Some Last Triage of the DEFCON Documentary —
I need to turn to my current projects, and my other commitments. I figured after going for a month and a half into the post-DEFCON Documentary release breach, I’d write some thoughts down before moving on.
(Note, I do intend to release a fixed-up version of the documentary with a different audio encoding and with one or two factual errors stitched up. The length and content won’t really change.)
So, I guess the number one thing I wasn’t prepared for with a released DEFCON doc was the amount of people who hate it.
I mean, to be sure, the nature of the subject, and the amount of attention DEFCON receives as an event, ensured that the amount of people who’ve seen this movie and who’ve been given the chance to weigh in on opinion and reaction is much greater than my previous films. BBS Documentary has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people but it’s been a slow flame for nearly a decade to get to that number. GET LAMP is also out there but the audience is, again, people going out of their way to see it. DEFCON partially subsists off of press and attention, and so the documentary got a lot of that attention. Within a month, well over 150,000 people have seen this film in one way or another. So, the results have been more variant, and I’ve reached a whole new audience, both positive and negative.
A good indicator of dislike is the IMDB entry for the movie, which as of this writing gives the movie a rating of 5 out of 10. GET LAMP lurks at 6.5/10 and BBS at 7/10, so it looks like I’m not universally loved at IMDB. Additionally, the two comments/reviews on the DEFCON Doc entry at IMDB are vicious tear-downs, one feeling it was meaningless and the other that it was a two hour commercial for DEFCON. There’s a review or two out there of a savage sort, as well.
Let me explain why I’m focusing on this, and why it gets such attention from me – there’s two different ways you can make a creative project that people hate (or love): intentionally, or accidentally. If you make a 10 minute film with 500 murders and nobody has a speaking part, that’s pretty intentional and you can expect people to love or hate that. If you make a film about a girl who falls in love with a boy and your costume person picks random colorful laces for the boy, not aware that in some subcultures, those laces demarcate what races he hates and then you’re getting all these angry groups calling you a Nazi, well, I’ll file that under “accidental”.
Choices were made to make the movie the way it was, which I will shortly explain, If someone hates those choices, that’s fine, I specifically made them. But I keep my eyes open for cases of people hating something that I had no idea about, because if I’m going to do three more technical films, I want to make sure I’m not going to make these stumbling choices again, if they can be avoided. So I focus. I study. I learn. That’s how somebody gets better.
So let’s go over it.
There were two major issues in my face by taking on the duties of a DEFCON documentary. One was the fact that it had never been done before to any great level of depth, and the other was that by the 20th year DEFCON was now so goddamned huge that it wouldn’t fit into a single film.
When faced with the second problem (large subject) before, I made a mini-series. I chose to not make this one a miniseries, because I thought that would be way too much for people who were expecting “a documentary”. With that choice, I nixed in-supreme-depth subject study of specific events and people, because there was no room. It was a tough decision, but I went with it.
The lack of any in-depth previous film (there were a few that came out before, but they were either light news stories of a few minutes, or a set of specific interviews of a few people) meant that there was a lot of expectation of how DEFCON would be covered in one. I couldn’t say I was making an updated version of a previous film – this was going to be The Big One. I doubted DEFCON would agree to do anything like this again. So it was on us to do this as right as we could the first time.
I decided to focus on DEFCON 20, with scant callbacks to how we got to 20. A whole range of people whose golden age were in years before 20 were pissed as a result of this decision. Understandable. Who wants a movie about something you gave years of your life to and it doesn’t even mention your contribution? A few floated the theory that I was intentionally cutting them out as some sort of payback or conspiracy, but that’s what people do. Hint: No.
So, given that it’s a DEFCON 20 movie, and was going to be a single 2 hour film (I’d decided on two hours way in the beginning), here’s where we went from there.
First, I knew no matter what film it would end up being, I’d need sit-down interviews with people related to DEFCON, especially people in charge of it. So I started shooting lots and lots of sit-down interviews throughout the country in the months leading up to DEFCON 20, so that I’d have footage to fall back on, instead of depending on what came out of the event. I was right on this regard, because people get really busy a month before DEFCON and at the event themselves they can’t possibly spare a moment for interviewing unless other people take on a brunt of weight (this is what happened in a small handful of cases). There went my summer, but I did end up with 50 interviews in the can, so I was set there.
The advantages of this (footage) are weighed by the fact that people are telling me what they think of DEFCON, and those people are also people who work for DEFCON, so there’s a bias all the way down the line – everyone really likes the event. This energy threads throughout the resulting movie, although it does mean that everyone seems really, really cheerleader-y. I happen to think this is an accurate emotion, that is, they really do love DEFCON and dedicate so much time to it because they love it. But it is definitely a candy-colored sugar rush that some people might not like.
In the months before DEFCON 20 happened, there was the release of a film called Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. It was directed by Morgan Spurlock (although he has some very heavy-assisting producers for this and more recent films), and my producer Rachel Lovinger and I were lucky to attend a screening of the film that had both Mr. Spurlock and his producers in attendance. So we got to see a template of “what does a movie about a big event look like, and what works and doesn’t”, before we went into our mess. Spurlock and Co. were very friendly and forthcoming with answers about how they did it. This helped a lot.
So, right away, we hit the issue of structure.
How do you tell the story of an event so large? A Fan’s Hope did it by following a set of people through Comic-Con, from months before the event through to the end of the con (and possibly with some post-con wrap-up interviewing). Will the cosplayer get her costume done in time and win an award? Will the artist hopeful get the approval he seeks and maybe full-time employment as well? What of the guy who wants to propose to his girlfriend at the con – will he time it perfectly? The way that they interlock these stories, you end up experiencing the con through the eyes of individuals within it, with small general-bird’s-eye-view sequences here and there. Bear in mind, this means an enormous amount of Comic-Con does not get into the movie, but for that price paid, people watching connect emotionally with the attendees in a big way. You want the costumer to win! You hope the guy gets out the ring at the right time! You are rooting for characters in the film, while also learning about Comic-Con in a general sense as you go.
I considered this approach. I rejected it for DEFCON.
There were two reasons for this critical decision. One was political and reflective of who picked up the check, and the other was history-minded, to decide how much of DEFCON needed covering and the unique way hackers interact in groups.
Political: DEFCON is a paid-for movie. I took a fee up front and 100% of the budget was covered by DEFCON. They actually had very little oversight of the choices of filming, but the mandate was clear – cover DEFCON. Not to spend an hour telling the story of J. Crew Buckyball and his journey into DEFCON, but to have someone who’d never heard of DEFCON watch the movie, from the beginning, and leave with a real sense of what this thing was and why they might want to attend (or decide to never attend). To this end, I chose to give as much of DEFCON’s unique events and attendees a spotlight, to give a sense of what makes the event what it is.
History: DEFCON, like a lot of hackerdom, has really been taken advantage of by press and general organizations, who have derided these folks as scary, this-side-of-socipathic cyber-killing machines. If that sounds extreme, you haven’t been reading. Trust me, it was a big deal to have the film instead treat people as just normal folks with skills and pride, working together to do cool and fun stuff. I had a conversation at DEFCON 21 with someone working on a hacker-referencing entertainment product, and I said “What you need to understand is that hackers are portrayed as destructive loners, when they’re really creative sharers.” And the film bends over backwards to go that way.
What are the downsides here?
Well, by not making it about people, there’s less to personally attach to – there’s no “plot” to follow, in which you wonder what’s going to happen to your onscreen doppelganger and you wait eagerly for the wrap-up. To counteract this, I add a strong chronology to the film, showing you passage of days. Intentionally, Friday and Saturday are bloated while Thursday and Sunday are cramped. You feel the passage of time for the beginning and right at the end, when you’re least in the mood for things to take forever. For some people, the film feels long, but I guarantee it’d feel even longer if you were waiting for something, anything to tell you where we were on the timeline.
Additionally, most sequences on a subject are one to two minutes, with a couple three-minute and one six-minute sequence. If you want to get a sense of everything there, it works well. If, however, you become intensely interested in one subject (say, how the Scavenger Hunt works, or what happened to the Badges), then it moves away while you go ‘nooooooo’ in your seat. This is the core of the Devil’s Bargain – more information, less depth.
I’ve had a few people say “It’s not a documentary”, which is, of course, silly – it’s a presentation of real events, recorded in real-time, with no pre-scripting, of un-hired people doing things they would have done at an event they intended to attend. There’s nothing fabricated at all in the film, and in fact there was one fabricated scene (a demonstration of how the Social Engineering booth works) that I chose not to include for that reason – I don’t like making stuff up when reality is as interesting as it is.
So, what I think these people are really saying is “this is not the kind of documentary I wanted to see or like to see”, and I’ll give them that, whatever that means. It’s the same with people who hate the music – that’s a personal choice, and other people have begged for track lists of what is playing where. I can’t make people like music they don’t like, and I wouldn’t have chosen different pieces than the ones I did.
My occasional mistake is that I am prone to confusing someone calling the documentary bad based on their expectations or response, as opposed to an actual indication that it was poorly filmed or created. That’s on me. It looks nice! It’s a nice-looking film! Some folks just don’t like what the nice-looking film showed.
On the history side, DEFCON has 20 years of events, and a second event: Black Hat, the “professional” version of DEFCON that has been around almost as long as DEFCON. I chose not to include much of the previous years, and nothing of Black Hat. It was 100% space and timeline driven, not a mandate on the interesting-ness of the subject matter. That said, I had a lot more footage of DEFCON 20 than someone’s stories of something that happened 7 years ago that I couldn’t easily verify or get collaborating interview footage. Black Hat is a fascinating thing, but I thought it was spreading our resources thin to try and get Black Hat in there, especially considering it would only be covered for a couple minutes, confuse the hell out of the audience not aware of Black Hat, and then off to unrelated subjects for the rest of the movie.
Some called it a conspiracy. These people need to get out more.
I believe strongly that DEFCON deserves a book, although I’ve no interest in writing that book. A book would allow overview and discussion of the many themes and points of DEFCON and what its place in the greater hacker social structure is. The movie couldn’t do that, but it’s worth-while discussion that a 300-400 page book could tackle nicely.
Speaking of social…
My choice to focus on the partying and hanging out as much (or more) than the core subjects of the talks and presentations really rubbed people the wrong way. I’d agree with them it was annoying if it wasn’t the fact that I believe strongly that for a very large contingency of people, the parties and socializing is much more important than the talks, which are all recorded and distributed post-conference. I am sure many people wake up, quietly put on their neat-pressed T-shirts, walk into the first talk in their list, and sit with a coffee through 8 presentations, then go back to their hotel rooms and curl up with a good John Grisham novel before turning in for the night. I just don’t think those people make up the majority of the attendees. I could be wrong.
Considering the amount of partying and events that go on deep into the mornings during DEFCONs, I thought them important to portray, but it does appear a small vocal set of people wanted in-depth discussion of the subjects of the talks. I have a spoiler for those people – it won’t work cinematically. In fact, a lot won’t work cinematically that runs just fine inside people’s heads, and that inside-the-head theater people have is going to kick the ass of any film being made. It makes no sense to compete with it.
Instead, I chose a sequence with Dan Kaminsky and Renderman giving presentations (one on airplane security, the other undefined but technical), to go on a higher level about the nature of giving a talk at DEFCON. I think anything too deep would be boring, and get away from the greater lesson/demonstration being given by the movie. But the people who disagree, man do they disagree, so I’m walking away with a lesson learned there.
(GET LAMP had a similar situation where some people wanted much more in-depth description and process of people designing the games, footage that, I’m sorry to tell you, doesn’t exist. Some wanted more footage of people playing games, and that’s a much different ball of wax, and potentially may change how I do things in the future.)
I could go on, into greater details, but most of what I wanted to say is here. DEFCON: The Documentary was a rather intense project, and not the kind of film I would normally want to make – I doubt I’ll make another one anything like it. That said, it taught me a ton of things about filmmaking, got me my first film crew, and resulted in a work that, for all this handwringing essay, I am very proud of and would happy watch again and again. So it’s a win across all columns.
All in all, a fun movie.
Now, let’s make more.
Categorised as: documentary | housecleaning | jason his own self
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I wish your documentaries were more like your talks and had more narrative.
To force the subjects I tackle into some sort of story-like narrative, I’d have to basically be doing nothing but these documentaries, scripting them beforehand (and then filming to fit the script), and result in a manner of documentary that is already being done in droves on the BBC, or by Michael Moore. My interest in that is minimal.
I couldn’t get into Get Lamp because I was expecting something different. Maybe I was expecting something with the scope of the BBS documentary, with episodes for every interest—and one episode focusing on my favorite thing about text adventures: puzzles.
I’m always pleased when the response from people about the films is “I wished there was a ton more of it.”
That’s an interesting point – people have been exposed to a lot of documentaries on the BBC and Michael Moore and (my particular favourite) Jonathan Meades that have this scripted narrative. That’s what Documentary has come to mean for a LOT of people.
So when your film opens without a story, without people to follow, without a presenter giving a lecture or going on a sodding “personal journey”, they are a little lost.
Does that make sense?
I think it’s just harder to follow a documentary if it’s just a long string of parts of interviews edited together with no connective tissue, be it a presenter giving a lecture or some kind of story. Especially if you are not familiar with the topic of the documentary.
I think that’s why many documentaries (from BBC, Michael Moore, etc) end up having that kind of structure.
And I think Jason Scott could do that if he wanted to and very successfully, given what he does in his talks.
All I’m saying is, I enjoyed the recording of Shareware Cavalcade more than any of his documentaries.
GET LAMP and BBS are not a “long string of parts of interviews edited together with no connective tissue”. They’re heavily edited, crafted narratives presented through the words of people speaking, instead of a narrator telling you what to think and consider. It’s actually a rather difficult way to put stuff together, and not just shoved next to each other.
I think if you like someone doing lectures, then watch lectures. Don’t make your documentaries lectures. Don’t make your lectures documentaries either, whatever that means.
Sorry – that was supposed to be a reply to your reply to E[X]
The only criticisms I had that I can articulate were that I wanted to know more about certain subjects that were only touched on, but that’s not really a criticism (unless everyone wants more of the same thing). I would have liked to see more talks, but again, I just went online afterwards and watched a few (Katy Levinson’s are always hilarious).
Mostly though it just made me wish I could afford to go to Defcon, so when I have to sell a kidney that’s your fault Jason!
PS, is the footage of your defcon talk about making the film up online yet?
Personally, I am not attracted to conferences simply because I’ve never been too interested in socializing with large crowds of strangers (that’s my issue of course). I do watch DEFCON presentations on Youtube from time to time.
In watching your documentary I confess to sometimes feeling a little like the designated driver at a party I didn’t want to be at. I suspect this is because you did a good job representing the experience. For you to cater to my particular tastes would require misrepresenting reality. So this is not a criticism. I love your stuff and suggest you keep following your instincts.
I’ve been a Linux user for a few years and I can tell you (as you probably know) that there is a religious level cult-ish fervour among many of these participants and any perceived slight, however minor, can get blown wildly out of proportion. If you get a 50% approval rating from these guys you’re doing fine….
Chris, you pay me the highest form of compliment in your comment. The film is NOT meant to be an ad for DEFCON. I have many people see it and wish to go very badly, and even in my test audiences, I had people say they were glad they saw it so could never go. Im glad you came away from it with your own conclusions, which didn’t have a narrator telling you what to think.
I had been contemplating buying a new PC to play SimCity. After I watched the DEFCON documentary, I was inspired instead to buy the components and assemble a system myself. I even wound up buying a dremel tool to carve out some room for a graphics card that wouldn’t fit. As far as I’m concerned, DEFCON was an excellent film.