Archive for October, 2010

Google TV file formats

For those who own a Google TV device, here is a report on the media/video file formats it supports, either via USB drive, or UPnP. Tested on my Sony ‘s GoogleTV Blu-Ray player.

The device played 1080p at: h.264 in MP4/MOV/M2TS, mpeg2 in .mpg/.m2t, MP3/XViD in AVI, MJPEG in MOV, MKV with h.264/AAC (didn’t try XViD).

The formats that were not supported are: OGG/OGV, WMV, MJPEG in AVI, 3GP, AMR. Interestingly, there is no support for WebM either.

To stream videos from your Nexus One phone (h.264/AMR in .3GP) to Google TV, you can use the freeware Android UPnP utility Twonky, which automatically re-wraps 3GP to MP4 for better compatibility. Unfortunately, while you will get picture, you won’t get any audio, since Google TV doesn’t support the AMR audio codec. To go around the problem, you will have to use Quicktime Pro on your desktop and re-wrap 3GP to MP4, while also re-encode AMR to AAC with it. h.264 needs no re-encoding.

Why Vampire Shows/Movies Succeed

For these people who can’t get around their head why movies like Twilight, or shows like True Blood or Vampire Diaries are so successful with women, let me give you some insight:

Women can’t help it when they see a man going out of his natural state of being to be with a regular girl.

Basically, that’s it. In this case, vampires shun their kind, and face expulsion or worse, all for the love of a human woman. It’s an irresistible thought for women. This also explains why women prefer “bad boys”. In reality, they DON’T. What they prefer is bad boys, who are bad ass to everyone else, but their woman.

All this gives women affirmation that the specific man is a suitable mate, able to do big sacrifices to raise a family. And that’s a dream that fuels their mental state’s well being, hoping that a poor, normal girl like they are, can have such luck one day too. It’s all Darwin, that plays games with women’s heads in order to keep them sane in a world where they will probably not going to get what they want.

And as long as there is Darwin, you will have to put up with Vampire movies. Hehehe…

The next big thing is not Vampires btw, but Androids. I can’t wait to see the blooming of love between the Scarlet Witch and Vision, in the possible 2nd Avengers movie at around 2015. Here things are even more dramatic, since the Vision is a mechanical being, without feelings. Seeing such a being going completely out of his programmed way just to be with a woman, it will drive female audiences crazy.

The portable computing market today, and Chrome OS

Currently, there are four distinct ways to do desktop-ish computing on the go, and soon there will be a fifth way too. I was wondering this morning which one best suits me.

– Laptop (Mac or Windows, average price $500)
Pros: Optical drive, large hard drive, larger resolutions, lots of RAM/speed, able to run most heavy apps.
Cons: Big and heavy.

– Hybrid laptop/netbook (Macbook Air, MSI, few others, avg price $800)
Pros: Thin and small, like netbooks. Large resolutions.
Cons: Not as fast for heavy apps like full laptops are. Mac variant is expensive.

– Netbook (usually running Ubuntu, average price $300)
Pros: Small and light, while still having a real keyboard.
Cons: RAM capped by Intel at 2 GB, slow CPUs for the kind of OSes it must run.

– Tablet (iPad or Android, average price $500)
Pros: Lightest/thinnest. Best user interface.
Cons: Not all the kind of apps exist for tablets, input method is a bitch.

– Chrome OS (Chromium OS, average price possibly less than a netbook(?))
Pros: Small and light, while still having a real keyboard (according to Engadget)
Cons: Only good for browsing, and select few simple apps.

So it all comes down to what kind of apps you want to run. At the end, it’s about the apps. If you want to run a video editor on the go, then you need a real laptop. If you want to just do some browsing, plus some simple office work, and if you travel a lot for work, then a netbook is best. If you just want to browse, then Chrome OS might be the best choice, since it might also be the cheapest. And if you want to do some specific actions in a more natural way, e.g. book/magazine-reading, maps, sky-gazing and other exotic stuff, in the smallest package possible, the tablet is the answer.

Personally, I’m thinking that either an MSI hybrid, or an iPad tablet are closest of what I would want to do with a portable device. But tablets are still not quite there yet for me. I’d need a real user filesystem in iOS (without it, certain apps can’t exist properly as they can on Android). But then again, Android is not ready for tablets either (both Lenovo and LG made a point about this). So I’m thinking that next year, when the new iPad comes out, if it has the additions I need (e.g. user filesystem, web cam, an internal SDHC reader), I’ll go for that.

We were discussing with JBQ the other day what his needs would be for a new portable device (he currently uses a 4 year old 14.1″ DELL laptop running Ubuntu), and we established that he doesn’t use any kind of app or feature on that laptop that couldn’t be done with Chrome OS (e.g. text editor, calculator). Originally, I felt that Chrome OS is a bit too thin in features, but apparently there are people who need no more than what it already offers. In fact, my mother wouldn’t need more than that either! Chrome OS should be able to do GTalk video chat too (via the Linux gtalk-video plugin), which is the only “advanced” thing she would need anyway! And that should be at a price she could afford, compared to a tablet (since Chrome OS shouldn’t need more than 4 GB of internal storage).

If I was to make a prediction, I’d say that netbooks are going the way of the dodo. There will only be laptops, few hybrids, tablets. In my opinion, the only thing Chrome OS has for it, is its potential lower price. The “login to your personalized desktop from any Chrome OS computer” is a commendable goal, but by going clean slate it also means hard times for users that might want to extend their desktop experience. Also, as tablets will become cheaper too, and will already have thousands of real, powerful apps, I don’t personally see Chrome OS going anywhere in the long run. In fact, I could easier imagine a future where Android extends its already existing “personalized saved data” to Google’s servers and essentially providing a similar experience from within any Android handset/tablet, rather than seeing Chrome OS getting thousands of apps — written in JavaScript — that are not complete jokes (I still can’t get over the mental shock of the original iPhone JavaScript apps — remember those? Yuck.).

I guess, what Chrome OS needed, was to be released in late 2007, just before the netbook boom. Then, it could possibly stand a chance, as it would be seen as an innovative novelty.

Why Episodic TV is Bad

Many times I’ve written on this blog about how much I hate episodic TV, and it’s time to come clean. Episodic TV are shows that follow a routine plot episode after episode. Most cop shows are like that, for example. I personally avoid episodic TV. I just don’t watch any of it, and I suggest you don’t either, for the reasons below.

1. Characters don’t grow
The characters never grow in such shows. The same cop you knew in season 1, it’s the same character in season 7. Even the popular House M.D., while it tries to have a back-story, it features no major character evolution. It’s still episodic TV, in disguise.

2. A single episode is not enough time to study big things
There is a reason why I like Star Trek: TNG. It is because on seasons 3-6 it would make me think about what’s ethical and what’s not, in a grander scheme. Instead of using crappy every-day themes like spouse cheating, it raised questions of privacy, technology, sociology, artificial life (and it barely managed it at 48 minutes per episode). But these are the kind of stories I want to watch about. I don’t give a damn about who cheated on who (e.g. Desperate Housewives), who ended up in a hospital full of swinging doctors (e.g. Grey’s Anatomy), or who killed who for revenge or money (e.g. CSI). These are plots that I LOOK DOWN TO. Call me a snob, call me an elitist, but these situations don’t represent me in the slightest. If I wanted to celebrate and waste my time with whatever is wrong with people today, I’d just bug the apartment of the couple next door, hoping for some dirt. Bleh.

3. Canned experience
We get the same, and the same again, and over again. A murder, an investigation, a small twist, the solution of the crime — all in 43 minutes. It insults our intelligence. Instead, I want to see grand, serialized stories, that have an impact in the whole of society, in the whole of the known world. I want to see how the heroes are working towards solving these problems for their world. Basically, I care about big problems, not about small individual hiccups of some mentally unstable people.

4. Not a stimulating art
CSIs, or Psych, are just not art. They’re just cheap shows, with cheap scripts. LOST is art — despite it’s disastrous 6th season. Firefly is art. ST:TNG is art (seasons 3-6). BSG is not bad either. These are “classic” shows because they had something big to tell us about.

There are some shows that while largely episodic, feature a strong background story — basically they’re hybrids. Stargate:Universe is such a show. I watch it, but it’s on the border of my patience. The fact that it’s sci-fi helps though.

On the other side of the story, there are serialized shows, where nothing really happens. Caprica is in fact a good example as to how a serialized sci-fi show, with all the right ingredients, that tries to ask big questions, can go bad.

Premiere Elements 9 now supports 24p

The new Premiere Elements 9 has quite a few new features, features that you can read about at Adobe’s own page. What I would like to talk about instead, is about its brand new 24p support, a feature that mysteriously was not mentioned anywhere in their marketing material, or other reviews — even if it’s a major feature for people who are even a tiny bit serious about video!

So, as you can see in the screenshot below, there is now AVCHD and dSLR 24p project presets. There is 1080/24p & 720/24p for dSLRs, and 720/24p for AVCHD. Unfortunately, and I hope Adobe fixes this with a free update, a 1080/24p template for AVCHD is missing. Also missing is HDV 720/24p. If you have an HD digicam instead (e.g. a Canon one), you must use the app’s… “Flip” presets.

Running files on their non-native frame rate or resolution, reduces performance (it’s only normal, this behavior applies to any video editor). This is why the way to go around the multiple choices project settings problem, is to let users pick their own project properties (res, fps, aspect ratio, field order, etc), like Sony Vegas Platinum allows you to (Elements’ main competitor).

Premiere Elements 9 now has a brand new Mac support! This is the ONLY Mac video editor that supports 24p but doesn’t cost thousands of dollars (costs just $80-$90 instead). You see, both iMovie, and the $200 Final Cut Express, don’t support 24p timelines!

Regarding h.264 performance, there’s a huge improvement! Even on my old P4 at 3 Ghz, without any hardware acceleration, 720/30p digicam h.264 files were real time! Vegas Platinum 10 was slower than Elements 9 on the same files! On 1080/24p, where both editors had trouble, Elements had an easier time! I expect 1080p to be real time on a faster machine than this old P4 computer. AVCHD performance was pretty good too, and again, I expect a real time preview on a more recent PC.

Where the application loses points in terms of performance is in its user interface. The app itself is slow. Slow to load, slow to carry through actions, and there’s a lot of “order prints”, “sign up here and there”, and other such useless garbage all over the interface. It feels like an Adobe ad, more than an app. The UI is simply overloaded, and confusing.

Regarding color grading, the Channel Mixer plugin is the most interesting tool in the app, but a 3-way color wheel would have been as useful too if it existed.

One other problem I encountered is with the logic of the app. For example, if you have a 1080/24p dSLR project and such files loaded, and then you load a 1440x1080x1.333 Cineform file, your Cineform file will load up as 4:3. Premiere only recognizes it as having aspect ratio 1.000 instead of 1.333, and there’s no way to tell the app that the file is widescreen. Vegas provides ways to do that.

There are also a few bugs. The timeline cursor doesn’t always move when you preview, the “Organize Media” doesn’t always show you the file you’re trying to load, etc. Oh, the app also crashes:

I believe that the app is in urgent need of a software update, but here’s hope. Since there’s now 24p support, and good h.264 performance, things are looking brighter. It just needs some polishing.

Shutter speed control on video digicams

If you ever wondered why small digicams/digirecorders/cellphones don’t have shutter speed controls for video (they usually shoot in high shutter speeds outdoors), here’s an IM conversation I had with JBQ this morning on the subject. Basically, these small sensor cams have to go super-high shutter speed to compensate for their design shortcomings. Adding just shutter speed control on a cam that can’t physically go down to 1/48th or 1/60th under “random point & shoot sunny outdoors conditions”, makes no market sense (if anything, it would be a support nightmare). The chat:


Eugenia: Could you explain quickly why small digicams can’t have shutter speed controls for video that can go all the way down to 1/48th outdoors?
Jean-Baptiste Queru: They have very fast lenses (large relative apertures, i.e. small f-numbers), they need that because of their small sensors. fast lenses -> fast shutter speeds.
Jean-Baptiste Queru: Chances are, they can’t close more than about f/8.
Eugenia: ic
Jean-Baptiste Queru: f/8 is called Av 6 (Av is “aperture value”, f/1 is Av 0, f/1.4 is Av1, f/2 is Av 2, f/2.8 is Av 3, etc…)
Jean-Baptiste Queru: For shutter speeds, there’s the Tv scale (“time value”): 1s is Tv 0, 1/2s is Tv 1, 1/4s is Tv 2… 1/250s (technically 1/256s) is Tv 8. 1/48s is about Tv 5.5.
Jean-Baptiste Queru: In bright sunlight at ISO 100 without ND filters, Av + Tv needs to be about 14.6 for a proper exposure.
Jean-Baptiste Queru: So, if a camera can’t stop down further than f/8, it can’t go beyond Av 6, so it needs at least Tv 8.6 to expose properly, and that’s 1/400s.
Eugenia: So for the Canon S95 lens, how low the shutter speed can go outdoors, on ISO 100?
Jean-Baptiste Queru: well, if depends on how much it can stop down. If it can stop down to f/8, the lowest it’ll be able to get is 1/400s.
Eugenia: the S95 specs are 6.0 (W)-22.5mm (T) f/2.0-4.9 (35mm equivalent: 28-105mm)
Jean-Baptiste Queru: Yes, but that doesn’t tell how much they can stop down.
Jean-Baptiste Queru: (it tells how much it can open up, i.e. the other end of the Av range).
Jean-Baptiste Queru: I assume it’s f/8 because that’s common for such digicams.
Eugenia: ic
Jean-Baptiste Queru: At f/8 you’d already be losing a huge lot of sharpness because of diffraction.
Jean-Baptiste Queru: (and you’d have a huge depth of field)
Jean-Baptiste Queru: So, if you wanted 1/50s f/2.8, that’d be Tv 5.6, Av 3. The sum is called Ev (exposure value), and it’s 8.6. Since the light is Lv 14.6, you’d need to cut 6 units (6 stops, D=1.8, 64x).
Eugenia: And that’s almost impossible on these cams…
Eugenia: why the STILL image mode, in manual control, lets me go to 15″ shutter speed, outdoors, looking at the sun, on ISO 100?
Eugenia: of course it’s completely over exposed, even at f/8
Eugenia: or are we talking about values where the image is not over exposed?
Jean-Baptiste Queru: In manual control, you can set anything you want, but you could end up overexposed or underexposed, and you have to figure out with other means which values will produce a proper exposure.

Jean-Baptiste Queru: BTW, another way to think about it is that small sensor cams can’t deal with as much light, so they need to use higher shutter speeds to reduce the amount of light that comes in.
Jean-Baptiste Queru: The sensor in a Canon 5D MarkII dSLR is 64 times larger than in a 1/3.2″ sensor camera, so it can take up 64 times as much light when setting up a similar shot (that means that the shutter can stay open 64 times longer).


Conclusion: That’s why you should try buying a filter tube for your digicam, and then buy a few ND filters at various strengths. ND filters will act as sunglasses, and will force shutter speeds to go down, by opening up the aperture.

Even with a dSLR, you’d have to stop down a lot to get to 1/50s (at ISO 100 you’d need f/22, and that’s too much). A 3-stop ND would be a good idea in such conditions. The good news is that a 3-stop ND filter in SLR filter sizes is super-common. A 6-stop ND in P&S digicam filter size isn’t (so you’d need step-up rings too).

A sci-fi story for the Greek TV

The news about The Island gave me hope about the modern Greek TV culture. It in fact inspired me to think about what could be done next. And I think that Mega Channel should jump the shark. Not yet another period piece or drama or comedy piece, as they always have.

Instead, they should go full steam ahead for a sci-fi show! Set in space no less!

Here’s an idea I was cultivating since last night:

Title: Centaur 2121

Year 2096: China launches its Centaur space station in orbit.
Year 2121: China abandons the station, and “leases” it to Greece.

So, the year is 2121 (putting the year earlier would be a bit too optimistic about the technology I’d like the show to have). 8 new station members are arriving to the station: 5 Greeks, 3 foreigners (1 Turk male, 1 Chinese male, 1 black French female). Two out of the five Greeks are women.

Main Cast: 14 actors (8 on the space station, and 6 on Earth)
Recurring cast: another 10-11 actors
Languages spoken throughout the show: 80% Greek, 20% other (subtitles).

The station is now used as a spaceship garage for other countries’ broken touristic spaceships. However, after the first job the new crew took on, the spaceship blows up. Governments of both Greece and China are getting on their tip-toes, by the US and EU.

A full blown political conspiracy thriller is unveiled on Earth, while the crew on the station is starting uncovering truths about the station’s true purpose. The idea is to echo Greece’s current political and financial position on an international terrain of politics — but set into the future, and in space. Digital life, privacy issues, technology becoming part of the human body, viruses as terrorism, should all be themes to be explored.

Episodes: 13 (mini-series).
Duration: 45 minutes per episode, 90 minutes for the pilot episode.
Format: Highly serialized (episodic TV is bad)

I would estimate the cost at 230,000 Euros per episode (overall about 3 mil Euros). The series would need quite a few sets, and large green screen studios. A lot of CGI too. But I believe that it’s doable for that amount of money, given that The Island made it through for 150,000 Euros per episode.

Here’s hope!

Squishable Android

JBQ came from work with this today:

Painkiller

A Greek filmmaker living in Germany, Kostas Sampanis, just posted this great-looking short film on Vimeo. It was shot on a Canon HV30 with a 35mm adapter. Also, here’s a second film by him, with the same camera.

Review: The Island

Many times I’ve written on this blog about how bad the Greek TV is. Apart the terrible daily live shows, there are the equally terrible scripted shows. Cheap, ugly, stupid.

So I was very happy to see a production seeing the light of day that had high standards. The show is called “The Island” (“Το Νησί”), and it’s based on the best-seller book by Victoria Hislop with the same title. It’s a period mystery/drama, about a leprosy colony in a small island off the shore of Crete. The show was shot on location, on the actual village/island the book was written about. The story spans 3 generations, from 1939, to today, and it’s told via flashbacks.

The production, by Indigo View (a production company in Crete), is the most expensive of all times for the Greek TV. Shoots for the 26 episodes will last a year, and half way through, it cost Mega Channel about 4 million Euros. Which probably means that it will eventually cost up to 9-10 million Euros (which equals to about $450k USD per episode). Now, think that American series cost between $1 million and $2.5 million per episode! And no, Greece is not a cheap country, definitely not Crete, a touristic island! Paying hotels for the cast and crew probably was the biggest cost for the show! I’ve read elsewhere that the budget was 4 million Euros *overall*, which would mean that each episode only costs 150,000 Euros. If true, then that’s a miracle.

So the question is, “how good is this show, then?”. And I can firmly say that it’s very well done. The photography is good, script is good (if not a bit cliche at times), acting is great for the most part, direction is stellar. I can say that this show looks and feels better than most American TV series! Not only that, but this is the first Greek TV series in many years that foreign TV channels asked to buy! You can watch the series for free, here (no subtitles, sorry).

The show premiered last Monday, and it had one of the biggest ratings for scripted shows ever in Greece! At some point during the 56 minute show, there were 72% of the Greek young population (15-48 year olds) who were watching!!! Overall, 48% of the Greek population watched! This is a staggering rating for any country! And it shows how the Greek people are HUNGRY for quality programming, rather than the complete crap the TV is feeding them for the last 18 years!

I feel that there are few things that they could be better on the show though:

1. The editing. The show is cut like a TV commercial (especially the first half of the first episode). There are some very impressive shots, but they’re cut at 1-3 seconds each! It’s too fast editing, the viewer doesn’t have the time to digest all that visual information! It feels almost like the tapes arrived at the editing room, and the editor guy, seeing this amazing footage for the first time in his professional life, he felt that it would be a shame to leave it out! But he must!

2. The three generations do not make logistic sense. If the mother of the English girl and the restaurant’s woman were born in 1930 (9 years before the story begins), they would be 80 years old today. And yet, none of the two older versions of them looks to be more than 55 years old. The “today” story should have been set in 1985 or 1990 instead.

3. The song in the credits is extremely cheesy. The music of the track is good, but the vocals take away a lot of the atmosphere. They make me cringe real bad. They should have kept the piano music alone, no vocals! Yuck.

4. The last scene, where the teacher and the kid leave the village for the leprosy island, is way too long. The farewell scene is SIX minutes long, in slow motion for the most part. That’s *way* too much, and over-dramatic. Again, an editing problem. I’m guessing that the foreign networks will have an easy time to cut material when they will try to fit the 56 minute episodes in their 45 minutes time slots.

Having said that, the beginning of the scene with the daughters and the villagers being outside their homes to say goodbye, was a tearjerker. I don’t cry easily, but this got me. But then, the prolonged farewell scene, killed the mood.

Instead, the editor should have cut out more out of the church and the farewell scenes, to make more sense out of the London segment (which was rushed too much). The show also required a few seconds of showing the beauty of Cretan village from afar, and its sea (e.g. a shot like this). Also, the last time we see Alexis looking at the small island, that wide shot from afar, needed to be on a high, moving crane.

I watched some behind-the-scenes footage, and it seems that the production used an HDV camera (looked like a Canon), with a 35mm adapter. I was totally expecting a Red ONE, but I was surprised to see a 35mm adapter + HDV camera. Some of the scenes were a bit too shallow of depth of field, almost unnaturally shallow. The quality of such a cam is not going to be as good as the Red ONE, but this is not a major problem, since most Greeks don’t even have an HD TV signal. The production possibly saved $10k to $15k overall by using an HDV camera. The other Greek TV series are shot with plain HDV cameras, and they look super video-y, and ugly. Even the “better” TV series, like this one or this one, they can’t hold a candle to The Island visually.

The interesting thing is, from all the “somewhat better” TV series in Greece, are all produced by the Mega Channel. And with “The Island”, they indeed show a clear understanding that true quality programming pays back big time. Your turn, US TV.

My rating for the first episode: 8/10

UPDATE: Second episode, not so good. Fully agreed with the review here. Despite this, ratings got up to 62% overall! Much higher than the first episode!