Archive for April, 2011

A Canon A1200 sample

Hazel Pascua from Manilla recently bought the Canon A1200, the cheapest 24p camera in the market (that’s actually capable of something good). Have a look at her macro shots.

Update: Upon downloading the uploaded file I discovered that it was exported as mpeg2, and the project was setup as 48 fps interlaced instead. Which means that if Hazel could re-export in h.264, having set the right project properties, and replace the video on vimeo with the fixed version, the video would have even better quality than what’s already there. Which says a lot about this small $109 camera.

Update 2: Video updated with higher quality! Download the originally uploaded video too on Vimeo to check it out!

The all-you-can-eat business model

Today, TorrentFreak published an article saying that piracy in the US is on a downward spiral because of competition it’s facing from a legal opponent, Netflix.

Some people have said online that “no one has a silver bullet against piracy”, but this is not true: the all-you-can-eat streaming model is the only one that works for these easy-to-copy digital products. Especially if the product is now cheaply produced too (e.g. music), it makes little sense to try to sell works individually.

I envision a world where $10 per month gives you access to all movies, $5 to music, $5 to a conglomerate of news/magazines, and optionally for most, $10 for access to video games. Another $30 for a 25 mbps internet connection with an allowance of 250 GB of bandwidth per month, and another $30 for a 4G cellphone package with 25 GB of data/voice per month. For $80-$90 per month overall, your digital life is complete. Today, most people pay for such services about $150 per month, and they get LESS. Naturally, as people trying to balance their wallet, the less important services, like entertainment, are getting the short end of the stick, because of piracy.

It’s not just the lower prices that can make consumers become legit, but rather the differences in service. Consider the following:
– You get a beautiful and easy-to-use UI to find a movie/album compared to the chaos and spyware of a thousand bittorrent sites.
– With streaming you get to watch/listen immediately, with bittorrent you’ll have to wait for the download to finish first.
– Good quality rips from the master source, rather than an optical source or shaky-cam-from-within-a-theater.
– Ratings, suggestions, and other social features can make the experience better, more interesting, and help you find new movies/artists.
– Edge-caching is more effecting for the network than Bittorrent downloads that are killing worldwide bandwidth by often going transatlantic.
– By going legit you help the producers/artists/journalists produce more.
– You won’t have the FBI/RIAA/MPAA on your back.

Bittorrent still has a few advancements, but most of them are going to fade away within 2-3 years:
– Not all Netflix titles have closed captions, but this is worked on as we speak.
– New albums appear immediately in the library upon release, and eventually Netflix will be able to get movies within a few weeks from theater release too (especially after the death of Blu-Ray/DVD that is upon us already). Also consider that some TV shows already show up on Netflix a few days after broadcasting (e.g. Stargate:Universe, Gladiators).
– It’s still free for those who can’t even spend $15 per month for their entertainment.

It’s because of these reasons why I also believe that any cloud-based music service that might come around from Apple, Amazon, Google, or your mom, will fail to deter piracy. See, if these services only allow you to upload your own already-purchased music instead of letting you stream everything in THEIR library, that’s a near-useless service in the grand scheme of things. I’m personally subscribed to RDIO, and I loves me the legal, unlimited, streaming (that also has an offline mode).

All this is so clear for me that it’s mind-boggling as to why we don’t have all entertainment ever created, streaming, right now, worldwide. Technical difficulties aside, the real reason we don’t have this yet is because of conservative businessmen who don’t want to face the truth that their business is now commoditized, in some cases as easy to create on a bedroom, and that it therefore generates less money than it did in the golden age of the (culturally) read-only generation (that is, particularly, 1930-2000).

An ex-Warner Bros VP wrote yesterday that he believes that the Netflix model does not work for music because music can be listened in the background, as opposed sitting in front of a TV that has our full attention. Therefore, music has lower value than video in the minds of consumers, and so they won’t pay the price. I agree with this, music is more abstract as a product. But what this only means is that instead of $10 per month (as in video), music must cost $5 per month. Music is cheaper to produce than a movie anyway.

What his real problem seems to be is that he doesn’t want to see that lower return in investment. So he basically shoots down the whole idea, that Netflix has proven to work, just because he wants to make as much money as movies do. Sorry pal, but that’s not how much music costs or is valued at. Movies are way more expensive to produce! Get down with more realistic prices for music licensing, buy a smaller house, a smaller car — or change your profession if you don’t like it. But don’t shoot down a business model that does work because you want to cling in the old world’s unnaturally big profits.

Update: Another reason why the old school labels don’t feel that the Netflix way will work for music too? Because then their products would compete on the same grounds with the indie bands, and so the competition would be more fierce for them. It’s easy to pay radios to play your music, try to do that on an “on demand” service! So it’s not a matter of making less money, but of eventual irrelevancy.

Seeing in color

Being born left-handed (but forced to write with my right hand by my teacher), a lot of the right side of my brain is active. Lots of daydreaming & imagination that is. I’m a very visual person, possibly the reason why I got into user interface design when I was in the UK, or filmmaking later.

One thing you probably don’t know about me is that I have a bit of synesthesia. When I’m dealing with numbers, I have to visualize them in order to understand them, and I see them with colors. This is how I see them:

0, 1 (white), 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Notice how 3, 5, 7, and 9 are similar in color, all based on red. Constructions of these numbers retain their color. For example, 38 is both red and black in my mind. Sometimes one color overpowers the other, if one of two numbers is bigger. For example, I see the 38 number as a rectangle, and the blackness of the 8 might take about 75% of the rectangle’s surface, leaving only 25% for the 3’s red.

It’s similar as to how I also perceive music. I can get high with music without the need to take any drugs. When I hear relatively abstract music (e.g. chillwave), I can see images (that look like this), colors, even LSD-like patterns — I can dance among them in my mind. But the music has got to be right. I don’t get any of that when I listen to pop or rock, for example. It has got to be that kind of hipster music that most people find it inaccessible without having smoked something first. The advantage for me is that I don’t have to smoke or take anything. I just have to relax, and get adrift.

Some consider synesthesia a “condition”, but for me it’s a blessing.

Several stuff…

* So, after several try-outs in the last few months, we subscribed to RDIO for good this week. It’s a good service, but I’m having an issue for not having a lot of artists. They don’t carry Pitchfork-popular artists like Memory Tapes, Bibio, Teen Daze, Memoryhouse, Air France, Emeralds, Secret Cities, MillionYoung, Casa del Mirto, and they’re missing albums from Blackbird Blackbird, The Radio Dept. and others. It kind of pissing me off. I checked with MOG and they only lack Teen Daze, they have everyone else. MOG also has a bit better audio quality than RDIO. Unfortunately though, I have two problems with MOG, which made me go with my local RDIO (San Francisco-based). The first is multiple reports on Android’s comments/reviews that MOG keeps charging your credit card even after stopping the service, and the second is, their Android app still sucks. It’s too unstable. So RDIO it is for now. Let’s hope they’ll bring in more artists, and they will also add a remote control capability for their Roku app (through their mobile app). I don’t want to have the TV “on” just to listen to music, jeez. I made a playlist btw, for those who already use RDIO.

* Beautiful music and video (shot with the Canon 5D MkII). God, I love chillwave.

* Great episode last Monday for SGU, one of their best yet. However, it was too rushed. At 41 minutes (after removing 1.5 minutes of “previously on SGU…”, and credits), they told a story that lasted in their time about a week. And it felt extremely rushed. They spent a week with these new people and we saw nothing about the characters’ reactions. Or Eli/Wray feeling seriously marooned to the planet, probably lasted a grand total of 1 minute. All these problems could have gone away if the editors had 5 more minutes of material to fit in about 48 minutes. These days “one hour shows” last between 38 min and 43 minutes which is very little time in my opinion to say any serious story. I think something like 48 or 50 minutes of running time is much nicer. Kind of like in the HBO and ShowTime shows on cable. Additionally, commercials were the reason why I didn’t immerse into SGU until I re-watched it on Netflix.

* And while SGU will get no closure (I’m still hopeful on getting some novellas), the movie “The Transporter” with Jason Statham will be remade as a TV series. $4 mil per episode, for Christ’s sake. Four million dollars per one of these 43 minute episodes! And then there are others, who make true art, and they work with like, a $5k budget.

* Check Glenn’s blog for info about his experience shooting music videos with a P&S digicam.

* I’ve planted a new garden a few days ago, and most of them have come out: parsley, amaranth, dill, oregano, marjoram, basil. Let’s see what we’re going to get this year. My balcony doesn’t have enough sun, so I’m only cautiously optimistic about the results.

The Soft Moon – “Into The Depths”

One of my two favorite Bay Area artists, Soft Moon, with his latest video which was amazingly well-shot (Canon 7D) and edited. The other great up & coming local artist is FiveNG. There are 5-6 more world-class modern music artists around here, but other than that, innovation happens mostly in Brooklyn in the last few years.

Celebral, Hard Sci-Fi and Realism, is Where it’s At

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post in favor of Stargate:Universe (SGU), which put the older Stargate fans up in arms against me. Our disagreements surprised me. I honestly did not think that in this day and age there are still viewers who like to watch old-style episodic TV. But apparently I was wrong.

There are still people who like to watch actual single-dimensional heroes, who are best friends without any disagreement between them, walk through a Stargate, blindly as to what’s on the other side, end up on different planets that almost all look just like outside of Vancouver, find a Medieval-like civilization each time, find aliens that look just like humans and where they all speak English, end up in some unlikely situation, and then have their team’s scientist patch together some alien & otherwise unknown technology through some completely unscientific way, and save the day in the last 10 minutes of the 45 minute episode. At the end, they step back to Earth, they have a quick laugh as a closing statement, and guess what, next week it will be the same base story again. Yay!

Well, let there be known that I hate with all my might such so-called “sci-fi”. That is not sci-fi, this is “Disney sci-fi”, as Stargate: Atlantis’ own David Hewlett called it. Even the actors of these shows don’t respect that kind of sci-fi (which of course heightened my own respect for Mr. Hewlett). These are some cheap, generic, pedestrian shows, void of any emotion, that do not engage the viewer in any way. It doesn’t make the viewer think, question his opinions about things, learn new ideas, neither make the viewer get immersed in their world — because it’s an unrealistic world.

Enter SGU.

The characters have actual personalities and are not stereotypical (Dr. Rush has got to be one of the best characters that ever graced the television medium in the last 60 years), there are sex scenes as they’re supposed to be, and there is drama — which is what’s the drive for any story since the invention of the Theater 2700 years ago. Some fans have said that SGU is over-dramatic and boring, but from the 36 episodes so far, I can only point my finger to about 2-3 such episodes. Others have said that “SGU is not like Stargate”, and all I can reply to that is: “Thank God!”. SGU has the added intellectual, adult part of the show about sacrifice (self- or forced), spying, caffeine and drug withdrawal, death, corruption, body-swap ethics, framing, attempted murder, alcoholism, abduction, revolution, promiscuity, authoritarianism, mutiny, religion, pregnancy & miscarriage, suicide, freedom of will, torture, depression, execution, euthanasia, HIV, murder & retribution, and of course, ultimately, Ascension, as a goal for any species.

Then there are the technical parts of the show, like the serialized manner the story is told, that feels natural to the viewer. Stories are not self-contained, but rather there is cause and effect, like with everything in real life. Nothing is for free. And then there’s great cinematography and amazing CGI, some of the best ever on TV. About 20 different recurring sets were built for the show, while it’s usually no more than 8-12 for other shows. Originally I hated the lighting of the show, but re-watching the show on Netflix I made a 180 degree change. Apparently the mpeg2 encoding has a detrimental effect in the gamma value of the stream, something that doesn’t happen when watching it encoded in h.264 from the master footage (as Netflix does). It looks perfectly cinematic.

But what’s really making me love SGU almost as much as I loved LOST, is the immersion to it. I’m able to watch a few episodes on Netflix Streaming and after that I’m high. I’m up there. In that million-year-old spaceship, “Destiny”, that’s literally falling apart — making it almost impossible to occupy. I feel alone. Tired. Hungry. Dirty. Hopeless. I’m marooned.

To be able to achieve this kind of feeling from your audience, is pure art.

And the way this works for me is because of the natural and realistic depictions of situations and science (for a show, of course). Instead of having the food, air, water, power, and resources problems solved within 10 minutes on the second episode (as older shows would deal with it), we get the first 6 episodes dealing with these very elemental, very important issues. And the ways these are solved are realistic, adding to the story and to the drama: the crew eats liquid protein for weeks before they found food on some planet, the air purifier requires special chemicals that “can’t just be cooked off” (as Rush perfectly explained) and need to be harvested elsewhere, water had to be extracted by some other planet and it sickens the crew because of alien bacterial life in it, while the ship’s power recharge mode almost leaves 15 people off-world because nobody understands how the ship works. And we have two shuttles, one of which is damaged and simply beyond repair (if that was SG-1/A, it’d be fixed in like, 10 minutes).

This is not a show where magically everything just works. There is pain, but there’s also wonder, there is mystery, there is even true scientific method. The Kinos were a great idea by the writers to analyze potential planets connected with stargates for breathable atmosphere — stargates thats thankfully were not used in every single episode like bread and butter. I absolutely LOVED how Rush had to wait MONTHS before his computer program cracked the ship’s master password, and he was finally able to stir it. In the first ~22 episodes, the ship was in auto-pilot! Heck, we learn about Destiny’s true mission in the 26th episode. We learn stuff as the crew learns it, in natural timeframes. This is not because the scientists of the show suck compared to the ones of the previous Stargate series, but because SGU is more realistic with less pseudo-scientific crapola in it. Of course it has some, but it’s significantly less than on most other shows.

This is what @tinkerware wrote on a review of SGU on the iTunes Store. He was very kind to let me copy his right-on-the-spot comment here, for all to read:

“This is a very smartly written show that shows the best side of sci-fi. It cuts the fake tech speak to a minimum while depicting a rich and consistent scientific and technological world. Anyone who watched the later episodes of Star Trek series can attest that “we can fix gizmo X if we reroute thingy Y from Z” dialog adds nothing and takes away enjoyment from the show. The remaining science and tech is intelligent, consistent and plausible (most of the time). Most important of all, this show does not forget what makes great sci-fi (hint: not GCI). Characters are well-drawn and compelling: everyone has their secrets and weaknesses; all of them are trying to survive a hostile environment. It’s a refreshing take after so many “captain of the universe” crap shows that pass as sci-fi. Of course, all this is a sure ticket to cancellation, which I’m told has already happened. Another reason to give up the cable subscription…”

Finally, another part that I love about SGU is how it handles the aliens. So far, in almost 36 episodes, we’ve only seen two humanoid alien types! And this is what also adds to the realism since according to many scientists today, there are probably a lot of currently habitable planets out there, but very few are expected to have intelligent life, and even fewer of them to carry humanoids. Sure enough, on SGU the stargate-connected planets are mostly vegetation planets with some animal life (most), dead civilizations (1), creatures/monsters (4), exotic alien forms (1), microbial life (1), robotic life (1). Overall, the SGU writers are following well Duncan Jones’ advices on how to create good sci-fi.

Of course, SGU has weaknesses. The communication stones being my main beef, since they reduce the existential element of the show. And strategic mistakes were made too: SGU should have been pitched to another channel, not SyFy (which had a specific kind of Stargate viewers). But none of these problems deter from thoroughly enjoying the show and recognizing it as one of the most serious, and well-written pieces of sci-fi television (in my top-5). Currently, it’s the only show I still watch on TV. In the last few weeks I stopped watching the remaining shows that previously had some of my attention: “V”, “No Ordinary Family”, “The Event” (complete pieces of shit), “Fringe” (interesting premise with bad execution), and even the too-lite-but-entertaining “The Vampire Diaries”. After the (bad) end of the otherwise excellent LOST, SGU is the best sci-fi show left on TV in my opinion. After the last episode is broadcasted in May, there would be nothing as exciting and realistic to replace it — and lose myself in it. In fact, this will be the FIRST time in almost 25 years where there won’t be any space-driven sci-fi on TV. It’s the end of an era.

Since SGU will end in a cliffhanger, I truly hope that either SyFy will order 2-3 tele-movies to conclude the story, or if that’s not possible (I don’t personally believe it’ll happen), I hope the producers can get a deal for 2-3 books. Here’s hope for at least that. It’s just very sad that so many people ignored SGU. It’s a little known gem. Who knows, it might end up becoming a cult show.

Bad news about the Canon 500 HS

Two new users of the Canon 500 HS wrote in to say that, unfortunately, this otherwise capable camera, has no exposure compensation lock in any of its video modes. When in stills mode, the AEL and AFL stay in place, but when you press the video record button, AEL goes away and the video gets recorded in “auto” brightness.

This makes this camera useless for serious video.

And what’s frustrated is this:
1. ALL the previous and some other recent non-touchscreen Canon P&S cameras DO support exposure lock in video mode. Even the ones that cost just 90 bucks!

2. The manual for the camera is written in a way to make you think that you can lock exposure in video mode too.

Canon, this sucks! Make it right with a firmware update!

Vanillia

Vanillia, or ypovrihio (meaning “submarine”, since you submerge it into cold water), is a Greek spoon sweet. Some times it’s made from mastika, some times with plain sugar and mint. It’s weird that there isn’t much information about it online, very few pictures and all. So I thought I should put some up.

It has been my favorite candy since I was a kid. JBQ found this brand of vanillia in our local Mediterranean shop, and so he bought it for me. Yummy!

Filmmaking: outsource it

These past 2 weeks there were quite some news about Netflix and YouTube stepping up their game towards Big Content. Netflix paid $100mil to get a Kevin Spacey drama exclusively, while YouTube is also pledging another $100mil to create original content, while creating a number of “live” channels on the side.

All this sounds good, but then I read about Netflix paying “Mad Men” $1mil per episode in order to get the rights to stream it. Personally, I found that amount of money crazy. Yes, “Mad Men” is one of the best show on TV, but these are older episodes we’re talking about, that have already been shown many times before worldwide, they’re out on DVD etc. Considering that an episode of “Mad Men” costs about $2.3mil, I find the amount of money Netflix paid, excessive. TV channels from other countries when license such a show don’t pay nearly as much.

And then there’s the $100mil Netflix paid for Spacey’s drama. That money was only partially for production costs, they were mostly for auctioning which channel will get the rights for it. That’s all crazy amount of money. And while Netflix now has over 20 million subscribers, in my opinion that’s not nearly enough to get access to the rest of the content out there, let alone the special deals for streaming, bandwidth and server support.

On the other hand, I see indie short films shot at a fraction of that money. Take a look at the FutureStates sci-fi short films for example, great filmmaking, high production values, for cheap (partly funded by PBS, which has no money itself to spare anyway).

All this makes me think that outsourcing is the only way to make entertainment and entertainment-creation affordable. No, I’m not looking at Canada/Vancouver, which is now almost as expensive as the US in terms of production. I’m more thinking of Mexico. Greece. Brazil. China. South Africa. Argentina. Portugal. India. Morocco.

“Dogtooth”, the Greek movie that was running for “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars this year, was shot for 250,000 Euros. Consider that the rest four candidates cost between $3mil and $20mil. As for the most expensive Greek TV series, “The Island”, costs about 150,000 Euros per episode. Great production values, we’re not talking about cheap soaps here.

So it can be done for cheap. You just need to be at the right place, with the right crew.

If I had the capital, health and I was younger, I would start a studio in any of these mentioned countries. There are good directors and writers in these countries, but there are also a lot of them in the US/CAN/UK who are just trying to survive. Young (35 or younger) writers/directors who wouldn’t mind moving to such a country for 2-3 years of their life (a few months at a time, not the whole year). Pay wouldn’t be better than $10k per episode for the main crew. Same goes for the actors. There are a lot of quality young & unknown English-speaking US/UK/CAN/AUS/SA/IR talent out there who would jump to the opportunity (the rest of the crew would be locals), and get to see the world at the same time! Maybe a flight a year can already be paid for them, and maybe the production company can buy single-room apartments too to host the cast & crew. Such apartments in Greece don’t cost more than $300 per month, for example. The production company can easily own such buildings close to the studio.

Then, I envision tight TV series with no more than 3 seasons (up to 5 if the story warrants it only). Since the shows would broadcast back in the US, the actors have a good chance of getting popular, so when their contract ends, they will get better US-bound deals than the $10k per episode offered overseas. Still, making well over $100k per year (in some cases it would be over $160k) is better than the average American ($35k per year). I don’t see why the cast must be paid super-extraordinary salaries (e.g. the House actor who gets over $350k per episode, or Charlie Sheen who used to get nearly a million per episode). I believe that there are many unknown theater actors out there who would move abroad, offer GREAT performances, and accept these good-enough salaries.

I mean, actress January Jones recently said that she doesn’t make enough money on Mad Men. No! Really? Oh, God. She was only able to buy this house. Poor girl! 😛

So, if a series is supposed to take place in NY or LA etc, you can always get a small crew there for a few days, shoot some key but generic scenes, and then green-screen the actors in. This is how the last season of “24” was shot, that supposedly took place in NY.

As for cameras, thank God we can now get good-enough 1080p cameras, with interchangeable lenses, for under $10k. And there’s always the RED anyway.

Prop construction, post-production and CGI are all to be done overseas as well. I mean, a Greek computer professional doesn’t get more than 1400 Euros per month, sometimes it’s as low as 1000 Euros. Construction workers are very, very cheap — and capable.

With such a plan for example, I’d expect Stargate:Universe to not cost more than $500,000 per episode. It currently costs between $2.5mil and $3.5mil (average primetime show production cost is $3mil per episode in the US). With $500k cost it would not be canceled for low ratings any time soon. The writers would have had the time to tell their story.

Instead, we get Netflix trying to buy its way out of the Big Content menace by paying $100mil to Kevin Spacey. Give me a fucking break. Talk about sinking even deeper into the status quo. With $100mil I would be able to build a brand new large studio outside of Athens, build or buy apartment buildings, put together a post-production team, and get everything in place not for one, but for 10 TV series. Jeez.

This is how my movie would look like if I had $50 mil

Story would be something between Star Wars and Blade Runner, but this article is about the visual style more than the story itself. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, but James Cameron’s renewed interest in 60fps, and Peter Jackson’s in 48fps, rejuvenated my own inspirations.

– Shot on a RED Epic at 5k (cropped at 4k in post). 3D optional (depends on budget).
– Shot in 60 fps, on or around 1/240 shutter speed. Tests would need to be done to determine the least amount of blur, without making the motion look jerky.
– Strong lighting, coupled with minimum motion blur making things look as in HDR. Visual shooting style like on a video game. Low contrast, but saturated, like The Fall. Costumes must be crystal-clear. CGI/grading must retain high dynamic range/detail, not that blur we usually get on today’s movies. It’s gotta be sharp and smooth baby.
– Visual style and costumes similar to Final Fantasy and Heise’s (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
– All faces would be smoothed out with CGI, to give it a semi-artificial look on the species (who would not be human). Not a similar technique to how Avatar was shot.
– Skeleton crew. My movie, my crew, my decisions. I care not about what the Studios’ wishes.
– Music from the last 3 albums of M83. Their “space classical” electronic music captures the feel of the worlds I want to create.
– I’d love to have a supporting cast consisting of Robert Carlyle, William Fichtner, and James Morrison. I ain’t no paying for big A-list names (unless the budget allows).
– In the worst case, the main cast would consist of young models that do know how to act (might take some time until we find the right candidates, but I’m sure there are gems out there waiting to be found).

Anyone can spare $50 mil or so? 😉