Archive for May, 2007

Is an online-ad firm really worth $6 billion?

Slate.com has terrific article on on-line advertising today.

Here, I think, is the key quote:

Television, magazines, and newspapers may be hanging on because they are more powerful media for reaching the consumers companies most want to reach. But I suspect they’re hanging on for another demographic reason. Advertising is supposed to be a with-it, hot, trendy, tomorrow-based industry. But at root, the business of advertising is one of allocating capital, not cooking up clever jingles. And the people who make the decisions about how to allocate that $300-odd billion in capital each year—CEOs of consumer products companies, Fortune 500 executive vice presidents, media buyers, brand managers, agency heads—well, they’re old. It takes time to climb the corporate ladders to get to the rungs where really important decisions are made. Of course, these people, most of whom came of age as consumers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, use the Internet, spend a lot of time on it, and buy stuff on it. But they don’t understand it intuitively the way the younger crowd does. Do you think the CEOs of Ford, Citigroup, or Procter & Gamble are uploading photos to their MySpace pages, downloading music, and blogging.

I find this a lot with advertisers and studio executives I talk to.

It’s like there’s this huge infrastructure. This infrastructure is composed of a physical infrastructure (like buildings and avids and a high end production pipeline) and mental-infrastructure, which is all the work people have invested into thinking a certain way to succeed. And this huge infrastructure is the size of a huge oil tanker. And you say to people, “Really. You need to turn the direction of the boat.”

But they can’t or they won’t. Because they’ve already invested so much in this huge thing and the direction it’s going.

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Complicated, Engaging and Interactive

Those three words are often conflated in Internet ideas and products. But they are really three separate things. And I think we have to keep our heads straight about them if we’re going to make content that really works for audience.

The big bugaboo word for the Internet is “interactive.” Everybody in the content provider sector wants “interactive” — if only because they’ve heard the word. Well, okay, and also because the Internet is a very interactive environment. You press buttons, you make choices. You do interact with it.

But we interact with our Television, too. We change channels. We change the volume. We also interact with our DVRs — we set up season passes and choose what content to record and so on.

But you know what we don’t interact with? The content. When we watch a show, we’re sitting there watching a show. We not moving around widgets or pressing buttons. If the show is engaging enough we’re just sitting there watching it. (Mind you, if it’s engaging enough, we’re actually interacting with it on some level — thematically, emotionally or whatever. But we’re not physically manipulating anything to get to the fun.)

I’m not being facile about this. This is a vital distinction. Because for all the bells and whistles New Media can provide, there’s a really vital question here:

“What do people actually want?”

James Surowiecki’s “Financial Page” has an interesting piece in The New Yorker magazine this week. He talks about how designers of new technology often put in lots of bells and whistles into gadgets because they can. And marketing and sales departments love having lots of bells and whistles on gizmos because it gives them more to sell. And consumers love buying products with lots of bells and whistles because it makes them feel like they are getting more.

“But,” Surowiecki writes:

…once we actually have a product, our patience with all those features runs out very quickly. Elke den Ouden found, for instance, that Americans who returned a product that was too complicated for them had spent, on average, just twenty minutes with it before giving up.

The fact that buyers want bells and whistles but users want something clear and simple creates a peculiar problem for companies. A product that doesn’t have enough features may fail to catch our eye in the store. (A cell phone that doesn’t offer a Bluetooth connection, for instance, may be dismissed as underpowered, even though relatively few Americans use Bluetooth headsets.) But a product with too many features is likely to annoy consumers and generate bad word of mouth, as BMW’s original iDrive system did.

Okay. New Media. We can make choose your own path video content. We can make really elaborate Alternate Reality Games. We can make websites so thick in content you’ll never finish sorting through it all.

But at the end of the day, what do people want?

I offer this: Many of the models above are going to be just too complicated. People want engagement, but they don’t want complicated. The fact that our technology allows us to make things complicated doesn’t mean that people want things that are complicated. For that to have happened we would have needed a shift in the way most human beings want to engage with stories — and I don’t think that’s happened. Most people will want a person, or many people working together, to have built something they can sit down and read or watch or whatever.

Cable came along and gave us 500 channels. Too complicated! The DVR exists to save us from that complication.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are really cool. And there will always be an audience for them. And I’ll say again, they are really cool. Here’s a sample webpage from Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, an ARG that’s part of their concept album built in collaboration with 42 Entertainment.

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If you click on the sample webpage you’ll got to anotherversionofthetruth.com. You’ll see a pretty image of an Americana landscape. If, however, you hold down your control button and slide the cursor over the image, you’ll start “peeling back” the colorful, life-affirming image and find a bleak landscape revealed underneath. Once you wipe away all of it, you’ll discover the image is now a link. If you click on it, you are then linked to chat board where members of a future resistance movement to an authoritarian United States government.

Click on more pages, and you’ll end up on a mailing list where people from the resistance movement email back. Scour web-pages for clues and you’ll find new links to lead you deeper into one web page, email, phone number, audio file after another…

Here’s a wiki page detailing the Another Version of the Truth page, here’s the Forum where characters from the bad future discuss many issues, and here’s a Forum at unFiction.com where many of the players/audience gather to sort out clues and find the next web page or phone number as part of their journey into the world Nine Inch Nails and 42 Entertainment have created.

To move deeper into the “narrative artifacts” that the ARG makers have produced, it is assumed that the players will work together to find and solve puzzles. A certain number of hatch-marks found by one person on a web-page will in turn be revealed to be a fax number by three people working to solve the puzzle together on a chat forum. It’s very interactive, very social, very Internet and very cool.

And when I tell people about these amazing creations and show them the web pages they’re always blown away by the concepts and the specifics. But then I always ask, “Now, in a week’s time will you have pursued any deeper the mysteries of these web pages?” And they look at the cool web pages on their screen and always say, “No.”

(This example was driven home to me one night over dinner. I was having dinner with the development executive of a video-content driven web-site and we were talking about the word “complicated.” And he said, “Do you know about the Nine Inch Nails ARG?”

And I said, “Yeah, I think I know where you’re going with this…”

And he cut me off and said, “It’s really cool, right?”

And I said, “Yes, and…”

And he cut me off again and said, “And when I show it to people, they all think it’s cool…”

“Dude,” I said. “I think you’re stealing my talking point…”

But he drove on, saying exactly what I said, even reaching the point where, after he shows people the cool pages he asks, “And will you be involved in this a week from now?” And everyone says, “No.”)

I think ARGs are great puzzles. But I’m not sure if the emotional and thematic content of storytelling is best served by puzzles. (And that’s a whole ‘nother issue — the tension between game and story.)

I will say that while ARGs (and especially 42 Entertainment) have a well-deserved fan base, I’m not sure if it will ever spread to be a dominant form. The ARG form is engaging and interactive… But it’s also very complicated. For thousands of years audience members have been content to sit around a fire and let someone tell them a story, or watch TV or read a book or whatever.

I have never considered these activities “passive.” They’re utilizing portions of us — emotion, thematic content, moral arguments – that don’t makes us very busy, but are engaging all the same. And I don’t think human beings have changed very much, though our technology has.

So, when thinking about online narrative content, ask, “Yes, we can have a lot of bells and whistles. But as a guy or gal hopping onto the internet to engage those part of me that loves a good story, how much complication do I really need, how much interactivity do I really need, and with or without a lot of complication or interaction, how engaging can I be?”

45% of European Broadband Users Watch TV Shows on Computers

This Motorola study surprised me. (And I’m not often surprised by this stuff.) I had always thought that long form content would not work that well on the Internet. How we watch TV or a movie — relaxed, leaning back, settled — seemed perfect for settling in for a while. Computers had more of the feel of jumping around and being busy.

Not so! As the article notes:

The results further strengthen the business models of startups such as Joost, that seek to target a massive potential audience through the use of streamed content over a P2P network, but with the safeguards of DRM and imposed advertising delivery built in.

Just the other day I was at a Kinkos doing some work and I saw a woman waiting for her husband at one of the computer work station cubicles. She had her laptop out and was watching The Scorpian King.

Now, again, I don’t exactly get this. I was watching over her shoulder for a few minutes (I always like to try to guess a movie in as few number of images as possible), and the panoramic shots of the city being sieged lack all sense of scope. At first I couldn’t exactly tell what was happening!

Now, clearly people make the same arguments of moving Film down to the scale of TV. A shot of a horizon in a John Ford western is going to be much more effective in a movie theater than on TV. But you can still see what’s happening.

What happens when you move that down to a streaming video player? Or this: I saw a kid watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean on an iPod. Could he even see the details of the movie? What did an establishing shot of a ship sailing the horizon at night look like to him? Was he watching it for the first time (where a lot of details would have to be lost), or was he watching it again — an on this reviewing certain shots “triggered” memories and facts he knew from previous viewings? (My guess is the latter.)

Clearly, no matter what, I’m an old fogy on this issue. I’ve watched episodes of Heroes on the NBC site that I had missed — but only so I would be up to date to watch the next episode with friends. But I wouldn’t make it a habit. But it will become a habit.

The question on my mind is only this: what sort of content will work best on a computer screen. TV didn’t just port the cinematic style of Film and shrink it down. It built it’s own “language” of storytelling, which depended far more on close-ups and dialogue than Film. The three-camera sit-com is a wonderful invention for TV, but would be dull in a movie.

I expect while people will continue to watch TV and movies via broadband — and in greater numbers — content that is designed to work well and specifically for computer screens will grow alongside it and become dominant. What that dominant content will be — first person video storytelling, Alternate Reality Games, Massive Multiplayer Online games, things we haven’t even thought of yet — who knows?

Notes of Excitment and Congratulations

I co-host a New Media Lab for my Alumni Association. (The Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance.) My co-host is Jeff Shuter, and we meet at his offices at Gain Enterprises.

In the first half of each meeting, we bring in a guest speaker, who does a talk on anything from video piracy issues to pitching new concepts to MTV. Then the speaker answers questions.

And then someone in the group puts a project he or she is working on “on the table” and we all give notes and suggestions, from both the creative and the business end of things.

Inspired by the first meeting, Shana Krochmal came with a pitch for a Twitter Soap Opera and sold it to OurChart.com. The project was featured in an NPR piece this week.

I love this project because it grabs a new media by the horns and finds a way to tell a story with it. Sure, it’s still an experiment. But it’s an exciting experiment.

And Paul Jury introduced his comedy site pandasmash.com to the group. I’m impressed with the site. First, it has a great catalogue of videos. There’s no way to see it all in one visit — which means if you like it you’ll go back again and again.

Second, it’s a strong site.

By that I mean, instead of being a weird amalgamation of all sorts of video slapped together, pandasmash.com has a specific editorial content. If I want what pandasmash has, I’ll go there — because it will deliver what I want. I don’t have to hunt and peck like a lot of web sites. It’s right there.

I believe that these kind of specific content sites are the future of web-publishing. Right now we have what I think of as the TV network model as the most popular model — one site with a shot gun approach to content. However, with networks they stagger different kinds of content through the time of day, so you’re not having to sift through all of it all the time. On a website that’s overstuffed, like YouTube, it’s your job to sort through all the crap to maybe find something you like. While that can be fun, I don’t think ultimately it’s a sustainable model.

I prefer what I refer to as the “magazine model,” with a strong editorial focus for a web-site. Whether it’s comedy, horror, political, focused on teenage boys or moms, a given site delivers a variety of content along an editorial focus — like O Magazine, or The New Yorker, or The Atlantic, or Maxim or whatever.

This way, surfing through videos and text is more like flipping through the pages of a magazine — but with the increased odds that I’m actually going to like what I see because I’ve already decided I want to see the type of stuff the website has posted. (The very successful heavy.com already does this with content slanted toward the Maxim crowd. In my view the teen-age boy market is already well catered to. Other demographics surf the web in great numbers as well… Time to go after them!)

The New Media Lab is going really well. I’m proud of it and looking to see what members create as we continue.

Stories, Moral Choice, and Resource Management

In a game there are choices.

A player playing a game of Chess can choose to sacrifice a pawn to take a queen, or lose a bishop to protect a rook.

All good games are like this: Whether it’s Monopoly or Tag or Baseball (do I take this pitch or not? Do I run, or not?)

A well-designed video game has choices as well. If I’m playing a First Person Shooter, and I see a health back under a machine gun nest that might save my character during a gun battle, I could choose to go to get it despite the bullets, or I can stick it out and keep shooting, hoping I take out the bad guys before I do. It’s a resource management choice, because those are the sorts of choices that matter for a game.

Now, stories have choices, too. The characters make moral and emotional choices. Take a look at the first minute of this YouTube video. Tony Soprano answers his daughter Meadow when she asks him if he’s in the mob. (After the first minute it becomes a YouTube Soprano’s Highlight Mashup!)

Clearly he’s embarassed by the question. And just as clearly he’s trying to protect her from the very thing that pays for their home and is going to let her go to college. (They’re driving to a college campus for an interview for Meadow.)

King Oedipus has to choose whether to pursue the truth even if it will cost him his comfortable life, Hamlet must decide to pursue murder at the word of a supernatural spirit, Ripley in Aliens must decide if she will risk her life for a little girl she only recently met, and so on.

By the way, I’m not saying all audience members are paying attention to this in an intellectual manner. I am saying that people respond to stories where characters make emotionally and morally engaging choices. The audience doesn’t have to be thinking about this stuff — but they do respond.

Here’s the thing: a game can be designed so that it is only about resource management. But it can also be designed to be about moral choices.

The kind of game where this is most explicit is in MMOs… because there is no “story” the players must follow. Thus, the choices are live choices. What a player does is open-ended and will affect other, actual human beings.

Let’s say that a game is set up where you can choose to have your character be very loyal to the state. You get certain bonuses for serving the state of one kind or another. (And let us say you could have your character be an enemy of the state — and get bonuses in turn for being a rebel. But that’s not how you chose to build your character.)

And let us assume further your character is very loyal to his family. This is a world with extended families, and there are mechanical and practical bonuses to having strong ties to your family.

And let us say finally that the game world shifts and your character’s father is declared a traitor by the state. Suddenly your character has a choice: to defend his father, or side with state against him. That’s an engaging choice because it taps all sorts of moral and emotional buttons in all of us.

An MMO could be rigged with a large matrix set of options about where to put one’s alliances and loyalties. And over time alliances between players and between players and NPCs could shift back and forth. As the player made choice for his or her character, more and more dramatic moments would arise — moments that would be strongly remembered by the player.

Now, one would have to make sure you didn’t derail the MMO with too many options. But it seems to me that this kind of design would allow players to plug directly into the stuff of dramatic action and epic tales. Certainly it seems possible to take the stuff of dramatic narrative and plug it into mechanics of resource management to offer up more color, drama and meaning.

“Pen & Paper” RPGs, MMOs and Distribution of Narrative Authority

I’ve spent time writing, designing and playing “pen & paper” role-playing games. I learned a lot working on them, both about story and games. (This is where I began focusing on how some things that work in one medium might not work in another medium! A play is not a novel is not an RPG is not a movie!)

Delving deep into MMOs, I’ve discovered they’ve shed a lot of the assumptions that many paper RPG publishers and players had, and break free of some of the “culture” of RPGs:

For such a fun, innovative way of building a narrative through group effort, the players usually don’t have much input.

In traditional games the Players make the “characters” and the GM makes the “story”. The trick is this: the whole point of a character in a story is to make decisions. That’s what drives a story and that’s how real character is revealed — what does a person choose to do.

Now, often in role-playing circles (and other circles as well), people confuse characteristics with character. Character is the choices a person (or character) makes. That’s what we used to mean by the word “character” when talking about people, and it’s still a standard wrench in a writer’s tool-kit.

But most RPGs didn’t know what to do with that because the GM had already built the “story.” (Scare quote on purpose, but with apologies… For reasons to be revealed.)

If the GM already knows that a series of events might lead a character to one specific end, the Players really have little control over the choices their character can make.

If we’re playing a Space Opera and my PC is a farm-boy from a backwater world battling a horrible Villain, and the GM whips out the reveal at the table that the Villain is actually my characters’ father — it’s a thrilling moment, because WHO KNOWS WHICH WAY MY CHARACCTER IS GOING TO JUMP?

But if the GM has already decided that my character and the badguy will be fighting side by side against the rest of the Player Characters there CAN’T be a choice. More importantly, the GM will sort of shoehorn me with subtle signals (often involving unspoken rewards or punishments) to have my guy side with the Villain — because that’s the cool scene he had in his head. But it might not be what I consider a cool scene.

So, what do we consider “role playing” in such a game? Basically, people play the CHARACTERISTICS of the PC. The GM says, “Here’s such and such a situation, and basically I know how it’s going to lead into the next scene, but what you’re going to do is play out the behaviors of your characters,” (not real, meaningful choices that can drive the narrative in unexpected directions, but simply the behaviors.)

This is where we get the focus on “talking in character,” the funny voices, only knowing what you know in character — because it limits the Player’s input into what actually change the shape of the tale.

But, again, if the Players are playing the characters they’re being robbed of one of the most important elements of creating a character — “What does the character do when the hammer comes down? When the tough choices have to be made, does Sheriff Brody cave to the will of the townspeople in Jaws, or does he take action to go public? Does Ripley flee when the space marines are getting chewed up, or does she put herself in harm’s way to save them?” And so on.

Note that the GM’s attitude often is, “Of course the player will put her character in harm’s way to save the space marines” when “plotting” and RPG adventure.

But what about when the character doesn’t want to? We all seen it happen a gazillion times. The responses vary — but they contain:

  • The GM’s brain shutting down for five minutes as he tries to re-jigger the plot;
  • the GM politely asking the Player to play along;
  • the GM sort of bullies the Player with back-handed logic (“Well, your character would go save them, you know”)
  • the GM has the aliens attack the PC anyway, no matter what ridiculous lengths the Player has the PC go through to get away;
  • anger sometimes erupts at the table;
  • sometimes there’s hours of post-game angst over the phone and emails.

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[Please do check out Shamus Young’s fabulous DM of the Rings.]

Note that the key issue her is all about the Player simply not being allowed to make a vital choice for the character for fear it will ruin the game or the story. After all, we know what a character “should” do — right?

Well, no. Again, what a character chooses to do is what reveals the character. Should Michael Carleone have become a crime lord in his father’s footsteps? Should Ripley have stopped Dallas from bringing an infected Kane onto the Nostromo? And so on.

Characters make decisions, flip flop. There are consequences to their actions and then, in light of those consequences, they make new choices..

In this way, a role-playing game session would be more of a lively game of “what the hell is going to happen next?” The Players make choices for the PCs. The GM tosses out the next set of hard decisions on the fly. And when it’s all over we have a story we could not have guessed at.

Of course this blows “The Party” model of play right out of the water. But why should the party have to stay together. Only one person at the table can ever speak at one time anyway! Whether their fictional characters are in the same imagined space or not doesn’t change that. You still have to rotate around the table.

In fact, a whole bunch of assumptions have to get shattered — the key one being: “This wouldn’t work.”

The questions show up fast, “How can there be a story if the GM doesn’t have a story?” “What if one of the Players has her PC run off to China?” “You could do this, but you would need ‘advanced’ Players.”

The truth is, No.

It works just fine. It works fine for beginners. The games are a blast. Here’s a list of some small games that have been thought through packed with rules and techniques to do exactly what we’re talking about:

Sorcerer
Dogs in the Vineyard
The Mountain Witch
The Burning Wheel

InSpectres
The Riddle of Steel
HeroQuest

There are more.

There’s no way to summarize all these games, of course. So I’ll just say this:

The players in these games write down what is important to THEM. The GM still creates the world and backstory and the PCs with secrets. But the GM is also responsible for utilizing the narrative elements the Players create during character creation. For example, in Sorcerer, there’s a thing called a Kicker. If I’m creating a Player Character I might say, “My character kicked my son out of the house 20 years ago when he suspect my character murdered my wife (which, in fact, he did). On the day the story starts, my son comes home asking forgiveness.”

The first question to be asked is, “Does my guy let the son into the house?”

But after that there are more questions: Does the son have an agenda? Is he really he for forgiveness or vengeance? Is my wife’s ghost going to start talking to my son if he comes in the house? Given the genre and the other back story information created by the players and the GM, the GM gets to make up LOTS of stuff. He just isn’t making up the plot.

He’s simply making up material to let the Players make tough choices with emotional and thematic impact. You know, like a story.

But, of course, this means a new distribution of power among the players. The GM isn’t building a channel to dive the characters through toward a certain kind of ending. For all we know, in the Space Opera, Luke does end up fighting his friends because of his desperate love for his father. (In this kind of game play these kinds of choices are valued. It’s not a betrayal of the party. It’s a love of the story.)

The GM can’t give little clues about what is supposed to happen, because he has NO IDEA of where the story will be in three hours.

There’s a tradition of RPGs that says you simply don’t play that way. And that’s great for folks who want it. But other people are very excited about pushing more power amongst the players and having a great time doing it.

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Now, back to MMOs…

In a game like World of Warcraft, the game’s designers have established “quests” for your character, but a lot of how you go about doing it is your business. You can try it alone, you can gather a party, you can be loyal all the way through the quest, you can abandon your fellow adventurers along the way. You can retreat when you want, turn down a quest if you want. You can set your own goals if you want.

This is a lot more freedom than a lot of players got when they sat down the a GM to “play a story.” In fact, a lot of RPG sessions play pretty much like the story in a First Person Shooter or Survival Game and many RPG games: the player is led from one cut scene to the next, needing to defeat a bunch of bad guys, and then watching the next cut-scene. In this way, the players are being told a story, but they’re not really participating in it since they have no impact on it.

Not so in an MMO, where the players pick their actions and goals without needing to please anyone but themselves. They don’t have to stay in a group, they don’t have to follow “the story.” They don’t have to do anything, really. But… because they are interacting with other, real people, their choices carry consequences. Doing a good deed might be rewarded later. Being an ass-hat might mean trouble later.

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Eve Online carries this even further. Set in a future world of space travel, commerce, mercenaries and exploration, the players are let loose without any preplanned agendas at all. There is an environment (computer controlled characters, asteroids to mine, planet-sized economies to run or ruin) and there are the other players. What a player decides to in Eve is his or her own business.

Unlike World of Warcraft, there are no pre-planned quests for the characters to pursue. Players are absolutely left to their own devices to figure out what to accomplish and how to go about doing it. This can take a toll on new players, who are left without any guidance. But it also means almost unparalleled freedom when it comes to the player choosing what actions his character will take, and so what kind of story the player will “tell” with the character.

A couple of notes for creating characters for Dramatic Narrative

A good character is a character whose behavior causes a lot of his or her own problems. How does who the character cause trouble for himself or herself? That’s a question the writer must ask.

Even if you have a straight-as-nails character who is only trying to do the “right thing” — the fact that the character keeps choosing to try to do the right thing should provide more complications. In “The Fugitive” (1993), Dr. Richard Kimble choose one time after another to pursue his wife’s killer. He’s doing the right thing — but always, to the point of danger. He helps people at a hospital while the police are looking for him; he refuses to surrender and instead tosses him self off the wall of a damn because he must do the right thing.

There are three reasons why working this way is important.

First, without this, the character is just a victim: all the bad things that happen in the script simply “attack” the character. There is a dishonesty in creating a character whose only problems in life come from other people. No matter what our circumstances, we can choose to respond in an infinite number of ways. How a character chooses to respond makes the character interesting. And if the character is only being run down by others and never through an flaw of himself or herself, that means the character is perfect — and therefore not human.

Second, if a character makes distinctive, trouble making choices, the character is specific. The character, in other words, has character. He or she is not like other characters. We know this character on the screen through their choices. And if the character makes a different and contrary choice, we know that something important and significant has occurred. A specific character is a memorable character — and a memorable character is a character that both actors and audiences respond to.

Finally, this is an organizing principle for a screenplay. It’s like picking a limited pallet for a painting. By choosing specific behaviors for a character, the writer is focusing the work and narrowing down options. By the same token, the writer is making decisions about which behaviors to explore more deeply. In “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), Sonny constantly wants to make people happy. It’s why he decides to rob a bank to begin with, and the same behavior is what gets him trapped in the bank when he could have gotten out safely.

These lines of behavior are tools of construction, just like hard edges or soft edges serve to help build a painting. By being away of them, by making an active choice, the writer creates something as artful and well constructed as a great painting.