes, shipped around the world and then show them in use. Hmm… OK, I take back the one about toilet mechanisms in that case.

For nearly fifteen years I’ve been producing video for a company whose tens of thousands of employees mostly sit at computers or talk on the phone or have meetings in which they plan what they’ll do next when they get back to their cubicles and sit at their computers and talk on the phone. It’s an excellent company, extremely successful, full of brilliant people. Unfortunately, most of what we “make” is invisible: software code, enormous technical systems that run vast enterprises or control complex processes and what’s generally known as Information Technology. This is exciting stuff. Really, what other kind of company would you want to be in during this booming era of IT? Unless, that is, you’re trying to direct an exciting, dynamic video that will galvanize viewers and spur them to buy your product.

For decades now, I’ve been standing there in room after room full of bright, technically savvy people, all doing fabulous stuff with computers while the camera crew sets up. What in the heck can we do in this room full of people sitting at computers that we haven’t done literally hundreds of times before? We can zoom in and pan across the scene; we can get close-ups and low angles and dutch angles; we can bring in dollies and jib arms to make the camera zoom across the room the way it does for those great tracking shots in NFL games. Except, those wonderful colleagues of mine don’t suddenly leap into frenzied action; they just keep clicking away. Honestly, if I had a dollar for every close-up of fingers typing on a keyboard … well, it’s a living.

I’m not complaining, just speculating. I have a great job. I get to work with excellent people and tell compelling stories. I just wish there were something inherently more … um … dramatic.

The systems and technologies and software and applications the company creates power amazing projects: the Space Shuttle, transportation systems on the ground, in the air and on and under the sea; gold mines and immense factories. That’s great. But those things are what the client does. Our stuff is hidden in a back room with low ceilings and looks more or less like a well-lighted refrigerator display. When I first started in this business, computer rooms were massive affairs with gigantic mainframe boxes (which in the 80s were painted in wild color schemes, now just not the done thing); big, big cabinets full of communications gear; endless rows of disk drives, each the size of a washing machine spinning big plexiglas domes full of disks. Man, you could lay down some dolly tracks and roll the camera along for a fifty-foot long shot that would take two minutes. No more. Everything’s smaller. A box the size of a dishwasher now contains the computing power of an entire room full of that old gear.

Minor Disagreement S Wickliffe (640x480)

A Minor Disagreement

In a company with worldwide operations, the job’s given me the opportunity to take camera crews to Europe and Asia and all over the U.S. (that’s Hong Kong in the photo: I’m having a bit of a discussion about where to point the camera with Laurie, the cameraman). We get great footage of the iconic landmarks of Paris and Hyderabad and Shanghai. Then, though, we have to go into the office building to show the employees at work and, guess what? A bunch of really top-notch technologists in a row of cubicles looks pretty darned much the same whether they’re in England or Germany.

We also get to show some of those big operations in which the company’s clients use our technology: manufacturing airplanes, running high-speed trains or mining for minerals. THAT was the coolest shoot: a mine out in the high desert. Picture a mile-wide hole 1500 feet deep, with monstrous excavators dumping 900,000-pound loads of ore into dump trucks the size of your house, which then run on roads 100 feet wide. Now THAT is video worth shooting. Except, when it came time to capture the footage of the computer system that controls this immense operation? Kee-rect! A little room in a trailer with a few computers. They had some nice graphics on the display screens. We shot those.

I try to find consolation in the fact that I’m not the first one to face this challenge. Ancient civilizations couldn’t figure out how to account for all sorts of things that occur, and, struggling to find ways to visualize the forces of nature, came up with all-powerful gods with an incredible array of powers. Trying to visualize the distinction between what exists in the external world and its connection with what we can perceive in our minds, Plato came up with the idea of prisoners in a cave who can only judge the world by the shadows that are cast on the wall of their cave. Incredibly brilliant. Metaphors like that are a standard way to try to bring some of these esoteric concepts about technology to life onscreen. Thanks, Plato.

Beer companies do this sort of stuff, for example. You can’t actually show anyone drinking beer on TV, but you can come up with hundreds of ways to depict the enjoyment, the fun, the enormously life-fulfilling satisfaction that will descend upon you if you just buy their brand. But, you see, they DO have a thing. They have BEER: beer in bottles, beer in cans, foaming into a glass out of a tap, fermenting in big vats, or cases of beer riding in trucks or horse-drawn wagons. And they have attractive people in glamorous settings consuming said product. We have very attractive people at our company, too. But they’re sitting at gray computers in gray cubicles in dimly lighted rooms. Cue the Clydesdales, PLEASE!

In my next career, I’m going to stick with video. I love it. Another few years, and we’ll have full high definition 3D video as a matter of course. But I’m going to find a company that manufactures a machine that picks up locomotives, carries them along a dock, loads them into a spaceship, and fires them into space to deliver beer on Mars.

“Okay, okay. That launch was good, but we need another take. Let’s get the next spaceship wheeled out here and, this time, could we have the locomotive picker-upper kind of SPIN the train a little bit before it loads it? Great. Okay, everyone. PLACES! This is a take. Roll camera. ACTION!”

Be certain to check in next week. We have a special Olympic theme, and we’ve invited a couple of veteran writers to give us their first-hand descriptions from past Olympics they attended. I know you’re going to have some fun reading them. We start Monday with the Winter Olympics of 1984: Sarajevo!

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017. Photograph © Shannon Wickliffe, used by kind permission.



  1. Brad and I always agree to disagree on a shoot – as is obvious from the photo…………….we now have it down to a fine art.


  2. What you forgot to mention Brad, was that the closer we got to tokyo, the more furry, cuddly toys and monster heros you see on the walls of the cubicles – the further away we got from Tokyo and closer we got to Hyderabad, the more featureless the work cubicles became.


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