Archive for March, 2011

Amazon’s Cloud Player

Tonight Amazon announced its Cloud Player for Web & Android. They give 5 GB for free, upgraded to 20 GB for one year, if you buy any MP3 album. Any new album you buy and you add it to the Cloud service won’t eat out your storage allowance. All this is not a bad idea, I’m myself a supporter of streaming, when this is done right. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t do this right. RDIO, MOG, ThumbPlay, Real, Napster, Spotify, do. The problems I have with the Amazon deal are:

1. When you purchase a new album you can only add it EITHER on your cloud drive, or download it on your PC. If you must download to your PC (as I do), and later want to have it on your cloud drive as well, you have to manually upload it! This is stupid. Sure it makes sense from legal point of view (so Amazon doesn’t go on record selling you two copies), but it sucks from the user’s point of view. There is no other reason, apart the legalities, why Amazon couldn’t automatically link your purchase to your cloud account. It already does not use your storage to store new purchases, so the technical part of just “linking” music with accounts is obviously in place.

2. I have to upload manually my previously-bought Amazon music. I don’t see why Amazon shouldn’t automatically link my account with these past purchases too — apart the legal shite again.

3. There is no “offline” mode. If someone uses wifi or 3G to listen to music from the cloud he will find his smartphone’s battery go down within 2-3 hours. RDIO/MOG/etc offer the ability to sync up to about ~4 GB of your collection, and access it “offline”. Their servers create an encrypted blob of data that only their player can playback. This way you can listen everything from the cloud when you’re using a wall socket, and the checked items directly from the flash drive when you’re mobile. Perfect for travelers.

4. Ultimately, this service is not good enough. RDIO/MOG is a better deal at $10 per month with an ~unlimited music selection (not just your own library). Given that I spend about $80 a month on music (mostly from Amazon these days, since they’re considerably cheaper than iTunes), if I wanted to go subscription I’d just go with MOG or RDIO.

Sitting down and manually uploading gigabytes of files to Amazon’s servers is one thing I won’t do though. No way.

Six Months with the Roku

In the six months after buying the Roku box (my full review), quite a few things happened: I canceled our Comcast subscription, bought an indoors antenna, we bought a GoogleTV (wish we hadn’t), Netflix added lots of new streaming content, bought a laptop with HDMI-out, while Roku added Hulu Plus and USB local playback support. So how things are going on? Great! Just great.

The Roku is now my primary way of getting entertainment: Netflix and Vimeo are my primary channels, with Hulu via my laptop (mostly for Stargate:Universe), while our aerial antenna is used no more than 3-4 times a week (The Event, V, Vampire Diaries, Fringe). The Roku has a few bugs (e.g. some horizontal lines for videos that are wider than 16:9, rebooting occasionally after becoming slow), but overall it offers the best experience. It’s richer in content than our AppleTV, and way simpler to use than the Frankenstein GoogleTV.

Research found that many people can’t cut the cord because they have kids/wives that require specific kid/reality programming, but Netflix now carries lots of that on its streaming service. For $10 per month you should be able to get a lot of such programming, which surely beats Comcast’s $90 per month I used to pay for the basic package of HD+DVR. Add an indoors antenna too, maybe get a laptop with HDMI-out for the free version of Hulu (if you can’t wait for the shows to show up on Netflix), and you’re in business!

Here’s my matrix, with 100 being the best:

TV OnD Movies Live TV Youtube, Vimeo Online apps (e.g. Pandora, podcasts) App SDK UI Local playback UPnP, DLNA, Airplay
Roku 75 75 20 90 90 75 75 60 10
AppleTV 60 50 20 40 20 10 90 60 70
GoogleTV 40 70 30 60 50 20 (web-only for now) 20 80 70
Boxee Box 40 50 20 60 50 60 40 90 90
WD TV 40 50 20 60 50 60 50 100 90
Sat/Cable 70 40 100 0 0 0 50 30 0
Antenna 0 10 80 0 0 0 N/A 0 0

Winner in my book is the Roku. Best $60 I ever spent (by far the cheapest of them all, except for the indoors antenna that cost me $36).

Regarding StarGate:Universe

Updated below, 24-03-2011

The original Stargate movie was entertaining, but both SG-1 and Atlantis TV series were a classic case of cookie-cutter television. The writers introduced some nice big themes in the storylines, but ultimately their mainly episodic nature, flat characters, and black-n-white bad guys, reduced the series to a painful old-fashioned experience.

Then, StarGate:Universe (SGU) came around. SyFy Channel tried to copy the look and feel of BattleStar:Galactica (BSG), by making it a more character-based show, with inner conflicts, and a more dark, gritty premise. And it failed. Ratings were terrible not only in the US, but in other countries too. After just two seasons, SGU is now canceled, with the remaining episodes broadcasting every Monday. This is so unfortunate though, because in my opinion SGU is one of the best show on TV right now, and the best sci-fi one by a mile (I don’t hold Fringe into as high esteem as some others).

In my opinion, SGU is on the top-10 of the best scifi TV shows EVER. But this article is mostly geared on what went wrong, not what its virtues were. So why was it canceled? Here’s why:

— Some old SG fans, that apparently are mindless drones who can’t get used to watching modern and thoughtful television. As a result, they undermined the new series by giving it a bad name every way they could. Hating it just because it wasn’t the same la-la-la show that SG-1 and Atlantis were.

— The writers of SGU are also to blame. Some episodes were useless, ridiculous, or too good to feel true. As much as 70% of what SGU is it’s great, the rest 30% is lackluster. Here are some such examples:

1. The communication stones are a complete and utter cop-out. I don’t disagree that the show needed some way to connect to Earth, but this exchange-of-consciousness was too unbelievable. I mean, if Destiny’s huge stargate can’t dial Earth, why do these self-powered stones work?

What should have happened instead is that these stones should have been a mystery at first (we could see Rush caressing the case for a few episodes, without us knowing what’s inside) and then having him modify the technology to be able to send short messages to the each user’s consciousness. This way, when TJ is supposed to perform a delicate medical operation, instead of having her exchange her consciousness with a surgeon, we could have her receive instructions from a surgeon, and we could have her scream: “I’m a paramedic, I can’t do this! How do you expect me to operate on an open heart when all I have is two pages of scribble?”. THAT, is drama folks.

2. Instead of the regular traveling consciousness episodes, 1/4 of the episodes in a given season, for about 1/3 of each episode, could be regular a’la LOST flashbacks, that explain certain mysteries about why some characters are the way they are. Having their lives continuing on Earth takes us away from the main storylines upon the Destiny which can be rich and plentiful. For example, “over 80% of the ship is inaccessible without spacesuits”, Telford once said. Plenty to explore!

3. Some episodes are just stupid or too convenient. For example, the recent episode with the double Destiny, or the left-behinders returning the second shuttle (after the writers killed the other shuttle a few episodes back), and then dying. So basically we have episodes of convenience that only serve the writers. Dear writers: if you need a shuttle, don’t blow it up. If you need replacement hardware, don’t kill the aliens’ spaceship that had compatible technology. And then, we have Telford getting saved on the 1st episode by ending up back on Earth, then bringing him back to Destiny (because the writers needed him), and then being able to make it back to Earth, alone. Or TJ getting pregnant all of a sudden and then losing the baby 4 episodes later. This is just HORSESHIT. You give us impossible storylines, just to fix your previous fuckups or to convenience your SLOPPY writing.

4. Leave God and religion out of sci-fi. No problem having Dr Rush mentioning God once or twice, just to manipulate his peers to join him in his quest for the alien entity, but anything beyond that is too much.

5. Relationships among the crew are not always believable, for example Chloe is hooking up with that hotshot pilot (Lt. Scott) on episode 3 already (literally hours after her dad dies), with very little previous connection between them. As for Young & TJ, we never really understood what kind of relationship they had. Come on, be serious. Also, the dynamics of some of the characters need to change a bit, e.g. TJ needs to stop being a doll (miscast?).

The writers should have also focused on the lower decks, let us know more of the characters on the ship. Should have showed us more of their struggle to survive, rather than just these 5-6 first episodes where they find seeds, air and water and then all is good. Instead of the main 9 characters and the extra 6-7 on board the ship, make that an extra 20.

And how cool would it be instead of having that recent love story for Dr Rush that felt out of place, to have a crew member working on lowly tasks. She would not be equal to Dr Rush in any way, but she would fall for him and do his bidding to help him manipulate the other crew members (instead of managing it alone). Rush would use her at the beginning, and only towards the end of the series he would realize that he also loves her. And that would be his redeeming as a character for his arrogance and all the pains he caused to the crew on his personal quest for knowledge. She’d die, and he would go on and become the first human to ascent to the same plane of existence as the Ancients, while everyone else makes it safely back home.

Telford’s character is completely useless and should have never been in the series. Instead of having Young vs Rush trying to get control of the others, add to the mix that Lucian Alliance guy who currently sits on a cell all day doing nothing. What a waste for paying a pretty known Canadian actor for doing nothing. In fact, the few Lucian Alliance soldiers should have arrived to Destiny the same time every one else did (as part of their invasion of the planet). As I explained above, all the Milky Way affairs should not have been part of SGU after the 1st episode. Clean slate from that point on.

Ultimately, SGU is (or should be) a philosophical study of the question: “When the opportunity arises, do you run back to safety, forfeit your cosmic responsibility for exploration as a sentient, curious being, or do you march forward towards knowledge no matter the risk to your person?” And it’s that important question (through Dr Rush) that still holds the show together in my eyes. Take that away, and SGU becomes a mashed potato.

As mentioned above, mistakes were made on the show, but I’m willing to put away these and blank them out in my mind, in order to enjoy the rest, which is absolutely fabulous.

The first season of SGU is available via Netflix Instant, if you live in the US, give it a go.

Update 24-03-2011
Some immature kids in some Stargate forum are beating this post down because it didn’t satisfy their need to read the positive of SGU, even if this was an article about what went wrong, and not about why SGU is a good show. Here you are, here’s a list as to why it was a good show, let me satisfy your unjustified personal attacks:

1. Serialized premise, my No 1 need when it comes to TV shows. I hate episodic TV, it hurts our intelligence.
2. Dr Rush is one of the most amazing characters ever to grace TV. Intense, not a black-n-white hero by any means.
3. Aliens are not like laughable humans in masks, or just plain humans. More realistic this way.
4. Complex plot, in many threads. Some episodes require good thinking. REALISTIC plots most of the time.
5. Most characters are not single dimensional. Everyone’s carrying baggage rather than being that stereotypical TV hero.
6. When there’s action, there’s intensity. Well-directed, well-paced (no, not boring at all as some people think).
7. Artistic premise (e.g. the episode with Dr Rush reliving his wife’s death).
8. A number of philosophical questions asked. Show tries to appeal to humans with reason rather than brainless twats.
9. Dark, serious, gritty, and not bruhaha “medieval village with human-alikes outside of Vancouver episode of the week” style show (*throws up*).
10. Great cinematography, shot anamorphically. Amazing CGI, some of the best ever on TV.

“Jamelia” by Caribou

The future of music, right here. One of the most amazing songs and great videos that I experienced as of late. Only listen with headphones, and fucking LOUD.

NY Times’ subscription model

Today, NYTimes unveiled a new subscription and pricing model. A pretty convoluted one, too. Like Havoc wrote:

* con­tent + phone app = 15
* con­tent + tablet app = 20
* con­tent + both apps = 35
* con­tent + dead trees = 30-ish
[or $72]

In my opinion, this model will fail, and then NYTimes will join MPAA and RIAA to whine back at us about copyright infringement. The truth is that I, and most people, would never pay a minimum of $15 per month for news that I can get elsewhere.

To me, the only model that works is a $5 digital subscription. Movies cost millions of dollars to make, and Netflix is able to charge just $8. Music subscription is also between $5 and $10 for a 15 million songs catalog (RDIO/MOG/Spotify). So I don’t see how NY Times can charge that much for content that can also be found elsewhere in one form or another (even if with diminishing journalism compared to NYTimes’ high standards). So far, all-you-can-eat subscription is the only model that has worked for me in my experimentation with multiple ways for getting my entertainment.

I would personally seriously consider a $5 news subscription with them, if they had support for up to 5 devices per household that they offer an ad-free client for (e.g. smart mobile, tablets, whatever), plus unlimited web browsing (with ads). Also, no reason for 20 free articles per month as they currently offer, it’d be fair to bring that number down to 5 on a $5 subscription. See, the people who truly need NYTimes’ news will buy a subscription no matter the price, but the ones that are on the fence, can get by with 20 free articles a month, so you don’t want to give these for free.

5 is the magic number: $5 subscription, 5 registered devices (+browser), 5 free articles.

I believe the underlying reason for their shortsighted decision, a reason they would never admit not even amongst themselves, is that they suffer from the same illness that their counterpart execs at MPAA/RIAA do: they don’t want to lose the “old way of doing business”. They are afraid that if they give a cheap digital subscription, no one would ever buy their paper version. Within a few months, or 1-2 years, that would mean the end of the way they do finances, or the way some old laws might now be protecting them compared to digital news outlets, their contracts with their pressers etc. I guess nobody wants to be “the CEO that killed NYTimes” (as some misguided people would undoubtedly see this), so they try to devise unnatural and artificial pricing schemes like this one today, to try to delay what’s inevitable: going fully digital.

Dear CEO of NYTimes, get a grip. Take hold of the company and move it to the 21st Century. Fix your mobile apps to be truly bad-ass, modern, and innovative, rather than simple “header_link -> article” paper-version-style stories! If the market demands to go digital, because the low pricing (compared to entertainment equivalents) makes more sense to your consumers in this medium, then do so. What’s the hold up?

In the meantime, Al Jazeera is gaining lots of new readers/viewers online daily, becoming more and more THE place to go and read stuff, while it’s the FIRST major TV channel to provide worldwide streaming without a per-country-IP-address blocking. That’s right folks, your competition now is Al Jazeera, not Washington Post.

Girl Walks into a Bar

Friends, the international indie filmmaking revolution has started!

So here we are. The first feature film shot with a dSLR (7D), with a $1 mil USD budget, and which actually uses very popular actors!

Carla Gugino (Faster, Watchmen)
Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, “Heroes”)
Danny DeVito (Get Shorty, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”)
Josh Hartnett (Thirty Days of Night, Pearl Harbor)
Rosario Dawson (Unstoppable, Grindhouse)
Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan)
Aaron Tveit (Ghost Town, “Law and Order: SVU”)
Robert Forster, Academy Award nominee (Jackie Brown)
Amber Valletta (Hitch)
Gil Bellows (“Flash Forward,” The Shawshank Redemption)
Kevin Zegers (“Gossip Girl”)
Alexis Bledel (“Gilmore Girls,” The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants)
Michelle Ryan (“The Bionic Woman”)
Xander Berkeley (“Nikita”)

The movie feels like a theatrical play and what’s even cooler, it’s offered for free viewing on Youtube (switch to 720p):

From the HD digicam to HDTV, losslessly

For most people, the way they watch their snapped HD video is with either these ways:
– Copy files to the computer, edit as a single video, export to a DVD or MOV/MP4. This is the most popular method, and the one I’d recommend to most people.
– Buy a mini-HDMI adapter, connect the camera to the TV directly.
– Wirelessly transmit the video via DLNA/UPnP/Airplay to a playback device.

Each of these ways has its advantages and disadvantages. In the first case, exporting to a delivery codec for general viewing, is “lossy”, for example. Using the camera via an HDMI adapter doesn’t scale financially, since these files are huge and new SD cards would need to be purchased regularly once they’re filled up. As for the third option, it’s technically complex and few can figure it out, or have a solid-enough WiFi network to send up to 50 mbps of data over the air (few people have their living room wired), or often the formats don’t work on the targeted device.

So here’s a fourth, alternative way, for those who want lossless HD video, from their camera to TV, using a playback device, like the Sony PS3, XBOX360, Roku, GoogleTV. Some cameras that already record in MP4 (h.264/AAC), or playback devices that support many formats, do not require any additional processing on the video files, but often, this combo is not possible (e.g. files from a Canon HD digicam and Roku XD|S’ “USB Channel” playback app don’t work together). This article is trying to tackle such cases. The video will remain untouched, only the audio would be re-encoded in high bitrate, and only if that’s needed.

So, for this tutorial, you will need an h.264 (not MJPEG) HD digital camera or digirecorder, and some rudimentary knowledge of how to use the command line. If you have a Canon camera, you should use its built-in editing function to cut out the parts of videos that are not worth keeping (e.g. shaky scenes etc). Don’t keep footage that is not presentable. Other cameras might have the same in-camera ability, check with your camera’s manual.

Install this ffmpeg build from here, and the faac encoder archive from here. Create a folder called “ffmpeg” in your user’s folder, it would look something like this: C:\Users\YOUR-USERNAME\ffmpeg\ (the exact path depends on the version of the Windows OS you’re using). From inside these two compressed archives you downloaded, drag in the ffmpeg folder the ffmpeg.exe file, and the libfaac-0.dll file (note: you will need the 7-Zip utility to uncompress these archives). Then rename libfaac-0.dll to libfaac.dll (if you don’t see file suffixes, e.g. .dll, .7z, etc, you can enable that feature on your Windows Explorer’s “Options” dialog). Finally, inside that ffmpeg folder create two new folders, named “original”, and “rewrapped”. Using an SD reader (it’s faster than connecting your camera via USB), copy your camera files inside the “original” folder.

If your files’ suffix is .mov or .mp4, open Quicktime, load any one of your camera files, and click “Window”, and then “Show Movie Inspector”. Check the format, and depending what kind of audio it says it’s got, you’d need to follow a different ffmpeg script, as shown below. If your files are .mts use case #4 (change .mts to .m2ts or .avi if your h.264 camera shoots as such, e.g. older AVCHD cams, older Flip cams). So, open the “Command Prompt” Windows application, navigate to the ffmpeg folder (that’s where the rudimentary command-line knowledge I mentioned above is required), then copy/paste the right script that matches your case, and run it.

1. MOV (h.264/PCM) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // Canon, new Nikon cams

ffmpeg -i original\ -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\movie.mp4

2. MOV (h.264/AAC) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // Flip, Kodak, iPhone/iPod/iPad

ffmpeg -i original\ -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec copy rewrapped\movie.mp4

3. MP4 (h.264/PCM/AC3/mono AAC) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // Optional for Samsung cams with AAC mono audio

ffmpeg -i original\movie.mp4 -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\movie.mp4

4. MTS (h.264/AC3) to MP4 (h.264/AAC) // AVCHD-Lite Sony & Panasonic digicams

ffmpeg -i original\movie.mts -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\movie.mp4

Obviously, manually change the two filenames “” each time you move to a different file (e.g. an original file would become 2011-03-14-343.mp4). If you have lots of camera files, and changing the filename manually is way too much work, you can create a “batch” script. Open notepad or another text editor, and depending which of the cases above you need, copy/paste the appropriate script (not the “Case ##:” line).

Case #1:
for %%a in ("original\*.mov") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\%%~na.mp4

Case #2:
for %%a in ("original\*.mov") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec copy "rewrapped\%%~na.mp4"

Case #3:
for %%a in ("original\*.mp4") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\%%~na.mp4

Case #4 (change .mts to .m2ts or .avi if your h.264 camera shoots as such, e.g. older AVCHD cams, older Flip cams):
for %%a in ("original\*.mts") do ffmpeg -i %%a -f mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 256000 -ac 2 rewrapped\%%~na.mp4

Save the script for your case as rewrap.bat on the same folder as your ffmpeg.exe file, and run it. It will only take a few moments to losslessly rewrap your video to the more standard MP4 format that can be played with most TV devices. The only device that needs its video re-encoded is the original AppleTV, which has a limitation of 720/24p at 5 mbps (Simple Profile). Every other modern TV device should be able to playback these rewrapped files without a problem. Once you have confirmed that your device can play these files, you can delete the original camera files to make space in your PC (these new MP4 files are as good for future editing, since the video was not re-encoded, and the audio was not always re-encoded — and if it was, it was with high-enough bitrate).

If you would like to join all these created MP4 files under a single MP4 file for easier viewing, you can use MP4box. Unzip mp4box.exe and any DLL file it comes with on your \ffmpeg\rewrapped\ folder. Navigate there with a Command Prompt window and run:
MP4Box -cat 1.mp4 -cat 2.mp4 -cat 3.mp4 output.mp4
Add as many mp4 files you want (preferably in the order they were shot as), and of course use the right mp4 filenames. If it complains about it, you also need to hunt for the MSVCR100.dll file at Microsoft’s site, and when you find it, you can copy it on the same folder as mp4box.exe. At the end, to fix some mp4box container bugs, run:
..\ffmpeg -i output.mp4 -vcodec copy -acodec copy -y final.mp4
This final.mp4 file is the one you can use to watch all your clips as one. If you’re copying it into a FAT32 system to view, then make sure the file is not bigger than 4 GB, or it will fail (FAT32 limitation).

If you’re porting these scripts to a Linux/Unix OS, you must either compile your own ffmpeg with libfaac support, or download a binary package compiled as such, or you will need a pre-built libfaac library for an existing ffmpeg version (that must itself be built with dynamic loading). Finally, make sure the script’s backward slashes are changed to forward.

Regarding PJ Harvey

I always hated PJ Harvey’s music. So much, that it had a detrimental effect on disliking her person too, for reasons that even myself will never understand. I remember MTV playing her videos in the early ’90s, and I was feeling that it was the right time to have a break from TV-watching. I just didn’t get her, I guess.

Last month, PJ Harvey released her 8th full album, “Let England Shake“. And everything in my perception of her, and her music, changed almost overnight.

This album is current. Both musically, and lyrically. The melodies are amazingly catchy, and in some instances its epic-ness elevates me the same way opera does. And then there’s the gloomy, harsh, highly political lyrics, enough to get me back to the ground. An amazing contrast, that creates an eerie atmosphere that doesn’t let you stride away from. As some guy wrote on iTunes: “Sounds like Enya reading a Churchill biography, while being strangled by Patti Smith. But in a good way.” My rating? 9/10. Album of the year so far.

In light of this finding, I went to her back catalog to see what I was missing all these years. And I’m afraid to say that my opinion for her past music hasn’t changed much. As a more mature listener these days I do appreciate her music more (1st-2nd albums), but not to the point of wanting to buy any of that older material. I really feel that PJ Harvey reached her peak with this new album instead. An album with a cause, not random alternative rock tunes (as in the 3rd-6th albums), and not as in some cases, boring arrangements (7th album). I hope we will see more of this, all-new, PJ Harvey in her future work too.

Update: The whole album is amazing, but these are the best 3 songs, in order:
1. Bitter Branches
2. The Glorious Land
3. On Battleship Hill

Video manual control on Canon’s new $300 P&S HD digicams?

At last, tonight I found online the manuals for the new Canon cameras (it seems that Canon-Singapore is faster than anyone other Canon site). I checked these PDF manuals for the cameras that have some manual control in still-picture mode, in this case the Elph 500 HS (Av/Tv modes), and the SX220/SX230 HS (full manual control).

So, to my huge surprise, the manuals insinuate (but they are not super-clear), that you can press the new dedicated “video record” button, even if you’re not currently in an actual video mode. The only other Canon P&S cams that had a dedicated video button in this fashion were the SX30 IS, and the SX210 IS, but I can’t find any info online of people commenting about what happens to video when in Manual/Tv/Av mode. The PDFs I read tonight show video for the AUTO and P modes, but they also mention that it’s usable on other modes too. In fact, on screenshots of the 500 HS’ Tv and Av modes on the manual, the video record button shows to be enabled!

This hopefully means that we can set the camera to Tv mode, set it to 1/50th or 1/60th shutter speed (depending if you’re shooting 1080/24p or 720/30p), set ISO to 80 or 100, and then force the aperture open by using an ND filter. Zoom-in too, and you will achieve a very pleasant background blur. Then bring up exposure compensation and tweak it, focus too, and then lock them both. Then record, and notice the very cinematic motion blur!

In the SX220/SX230 HS case it goes even further, since it has full manual control, where the camera allows you to manually focus and/or lock focus, and independently change shutter speed, aperture, and ISO values. If all this is as expected, then these are the cheapest Canon cameras with full video manual control, and with quality and additional features that vastly surpass the only other cameras that have manual control in a similar price range: the Sanyo Xacti.

There’s a stinker in the 500 HS case though, where the manual is not very clear, and that’s about the focus lock. The manual claims that this works in video mode, and that it can be set separately from exposure lock, but I can’t see how this is possible, since the manual also states that if you press again the screen, the AFL goes away (and you need to press the screen again, since the video record button on the 500 HS is a touch-button and not a hard button as in the case of the SX220/SX230 HS). Hopefully it is possible to lock focus & exposure independently, and then record video on the 500 HS, otherwise I will be seriously pissed off, since that’s a feature that existed in older models. Update: Avoid the 500 HS, it doesn’t lock exposure in video mode!

The other scenario that I fear is that while you can be in manual mode and be all-setup to record with these custom values, when you press the video record button the camera goes back to AUTO. Or, nothing happens. Anyway, I won’t know about any such… loopholes unless I get a camera to test with. I will be buying the 500 HS (very fast and wide lens, large screen), and I will write about my findings. Fingers crossed! These cameras are expected to be released in April, they’re currently on pre-order.

BTW, the other major movie modes, like the iFrame format and the super-slow motion mode, don’t have exposure/focus lock, they are pretty much “auto”, and therefore useless for anything serious.

Update: Bad news. An SX30 IS owner tried his video record button in M mode, and the exposure changed automatically. So it seems that we can’t get manual control for video via the stills mode.

“Monsters”: The ultimate indie sci-fi movie

I was watching “Monsters” on Netflix Instant tonight. A movie that every filmmaker should watch. A movie, full with CGI, made for “less than $500,000”. Script, direction, camera, CGI, all done by the same person, Gareth Edwards (previously worked as a CGI artist, this was his first serious film). “Monsters” is already a cult classic among sci-fi fans.

The camera equipment cost less than $15k. A Sony EX3 camera with a 35mm adapter was used. Vignetting, and lack of captured light (because of the adapter) is apparent in most scenes, but the story makes up for it. No artificial lighting was used, no location permissions were acquired prior to filming — this is the ultimate guerrilla film. It’s a bit sad that it was shot just a few months before the Canon 7D or T2i were released, they could have saved lots of money, and have better low light support!

The film feels both like a documentary (because most of the scenes were not pre-planned or had multiple takes), and a real movie. It was shot in 3 Latin American countries and the US, while the crew of 3-4 and 2 actors were traveling on a single van. Most of the rest of the “actors” on the movie are just random people who agreed to act! All the editing and 250 GGI shots were done with off-the-shelf software.

According to Wikipedia, “Monsters was nominated for six British Independent Film Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, and eventually won the Best Director, Best Technical Achievement, and Best Achievement in Production awards.” After all this, the director was asked to direct the next Godzilla. BTW, there’s a twist on the film, but you need to watch it carefully to get it.

The male star of the film, Scoot McNairy, in 2007 also starred in the drama “In Search of a Midnight Kiss“, a film with very good reviews, shot with the Sony HVR-Z1, for less than $25,000.

Another low budget sci-fi movie I can’t wait to see is “In-World War“, shot by an ex-Apple manager from Oakland, who left his post to become a filmmaker. This sci-fi one was shot with a RED One and it’s currently in post-production.