My Art PhD Experience And Advice For Those Considering Doing One

Several years ago I finished my PhD in new media art. It was an interesting and challenging experience.

My PhD started as a Masters degree in photography. This reflected where my thinking and expertise was, at the time. The intent was to look as Kabbalah and to explore it through photography. Kabbalah (spelt in many different ways) is a spiritual tradition which originated as an area of Jewish spirituality, but that also had developed a non-Jewish branch as part of what is known as the Western Mystery Tradition from the 15th Century onwards, where it was combined with Hermetic and other influences and evolved into a clearly distinct form from its Jewish roots. It was this non-Jewish, Hermetic Kabbalah, that I was interested in.

An image from the Time and Space series.

As often happens with post-graduate research, the project followed various twists and turns, dead-ends, and directions that I chose not to follow at the time, but flagged for future work, such as light art.

By the time I converted from a Masters to a PhD, the project had taken on much more of a video orientation. The final body of artwork consisted of a collection of heavily Photoshopped still imagery and a three-channel video projection.

I’m often asked “was it worth it” and “did I enjoy it”? The answer to both is a qualified yes. PhD’s are a huge amount of work, especially when substantial parts of it were done part time. Plus there was a lot of mess going on in the rest of my life. We were caring for my parents-in-law as they went through their end-of-life illnesses, plus one of my brothers-in-law suicided and the whole family mess that resulted from that. Add in an eventual court case over the family estate that we got dragged into and you can understand why my PhD took longer than ideal. In the end everything resolved well for us, but the journey was a challenging one.

Also from the Time and Space series

I learned a huge amount from the PhD. Since my earlier degrees had all been in science and engineering, I had a steep learning curve to understand how to conceptualise and write in an academic art manner. Plus, of course, academic writing is a complete style unto itself, and one that violates all the principles of good writing – succinctness, clarity and the avoidance of obscure language in favour of a simple, easy to understand word choice. The PhD did push my art practice in new directions and it really stretched me as an artist. It pushed me deeply away from straight photography into video art and installation, something I am extremely grateful for.

My PhD was a practice-based PhD, a form that makes great sense in the arts and also in many other fields. In comparison to a normal research PhD, the emphasis is on real-world, practical outcomes, such as a book, body of music or, in this case, a body of artwork. It also has a focus on your practice as an artist and the development of that practice. So, in a sense, it is quite ‘you’ focused.

Another from the Time and Space series

For the development of the final video piece, I decided to weave together three parallel narratives – my personal spiritual narrative, my family narrative and the narrative of the development of the Western Mystery Tradition. These three narratives interweave through a three-channel video projection, with the same imagery often serving different roles and meanings in two or three of the narratives. The narratives are also non-linear in form. All of this really pushed me to develop new ways of thinking about and developing my art. Along the way I developed a new art theory, the ‘Data-Algorithm Model’, which I used in the production of the artwork and that I am now doing further writing about and pushing it into new areas, such as education.

Tree of Everywhere Combination of Channels v2 from Dr. Wayne J. Cosshall on Vimeo.

I have definitely found it worth doing an art PhD. Professionally, it opens doors in academia and even in business, it makes people pay some extra attention to your experience. From my art practice perspective, it was also highly worthwhile. The opportunity to work with good supervisors who will push you is worth it.

Advice for those considering doing an art PhD

The following is my advice based on doing two PhD’s in my life.

Firstly, work up the idea for the project you think you want to do broadly. Understand that over the course of the PhD this will change. In fact at most Universities, at least here in Australia, whilst you need a proposal to get enrolled, you have around 12 months (full time) before you have to submit your real proposal of topic. This is recognition of the fact that there is a lot of work to be done in defining the exact research questions you will be attempting to answer.

Go beyond an idea of what you want to work on to consider process. Do you need studio facilities or do you have your own? Do some looking at research publications that touch on your area. The full literature search will come once you are enrolled, but some preliminary work is wise and will help to convince the supervisors that you want to take you on. Try to look at the most recent publications in the field so you understand the current focus and themes.

Note that there are more and more ways to do a PhD. There are, for example, PhD by publication degrees, where you publish as you go and the body of publications is what is examined at the end. Look into all the options that are available to you and consider what might best suit you, your processes and what you are doing the PhD for in the first place.

Secondly, stalk potential supervisors. Supervisors are, in many ways, much more important than the actual University you do it at. You want a principle and a secondary supervisor. Both need to have the time to support you properly. This often means avoiding the very high profile, late-career supervisor for someone earlier in their careers. Not always, but often. At least one of them needs experience in getting students through the whole process at the University you will end up doing it at. This is so they can guide you through the administrative hoops that the University puts in your way. Every University is different, and some change their processes frequently (like the one I did mine at). You need supervisors that you can get on with, who you understand (both language-wise and intellectually) and who will be focused on getting you through to completion. You should interview potential supervisors. Remember that, in reality, you are doing them a huge favour. Academics are under incredible pressure to publish and to see students through to graduation. So the power does not all sit with them. With the work you have done on examining the literature, you have the best hope of convincing them that you are serious, can do the work and will complete. Discuss with them the potential to publish as you go. This is attractive to potential supervisors and has a huge benefit for you once you graduate, as you will already have some publications behind you. I did not do this, and I highly regret it. Also explore with them about whether their department supports PhD students with offers of sessional tutoring or teaching assistant work.

Once you have chosen supervisors then the third thing is to actually enroll at the University. Make sure the University has experience with practice-based PhDs. You don’t want to be the guineapig. Consider carefully whether you will study full or part-time, as at least in Australia there are scholarship implications to this that can save you a huge amount of money down the track.

Once you are started, be as organised as you possibly can be. Develop a system to keep track of every piece of reading you do. Whether this is one of the referencing management tools, like EndNote or one of the other ones, or whether you do this manually in Word or on paper, develop a system and use it. Keep copies (preferably digitally) of all the papers you look at. Digital makes it much easier to do keyword searches to find that paper from several years ago.

Publish as you go, both papers and artwork into exhibitions. This builds your resume and gives you a head start if looking to build an academic career later. Your supervisors will love this as they get credit too and it helps to show the University that you are engaged and making progress.

Proactively drive the process with your supervisors. Schedule regular meetings and touch base frequently by email. Keep them in the loop and do not be afraid to ask for help, that is what they are there for. They get a massive benefit from supervising you, so do not feel you can’t disturb them. In Australia the University gets a huge amount of money from the government per PhD student. Make sure you get your money’s worth.

If you are doing a practice-based PhD then the thesis is shorter and is often called an exegesis. Mine sits in the 40-50,000 word range. Hire an editor. Your University should have a guidance document that spells out exactly what a PhD edit can and cannot do. Basically, it boils down to the fact that the exegesis has to be your words, they are there to help you make it read well and correctly. Universities in Australia have a budget to help you pay for editing. Ask about it. Elsewhere, there may be a similar source of funding, so ask your supervisors and read through all the documentation the University has for PhD candidates. Mine paid for almost all of my editing costs.

Writing up is a stressful process. Accept that. Be prepared to go through many drafts of refinement before it is ready to submit. Get your supervisors to point you to recent PhDs that have passed successfully in your department of the University and download the thesis or exegesis document from the library or University research repository. Use these to get an idea of how to approach and organise your work. The topic doesn’t matter, you are seeking help with how to organise your writing and what forms are acceptable to the University. This was critically important for me, as I was struggling with how to organise the vast range of ideas I needed to cover. I ended up finding one that ‘gave me permission’ to follow a narrative structure that worked for me and my work.

The actual examination process is also stressful. Generally, you have some say in who will examine your work. In Australia you can nominate who you might want to examine you. You can also state who you do not want as an examiner. This can be very important. Network with other PhD candidates and recent graduates in your field. They will have stories to tell about examiners. Basically the outcome of examination is one of three things – full acceptance as is (which was the case with mine), more work to be done, either minor or major, and outright rejection, which is very rare and should never happen if your supervisors have done their job properly (same with major additional work).

Hopefully it will all go well for you and then you are a newly minted PhD. Start using your title as Doctor immediately. You worked bloody hard for it, use it.

If you want to look at my academic work, you can go to my personal art website, where you’ll find the still image series Time and Space and the video piece The Tree of Everywhere, or my profile on Academia.edu. My exegesis itself is available from the RMIT University publication repository.

Another Time and Space image

Why I’m Disappointed with Canon

I’ve been a Canon user for a very long time, in fact since 1984. Over most of that time, I’ve been pretty happy with Canon. I’ve liked their innovation and their support of what photographers wanted to do with their gear.

But over recent years, as my own artistic practice has grown and developed, I have become disappointed. My main disappointment is that it seems that Canon no longer understands my needs or the needs of similar creatives. You see, the problem is that I am no longer just a photographer and I am not just a filmmaker. I am both.

Driven by marketing decisions, it seems, Canon developed the EOS Cinema line for filmmakers and the EOS line for still photographers. This split, which does not take into account users who need BOTH capabilities, is best shown in the recent release of the 6D Mark II. Great still camera, like the previous 6D Mark I that I have, but while the rest of the world has moved to 4k video capture, the 6D Mark II is limited to Full HD.

Come on Canon. Even my iPhone (7S) can capture 4k and do so very well with any of the accessory lens systems, like the ExoLens shown below with a Zeiss lens.

Yes, I have a huge investment in L-series glass. But Canon needs to remember that with the rise of mirrorless cameras I can fit that glass onto a Sony or Panasonic body.

So I no longer view myself as a Canon camera user. I’ve become a Canon lens mount system user. My lens mount of choice is the Canon EOS one. I have Canon lenses. I also have a lot of Lensbaby lenses in the Canon mount. And I will have a range of camera bodies from a number of manufacturers, with lens mount adapters, where needed. My next camera body purchase will likely be a Sony or Panasonic.

By failing to recognise that a growing proportion of image makers require both excellent still image shooting and excellent video shooting in one body, Canon has dropped the ball on innovation. A bad move in my opinion.

Panasonic VariCam 35 sheds light on BBC’s Moorside

The VariCam 35 was chosen for the popular BBC One docu-drama The Moorside, the most successful debut of a drama for the Corporation in 15 years.

The Moorside Photo credit – Stuart Wood

Set on Dewsbury’s Moorside estate, the series follows how a group of ordinary women brought the community together as one to try and find a child who had disappeared in their midst.

The ITV Studios-made drama, produced by Ken Horn (The Street, Our Girl) and directed by Paul Whittington (Cilla, Mrs Biggs) was shot on the Panasonic VariCam 35 supplied by rental provider Provision.

The series is based on the real life story of Shannon Matthews, whose 2008 disappearance sparked a major police search before it was revealed that her mother knew where she was, and had colluded with a relative to hide her in the hopes of claiming reward money.

The focus of the drama is on the spirit and determination of the women who led the local campaign to find Shannon, and the impact on them when the truth was revealed that her disappearance was a sham.

Shot in nearby Halifax in the interest of sensitivity, filming took place in January and February 2016 meaning natural light was limited. After carrying out side-by-side camera tests, looking at how they would handle the sodium street lighting of the estate, the VariCam 35 won out as it offered a more true-to-life image.

“The sodium colour came out so well on the VariCam, the other camera we were testing turned the street lighting quite red”, said Stephan Pehrsson, Director of Photography on the shoot with previous credits including Luther, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

The VariCam 35 has a Super 35 sized sensor. It features a dynamic range with 14+ stops of latitude and a wide color gamut, acquisition functions that
support 4K/120fps uncompressed RAW recording using V-log. The camera uses a PL lens mount.

The Moorside Photo credit – Stuart Wood


“Our mission was to be as invisible as possible, to allow that cinéma vérité feel. Because we weren’t spending so much time resetting lights, we could spend more time shooting and getting better performances from a brilliant cast. We were shooting each setup 7 or 8 times as we were able to turn around on the location so quickly. I pity the DIT who had to deal with such a massive amount of material.”

With two native ISO settings of 800 and 5000 the VariCam 35 is able to achieve very high sensitivity while maintaining a low noise level at 5000 ISO. The noise level at 5000 is nearly identical to that seen at 800 ISO, according to Panasonic.

“We tested the 5000 ISO, as well as 1600, but most of the drama was shot at 3200 ISO. Anything you could see with your eyes the camera saw, maybe more,” continued Stephan Pehrsson.

The VariCam was used in conjunction with 35mm Cooke S4i’s and Angenieux Optimo 15-40 & Angenieux Optimo 45-120 lenses, and shot at ProRes 4444, as the BBC didn’t request 4K.

“The Line Producer loved it, the economic saving from having such limited lighting on set allowed us to bring in more extras, which just enhanced the show,” added Stephan Pehrsson.

“Keeping it small meant that we were also able to have a much lower profile. Obviously it is a sensitive subject and we didn’t want to over-do it. In actual fact, we had such a minimal lighting set-up that Jeff Pope, the Executive Producer, came on set and couldn’t find us. Normally you can’t miss a drama crew.”

Thanks to Panasonic for the quotes, images and information from the press release.

When Documentarians are Journalists: Managing the Blowback Threat

Last night I went to a talk at RMIT University organised by the Docuverse research group. The speaker was Patricia Aufderheide, a visiting academic from the US examining work she has been involved with that looks at the differences and similarities between journalists and documentarians, their attitudes and the issues they face (and the solutions they use).

The talk and discussion that followed was most interesting. As someone who was a print journalist who made the transition to multimedia journalism and who has now added documentary film making to the mix, I could relate to the discussion very closely. A conclusion was that while so many things are in common for the two groups, there are differences. A significant one is that journalists feel much more protected than documentary film makers do.

Here is a link to the document Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power on the American University website.

Sony expands range of compact full-frame mirrorless cameras with the launch of the ultra-sensitive Alpha 7S II

Press Release Sydney, 11 September 2015  Sony today announced the latest addition to its award winning series of compact, full-frame 7 cameras with the introduction of the 7S II. Offering ultra-high sensitivity and wide dynamic range across the entire ISO range and 5-axis image stabilisation for greater shooting control, the 7S II delivers stunning image quality for photographers who shoot in the most challenging light conditions. Be it the brightest of mornings or darkest of nights, the 7S II enables new levels of photographic expression at whatever shutter speed you wish to deploy. The 7S II also incorporates a host of pro-style movie functions including the ability to shoot 4K video with full pixel readout and no pixel binning in full-frame format, making it an extremely appealing proposition for photographers and videographers alike.

 Sony 7S II

The 7S II delivers an awe-inspiring sensitivity range of ISO 50-409600, thanks to the combination of its 35mm full-frame 12.megapixel image sensor and BIONZ X image processing engine. The sensor optimises the dynamic range across the entire ISO range and broadens the range of tonal gradation in bright environments and minimises noise in dark scenes meaning that it delivers impressive results even in the most extreme conditions. The upgraded image processing algorithm of BIONZ X maximises the sensor”Æs capabilities and improves depiction throughout the full sensitivity range with particular emphasis on the mid-to-high range. This means that the resulting stills and movies demonstrate extra-fine detail with minimal noise.

 

Video Master

The 7S II can record 4K movies internally in the XAVC S format meaning that content is wonderfully detailed. Because information from all pixels is utilised without line skipping or pixel binning, the camera can maximise the expanded power of the full-frame image sensor and produce 4K movies with higher image clarity and negligible moire. Full pixel readout without pixel binning is also employed when shooting Full HD[v] movies which means that it collects information from approximately five times as many pixels that are required to generate Full HD and condenses the information to produce extremely high quality movies.

 

In a first for the 7 series, the 7S II can record 120fps at 100Mbps with full pixel readout without pixel binning in full frame format which can be edited into wonderful 4x/5x slow motion footage in Full HD. The 7S II also has the ability to shoot 4x/5x slow motion footage internally which can be immediately reviewed on the camera screen. 

 

Video functionality has been further enhanced with new profiles; S-Gamut3.Cine/S-Log3 and S-Gamut3/S-Log3. These new profiles deliver wide dynamic range and colour correction is easier to perform. The ¦Į7S ll even offers impressive 14-stop latitude in the S-Log3 gamma setting. The camera also supports S-Gamut/S-Log2 which is very popular among cinematographers and videographers. Gamma Display Assist is a new function that allows users to monitor images or check focus when recording S-Log movies and the Zebra function has been improved for even greater control. 

 

5-Axis Image Stabilisation

The new 7S II is equipped with the innovative 5-axis image stabilisation system that is proving extremely popular in the 7 II and 7R II cameras. The system corrects camera shake along five axes during shooting, including angular shake (pitch and yaw) which has the greatest impact on image quality and tends to occur with a telephoto lens, shift shake (X and Y axes) which becomes noticeable as magnification increases, and rotational shake (roll) that often affects night shooting or video recording.

 

Autofocus accuracy

The autofocus system on the ¦Į7S II has been upgraded and now offers 169 AF points for fast, precise focusing with greater accuracy. The power of the image sensor means that the absence of noise in images generated enables the Fast Intelligent AF to detect contrast more easily and react speedily even in low-light situations (as low as EV-4), when it”Æs even tough to check with the naked eye. When shooting video, the AF performance is twice as fast as the predecessor model.

 

Electronic Viewfinder

The XGA OLED Tru-Finder in the ¦Į7S II has been upgraded and offers the world”Æs highest viewfinder magnification of 0.78x (roughly 38.5 degrees in diagonal field of view) and shows clear images across the entire display area. The use of ZEISS T* Coating ensures sharp reduction of reflections on the viewfinder and unlike an optical viewfinder, the OLED Tru-Finder can be used to instantly show how exposure compensation, white balance and other selected settings are affecting the displayed image.

 

User upgrades

A number of enhancements have been made to the look and feel of the 7S II to make it more user friendly, reliable and intuitive. Its magnesium-alloy body is both light and highly robust and the grip and shutter buttons have been re-designed so that the camera feels more natural in the hand. For situations when you just want to blend into the background, silent shooting mode can be activated for 5fps continuous shooting and reliability has been enhanced with reduced-vibration shutter movement. The lens mount has been further reinforced to ensure greater resilience, particularly when attaching third party lenses and users can now charge the camera via a USB power supply whilst the camera is in operation, thus extending battery life. For greater comfort and safety, Sony is also launching the LCS-EBF; a new premium leather body case for the 7S II which is also compatible with the 7R II and 7 II.

 

The 7S II is also Wi-Fi and NFC compatible and fully functional with Sony”Æs PlayMemories Mobile application available for Android and iOS platforms, as well as Sony”Æs growing range of PlayMemories Camera Apps, which add a range of fun creative capabilities to the camera.  Learn more at www.sony.net/pmca.

 

Pricing and availability

The new 7S II full-frame interchangeable lens digital camera from Sony will be available in Australia before the end of this year. Pricing is TBC.

Frame.io with FCPX integration is a great platform for video editing collaboration

Frame.io has now been around for a few months and already had over 30,000 users. They now have a desktop app that integrates into FCPX and makes it really easy to share the timeline or part of it with collaborators and team members.

Frame.io is kind of a better hybrid of Dropbox and Vimeo. It provides for very fast upload of video files, makes sharing easier with collaborators and team members and provides an integrated commenting system that is tied to the timeline so that comments are synced to the video exactly. This alone makes Frame.io a better way to work that uploading video to Dropbox or Vimeo and then using email communicate with collaborators by sharing links and timecodes that people often get wrong. The system supports versioning and makes this very easy to work with, including synchronised playback of two versions for visual comparison purposes in a web browser.

Now with the app for Mac OS and FCPX this process is more integrated into FCPX and you can easily share the timeline in whole or part, particular clips, etc with collaborators. Support for other NLEs is not there yet but underway.

We are just starting to work with it and so will have more to report down the track.

Frame.io

Frame.io FCPX app

Frame.io

No Film School has an article about the FCPX integration app

 

 

Tangerine movie shot with iPhones and anamorphic lens adapters

Sean Baker’s latest film, Tangerine, was shot on iPhones using the FiLMiC app and Moondog Labs 1.33x anamorphic lens adapters to give a wide screen but full 2k resolution film. The result is not only an amazing film but an impressive demonstration of just what you can do with an iPhone. The iPhones were mounted on Steadicam type devices for fast movement and quick setups.

Read the FastCreate article here.

FiLMiC App

Moondog Labs 1.33x Anamorphic adapter

Schneider Optics iPro Case

tangerine