Archive for March, 2010

Why FlashForward FAILed

Without a doubt, FlashForward (FF) is heading for cancellation this year, gathering fewer than 6.5 million viewers per episode (a show of that class needs at least 10 mil just to stay afloat). And it’s a damn shame, since the writers said that they need at least 3 seasons to tell their story.

So why did it fail?

An editor at AirLockAlpha, one of the sci-fi news sites I read daily, wrote that it’s probably LOST’s fault. The kind of expectations created by LOST over the years for that type of a show has lead to FF’s demise, since FF is more traditionally constructed.

Personally, I don’t agree with this assessment. Instead, I put the blame on the show’s creative team. From the writers, to the directors, to the film editor, and who ever picks these non-fitting music tracks sometimes.

A few months ago I was discussing this with my husband and I mentioned that the FF implementation sucks, that the people behind it are simply not as talented as LOST’s team. He replied, “naaah… they probably just don’t have LOST’s budget“. However, as the series progressed, we both saw small tidbits in the put-together aspect of the show that rubbed us the wrong way: the interleaving of scenes not following a chronological order that makes sense, the constant flashforwards that we’ve seen a thousand times already (which makes us feel that their editor thinks viewers have Alzheimer’s), to unfitting music tracks on quite a few episodes, to the unrealistic reactions of people to things happening or about to happen, to logic errors, to the unexciting pacing of it all. Personally, I don’t care about any of the characters on that show (except maybe a bit for Lloyd, since it seems to be the only person that has a conscious on that show). And really, how many times do I need to see & hear the opening intro about how people blacked out for 2:17 minutes? If potential new viewers don’t already know that from other sources, then they would never give a chance to the show anyway.

So the problem with FF is rather obvious: it is not as polished as it should have been — at all levels. From the boring and often convoluted writing, to contrived acting, to editing. FlashForward was a great idea that was implemented badly. There is nothing more into it. The professionals involved with the show are simply not as good as it is required for the “epic” show that it should have been.

I only hope that ABC completely reboots the show in 5-10 years or so, and gives it to the proper team that has the ability to hold that weight on their shoulders. Big projects require big talent. You can’t just offload a big idea to an inexperienced or mediocre team. It won’t work, no matter how much money you pour into it.

Band of the Week: Melissa Auf der Maur

The Canadian-born Melissa Auf der Maur is the ex-bassist of The Hole, and Smashing Pumpkins. Today, her second solo album “Out of Our Minds” was released, which was a major positive surprise to me. While her first album was good, it was “just rock”. This new one is more experimental, less generic. One of the best releases this Spring for me. Amazon sells it for $8. Check out her music video for the lead single:

“Shadows” by Scraping For Change

Update: Video updated (2-3 scenes are different, different color grading on the solo performance).

Official music video for Scraping for Change‘s “Shadows” track, from their “Breaking the Silence” EP. Download the video here.

This was my first project where there was a budget, since we clocked 4 hours of studio time (plus 3 hours of more shooting the day before for the storyline part).

Three different color grading styles were used in the video (modified bleach bypass for the solo performance, Hollywood teal for the storyline, modified pastel style for the band performance).

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark II, at 30p (slow-motioned to 24p, story part) and 24p (performances). Lenses used: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, Canon EF 35mm f/2, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM, Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.

Update: Lots of pictures from the shoot.

Regarding the Sprint HTC EVO

What a beautiful device Sprint announced today: the HTC EVO running Android 2.1. It comes with a 4.3″ screen, front facing camera, 720p video recording, HDMI-out, among other stuff. A very modern device for sure.

However, there are TWO things that bother me, things that are inter-related, in this otherwise perfect device.

1. Only 1 GB of internal memory.

2. What about a 2-year support of major new Android version upgrades (instead of just bug fixes on the existing version)?

See, if Sprint/HTC don’t want to give me a guarantee of 2 years of major Android version upgrades, this is a deal breaker for me. I will not touch a smartphone that stays behind in software. These are not the days of the “feature phones” where “what you bought, is what you get”. I need to be able to stay current with OS versions, so I can run the latest third party apps.

And let’s say that HTC/Sprint will offer me that 2 year major software support.

How in the God’s name are they going to successfully upgrade the ever-growing Android package with only 1 GB of internal memory? After 2 years of usage, that memory will be almost full (even if there’s an 8 GB microSD coming with the device, the internal memory is still going to be full of crap in there in most common scenarios). Can Sprint/HTC assure me that there’s at least *another* *hidden* partition of 512 MB or 1 GB where it can download its latest special Android version, unzip, and install?

Because honestly, I don’t see this happening! I find it HIGHLY unlikely that on a phone that only shows to the user 1 GB of internal memory, to have another hidden 1 GB partition “for major upgrades”. Super, fucking, unlikely. Android grows fast!

And besides, 1 GB of internal memory for user usage? What is this? 2005? My music is already 55 GB, and I can’t fit it in any microSD card. And having two microSD cards is out of the question. And let’s not forget that this phone shoots 720p video, which requires more bitrate, and therefore higher file-sizes. Sprint should have gone with 64 GB of internal memory, even at the expense of making the device a bit thicker.

God fucking damn it. A near-perfect device, ruined by fucking stupidity of short-sightness.

What’s “good” music anyway?

Up to a year ago I thought, like most people, that I knew what “good” music is. A year later, my music listening habits have changed dramatically towards more experimental, so I’m not sure if what I knew back then is correct anymore. See, how is it possible to like a number of bands, and consider their genres the best, and a year later find them lame and “not fresh” anymore?

What all this means is that different people, with different life experiences, or the same people at different times in their life, they prefer different audio stimulation. And that’s only normal. I now know that reviewing an album can never be objective. It’s 100% a personal experience, and it’s different for everyone. Bands that make no sense to me, might make to someone else, and vice versa.

MGMT put up their new album for free streaming today, and most people don’t like it. I too find it too experimental, having lost its melodies and hooks that the previous album had. So MGMT say that they don’t want to be a mainstream pop band, so they put out this difficult-to-stomach album.

However, what’s “good” anymore? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

New Music video, Part II

Shot the first part of a new music video today, for Scraping For Change (preview the track “Shadows“). JBQ slept in the car the whole time, he was exhausted because of his work during the week. Here’s a small teaser picture, directly out of the camera (used a flatter version of the “Neutral” picture style, not as flat as my “ExtraFlat” style):

Ok, I’ll admit, that’s handpicked. Possibly the best shot in the whole shoot today. 😉

And so it begins…

It didn’t need a lot of time to get full feature film shot on these cheap Canon dSLRs. The latest big release is “Tiny Furniture”, which won best narrative film award at the SxSW festival. This indie film was shot for less than $100k, using a Canon 7D.

What’s important to understand here is that, at last, hardware is not the issue anymore. If you go back even just 1-2 years in time, shooting a film that looked even remotely like a serious indie production was a big deal, because renting all these high-end cameras was expensive and had a big learning curve. But now, a dSLR like the Canon T2i (which has the same video abilities and quality as the 7D), costs just $800, plus the cost of lenses! Hardware is not the issue anymore! Now filmmakers can easily create their vision without hardware being an obstacle!

And this is only the beginning. The two directors of the new Yeasayer music video “O.N.E.” told me that while the bulk of the video was shot with the RED One, a few scenes were shot using the Canon 7D.

I expect that the next big crop of dSLRs by Canon will be able to do 3k or 4k at 24p/25p, 30p/50p/60p at full 1080p, have absolutely no rolling shutter artifacts, full HDMI output, and possibly go towards continuous auto-focus too. When such cameras hit the market for less than $2k, you can imagine the even bigger impact they will have in the filmmaking community.

Band of the Week: Tesla Boy

If you like Empire of the Sun, or Cut Copy, then you might like Tesla Boy as well. This Russian band (I think they’re the only Russian band in my iTunes collection) writes very danceable electro-pop, with happy tunes & atmosphere. Their full CD is expected soon by a UK indie label, but an EP is already available for purchase.

Starting up with a dSLR and Sony Vegas

What a huge success these Canon dSRLs are these days! Everyone with a little interest in filmmaking now hurries to acquire one of these cams too. The problem is that the h.264 format these dSLRs (and other HD digicams and digirecorders) are recording is not exactly “friendly” on the PC side. Here’s a guide on how to use that h.264 dSLR/digicam format properly with a PC editor.

1. Install the software

I will be using Sony Vegas Platinum in this article, because it’s the only consumer video editor that supports 24p editing — a key feature that these dSLRs have is 24p recording. Platinum is in my opinion the most powerful consumer video editor, and costs ~$75. Yes, I could suggest a professional editor here, but honestly, Platinum does most of what you’ll ever need to do, for a fraction of the price.

Please note that Vegas Platinum 10+, and Vegas Pro 10+ do offer better support for these h.264 files, so you might not need to use this tutorial at all if your editing is stable/fast-enough. But it’s definitely a must-read tutorial if you use an older version.

2. Shoot the footage

There are three things you should setup in your camera: frame rate, exposure, picture style. If you’re shooting a music video or film go for 24p/25p, if you’re shooting sports go for 50/60p, and if you’re shooting daily random stuff go for 25p/30p. Either use manual exposure to setup your shots, but if you’re not very accustomed on how to do that, just use automatic exposure, but make sure you actually “lock it” (so the brightness doesn’t jump in the footage every time your scene changes). Finally, go for a flatter picture style, or if you prefer more punch, use the built-in “Neutral” style. Definitely don’t go for the over-the-top “Standard” default style though, it’s color-ungradeable. Looks too video-y.

If you’re using a plain HD digicam from Canon, also ease-up the colors, and always lock exposure (read the manual on how to do that).

When done shooting, create a folder on your computer that will host all the project files. Copy the MOV files in there from your flash card.

3. Transcode your footage

PC editors just don’t deal fast-enough with the Canon MOV format. Some editors do better than others, but if you want 24p, you’ll have to stick with Vegas Platinum — and in that case you’ll have to transcode to an easier-to-decode “intermediate” visually-lossless format. I would suggest Cineform NeoSCENE ($100), but if money is an issue, you can go with the freeware AVID DNxHD, or Matrox MPEG-2 i-Frame HD codecs. Here is a comparison between the three:
– Cineform is much faster to encode during transcoding,
– Cineform is much faster to decode/playback,
– Cineform hits some bugs on Vegas Pro 9 or later,
– AVID DNxHD has slightly better quality (not noticeable usually),
– AVID DNxHD is free,
– AVID DNxHD doesn’t support 1080/30p frame rate, or 1080/50p/60p,
– Matrox I-Frame is free,
– Matrox I-Frame is in between DNxHD and Cineform in regards to overall speed,
– Matrox I-Frame supports up to 300 mbps bitrate, so quality is ok too,
– Matrox I-Frame method is a bit more difficult to setup and batch-encode your files into,
– Cineform and DNxHD work on a Mac too, Matrox doesn’t.

You might also hear others suggesting the Huffyuv or Lagarith intermediate formats. I’d suggest against them, since they’re slow as molasses, even on the fastest PCs. Others, might suggest you go with the Proxy method, but again I’d suggest against it, because when you do the final switch to the original MOV files, you will get more frequent crashes than usual during exporting (especially on more complex projects).

So, once you’ve made your decision between the three intermediate formats, here’s how to use each:

  3a. Cineform NeoSCENE
Download and install NeoSCENE (use the trial version first, to make sure it works on your system, and if it does, uninstall properly before installing the purchased version). Load the utility, load its preferences, and make sure you’re using the AVI format, the path to the folder you created on step #2, “High” quality, and the “maintain source format” option. Then, load the MOV files to the utility, and start the conversion. This will create AVIs on the same folder, typically at double the filesize (it’s normal for intermediate formats to create large filesizes). Conversion will be rather fast. Please note that Vegas Pro 9 has a bug with Cineform, and sometimes it creates red/blank frames in the timeline, so be aware of it. Pro 7/8 and Platinum 8/9 don’t have this problem. Finally, if you’re not using a Pro 9 or later released version, you will also need to rename the cfhd.dll file to cfhd.dll-OLD (found in your Vegas installation directory), in order to force Vegas to use the newer codec that gets installed with NeoSCENE (by default, older Vegas versions use an ancient decoder).

  3b. AVID DNxHD
Here’s a step-by-step tutorial on how to install the codec (need to be done only once), then batch-convert dSLR footage into AVID DNxHD. Just make sure you select the right frame rates/resolutions in the dialogs, depending on how you actually shot. Also, create these DNxHD MOV files into a sub-folder in the main project folder, because otherwise you wouldn’t know which MOV files are what format.

  3c. Matrox MPEG-2 I-Frame HD
Here’s a quick rundown on how to setup your machine in order to batch-encode your files into this codec. It requires some understanding of what you’re doing, and some moderate PC usage though. Update: A different, simpler way to convert to Matrox’s AVI. This makes the Matrox AVI solution not as time-consuming anymore.

NOTE: Make sure you don’t have both Matrox AVI and a Cineform decoder installed on the same PC, at the same time. When you do that, you’ll get red/black frames and crashes with recent Vegas versions. So only have installed one or the other, depending on your project.

4. Load footage into Vegas

Load Vegas. After the initial screens go away, load the Cineform or Matrox AVIs, or the DNxHD MOVs, into Vegas’ “project media” tab (you can drag-n-drop them). IF you are using Cineform, you must do a one-time check. You must check if Vegas recognizes these AVIs as progressive or as interlaced. Because the AVI format does not have a field for field order, it’s up to you to instruct Vegas what kind of files these are. So, follow this tip on how to do that. When you do that, come back to read the rest here.

5. Setup Project Properties

In Vegas, it’s very important to have the right project settings before you start editing. From the main menu select “Project Properties”, and a new dialog will pop up. In there, click the right outmost icon called “Match Media”, the one that looks like a yellow folder. From there, select one of the files you will be editing with (Cineform/Matrox AVI or DNxHD MOV), and click “open”. Vegas will now automatically fill up most of the project settings for you, after analyzing the video file you picked. After it does that, you need to do a few changes manually to that dialog: For the de-interlacing option select “none”, and for the Quality option select “Best”. You can save a new template with these settings, so each time you start a new project with the same kind of resolution/frame-rate, you can just pick it from the list! So, after your project settings are set, click “Ok”, and edit as you would normally do. Save often. Here is my Vegas getting-started guide.

6. Ensure visual quality

After you have edited, select ALL clips in the timeline (e.g. by using the SHIFT key), right click, select “Switches”, “Disable Resample”. By disabling resample we ensure no ghosted final image (especially if you used slow-motion). I have more such cool tips here, that you should read.

7. Export

Export your final for YouTube/Vimeo/PS3/AppleTV/XBOX360 from this tutorial, by just using its step 3 (or step 4 if you have access to the SONY AVC encoder via Platinum version 9+). That exporting tutorial is for 720p, but it’s easily converted to 1080p: just change the resolution to 1920×1080, and the bitrate to 12 mbps. Everything else remains the same as in the tutorial.

If you’re after DVDs, then use the right MPEG2 widescreen template on the “RENDER AS” dialog. This will export video only. For audio, use the AC3 template. Then, bring both files into DVD Architect (companion application to Vegas Platinum), and DVDA will put the two back together.

If you’re after Blu-Ray or “AVCHD disks”, just use the option from the main menu. If you get crashes with the Sony AVC encoder when burning HD, change the burning encoder setting to “Main Concept”.

“Future of Humanity” by Midnight Strangers

A short film disguised as the official music video for Midnight Strangers‘ “Future of Humanity” single. This is my 5th music video, and my first foray into narrative story-telling (even if within the form of a music video). Free HD download here.

This was the longest project I’ve been involved into so far, with 7 hours of shooting in the first batch, and another 4 hours for the re-shoots. We actually re-shot half of the video again, with a different location & female lead. If I had my way, I’d use different locations for the scenes shown from 1′:12″ to 1′:25″.

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark II at 30 fps, and then it was slowed-down to 24p. Majority of footage was shot with the Canon f1.4 50mm lens. My own “ExtraFlat” Picture Style was used (minimum color grading was done in post, it just came out exactly as I wanted it to).