The latest from our team at South by Southwest in Austin

SXSW: Evel Knievel Lives On


Photo: Helo


AUSTIN – Saturday night, two guys in their mid-40s sitting a couple seats down spent the better part of the movie we were watching high fiving each other, trading thumbs ups and generally acting like a couple of joyful 1970s teenagers. It was actually adorable.

The credit for their bliss goes to Being Evel, a documentary about daredevil Robert “Evel” Knievel that is playing SXSW after debuting earlier this year at Sundance. The movie charts Knievel from his days evading the law in his hometown of Butte, Mont., through his rise to stardom and ultimate fall from grace. Sprinkled throughout are plenty of sweet motorcycle jumps.

Knievel’s darker days – in which he drank heavily, ran around on his wife, berated the constant media hordes and even served time for beating a promoter with a baseball bat – also get fair treatment.

“Our memory of him is so kinetic and action-oriented,” director Daniel Junge said after the screening. “He was a hero to me as a kid like he was to so many of our generation. But as I grew up, we learn that our heroes are sometimes less than heroic. … So this film, 35 years later, is a way of trying reconcile that childhood image with the person I came to know as an adult.”

The time that’s passed since Knievel’s prime has allowed for some perspective on his popularity. In the age of disillusionment over Vietnam and Nixon’s lies to the country, Knievel was all truth. Whether he landed the jump or not, what you saw was what you got.

Being Evel is also a reminder of what a true pioneer and showman Knievel was. With his white jumpsuit and cape, he was Liberace on wheels. And in hindsight, it does seem truly crazy just how much he made it up as he went along. His first big stunt, in which he jumped the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, was just a hunch he had that he could do it. And he almost did, until his tire clipped the ramp on the other side, sending him skidding like a rag doll 60 feet. That one caused a pair of broken ankles, a broken wrist and plenty of scratches and bruises.

But it’s Knievel’s fearlessness and willingness to give it a go that’s inspired everything from skateboarders to Jackass. Without him, there’d probably be no X Games. As someone says in the film – no one wanted to see him die, but they sure didn’t want to miss it if he did. ABC’s Wide World of Sports never missed a chance to show his latest stunt.

“As kids, we didn’t really care if he made it or not – it was about the attempt,” Junge said.

All of his big attempts are here – his failed rocket-propelled trip over the Snake River Canyon, the time he just missed clearing 13 double-decker buses in front of 80,000 in Wembly Stadium. They’re the stunts that inspired people like those guys in the audience to set up a couple of small ramps on their streets to see if they could jump their BMXs over their buddies.

Sometimes you made it, sometimes you didn’t. Either way, you had a story to tell in the lunchroom on Monday.

Leave a comment

SXSW: How Kids Change the Way We Design for Adults

No Comments
Categorized Under: South by Southwest

KERA’s Art&Seek is covering the 2015 South by Southwest Conference in Austin. Read more coverage from this and previous years in our SXSW archive.

When building digital apps for kids, chaos may be the best approach.

That may sound anathema for a company known for its beautiful design and well-planned user experiences, but the Swedish/American interactive firm Doberman has learned a lot from its foray into children’s software.  As Doberman CEO Lisa Lindström and Experience Strategist Kerry Bodine outlined in their SXSW session on Friday, those lessons have changed the way they design for adults too.

Takeaways about designing for kids can just as easily be applied to adults, according to Lisa Lindström and Kerry Bodine.  (via @jmikemcculloch on Twitter)

Takeaways about designing for kids can just as easily be applied to adults, according to Lisa Lindström and Kerry Bodine. (via @jmikemcculloch on Twitter)

Lindström and Bodine opened their presentation by discussing the rather short history of organized kids play. From Roman times through the mid-19th century, once children grew out of infancy they were treated much like adults: if you were wealthy, you often began schooling where play was not a component, and if you were poor you were generally pushed into manual labor at an early age.  The first playground in the United States wasn’t even built until 1887, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Now, however, play is recognized as an integral part of childhood, and incredibly important to intellectual and emotional development.  Interactive games for children have been a growing segment of the software development industry for years; as technology evolved, that market exploded into tens of thousands of games and educational apps, as devices became more powerful and less expensive overall.

Websites designed for kids in the early days of the Internet seemed to focus on bright colors, bold text and cute pictures, but otherwise weren’t much different from sites aimed at an older audience.  However, Lindström and Bodine said research has shown that kids have very different cognitive, motor and social skills – and thus a different set of needs that digital experiences must meet.  For example, kids under age 8 often struggle to differentiate between content and ads, and kids under 3 aren’t capable of the level of abstract thought needed to connect a picture or icon with the real thing it stands for.

Given these realizations, their firm set out to design their kids games through a careful iterative process of research and design – and soon learned that none of their approaches were really working.  Scavenger hunts to simulate a user experience path were “boring”; simple worksheets to gauge interest and reaction weren’t completed.  So, they moved from what the duo termed a “production society” approach – insight, strategy, design and production – to a “prototyping society” model, where they constantly moved back and forth between the different development stages, with different teams working on different elements based on how kids reacted to them.

“Maybe children aren’t clueless,” Lindström said. “Maybe children are the clue.”

A two-minute sketch of a kids' banking user experience, designed for four-year-olds (via @michelle_pujals on Twitter)

A two-minute sketch of a banking user experience designed for four-year-olds (via @michelle_pujals on Twitter)

As part of the new model, their team members “embraced chaos” – they just watched how kids played, and maintained a loose agile development schedule so they could constantly make improvements to different areas based on the reactions they got.  They also threw out the rules and ignored earlier ideas about a fixed process, in order to let the kids’ input drive the user experience design process.   In the session, Lindström and Bodine gave each of the audience members a Post-It Note and a marker, and asked them to design a basic banking user experience designed for a 4-year-old in two minutes.  Lindström posted several of the resulting designs on Twitter.

You’d think adults would be markedly different, but Lindström and Bodine said their research has actually improved their design work for adult applications.  By moving to a more loose development schedule for subsequent projects, such as a site for health insurance firm Oscar, they have been able to declutter their user experience into beautiful, simple layouts with a friendly tone of voice – and the reaction from clients and users has been overwhelmingly positive.

Their last bit of advice for those embarking on digital development is to ditch meetings whenever possible and focus on play:  What can you learn from games that you like?  What websites you visit for fun “just work,” and thus inspire you to visit them again?

Although their presentation was cut short by an ill-timed fire alarm that emptied the session, Lindström and Bodine clearly articulated their point that a systematic, staged approach to development may not always be the best approach for kids or adults. Instead, spend your time planning “play” for potential users – interacting with games that can help inform your application’s design, trying out pieces of your work and discussing other sites or games that they love.

Leave a comment

SXSW: The Collision of Design, Biology and Tech

Paola Antonelli of MoMA, speaking at SXSW 2015. (user @sachiyop on Instagram)

Paola Antonelli of MoMA, speaking at SXSW 2015. (user @sachiyop on Instagram)

KERA’s Art&Seek is covering the 2015 South by Southwest Conference in Austin. Read more coverage from this and previous years in the SXSW archive.

Picture a work of sculpture, conceived and planned by artists but realized by thousands of insects working in tandem with a robot.

Or perhaps a pile of bricks made from crops and fungi, which are then combined to build durable, ecologically sustainable and aesthetically important structures.

These and other experiments have been realized in the last couple of years through a combination of emerging technology and boundary-pushing art, happening in studios and labs across the globe – and they were highlighted on the first day of SXSW 2015 as part of a keynote on new trends in modern design.

Read More »

Leave a comment

SXSW: Ava DuVernay, Motivational Speaker

Photo: Stephen Becker

Photo: Stephen Becker

AUSTIN – Ava DuVernay made it to town at 1 o’clock this morning. In 10 hours, she’d be giving the SXSW film keynote address. And she hadn’t written a word.

Which is understandable – she’s in the middle of developing a pair of television series and only just recently stepped off the Selma rollercoaster.

So credit today’s moving, motivating keynote to the focusing powers of deadline.

DuVernay told a crowd of a few hundred at the Austin Convention Center about the lessons she learned by making her first three films.

Her first narrative, I Will Follow, she made for $50,000 with the intention of getting notice for Affirm, a distribution collective she founded. Mission accomplished.

Her second film, Middle of Nowhere, she made for $200,000 with the intention of getting into Sundance.


But if her successes taught her anything, it was that she could accomplish what she her mind to, but a goal can be misplaced.

“My error wasn’t what was achieved – because on both films I made great strides as a filmmaker and a film distributor,” she said. “The error was my intention in the first place – and where I put my attention. Because I wasn’t making great strides as a human being and an artist.”

Properly conceived intention, and devoting all of your attention on that idea, is the key to success, she says. And, yes – she learned that from Oprah.

The Queen of All Media was a guiding force for DuVernay’s next film, Selma. All of a sudden she had $20 million to make a movie – that’s 100 times the budget of her previous film.

But instead of focusing on delivering big box office or piling up awards, she fixated on what she was really there to do.

“I had no thought about any of that other crap that usually had motivated me to make films,” she said. “I went into that film with one thought, singular and clear: serve this story. Serve this story – you have to. It wasn’t made with any sort of achievement in mind, it was an experience and an offering.”

So she thought about her father, who’s from Alabama. She thought about John Lewis and Martin Luther King. And she thought about all of the nameless, faceless activists whose story she was charged with telling. By serving the story, she was allowing herself to truly think big.

“If your dream only includes you, it’s too small. If that dream is just about the thing you want to accomplish and you don’t even know why you want it – it’s too small,” she said. “It may take your attention, but you’re not really winning. You may achieve it, but you’re not growing from it. You’re just going from thing to thing. It may look like success from the outside. But if you don’t even truly know why you’re doing it, then your cause and effect will be off, and you’re not going to be fully truly living your dream.”

Oprah couldn’t have said it better.

Leave a comment

SXSW: Exploring The Limits Of Free Speech In ‘Welcome To Leith’


Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker Photo: Stephen Becker

AUSTIN – In 2013, the town of Leith, N.D., had a population of 16 adults – 24 if you count the kids. The only business was a small bar. The mayor had served on the city council since he was 16.

It was the perfect target for Craig Cobb.

The noted white supremacist figured if he could buy property in the town and convince like-minded people to move in, before long he’d have all the votes he needed to turn Leith into some sort of Nazi wonderland.

Christopher K. Walker and Michael Beach Nichols read about Cobb’s plot in The New York Times. Two months later, they were on the ground in Leith documenting the residents’ fight to preserve their town.

The resulting documentary, Welcome to Leith, is impressive in its evenhandedness. The townspeople explain their obvious objections. Cobb and his followers argue for their free speech and right to participate in the democratic process.

In fact, it’s kind of surprising how much access Cobb gave to the directors.

“Part of it I think is just the fact that we were a small team,” Nichols said after Friday night’s screening. “Honestly, I think it’s also – neither of us are Jewish. We’re both white. I think that helped ease him when he was around us. And I think because we’re both relatively young, he potentially thought we could be swayed. I mean, this is all speculation, but he certainly asked these questions of us.”

Nichols and Walker gained the trust of people on both sides of Leith’s divide. And by the end of the film, there’s really no reason to think that either side would be upset by how they come off.

“We made a very conscious decision to not make this film if we could not have both sides represented,” Walker said. “The trick to getting that was asking the questions … and not interjecting our own point of view within that process.”

It’s journalism 101 made particularly tough in this case, when, let’s face it – society wouldn’t have a lot of trouble judging who’s right and who’s wrong here. As we say in the business – sometimes you’ve gotta let people hang themselves with their own noose.

But Walker says that the real reason for their dedication to objectivity is they wanted to make a film that could ask big questions.

“We wanted this film basically to spark a big dialogue in terms of what does free speech mean in a democratic society,” he said. “A lot of countries around the world ban hate speech. What would that do to our country if we ban hate speech? Should we ban hate speech? Should we not ban hate speech? What would that do to the country known for being the freest in the world?”

Welcome to Leith will play the Dallas International Film Festival in April. If you don’t catch it there, look for it on PBS series Independent Lens next year.

Leave a comment

SXSW: It Begins

sxsw logoIn a few hours, I’ll be pointing the car south and heading down I-35 for another edition of South by Southwest. It’s my 11th time covering the festival, which you’ve no-doubt heard has either a) gotten, like, SO big or b) gotten, like, TOO big.

We’ll see if both “a” and “b” are true over the weekend. But until then, I’m going to be optimistic. Mostly because I’m looking forward to checking out:

Welcome to Leith – I’ll be starting this year off with this documentary about white supremacist Craig Cobb’s attempt to takeover a small town in North Dakota. It’s one of the 10 films that the Dallas International Film Festival has announced will be part of this year’s lineup. I’ll be talking to the film’s director, Michael Beach Nichols, after the film, so check back here for a post on that interview on Saturday.

duvernayAva DuVernay – From a white supremacist to arguably the most notable black filmmaker of the last year. DuVernay will give this year’s keynote address Saturday morning. With the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma last weekend and her Oscar snub firmly in the past, she’ll be sharing her thoughts on her experience with Selma and the outlook for black women in film. It looks as if she has a few projects coming up, so if she shares any details, you’ll find them here Saturday afternoon.

Manglehorn – Richardson native and Austin resident David Gordon Green shDGGows his latest project on Saturday afternoon. I’ll be talking to him on Sunday about his turn towards more serious films after Pineapple Express and Your Highness and about working with Al Pacino, who plays a guy grieving over the loss of the love of his life. In the meantime, here’s our Big Screen conversation from 2013, in which we talked about his film Prince Avalanche and about him being an extra in JFK.

I’m also planning to catch Being Evel, a documentary about Evel Knievel that’s also showing at DIFF, and a conversation with Beau Willimon about taking House of Cards from script to screen.

I’ll be blogging all weekend here, posting on the Art&Seek Facebook page and sending out some micro observations and pics on Twitter. Follow me @stephenbecker.

‘Til soon.

Leave a comment

A Memorial For The Reverend Gean West

gean and jean Rev. Gean West with original band member, Jean Tarkington. Photo: Austin360

Last week, Reverend Gean West died at the age of 78. He was one of the founders of the band, The Relatives. They were an unknown West Dallas group that faded in the early ‘80s only to reunite and gain national acclaim the past five years. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this appreciation of one of the pioneers of gospel-funk.

Read More »

Leave a comment

VIDEO: On The Road at SXSW with Ásgeir

No Comments
Categorized Under: KXT, Music, South by Southwest

Icelandic artist Asgeir and the On The Road crew teamed up for a tuneful rendezvous at Green Pastures restaurant in Austin during SXSW performing his song  “Going Home.”

Leave a comment

VIDEO: On The Road at SXSW with Hozier

KXT’s On The Road crew took a breather from the chaos of SXSW with Irish artist and poet Hozier, which yielded this stunning performance of “Take Me To Church” on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

Leave a comment

VIDEO: On The Road at SXSW with Flo Morrissey

On The Road: The young and talented British-based artist Flo Morrissey met up with KXT 91.7’s On The Road crew at the Plaza Saltillo Metro Rail station in Austin during SXSW. She recorded her song “Show Me.”


Leave a comment
Page 2 of 1312345...10...Last »