Carnegie Mellon Student Gives a Lift to Lessig’s Ideas

Carnegie Mellon Student Gives a Lift to Lessig’s Ideas

Jordan Harrison, a very talented graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, decided he could improve the video presentation of some of Lawrence Lessig’s ideas. For those of you who might not know, Lessig is one of the most astute systems thinkers on the planet. He passionately believes we’re doing it all wrong and we could be doing it right. Cut from the same cloth as Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss, he is our Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson and a few other people, all rolled into one. Jordan Harrison created this powerful remix that bring alive Lessig’s ideas with a visual punch that had me jumping up from my chair cheering.

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Jordan Harrison (right) and a still from his video (left).

I then felt compelled to ask Jordan these questions:

1. What spurred you to create this video remix?

I have been following Larry Lessig for several years now, since my good friend Szelena Gray introduced me to his work. He has a very compelling oratorial style and his TED talk, “We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim,” is particularly impassioned. His goal of diminishing institutionalized corruption in the United States government is something that any citizen could get behind, regardless of party affiliations. Moreover, I think TED talks are the perfect format for remixing. At 18 minutes long, they are captivating, digestible vehicles for the messages of our boldest thinkers, but still a little unwieldy for the viral video, soundbite, TL;DR (too-long, didn’t read) portion internet users. In this remix I tried to trim down to the most salient aspects of Lessig’s talk, while maintaining the hallmarks of his rhetorical style (and those of any great speech): repetition, statistics, anecdotes, and passion. I wanted to concisely present the problem and then present Lessig’s solution in a way that anyone could follow it.

2. What software tool(s) did you use?

The graphics were built in Apple’s Motion application and the titling and some minor editing was done in Final Cut Pro.

3. How long did it take?

I did the bulk of the work in a weekend and made minor fixes over the following weeks while my sound designer friend Chris Rummel was making the soundtrack that spurs the whole thing onward (and hopefully conceals my very choppy editing of the original TED talk).

I started by cutting the original audio of the talk down until I had what seemed like a manageable amount to animate. I listened to it on repeat while I went for a run, imagining what kinds of graphics would illustrate Lessig’s points simply and with a little bit of humor. I knew I would be working with a really clean, infographic-esque aesthetic from the start and developed the look of each object while I storyboarded on paper. The project was broken down into three sections and whenever I finished the storyboard for one I’d go to the computer and animate that section.

4. Do you know if Lessig has seen it yet?

I think he has!

5. Have you worked on any similar projects?

I have done some other work in the past for Rootstrikers, such as this short visual bumper (which uses their older branding). Aside from Rootstrikers projects, I have not done any explicitly political videos, but I do think the vast majority of my work involves the same process of pairing down a larger idea or thesis to its most essential components in order to convey that information as succinctly as possible.

6. A bit about your background?

I got my start in video design by creating trailers for theater shows I was acting in or producing. Advertising for narrative works of art often requires some level of condensation, presenting the story quickly and making it appealing/exciting at the same time. (Here are two different examples of recent trailers.) I have done a lot freelance work since then, making more trailers, industrials, promos, and documentaries. Currently, I am an MFA candidate in Video & Media Design at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, creating projections and installations for theatrical productions and events.

7. Are you the same Jordan Harrison as the well-known playwright named Jordan Harrison?

I am not the same Jordan Harrison as the playwright Jordan Harrison, but considering that we both work in the theater world, this confusion happens all the time. At least on my side of things. I wonder if anyone has ever asked him the same question. I have had the good fortune to meet him though. He’s very nice and we both got a kick out of discovering that we also have the same middle initial.

8. Along with motion graphics, what are your other creative talents?

I like to think that my talent really lies in editing and narrative-crafting. I am totally pleased when people enjoy my motion graphics work, but I see stuff all the time that just blows my mind and leaves me wondering, “How did they do that!?”

Doing design work, either graphic or video, in the theater world has allowed me to explore some other fields that I also really enjoy such as marketing, advertising, and producing. Aside from that, I can be counted on to make karaoke night a pretty awkward experience…

9. Did you have a teacher or mentor who sparked your interest in civic matters?

My personal interest in politics is almost entirely limited to social equality and human rights; those are issues I can wrap my head around and feel strongly about. The people who have been the most influential in sparking my interest in politics are friends more so than teachers. Two people I could mention in this respect are Szelena Gray, an activist and organizer who is the Director of Operations for Rootstrikers and Demand Progress, and Hari Kondabolu, a comedian who uses humor as a weapon of social justice to break down the social constructs of race, class, and gender. Both of them posses the ability to filter the world around them through their own unique lens and by virtue of their writing and work, allow others to see things from a new perspective. I am very thankful to know people as insightful and committed as they are.

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Phil Shapiro is a maker and media maker in the Washingon DC area. He loves open sourcedigital storytelling and fixing up donated computers to deliver to people who need them. He can be reached at and on Twitter @philshapiro.

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