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Tiffany Shlain: Webmaster, Alt-Filmer or Philosopher
by Doniphan Blair
Filmmaker and Web innovator Tiffany Shlain scintillates in a private setting. photo: courtesy T. Shlain
At first glance, a diminutive mother of two young girls, still living in her home town of Mill Valley, might not seem a likely candidate to be dancing on the crest of a hill, wearing a perky outfit, waving a banner and wildly gesticulating for us to follow her into the future not only of the Web and filmmaking but new ways of thinking about it—philosophy, as some call it—as well as about the earth, our relationships to each other and our brains, among other things.
Sure, we should've gotten used to the ever-enthusiastic Tiffany Shlain by now, considering she has been at this for twenty years, but the filmmaker, Web philosopher, educator and TED talker doesn't give us much of a chance.
Even though her first feature "
" debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, it is still touring and winning awards, notably at Tribeca and its selection by the US State Department as a film to represent America. Subtitled "An Autoblogography About Love, Death, & Technology", it's a very personal piece about the recent passing of her beloved father and the problems and potentials of the Web.
Nevertheless, she's not sitting on her laurels. Shlain recently released a ten-minute short, "Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks", part of an ambitious series of over a dozen shorts which will eventually coalesce into a feature. And she has shifted her production company,
The Moxie Institute
in San Francisco, to full-on through-the-Web filmmaking, replete with a
"1. To use the cloud to collaboratively create films with people from all over the world."
Admittedly, exploring the edge of the Web has been a Shlain specialty ever since she started the
in 1996 and was soon getting over 10,000 annual entrees. But she relinquished control a decade later to focus on filmmaking.
Shlain specializes in striking graphics, here announcing her new 'cloud filmmaking' movement. photo: courtesy T. Shlain
Her first "big" short—she specializes in films as short as a minute but packed with big images, ideas and effects—the 18-minute "The Tribe" became the top iTunes movie of 2006 with over two million views. Also an unlikely candidate for that achievement, it addresses Judaism, world culture and female identity—issues surrounding its star, the Barbie doll, and her creator, a Jewish businesswoman—but it is full of fun facts and animation. "The Tribe" and its education package are still selling briskly.
In addition, these new media uses and novel notions are not just pyrotechnical displays or discrete stories but part of a coherent philosophy, which is a family tradition.
In fact, her father, the surgeon Leonard Shlain (1937–2009), also authored popular philosophy books like "Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light" (2005), which parallels Shlain's own Interdisciplinary Studies degree at Berkeley (1992), and "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess"(1999), which critiques the destructive aspects of a medium, in this case writing, somewhat akin to what she is doing with the Web.
Although Shlain is a Web pioneer, provocateur and banner-waving enthusiast, she sees it as still being in its infancy and with some serious problems. All sorts of Web stuff that might affect us for centuries should be thought through thoroughly and decided now. Heady stuff, to be sure.
But, delivered in her style of campy found-footage and future-primitive animation, sometimes with her, in her signature bright lipstick and/or hat, speaking directly to the camera, Shlain is able to dramatically develop difficult ideas that go down easy. A hybrid of documentary, opinion piece and personal drama, she stands between Al Gore's more staid "Inconvenient Truth" and the dystopian but immensely popular "Zeitgist", with a fluid style that can be applied equally successfully to reproductive rights, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" (2003), or alt-cinema: "Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl'" (2011).
Along the way, Shlain has studied at Harvard and NYU film school, worked with Harrison Ford, Peter Coyote and Moby, lectured worldwide, served on the boards of MIT's GeoSpatial Data Center and Berkeley’s Center for New Media and advised the Institute for the Future, Good Morning America (2000-03) and none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2010).
A busy schedule, to say the least. Not surprising, then, the difficulty of squeezing in this interview.
Although we got our signals crossed and I had to drag her out of a daughter's playdate, we were able to riff through a massive amount of material in under an hour, sitting in the fog beneath a large oak dangling a small swing, and later by phone. With so little time, we forgoed formalities—something Shlain seemed accustomed to—and dove right in:
Shlain sitting in the fog, in front of her comparatively modest Mill Valley home, where this interview took place. photo: D. Blair
What is the biggest thing you see coming down the Internet pike?
We are only going to see the true potential of the Internet when we see every one online who wants to be online contributing their perspectives, knowledge and wisdom. Let's say in five to seven years. Mobile technology is leapfrogging so much of what it took us a long time to wire up.
I think we are just at the tip of the iceberg of collaborative tools and workspaces to focus on problems. That is not to say that I think technology is going to make everything fine, our problems will be solved and everything is going to be glorious.
I think the Internet has created this global framework for all these people from different continents to come together. It will do things we can't even imagine yet with scientists, mathematics, health care, artists – collaborating in all these new ways.
There is this author, Matt Ridley, who wrote 'The Rational Optimist' . In it he talks about [how] throughout history innovation usually happens in cities where they have the most people, in close quarters, who figure out solutions. We created Wikipedia in how many years? [since 2001].
We are going to see more of this applied to solving problems. My favorite example is these scientists at the University of Washington who were trying to solve an AIDS DNA strand problem. They posted it as an online game focused on one particular component of it and the gamers were able to solve it in ten days!
We are just at the beginning of what can happen when people come together to collaborate. I was just with my sister-in-law, who is a professor of linguistics at Princeton. She was telling me that our species is the only species that collaborates.
You think there will be something like a Twitter for scientists? Or Kickstarter for scientists in India?
Yes I do. Cloud filmmaking is like that for [my production company, The Moxie Institute in San Francisco] creatively. It’s very exciting. With 'cloud' filmmaking, who ever wants to contribute to an online film, can.
So it's cloud- as oppose to crowd- sourced?
To me, crowd feels like a mass of people. Cloud feels like a much more open word, with much more potential. It is more about the technology that brings individual people together.
Was 'Connected' the first film you did with 'cloud' sourcing, as you call it?
Shlain also specializes in striking self-portraits, and likes to control her imagery. photo: courtesy T. Shlain
'Connected' did not have cloud sourcing but our cloud filmmaking experiment is putting ideas from 'Connected' into play. 'Connected' ends with asking what will it be like when everyone in the world who wants to be on line is online.
The film definitely goes into the negative of what can happen in the connected world but it ends on that potential. The last line of 'Connected' is: 'For centuries we have been declaring independence, perhaps it is time to declare our interdependence.'
Our first cloud film we did over a year ago. We rewrote the Declaration of Independence as 'A Declaration of Interdependence.' We posted it as a one-minute script on the Internet and invited people to send us artwork around it. We got incredible entries from around the world.
We edited it all together, Moby lent his music and we did our first cloud film: 'A Declaration of Interdependence'. It’s four minutes. Then we invited people to help us translate it and, within six weeks, we got it translated into 65 languages.
The next part of what we call cloud filmmaking is: We are receiving through the cloud and we want to give back through the cloud.
We told non-profs all over the world, 'We will make a free customized version [with your institution's title info] of 'A Declaration of Interdependence' for you.' We have made over 100 customized films to date.
In the second cloud film, we asked people to put their hand on their heart and to say what that meant. We edited it into two-minute film called 'Engage', released it near the election and got over 200 requests in the first couple of weeks to customize it.
Now 'Brain Power' is the third film in the series. It has a TED Book that goes with it, part of a new eBook series from the TED Conferences. The book unpacks all the ideas and research. That took a lot longer; it was much more in-depth. People can watch “Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks” and download the film [www.letitripple.org]. We are just about to start the fourth cloud film.
Have you ever considered doing a narrative [feature]?
You come from the experimental tradition?
All my films are pretty much avant-garde. I studied at UC Berkeley and they didn't have film production there so I really learned how to make movies from editing together old movies.
So who do you look to for forbearers: '60s film artists like Ed Emshwiller and Stan Brackhage?
I love them. I was inspired by so many different filmmakers.
Poster for Shlain's most recent film, 'Brain Power'. photo: courtesy T. Shlain
When I was growing up movies were the really consistent element of my life, my favorite family tradition. Every Sunday we went out to dinner and to the movies. I never thought I could become a filmmaker—me and my siblings were all supposed to be doctors.
I went to UC Berkeley and studied interdisciplinary studies. I looked at a lot of art and science. Then I went to NYU for a summer program. I used to find old slug and cut it together on an editing bay in the city planning department at UC Berkeley.
It informed my whole style, I can't imagine shooting anything, I love piecing stuff together that I find! We do create original animation with terrific animators.
So you never shoot any live footage?
No. I did when I was a lot younger. When you are younger, you can be on set and have crazy hours—I would be on the set 12-hour days—but with young kids? It was so stressful [she's 42]. You have to decide where you are going to put your energy creatively.
I really love making films with other people shooting these cloud films. They send them to me from all over.
Is there anyone else doing these avant-garde ruminative documentaries like yours here or Denmark or anywhere else?
I am always looking but I haven't seen anything yet. In cloud filmmaking, we are the only ones we know of who gets stuff through the Web and is giving back through the Web—these customized films.
I have editorialized that the Bay Area is an alternative life style center and we are going to need alternative culture to propagate alternative lifestyles—
You know, on the West Coast, we are at the forefront of new technology. I just feel it is an incredibly exciting place to be right now. I feel so grateful I am able to make these films and experiment with so many new technologies.
I am trying to bring up the important issues of our day in important ways using the very medium that is changing the world.
Could you see yourself leading a movement that would tie in Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth'  or other films?
Al Gore did an amazing job doing that about the environment. He has been very supportive of my work. I have always admired him. I am [also] interested in bringing about discussions about important issues.
You were involved with the recent Transmedia Festival, right?
Poster for 'Connected'. photo: courtesy T. Shlain
Yes. I like to call it cloud filmmaking. I know a lot of people use that word ['transmedia' but] for some reason, it doesn't work for me because I think it is about multiple points of engagement. I have been included in that grouping but I definitely think there is more to do in that space.
I am interested in using this new technology to push storytelling and engagement with film. We are hosting a 'Cloud Filmmaking Hackathon' on January 8th where we are bringing together coders and filmmakers to brainstorm on how to push things further. If any of your readers are interested, we would love to have them come. People can find more info on moxieinstitute.org.
But you are sort of 'it,' right? You don't seen Koreans, for example, doing these multiplatform media projects.
That is not to say they don't exist, I just might not I have seen them. I am always looking out for cool and new ways to tell stories, and engage with people. I love finding innovative storytelling.
This year we received a Disruptive Innovation Award from The Tribeca Film Festival for the work we’re doing with 'Connected' and these cloud films. We were really honored.
I guess you think much more stuff is going to happen like transmedia.
My team wrote a Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto on the qualities that we think about with cloud films. [See
Does the The Moxie Institute also do commercial projects?
No, we don't. We are focused on 'Connected' distribution and making cloud films.
You said you will be putting together a feature from the cloud films?
They will all evolve into a feature. I am two to four years away from that.
If you were going to introduce yourself to a Korean—for example, since they're so Internet savvy—how would you describe yourself?
That is a difficult question because I often give different answers depending on whom I am talking to.
You seem in 'Brain Power' very pro-Internet but, at the end, you went 'Uh-oh.'
I wrestle with it. People assume I am very pro-Internet but I am always in this space in the middle. 'Here is the good, here is the bad, here is the potential.' Let's have a discussion so we can move more mindfully forward.
I love the potential of the Web but I feel like we are not being mindful enough—including myself. I unplug one day a week from technology—it has changed my life. We are moving so quickly—emails, tweets and we are all so behind and busy.
That also ties into the Sabbath?
Yes, we are Jewish. We celebrate the Sabbath: we don't have screens on of any kind, no work. But we drive cars, use money. It is a Shabbat for the 21st century.
I feel like we are at this really critical period with developing the Web, the same stage children are at when they are first having their brains develop: zero to five.
The box for 'Connected', available at
The Moxe Institute
, includes an educator's guide, flash cards and a small book entitled 'A Guide to the Entire Universe and Everything in It (Condensed Version)'. photo: D. Blair
What did you think of Bill Joy's critique [of computer catastrophes] in Wired about ten years ago ['Why The Future Doesn't Need Us' April 2000].
I totally remember that. I would love to relook at that.
When you talk about 'Connected', that ties into one of his 'earth killer' systems: When the Internet becomes self-conscious.
That is interesting. I have a parody film—that my husband [Ken Goldberg], who is professor at UC Berkeley, and I co-wrote—that imagines the world when everyone is friends on Facebook. It is a one-minute film, we are going to release that in the new year.
Will there be some higher consciousness? I was talking to a neuroscientist about this. The power of the Web is that all of us have these different perspectives and thoughts that will hopefully create new ideas and innovation. I don't immediately go to this higher consciousness [concept].
Actually his postulate was if the Web becomes self-conscious, it will say, 'We don't need humans anymore.'
Yeah, I don't believe that. I believe in humans and that we are evolving. We aren’t going away because of technology.
And that we will always be one step ahead of the machines?
We are co-evolving. One of the problems is we talk about it as if it is something separate from us. It IS us! This is from [Marshall] McLuhan. We couldn't see far enough so we invented the telescope. Technology is just an extension of us. We need to be more empowered and have more agency in how we are using these tools.
Did you ever get into Teilhard de Chardin's 'noosphere' [sphere of human thought]?
The book ['Connected'] goes into that. There's a whole chapter on the history of global thinking. The new question that my film and book is asking is: A lot of people talked about the brain but I am going into the first five years [of childhood].
The neuroscience behind the first five years is very similar to where we are with the Web right now. How can we learn from the strategies on how to best nurture the brain and apply them to thinking about how to best grow the Internet.
Are you capitalist or grant-based?
It depends which project. For the new [unnamed] project, we have a very generous grant from an anonymous donor to create the cloud films. 'Connected' has part grants and part investors—but they will get their money back, the film is doing well. I don't take more than I feel I can get investors back.
So you have a balance?
I have never been motivated by money. I want enough to do what I love and pay my team and their health benefits, etc. I always want my investors to be happy and to fund more documentaries. I am a businesswoman and care about the business side... it allows me to be an artist. I have a great team [of four employees at the Moxie Institute] I have worked with for years.
Someone with a piece from an old film projector above the fireplace is, by definition, a filmmaker. photo: D. Blair
At this point in my career, between The Webby Awards and I have now made 11 films, we have a strong track record. I am grateful we have the support to do what we are doing. I just feel really grateful.
We are just as interested in how our films get out into the world as in making them. A lot of universities and corporations and conferences screen ['Connected'] and it still plays at festivals. It just won its 14th award at the Atlanta Film Festival.
We spend a lot of time on our curriculums and our discussion kits. People can get them and a limited edition home discussion kit from our site [connectedthefilm.com]
So you are doing the same thing for all your films as you did with 'The Tribe' [her first film about the inventors of Barbie and Jewish identity, 2006]? Was that was how you learned to do community outreach with film?
Yeah, 'The Tribe': It is still selling very well, the whole discussion kit part.
With 'The Tribe' we spent just as much time and energy building these discussion kits as the film.
We always look at the film as the appetizer and the discussion afterwards as the main course. We want to give people enough tools to have a meaningful conversation around the film.
When you asked your father [who was a surgeon and author, notably of 'The Alphabet and the Goddess' 1999] in 'Connected' what was his meaning of life, he was taken a little aback but summarizing: What would you say his meaning of life was?
[sigh] We talked about it. He wrote me this email, which I end the movie with. It says, 'Plant gardens, enjoy the people who love you, ask big questions, be kind to those less fortunate then you, focus on family, enjoy sunsets, live life to the fullest and always remember that I love you.'
Sounds a little like Voltaire.
Yes, he was very much in that.
You go into The Enlightenment quite a bit in 'Connected'. I guess we already discussed the dystopian aspects of the Web?
Yeah even in the film ['Connected'] I talk about how quickly war can happen in a connected world: one thing can lead to another to another so quickly. I think the first inclination is for people to peg me as utopian about technology.
Technology is just an extension of humans and we are good, bad and everything in between. I think the more people who talk about technology as an extension of us, instead of as another thing, the more empowering it will be.
Trying to apply that to a real world situation: Is there any application you can see to the Israeli-Arab enmity.
That’s a big topic. I don't think we have enough time to go into that in the remaining minutes we have left for this conversation.
I am sorry.
We, my husband [Ken Goldberg] and I we co-wrote a lot of these movies together. We just co-wrote this new film, a one-minute film, that imagines what the world will look like when every one is on Facebook and there is a little reference to Israel there.
I haven't heard about Arab and Israeli high school students Facebook friending each other but there was the recent 'We love you' YouTube videos between Israelis and Iranians.
I saw that! It used to be only the governments could control the story on how they felt about another country but, with YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, [the people] can speak directly to each other. I think those 'I love you' videos were very powerful. Two-way communication! That is what all this technology is doing.
Do you take female iconography very seriously? I notice you often wear bright red lipstick.
My grandmother told me it was a Shlain trait to have very big lips. My grandmother was, like, 'If you got 'em, flaunt 'em.'
But how about the whole female thing?
I don't think about it but I love fashion and drama.
I didn't use to think about but, then I realized, it is very important.
I like color. Yeah. I do care about it.
You are continuing a lot of the same themes as your father.
Yeah, I am his daughter and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. We talked about all sorts of stuff; we talked every day about everything. Someone got an announcement about 'Brain Power' and they asked, 'Is this your father's work?' I was, like, 'It is so relative.' I am so interconnected to his brain—and my mother's brain.
What was her thing?
My mother was a psychologist. She was very interested in an emotional connection, which my work goes into too.
At the end of my father's life, he was writing this thing on Leonardo da Vinci. We hired and editor and we are going to get is published. It is going to be a great book: 'Leonardo's Brain.'
So that will be his fourth book. I only read this one 'The Goddess and the Alphabet'. Loved this book, man! [interviewer pulls out his marked-up copy]. I was intrigued by how he sided with non-literate Socrates against Aristotle.
[Tiffany is impressed] That is awesome. You will love this new book.
Out of curiosity what program do you put your films together on.
Final Cut Pro and After Effects.
Who are some locals you have worked with?
I worked with Dave Nelson of Outpost Studios since I was 20 years old. He has worked on every one of my films, the sound design. On 'Connected', I worked with Gunnard Duboze who did the composition. I work with Oddball Films, I love their archives, and Getty Images.
You seem to have quite a sense of distance and blur in your titling and animation. One title I noticed was going in and out of focus on purpose.
I love working with animators; it is a very exciting collaboration. I work with such amazing animators, their creativity was all in there. I have an aesthetic that is kind of modern and nostalgic. I actually like [my film] 'Brain Power as a new aesthetic.
After I looked a 'Brian Power, I saw a lot application to childhood education.
We are showing it at middle schools, elementary schools and for early childhood educators. We have a curriculum that is being developed. Yeah, it will have a lot of uses.
We can imagine we will offer them to teachers because we are going to do 16 of these films, three a year, I guess that probably means 15. [In addition to the completed one on the brain] we are going to do one on money and failure and innovation and collaboration. We will offer teachers of a combination of subjects.
All of our films come with curriculums. We spend a lot of time on that. We have three done—'Declaration of Interdependence,' the second is 'Engaged' and the third is 'Brain Power'. We are focusing on the next one: What defines character? They will all be varying lengths and [will] become building blocks to the longer film.
I noticed a bunch of original music.
Sometimes we use big name musicians. I love music so it just depends what we get inspired by. It is all licensed and we do pay for that.
You seem to integrate the song a 'Beautiful New Day' in 'Connected'?
Yes. It is by Electric Light Orchestra. That really seemed to fit the end of the movie.
So every thing lives on TiffanyShlain.com?
And LetItRipple.org, yeah, or MoxieInstitute.org.
You have three websites: Are they mirroring or—
They are different. I do a lot of lecturing. TiffanyShlain.com is a combination of my films, lectures and bio, my history with the Webby Awards. The Moxie Institute is our film studio and Let It Ripple is totally the cloud films.
Posted on Dec 13, 2012 - 05:14 PM