ASCII by Jason Scott

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It Stinks! —

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Since we’re now going to be deep in “everyone is watching my movie” season, I thought I’d mention some of the fun unique aspects of having something out there for everyone.

Here’s the first review on IMDB:

This documentary is simply bad. It exclusively focuses on the “geek”. Yes, these people are pleased to know each other. Yes, they are also thrilled to be allowed to drink beer. So, what? Time after time, we are told that DEFCON is what you make of it. Really? Here is a universal truth: so is life and everything else.

The true relevance of DEFCON (and hacking in general) is dismissed in favor of portraying the event as a wonky dentist conference. Here we have some of the smartest people in the world yet all we get to see is how they get Mohawks, buy T-shirts, and play catch in a pool. Who-gives-a-damn.

There are a zillion interesting stories to be told about hacking and those of us with an interest in the subject were looking forward to some of them. Sadly, this documentary tells none.

Now, before friends and family come rushing to my defense, let’s discuss this.

I find this sort of review fascinating. Utterly fascinating. The fact that the movie could hit some people so hard as a failure, and to demolish their expectations that it would be watchable, just sucks me in.

By my very rough calculations, about 8000 people have seen the documentary as of this writing. The number is growing pretty significantly over time. (I’m combining accurate stats generators I have as well as mentions, along with some other voodoo.) I don’t know how the film landed with the vast majority, but I can at least see things like 100-1 like-dislike ratios on YouTube as well as the very nice notes and comments I’ve gotten.

But man, when it doesn’t hit, it does not hit. To reference Patton Oswalt, it’s like they’re watching a monkey shitting where it’s so painful the monkey wants to punch its own ass. The music, they hate it! The choice of subject matter, a total loss! The boringessness of it, it is the boringestness of a thousand dying suns. Trust me, there’s a bunch of these reviews floating out there, but I’m not supposed to have seen them so I won’t quote them. The themes are: Bad movie, doesn’t show hacking, boring, fuck DEFCON.

I don’t know if they want me to make better movies next time, or if they are now prepared to shitcan me for all of time. If it’s the first:

A real help, for myself and really anyone else whose work undergoes this sort of review, is to maybe have a reference to what the reviewer does like. Even a sentence on the order of “Unlike ________, the DEFCON Documentary never captures the hacker spirit” would at least give me a guidepost as to how far afield the work has gone.

It would also be good to know what you were expecting the movie to be about. There’s a chance I made a choice down the line along editing that considered your preferred approach, and there might have been a really, really good reason I made the choice I did. Sometimes the movie inside your head isn’t actually very good once you run it through the video editor. Trust me.

I’m lucky, really. When I put together these films, DEFCON and the previous two, I can walk away knowing I made all the choices. DEFCON was more collaborative, to be sure, and not all the footage and interviews were shot by me and the scheduling of the shoots were handled by my super-talented producer Rachel, but at the end of the production, it was me and 280 hours of footage, and I pieced together that thing in my own way, in the order I wanted, and added the music and images that I thought were best. It’s my film. I watched it in an auditorium of a thousand people and loved watching moment after moment land with cheers and happiness and gasps. That works for me.

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Some of this may just be from reaching a wider audience, but I don’t think so. I think DEFCON itself comes into it – people have raged over the years over what DEFCON is “for”, and the movie was meant to address, in its own way, what DEFCON “is” for better or worse. I know it has inspired some people to consider going next year, and bringing family and friends who previously shunned the event. At over 14,000 attendees, it obviously appeals to some level of crowd, and people returning year after year is a good sign. I know Dark Tangent has been assuming a leveling off for years and years, but it just keeps growing – it might outgrow the current hotel after next year. Outgrowing a hotel! And it’s done it multiple times!

So it won’t make a huge difference to DEFCON itself if some people do or don’t like the movie. But it wasn’t made strictly for DEFCON attendees. I spent months and months to make it accessible to others, to not make it an insider fest with language and shots that would put off strangers. So I hope that works for them as well. The same with folks who used to go but don’t go since it left the Alexis Park or Riviera or who simply aged away out of these interests – I intended the movie to have them feel included as well.

Again, I’m not seeking pity here – the accolades have come pretty fast and furious and a lot of inspired, happy people are seeking me out to tell me what they liked. I’m not down on this flick.

I’m just fascinated!

With three more movies on the way, I can see if there’s a trend, or what else might have contributed to this sad, miserable group of viewers. It’s always best to have good data.

And movies.


Categorised as: documentary | jason his own self

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9 Comments

  1. I personally thought it was fantastic Jason, as broad as the subject material was you managed to encompass a very large portion of what DEFCON is about… obviously when covering that much stuff its hard to go in depth enough on certain things and you have to make certain trade offs.

    I’m sure the reticence of some people to discuss certain events over the years makes it difficult to cover some of the material this reviewer was complaining was absent.

  2. I’ve only been to DEFCON 18 where I *briefly* met you. I was the guy coming from France who asked you (among other things) to put the subtitles in the projection of Get Lamp. /personal

    Anyway, I’ve watched your film yesterday. I personally think it was great! It shows what is DEFCON, its history and the people associated with it, which is the point of a documentary. There are some things that bothered me, though. Things that could have been better and have been noticed/mentioned by other people too it seems. I know it’s very unlikely you’ll fix it since it’s now released but like you said it’s good to know for future work.

    The music. I have to agree with some comments you received about it. I think I’ve noticed it at ~30mn into it and couldn’t stop noticing it afterwards (pretty annoying): it’s bland. It sounds like a generic public domain music provided with your movie editing program. More specifically there was the atmospheric fill-in music and the more energetic one with drum breaks. I think you even dubbed some concert footage with it several time? That was weird. At the end the documentary I wasn’t sure if I heard actual music played at DEFCON or just some cheap score (Not being sarcastic, if someone can enlighten me). I can’t remember if this was a problem in your other films (no music better than bad music? surely).

    The other thing that bothered me was all the booze talk. As you watch you start noticing that most interviewee talk about alcohol at one point. There are lots of parties and people drink. I get the point. Talk about something else. Maybe it could have been edited out past a few interviews? Which leads to my next point.

    Not enough talk about hacks. The famous ones, the demo portion of some of the best talks (eg. Barnaby ATM jackpot) or the non-planified (probably illegal?) hacks going on around the venue (I heard some people were fucking around with elevators?). You mentioned the wall of sheep, the DT tamper challenge, etc but I have this impression you didn’t go deep into it or you didn’t explain enough. I know this is hard to get right since the film can’t last 4 hours and you have to choose what goes in and what most people want to see.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Music is and will continue to be a problem in the modern era when it comes to documentaries. Licensing and negotiation issues prevent me from using most of the music being performed by artists at DEFCON. Another problem is that when you show seven different musical acts, which one’s music do you choose? There’s no way I’m going to mix together some combination of all of them.

      It’s an interesting taste situation, because I don’t find the music bland at all. I find it rich and a bed of sound underneath the words that people are saying, which is the important thing. So one person thinks it’s bland, and another thinks it’s rich and interesting. Who wins?

      I’m intrigued that you think people describe drinking a lot. Let me promise you, there is a lot of drinking at Defcon, but it does zip around to other things. If I go back and look, there’s probably a half dozen statements on drinking, in a two hour documentary. Maybe they were just unusually powerful.

      As for the hacks, that’s an interesting position. I felt rather strongly that I wanted the documentary to cover aspects and angles of Defcon that were worthy of the all access pass. Instead of describing in brutal detail a bunch of specific hacks that will feel dated within 10 minutes of the movies release, I instead had people speaking in general terms about what Defcon is to them. For detail oriented people, I could see how this might be jarring or feel like an omission.

      Thanks for standing up and speaking.

    • Jason Scott says:

      I’ll go a little further on this. I worked hard to make music variant and yet not overpowering the words the people said. This limits me from using music that has words in it, and I have a very strong feeling about ambience and drifting chords.

      Again, it’s fascinating to me when I look at something that I subjectively really like, like the music, and then it hits other people the wrong way. I remember someone being very unhappy that there was any nerd core rapping in the get lamp DVD. But I loved it!

  3. frymaster says:

    Wild-ass-guess: It almost seems like that person wanted coverage _of_ DEFCON, in a “reporting on what it did” kind of way, rather than a documentary _about_ DEFCON. This wouldn’t interest me, because DEFCON produce their own videos of the talks anyway. He wanted a film about hacking; you produced a film about hackers.

  4. Will Schenk says:

    Watching the movie was almost the nostalgic journey that I wanted it to be. I have never been to DEF CON, though I can remember trying to convince the college computer center (where I worked) to send me there because of something or other awesome that I had done, but not quiet awesome enough to make the world wobble enough to send a 18 yr old off to Vegas. This must have been in 95-96, and some of the old footage from the Alexis Park brought home what a clearly absurd proposal that was.

    Echoing what frymaster said, when I sat down to watch the documentary what I was looking for was more of the experience of being at DEF CON. You covered so many things — there was so much to cover — that it felt a lot like just as things were getting interesting, we moved on to the next thing. I wish there were more scenes like the one in the hotel room, where a group had been working on trying to solve a puzzle, and they had collected notes and information, posted on the walls and written on the windows, and someone was explaining what they had and how far they have gotten. It wasn’t the specifics of the puzzle that was interesting, but just listening to him there, talking really more as a way to make sense of it then to explain it, you got a sense of what that actual experience was like.

    Finding scenes like that probably isn’t possible to do at a large scale, and I’m sure that it would just highlight all the things that you left out for the people in the know. Watching the documentary as an outsider there was this sense that the artifact that you created was really designed to be shown at DEF CON itself, inside of the community and as a rallying point for people to come together. There was a lot of interesting things about community, how they are formed, how this was different (all volunteers, the sense of it happening No Matter What even through it takes 300 people a full year to plan it, this is our family, etc.) that I thought really interesting, which more about conferences than hackers. And I know less about conferences then I do hacking.

    The movie seemed more of a holding up a mirror to a community, rather than a reflection of the community itself. I’ve never toured with Phish or know anything about the Gathering of the Juggalos, or whatever, but you could see swapping out “the hacker community” with one of those and having a very similar movie. Obviously the individuals would be different, but they would share the “we are a family”, community, and connectedness themes.

    That point is not a totally fair, and I’m not sure it’s a valid criticism, that I expected the documentary to be more of an “exhaustive Jason Scott treatment of a subject” rather than the origin-story and people of DEFCON. But its different in kind I think from the BBS Doc and Get Lamp, and what I’m expecting from Arcade to be.

    Also, if this documentary had a drinking game, that game would involve drinking everytime someone on the film said how a key part of DEF CON is how intelligent everyone there is. And you’d be wasted. First the guitar, then the brass lantern, now a catch phase?

    • Jason Scott says:

      From the beginning I was concerned it would become a video yearbook. I didn’t want that to be what it ended up, so it was on my mind constantly when putting together things.

      I agree, I know people want things down and in depth for a given subject. But to really go into, say, the nature of the lockpicking village or the tamper-proof contest, then you have a 10 minute sequence in a 2 hour movie. And that’d be it for, say, Mohawk Con, the Mystery Challenge, or some other poor sap taking it in the shorts. The inherent, the CORE inherent challenge with DEFCON is that there is SO much going on, and how was that going to be a cohesive film? So I went for the approach of a smorgasbord.

      One thing that I and the producers are finding is that people keep thinking this is a hacking documentary, and it’s just not – it’s a conference/gathering/community documentary. The point isn’t to shove 30 minutes of highly technical overview of how hard people worked at one thing into the audience – that would shut them out entirely. The point was for a viewer to truly understand how big and crazy this whole thing is.

      Taking it back another way, if we were to look at some famous Anime con, and we did it this way, there’d be people who were unhappy we didn’t cover the history and influence of Gundam movies on the growth of anime, and that we didn’t spend 12-15 minutes on the level of effort it takes to make a truly fine cosplay. And that’s true, if that’s what you go into for.

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think that this is any less an “exhaustive Jason Scott treatment”, just one of an aspect some people weren’t expecting.

      The amount you walked away from will tell you that I definitely didn’t make it purely for DEFCON insiders. I wanted people who hadn’t been to feel welcome, that they had a place there. That’s DEFINITELY happening.

  5. Daz says:

    Hi Jason, I know you’ve probably put this one to bed but I’ve only just watched the DefCon documentary and wanted to say it definitely DOESN’T stink, and there was much I enjoyed about it… but it did leave me a bit frustrated.

    Before watching the film I had absolutely no idea what DefCon was about, so maybe I’m not the intended audience for the film… I’m from the UK, into vintage computing and electronics but middle-aged, not a wizzkid and not at the cutting edge. I am interested in what the smart kids are up to today though.

    So in watching the documentary I learned about the history of the event, the parties, drink & drugs, the T-shirts, badges, competitions, charities, BBQ, mohawks, shooting range, artists, kids events…

    But it seemed to me that these were all peripheral things that had grown out of the main event, and I felt that I’d missed out on something fundamental: All of these super-smart hackers get together, with speakers, presentations, demonstrations… but what subjects do they speak about? What are the presentations and demonstrations about?

    In the bonus clip ‘A Toast’, Jeff Moss said about the newbies who attended:

    “…we taught them a ton”

    …but after the film I still had very little idea of what they were learning there. In this respect, I felt I really needed to be ‘in the know’ before watching the film.

    Having said that, I enjoyed seeing the characters, the community and the huge diversity of the event. It made me think of the UK’s Glastonbury music festival, which has grown and morphed out of all recognition. But you can’t explain to a complete newbie what the Glastonbury Festival is without getting into music. Maybe you can’t explain DefCon to a newbie without getting a bit technical?

    I hope you don’t mind the feedback.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Tell me how that would be portrayed. As far as I can tell, it would be:

      - A fast set of shots of people talking with text telling you what they’re talking abut.

      - a set of shots of screens with a lot of technical knowledge I guarantee you would be impenetrable.

      What I went for, which was in the film, was a specific shot set of renderman discussing airplanes in some detail, a shot of kaminsky speaking abut general technical stuff (believe me, if I’d let him go into depth in any part of his talk you might be pretty lost) and hints like the drone flying around in me talk.

      In the same way, the movie does not go into full details of how every contest ended, every item for sale, every every party that was held.

      I know you think you want this. You do not want this. If you do, go to the defcon site where every single talk from defcon 20 is presented in full.