Shooting… the Independent Way

14 06 2008

Stu Maschwitz, author of the great book, DV Rebel’s Guide and filmmaker, blogger (over at Pro Lost), techno geek, has a really interesting blog about “clipping.”  For those of you who know little but could care more, that term refers to the point when video (or audio) reaches a saturation point and can no longer take any more light.  Stu refers to it this way:

Throw enough light at a piece of color negative and eventually it stops being able to generate any more density. Clipping, i.e. exceeding the upper limits of a media’s ability to record light, happens with all image capture systems.

In the posting, titles “On Clipping, Part 1” Stu gets into quite a bit of detail about how our eyes perceive light, as oppose to our digital capture systems (read that as “cameras”) and, at times, it went clean over my head.

But he makes the good point that film treats clipping much more forgivingly than video and digital capture does.  DPs have learned to expose for the whitest whites as much as possible, and to let the color timing bring the image down to respectful levels. This approach works fine, according to Stu, but falls apart when images clip, because bringing down a clipped image leaves you open to many digital imperfections — including milkiness and noise.

Editors have dealt with this for years, especially as more and more of us are pushed into the realm of color correction (way beyond most of our skill sets, I should point out, and that’s a topic for another post). But Stu lays it out in a great way.  And, along that way, he points out that clipping isn’t always bad.

And that’s OK. While HDR enthusiasts might disagree, artful overexposure is as much a part of photography and cinematography as anything else. Everybody clips, even film, and some great films such as Road to PerditionMillion Dollar Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey would be crippled without their consciously overexposed whites.

Go check out the posting, and while you’re at it, take a look at the other postings on Stu’s blog.  You’ll find it way worth your while.

Great Do-It-Yourself Podcast Tips

10 06 2008

There are two really great sites that I like to tour around to get tips and technique tricks for FCP and Avid.

First, David Forsyth, over at Amber Technology in Australia, does a podcast called “Avid Tips and Techniques” which has featured discussions about the Audio Mixer, Animatte, the Super Bin, and more.

One or two Final Cut sites. My favorite are the series of tutorials about the entire Final Cut Suite from VASST, a company that does training videos. If you look up their store using the company name RHed Pixel in iTunes you’ll be treated to a great series of excerpts from those videos. I like the one called “Total Training for Final Cut Help – Final Cut Studio.” A warning — VASST’s free tutorial website hasn’t been updated in a very long time.

Another good FCP podcast, though it hasn’t been updated since early March, is Creative Cow’s podcast “Creative Cow Final Cut Studio Tutorials Podcast.” Creative Cow runs those great web forums on practically every production and post technology known to mankind (and womankind too).

A cool series of short tips and tricks from the people at Digital Heaven, who make some really neat plug-ins for Final Cut (including a large timecode window, for all of you Avid editors who miss throwing that up during music or sound spotting sessions). Their podcast of video tutorials for FCP can be found on YouTube or at this address in iTunes.

Feature Envy

9 06 2008

ScriptSyncOliver Peters, in his blog Digital Films, has a posting about Avid’s ScriptSync, the technology that allows somewhat automated connection between the script inside Avid, and individual takes. This allows the editor to edit in the lined script mode and, as for me, I often look at the script supervisor’s lined script when I edit. Once I finish my first cut, I’m rarely looking at the script — by then, it’s all about what the footage says, not what the script says.

But I often refer to the lined script (and the facing notes pages as well) to find out what has been shot for any given line of dialogue or bit of action. When I worked with the extraordinary editor Gerry Hambling on FAME, I saw that he did his own lined script, even though he had received one from the set. This is actually even doubly cool, because it means that the lined script will reflect what was actually in the dailies (even great script supers can make mistakes) as well as forcing the editor to really examine the footage that he or she has received.

So, in the scheme of things (and despite its shortcomings) this Avid Media Composer feature is A Very Good Thing.

But “more features” is not always A Good Thing.

We are all aware of Feature Bloat, the natural tendency of software programs to grow more features as they get older and need more selling points for new versions. Microsoft’s Word is often trotted out as an example. This program has gone beyond its 1981 origins (as Bravo) and its 1983 release, into a program which now takes 20 megabytes at its core (not including its countless ancillary files). I remember installing Word back on my early Mac, and it took about eight floppy disks to get it on my drive. Now, I look back fondly on those days. There are features in Word that, I’d bet, less than 1,000 people use on a regular basis.

The real problem is that one person’s useless, memory-hogging feature, is another one’s must-have.

Right now, I’m writing my new book (THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, coming in December from Peachpit Press, buy early/buy often) and, this morning alone, I’ve used the following features:

  • bookmarks
  • cross-referencing
  • index
  • table of contents creation
  • image resizing
  • image cropping
  • split screen editing
  • separate section styling
  • borders and shading

and many more.

My guess is that most of you who use Word don’t care about half of those, and that a large number of you have features that you would care about far more than I. Those of you who use other word processors will feel similarly, I’m sure.

I’ve been involved in a group that has been presenting Avid with feature requests that we absolutely need. And while the list has been arrived at by consensus, it is amazing to me how many people have different opinions about what they can’t live without. I’ve also seen how one person’s feature must-have, is another’s oh-I-just-use-this-workaround-and-I’m-satisfied. And, while I’m not involved in anything similar for Apple or Adobe (not because I don’t want to — I’ve just never been asked), I’d be shocked if they don’t go through a similar prioritization over everything.

[And that doesn’t even take into account the issue of how expensive or how much time it will take to effect these requests. There is the issue of ROI — Return on Investment — all the time in software development. Do you want to spend $100,000 software dollars on features that won’t matter to most people, or on features that will?]

So to my mind, ScriptSync is an awesome new tool that everyone should want (especially documentarians who can afford to get transcripts of their shoots), but I’m not brazen enough to think that everyone will want it.

Cell Phone Content Creation

20 04 2008

Nokia phone (Courtesy letsgodigital)Tomorrow morning, I’m off to Atlanta to take part in a very very cool project with Nokia, Verizon and the Center For Disease Control (CDC) and it makes me think of Robert Scoble.

Whoa, let me explain.

At this year’s World Economic Conference in Davos, Robert Scoble took his Nokia N95 camera and combined it with software to create a live Web stream that could be seen by anyone on the web. In a discussion with John C. Dvorak on Tech5 on January 31, 2008, Scoble talks about how streaming the interviews that he did there live, at a remarkably low cost, enabled him to field questions from his web viewers that he could turn around and ask his own interviewees. He wasn’t breaking news live (though it would have been possible) but he was certainly creating more democratized interaction between the attendees at Davos and Scoble’s own viewers/listeners

That’s actually one small use for the technology. What I’m doing in Atlanta is more akin to news gathering.

I’ll be working as a remote producer with a group of students who will be out in the streets of Atlanta, creating content for a PSA (Public Service Announcement) for AIDS Awareness Day. The three students in my team (there will be five teams altogether) will have spent Tuesday in an all-day session with representatives from the CDC, as well develop a few PSAs for them to shoot on Wednesday. Then, as they shoot them, they will send them back to me and a student editor, who will begin editing them together. By 7pm that night, the hope is to have 2-3 PSAs from each of the five teams, that will be complete and ready to put onto Verizon’s network, so everyone in all of the groups can see them.

We’re calling them Personal PSAs (PPSAs) because of the intimate nature of their capture and their cell phone distribution mechanism.

Read the rest of this entry »

Blog Stats and You

11 04 2008

Blog Stats are pretty interesting, all in all (well, only if you don’t have anything else going on in your life). I don’t mean the number of hits — I’ve never been able to figure out quite what they really refer to (I feel the same way about those silly preview cards that we always hand out at screenings, but that’s a whole separate blog post). But as a general trend, or for loose interpretation, they can be interesting.

Broswer Usage

I was surfing around the Sitemaster stats for Hollyn-wood, and found some cool “facts.” For one thing, about half as many of you are using Firefox (29.3%) as are using Internet Explorer (51.5%). Safari is down around 18.2%. That means a sizable percentage of you, more than half, are still on IE.

OS Usage

Combine that with the second chart — 68% of my readers are on PC platforms, and 31% are on Mac — and it’s clear that a large group of Mac users are not using Safari at all, but are on Firefox, since the total number of Mac users (31%) is almost double the Safari percentage (18.2%). Compare that to the PC/IE combination — 68% are PC People, and 51.5% are on IE. That means that, of my readers, brand loyalty is much lower on the Mac than on the PC.

There are those who would say, quite properly, that the Mac users might be more tech savvy on this forum, and therefore willing to try something that doesn’t come right on the box. In fact, there may be something to this, because my other statistic, is that the largest number of people come to this site searching on terms like “cell phones” or “pink cell phones” or “small phones” and get my post about a survey which showed that more and more people were giving up their land lines in favor of cell phones, and what that implied for distribution of content. The post, entitled, “Why It Would Be Good to Own Stock In Mobile Content Companies” continually gets the most hits on my site and, I presume, are responsible for the number of people who click onto the site and immediately click away (average reaction time — 1.6 seconds).

Still, I am intrigued by the Safari numbers. Personally, I almost never use Safari. I find Firefox more reliable at reading websites. Combine that with this news item from CNet about a contest in which the Macbook Air was hacked faster than a Windows or Ubuntu machine thanks to a security hole in Safari. Nope, I’ll stay away from Safari.

And so do a large number of Mac users, at least on my site.

RIP – Analog Cel Phones

17 02 2008

The Washington Post notes a death that most people I know on the Coasts really won’t notice — tomorrow (February 18th) the FCC will allow mobile phone operators to shut off their analog phone service. AT&T and Verizon will shut off those services that day. (Spring and T-Mobile don’t have analog networks anymore). If you’ve bought a cel phone anytime in the last, oh, four years, you won’t really to worry about it. But I would imagine that there are some people who haven’t been buying a new phone every year or two.

I suppose that there were plenty of people who complained about the shift away from dial phones to push-button tone phones (I seem to remember that, for years, when you purchased a phone there was a toggle switch on it that enabled you to use tone or pulse mode — pulse being the old fashioned dial way). I also suppose that there were people who complained about the invention of the car, the printing press, and people.

The fact remains that, even with this event, the United States is still miles behind virtually every other country in the world in terms of digital cel phone technology and deployment. It’s tough to imagine how we’re going to get to the point where we can receive reliable cell service everywhere (I’m fond of mentioning that, even on my first trip to the Middle East, I could get a cel signal in the middle of the Jordanian desert, but still couldn’t get one in my living room in Santa Monica).

When an old dinosaur like the United States moves off of analog cell service and, next year, onto digitally-transmitted television, it makes me hope for the future. What could be next — digital downloads of music, films and television?

Maybe someday, when the RIAA and the AMPTP get their heads out of their butts.

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HD-DVD and Blu-Ray End War, The World Yawns

16 02 2008

Reuters reported today that Toshiba Corp is planning on shutting down their HD-DVD format for hi-def DVDs, admitting to the world what everyone else has been saying since Warner Bros announced in January, before CES, that they were planning on releasing their DVDs on Blu-Ray only. Between that, Wal-Mart’s decision yesterday to go all Blu-Ray and Best Buy’s and Netflix’s earlier announcements that they were going to sell/rent Blu-Ray as well.

The real question is — who cares?

I know that the studios would love to have a new DVD format, so they can resell all of the DVDs that you all already bought on standard def DVDs. However, I also know that, tempting though it may be, I don’t know many people who are dying to buy a Hi Def version of ANIMAL HOUSE to replace their perfectly good regular ordinary DVD.

Here’s how I look at it. 90% of the market out there couldn’t really tell the difference between DVD and Blu-Ray if they looked at the boxes the disks came in. In general, HD doesn’t pass the “Mom test,” in which you ask yourself if your Mom would care if we improved her technology. The day that I hear my mother tell me that she really appreciates the increased resolution and crisp 5.1 Dolby sound on Blu-Ray disks compared to her four year old DVD player, is the day that I retire from the business and start tending bar in the Caribbean. For most people there is very little motivation to shift to the new format. You can, conceivably, make it attractive — by making the player cost extremely low and providing such cool extra features that Mom and Dad will swallow the cost of replacing their existing DVDs (an extra special — it will wash your dishes while you watch the aforementioned ANIMAL HOUSE would work nicely for most people). But it’s dubious that you can make any money on that model.

You will, of course, get new purchasers of DVD players and material to move over, but that will be a gradual process.

So that takes care of most people. What about the geeks?

There will always be the Toy people. If it’s new, they’ll want it. And some of them will be willing to pay a premium for it. But that isn’t much of a market.

And the rest of the geek market — well, most of them are looking at their media online or through their iPods and Apple-TV type devices. Many of them are downloading the material legally and illegally. So, where is the market in that? It’s there in some small quantity but, once again, is it enough to base an entire market on?

What we’re left with, if you follow my argument, is a small market of high end people who aren’t so high end as to pull their content off of the web, combined with a slightly larger market of people who have to buy a new player anyway, haven’t accumulated a bunch of standard def content already, and will be completely price driven.

I know, I know. I am leaving out the (I’m told) increasing number of people who love to watch movies on a big ass television with their friends. But I’m waiting to see if those people really exist. Frankly, I think most of them are watching football and NASCAR, but that may just be a prejudice on my part.

Needless to say, I’m not racing out on this news and buying shares in Sony.

New iPhone memory models. D’oh

5 02 2008

Apple introduced today some new iPhone and iPodTouch models which doubles the amount of memory inside the devices at a cost of $100 more.

The revolutionary iPhone now comes in a new 16GB model for $499, joining the 8GB model for $399. iPod touch now comes in a 32GB model for $499, joining the 16GB model for $399 and the 8GB model for $299.

Let’s put it this way — you can get 8Gb of memory for $100, or you can get 16Gb for $100. Hmmm, let me think.

But, perhaps, the genius comment of all times comes from their iPod marketing guy:

“For some users, there’s never enough memory,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of Worldwide iPod and iPhone Product Marketing. “Now people can enjoy even more of their music, photos and videos on the most revolutionary mobile phone and best Wi-Fi mobile device in the world.”

“Never enough memory.”

Can I quote Homer Simpson? D’OH!!

Well, here’s how I look at it. There has been a lot of talk, some of it fueled by Apple, the iPhone is the next wave of computing — super portable computing. Apple is releasing their own SDK (software development kit) and managing an application approval process, starting this month.

OS X is now on a phone!!!

The only problem is that there isn’t enough memory on the thing to load up all of the applications that I need. If I’m going to want to move much of my computing over to the iPhone, then I’m going to want to able to do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations (pretty much the entire iWork suite) along with the obvious music and video stuff.  I don’t always need to have them all open at once (though we’ve been trained to expect that on our laptops and desktops), but I need them on my hard drive.

So, I need all of those apps and a reliable phone.

How can I possibly do that, and remain sane, if there’s only 16Gb — max — of drive space in the damned thing. I can’t figure out how to trim the fat off of my big ol’ hard drive by that much. I need too much.

In fact, aside from the mismatch in memory prices between the iPhone and the Touch, thinking that 16Gb is going to be enough for the iPhone user to do work and play with is just plain “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” crazy (though it may be the “death-by-a-thousand-cuts-capitalism”). Obviously, this is an attempt to freshen up the line without doing very much, since iPhone users from last June would hit the roof if too much was improved in the phone and not made available to them because of hardware issues. But, surely, they know that they’re going to have improve many things in the iPhone in order to have the device be a computer to sit alongside your desktop, even if that is an interim phase before the desktop goes away.

P2 and Tech Talk

4 02 2008

Shane Ross, over at Little Frog In High Def, has a post in which he talks about the changes in P2 workflow with the new HVX-200 camera. Here is an excerpt:

I got my hands onto an HVX-200 camera so that I could do P2 demos at MacWorld. I went out to shoot footage and when I tried to apply this workflow, I found that I couldn’t trash the contents. They were locked and I could not unlock them. READ ONLY. And if I reformatted the card as MS-DOS (FAT-32) then put the card back into the camera, it was an unrecognized format. I HAD to reformat the card in the camera. That was the only solution. Oh, I could open the LOG AND TRANSFER interface in Final Cut Pro and delete the files in there. But that is slow and not too slick. And while the P2 Viewer that Panasonic makes can reformat the card…it is PC only. So us Mac guys, a HUGE part of the HVX-200 and P2 market, were left in the cold.

Apart from the value of this post (thanks Shane!!), this raises an interesting issue. In a recent Digital Production Buzz, the usually great podcast with Larry Jordan, Mike Horton and Phil Hodgetts, Larry and Mike were talking with Richard Townhill, one of the heads of the Pro Apps Group at Apple (they’re responsible for Final Cut, Soundtrack Pro, DVD Studio Pro, Logic, et al). On this show, from January 10, 2008, Townhill mentioned the bane of a post-production. Camera manufacturers are continually coming up with new formats designed to solve production problems. Now that we are deeply into tapeless work flow, manufacturers are interested in providing maximum shooting time with minimal space requirements on disk, and also decreasing record speeds (throughput).

As Townhill and Jordan both noted, these are meaningless goals in post production where we have great desktop bandwidth and unlimited amounts of relatively cheap storage at our disposal.

So the needs of camera manufacturers are, in part, opposed to the needs of editors. As a result, camera manufacturers are continually updating their codecs and capture technology. Even at the expense of editors. It took Avid about six months to test and come up with a P2 workflow. The new Sony EX codecs aren’t available yet for either platform. The Red workflow isn’t available on several NLE platforms now (since I’m told that they’ve struck a deal with Apple). Large amounts of R&D money and time need to be spent simply keeping up with camera manufacturers.

I’m not saying that this shouldn’t happen. Lord knows, I’m in favor of innovation wherever it happens (so long as it happens for user needs, rather than marketing). But these changes take time to ripple through the entire filmmaking chain. Just because the camera manufacturers have come up with a format, doesn’t mean that a project can be completed in it. And even if finishing tools are available, there’s no guarantee that they’re workable or clean (we’ve still to come up with a viable backup strategy for tapeless workflow, that combines ease of use in the field with reliable backup — the cheaper Sony EX might actually point the way).

Are you listening producers and post production schedulers?

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Great Article on Editing Using FCP (Long Distance)

11 01 2008

Harry B. Miller III, editorHarry B. Miller III, ACE member and editor, wrote a great piece on the ACE Tech Web Discussion blog about editing BOOK OF BLOOD on a Final Cut system. He talks straighforwardly about what he likes and doesn’t like.

The project, is Viper-based and, therefore, completely tapeless. Even more interestingly, it was shot in Scotland and edited in Burbank, California, which made for some interesting issues, some of which I’m already dealing with on the documentary RIVERS that I’m starting to edit — in particular, file transfer.

The first stumbling block has been getting media from Scotland to Burbank. The first attempts through an ftp site were not encouraging. Although my edit room has 3 megabits per second down, the fastest download I could get was 120 kilobits per second. Attempts at three other sites had the same disappointing results. (I have heard there is a speed problem between the UK and the US, but don’t know the true situation. Anyone know?).

The first transfer that actually worked was ‘sneaker net’ – portable firewire drives were brought from Scotland to Burbank. The next option is from a company called SmartJog. It offers high speed media transfer at reasonable rates. More on this in a later post – presuming it works.

As we move further and further into a world of distance collaboration, we are going to find that our reliance on the Internet will be one of the restraining factors. We are all reliant on an increasingly overloaded and outdated backbone. It will get better, when Internet 2 and other pricier services come online. But for those of us making international films today, this is going to slow us down. Already, on RIVERS, we have shipped large files via FedEx Firewire drives, rather than online DigiDelivery. It’s all too damned slow, since we’re working in HD.

An interesting addition to this will come when they start to screen edits of the film. I don’t know if their producers are in the States or back in Scotland, but I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who have had to screen and gets notes and approvals long distance. On RIVERS I’m hoping to use Michael Buday’s Syncvue, and I’ll let you know how that works.