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CNN’s Peter Bergen comes to Bradley

September 11, 2011

Today marks 10 years since the terror attacks of 9/11. Like anybody else old enough at the time, I remember exactly when I found out and have some pretty distinct memories of the day. But in addition to reflecting on those events, national security analyst Peter Bergen told those assembled in Bradley University’s Michel Student Center ballroom Thursday night to look at where the world is today.

“I’m not saying that the war on terror should be over,” he said, “but it should be a place where we can say, ‘Where are we?'”

But he almost suggested it should be over.

“Ten years after 9/11, there’s a lot of good news,” Bergen said. “If you can’t say the war on terror is over with the Arab Spring, the death of bin Laden, the fall of leadership in the Middle East, when are you going to say it’s over?”

Bergen addressed a range of issues in between talking to the White House and CNN. Literally. As about 30 students gathered for a special Q&A with him in the afternoon, a professor told us he would be late because the White House had called him. The Q&A after the lecture to the public was capped when another professor told him she believed CNN was calling. And sure enough, he was on CNN within minutes discussing the possibility of a terrorist threat.

After reviewing my notes, I’ve decided to break Bergen’s private Q&A and general-public lecture into categories. He offered so much information and I feel like not including some topics wouldn’t reflect how much ground was covered.

On meeting Osama bin Laden

Peter Bergen is one of the only Westerners to ever meet Osama bin Laden.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he told the crowd, who I can only assume was as eager to hear the story as I was.

Bergen arranged to meet bin Laden in 1997 for an interview with CNN. Though bin Laden was known after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, he wasn’t the household name he’s become since 9/11. Bergen said he’d only seen a picture of bin Laden at that point. He thinks the reason behind bin Laden’s first TV interview was so that the terrorist mastermind could explain in English why al-Qaida was at war with the U.S.

“To get to meet him was not easy,” Bergen continued. He spent weeks meeting with bin Laden’s friends and associates in London and finally convinced them he wasn’t an agent of the CIA. The two handlers have since gone into obscurity: one is in the Pakistani prison system and another has disappeared. Bergen said he didn’t realize how dangerous these people were.

After traveling from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Bergen said he felt the handlers were extremely disorganized and that it wasn’t clear if they didn’t know or just didn’t care. They told Bergen and his cameraman they couldn’t bring their camera or watches with them out of physical security concerns for bin Laden. They were instead given a camera from al-Qaida members.

Bergen said out of the darkness, a van came with three heavily armed men. His crew members were given blindfolds and driven up what he estimates to be about 6,000 feet. Once they got to the location, they were searched. Bergen said many of bin Laden’s handlers – all heavily armed – spoke English. Then, Osama bin Laden appeared.

“He was a very disciplined, secretive, paranoid guy,” Bergen recalled. “I expected he might be a table-thumping revolutionary.” Instead, Bergen said he carried himself like a cleric and didn’t raise his voice.

Bergen said bin Laden was neither unfriendly nor friendly, and they both were there to do a job. Bin Laden went on a diatribe on foreign policy critique of the United States and the Middle East, but didn’t mention anything to do with American culture.

After about an hour or an hour and a half, Bergen said bin Laden retreated into the night.

Bergen remembers leaving the encounter thinking, “How are you going to attack the United States from Afghanistan in a mud hut on a mountain?” A year later, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa.

“I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what motivated him,” Bergen said. “It’s very hard to explain bin Laden without the disguise as religious zealot.” He explained bin Laden was very religious from a young age but because a fanatic in his 20s. His anti-Americanism hardened into hatred when American posted soldiers in Saudi Arabia in 1990.

On 9/11

Bergen borrowed a line from a friend of his when he said for al-Qaida, “the tactics took over the strategy.” It was a kamikaze attack like Pearl Habor, Bergen said. “That was a tremendous tactical success, but it led to the destruction of the entire Japanese empire.” He then quoted Sun Tzu when he said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat.”

Where al-Qaida is today and the threat of terrorism today

Al-Qaida hasn’t landed a single attack on the United States since 2001. This is reflected by an increase in what steps the U.S. has taken to prevent another tragedy and al-Qaida’s own weakening position. There have been a few sleeper cells, such as Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (in Peoria, of all places), but Bergen called him the exception that proved the rule.

“Nine-eleven was the climax, not the beginning, of their campaign,” Bergen said.

He said he didn’t mean to devalue any names, but compared with the thousands who perished on 9/11, only 17 have been killed in the name of Islam since then. Thirteen died as a result of the Fort Hood shootings, a shooter at LAX killed two, and one person each were killed at a Jewish community center in Seattle and a recruiting station in Little Rock. Bergen said more people die in bathtubs each year.

“If we’d live in a constant state of fear, we’d be doing bin Laden’s work him.”

On a future attack against the United States

“No state in its right mind would try to attack the U.S. right now,” Bergen said. “Look at what we did with Saddam, and that was just on the mere possibility he could do something bad. Imagine if somebody actually did something.”

He didn’t discount the possibility of another group like al-Qaida striking again because they don’t have a home base. But he said al-Qaida is being strategically defeated. “Support for al-Qaida is dropping like a stone,” Bergen said. “The Arab Spring is simply confirmation they’re irrelevant.”

Bergen offered several reasons why al-Qaida’s grip is slipping. For one, they’re killing Muslim civilians. Another reason is that Afghanis are beginning to see that life under the Taliban was pretty bad. They’ve also made a world of enemies by capturing and killing journalists, and they refuse to engage in modern politics.

Assuming al-Qaida or another group can mount an offense, Bergen said terrorist attacks in the future would mostly be the kind of things we’ve seen in the past, saying truck bombs are “easy to do, reliable, and you don’t need to be a genius to do them.” Though, it’s harder to get the ingredients to make a bomb in the U.S. now.

He discounted the idea of cyberterrorism becoming a major threat, saying it was more of a nuisance than anything. “Terrorism involves people dying,” Bergen said. “With cyberterrorism, it’s hard to get people to die.”

On continued occupation of Afghanistan

“I think we’re going to be in Afghanistan for a very, very long time,” Bergen said. “And that’s a good thing.”

According to a 2010 survey, about 70 percent of Afghanis believed their country was heading in the right direction. Bergen said the country boasts around $1 trillion in mineral wealth and they have a pretty robust agricultural economy. There is now a phone system in the country. GDP growth in 2009 was 22 percent. While it may sound like a large amount, Bergen said we have to remember what they’re coming from. “No one in Afghanistan thinks their country is going to be turned into Belgium,” he said.

Bergen agrees that the U.S. should be in Afghanistan for awhile. “We know what it looks like to abandon Afghanistan, and into the vacuum came the Taliban,” he said. “We took our eyes off the ball and that was a very expensive mistake for us.”

On Osama bin Laden’s death and objectivity

“When Osama bin Laden was killed, did I burst into tears? No,” Bergen said. But it wasn’t an abstract thing for him like it is with most people since Bergen has met bin Laden. “You wouldn’t be a human being if you didn’t have a response.”

Bergen said objectivity in journalism is almost impossible, but fairness is achievable. Reporters have their own subjective opinions, but fairness means checking with people you quote. “Not that you don’t want to strive to be objective, but … I think it’s hard to be totally objective.”

“At some point, you’ve got to have a point of view,” Bergen said. “Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to say.”

More on Peter Bergen

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How to make a commercial

May 18, 2011

Well, to be completely honest, I guess this is how you would make six of them.

But to understand why these commercials were made, I think it’s necessary to first explain the context behind them.

This semester was our senior project, also known by just three numbers – 413. 413 is the capstone class of Bradley University’s Department of Interactive Media. The spring semester’s project was working on America Live!, an interactive performance in collaboration with Bradley’s Theatre Department.

Personally, this has been my defining project at Bradley University and the experience was immensely valuable. I talked a little about it on the AdamBockler.com portfolio page but wanted to include more about it here.

America Live’s concept is that of a television game show that pokes fun at the media in general, where the host was exposed for rigging contest votes and debate teams argued over silly topics such as what our national food should be and ludicrous stories. Audience members were eligible to be chosen as the co-host (who audience members voted on through using their cell phones) and to be on the debate teams.

IM department head Jim Ferolo and Theatre department head George Brown developed the concept over the course of a few years, while Slane scholar in residence Jeff Wirth was brought in from Florida to write the script and direct the show.

Of course, like any TV show, the performance needed commercials. Several of the commercials sponsored punishments for the losing debate teams, such as dihydrogen monoxide itself, H2-Whoa; a gooey concoction called Body Bash; the “alternative alternative” nuclear energy, Mirage International; and finally USA Power & Electric, which wound up electrocuting somebody at the end of the show.

I’ve already written in detail about the production of these commercials on the America Live blog, but I had written that blog from mostly the perspective of the class. This write-up will include some of the more personal thoughts I had while borrowing material from some of my original posts.

How I wound up producing the commercials

Though there was more to it than I share here, Jim came to class one day about a month in and was talking about what we needed to do. We got to the commercials when Jim looked at me and said, “How about Adam takes charge of those?”

Not knowing what exactly I was getting into, I nodded and said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Despite the fact I didn’t initially feel up to the task based on a variety of reasons, I felt honored to be asked to lead the charge. I felt that I owed it to myself, to him and to my team to live up the expectations placed upon us.

The beginning stages

I had actually come in to work on the commercials a few weeks after Jes Schroeder and Darion Clay had started working on them. They had produced a few elements, such as figuring out what talents and props we needed and had produced a few logos.

I reread the commercial scripts, which had already been written. I began modifying the list of talent and props that we were going to need, and Jim had asked me to start coming to weekly production meetings. There, I informed other students and faculty working on the show about each stage we were at, what we had accomplished and what we needed. It was the first time I’d been in a professional setting such as that, and I wanted to take my maximize my effectiveness there.

I have already written some of this information about preproduction at the America Live blog. And since I wrote that content, I will be borrowing some of it for this piece.

Script breakdowns

America Live script breakdown for Intelliphedrin

America Live script breakdown for Intelliphedrin

Script breakdowns are a great organizational tool. I created one for each commercial, which included…

  • talent
  • wardrobe
  • schedule and location
  • props, and who was responsible for them
  • sound effects
  • special effects
  • who would edit the videos in post-production

Each breakdown received multiple revisions over the course of a month. They were extremely helpful to members of the theatre department working on them, mostly the props and wardrobe people. I’d honestly questioned the usefulness of such a deliverable until Becki Arnold, the faculty member in charge of costume design, told me how much they had helped her during one of our production meetings.

Storyboards

America Live storyboard for Intelliphedrin

America Live storyboard for Intelliphedrin

Essentially, the storyboard is a still image of what the camera shot would look like when we got to production. That way, the director has an idea of what shots to get, how to focus the camera and so on. Our storyboards were created by Kristen and Jes.

I was able to download this storyboard template from Deviant Art. In retrospect, we probably could’ve used some of the spaces better or altered it for our needs. But time was of the essence, so we went with what we found.

Logos

Jon Andrews flexed his graphic design muscle in creating logos for several of the products in the commercials, along with Jes Kristen DeRosier.

The logos had to be different since they have to represent unique brands. Designers could not get away with mimicking the same design on each logo since the actual theatre show is similar to a television show. Obviously, actual product makers don’t want their logos to look similar to another logo, especially within the same industry.

Organizing talent

Right before spring break, we had a meeting inviting members of the theatre and communications departments together to be cast in these commercials. Jim made the decisions as I, along with assistant line producer Arianna Brown, wrote down who was cast in each role. Once the casting choices were made, I would be in constant communication with each actor, specifying the role they would have, letting them know what time to be there and answering any questions they had.

As a communications major, too, this was my strong point. There are many IM students who are good communicators, but I feel that organization and the ability to coordinate this information is one aspect that sets me apart from many.

Sound effects and voiceovers

Darion’s passion is in sound. Unfortunately for us, unlike the real production studio we were able to shoot the commercials in, we didn’t have that luxury for the voiceovers and had to set up shop in an office in between shelves full of books and other equipment. We turned some appliances off, plugged a snowball microphone in and had at it.

While in our makeshift studio, I experienced something on the fly – directing voice actors. After having reviewed the scripts numerous times, I felt like I knew what Jeff was going for. And without him to be there to guide us, that meant I had to make sure I got what I wanted out of the performance.

One of the voice actors named Mary – who was also a granddaughter in Memory Mulch – was a student I’d never met before. She was reading only a few noises for Body Bash. “Mmm…ahh…ohhh…yesss,” was all she needed to say. But Mary had never met either me or Darion, who were sitting in a quiet room with her while she made sensual noises. Needless to say, she felt uncomfortable.

“Let’s pretend like you have a boyfriend,” I said, trying to ease the awkwardness. “He’s fresh out of the shower with only a towel on, and he’s just used Body Bash and you love the smell of it. Now let’s try these lines again.”

I don’t know if my spur-of-the-moment direction got anywhere with her, but we got some great lines out of her regardless.

Animatics

With images and sounds, we had what we needed to create the animatic. The animatic doesn’t look pretty – it’s just storyboards that are cut to the length of the voiceover. Creating the animatic was entirely practical and very useful because we knew how roughly how long each shot was going to be in the final version and made sure to shoot enough on each side for coverage.

After presenting these animatics at a production meeting, it was time to head into the studio.

Trial by fire in the studio

I don’t have much to add to the America Live commercial shoot days compared to what I’ve already written. Though this was the first time that the rest of the class really came in on these commercials, meaning that my and Kristen’s knowledge was heavily relied upon for shots that Scott wasn’t sure of. Kristen especially jumped in as the assistant director and fed Scott which shots we were doing, how long they were supposed to be and what lines the actors needed to say.

To summarize it, none of us had ever worked on a large production like that before. Scott Cavanah was a great faculty mentor to work with in setting it up and his relaxed demeanor coupled with knowing exactly what he wanted made the shoots go smooth.

Post-production

Again, I feel I did a pretty decent job covering post-production on the America Live blog.

The hours were rough – and 8-hour day following the shoots, along with 7 to midnight each night for the rest of the week – but each pair of students tag-teamed a commercial and everybody churned out quality final products. I’m very happy with the results. Even though I didn’t get my hands dirty with much editing, I learned what types of things to look for and what will add to or detract from the product.

Key takeaways

After having had some time to get out of the world of America Live, I feel there are several key takeaways here.

Teamwork

I needed to rely on others, just as others needed to rely on me. I hated working in teams in high school and still hate it in some classes in college because people don’t take their responsibilities seriously. But members of both departments realized how important working as a team was and made a really cool final product as a result.

Communication and organization

As somebody whose second major is also Communications, I feel like this allowed me to flex those muscles differently. I’m used to doing class work related to written journalism. But for America Live, I needed to communicate both orally and in the written form. I viewed my position for a long time as a liaison between the IM and theatre departments, as I was one of the main sources of information each had regarding the commercials.

I had to email numerous people in a clear and concise fashion. With many of us receiving numerous emails every day, I tried to keep mine succinct.

I also got used to presenting updates to a group. I know I’ll need to do this in the workplace someday, so this was a nice way to ease me into that. Doing karate demonstrations is one thing, but it’s a completely new experience to do this

Above all else, I got to develop relationships and learned how certain people operated along with the best methods for interacting with them.

A critical eye

While I didn’t necessarily have the final say in all production elements, I did take into account things like audio levels and video cuts. If Scott or somebody noticed something they didn’t like, I would pay attention to those details and try to point them out if they came up later.

America Live was a learning experience. In some ways, I already knew how to do everything coming in when I take a basic look at it. I’ve done preproduction work in previous classes and I’ve coordinated a group before. But I’ve never done anything to this scale.

I couldn’t have asked for a better team throughout this process. We had a few issues along the way, but I had so much fun with everybody that the best moments overshadow the not-so-great ones.

After an intense two months, I’m satisfied with laying America Live to rest while I finish my undergrad career.

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