Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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Investing in Myself

April 2, 2017

Back last year, I went and bought a new camera. This camera, in fact:

For those who don’t spend all their time looking at filmmaking websites getting camera-boners, that’s a JVC GY LS300. It’s got a super35mm sensor, a very flexible lens mounting system, shoots HD, UHD and Cinema 4K and has a log profile. Still nonplussed? Never heard of it? Well, don’t feel bad if you haven’t, it’s probably the most underrated camera on the market in its price bracket at the moment- but that’s a post for another time.

The real reason I mention my purchase is why I chose to buy a new camera in the first place.

I’ve mentioned buying kit before, waaaay back at the beginning of this blog, and my view is still the same- buying kit is an investment. Sometimes it’s a case of money in, money out (you buy a camera because having it will get you more work) but this is a bit of a gamble because that new shiny is only bankable while it’s new on the market and desirable. The moment something new and more desirable comes out, you’ve lost your bargaining chip. Original Red One owners know the pain of that one…

But that wasn’t really why I bought the camera. No-one’s beating down rental houses’ doors for the latest JVC camera (they possibly should be, but again, that’s for another post…) and even though the camera shoots 4K, that’s not going to win me loads of jobs (although it may help!). I bought the camera to invest in myself.

I’ve never considered myself to be much of a cinematographer (I’ve also never considered myself to be much of a writer, but apparently I’m not terrible at that!) and have always felt I could learn to be better if I had a better tool to learn with. Now I know that sounds like an excuse- poor workmen and their tools etc- but there is some truth to it. If all you have is a hammer, all your work will look like nails. Aside from a short-lived dalliance with a Canon DSLR a few years ago (a short-term fling that wasn’t very productive- we both wanted different things from the relationship!), my previous camera was a Sony Z1. Still produces nice enough pictures, but the thing shoots to tape. Tape! Even the most out-of-date luddite clients know tape cameras are old tech, on a par with wire recorders and the invention of the wheel. I constantly had to load the camera in the car before I got to the shoot and hope I didn’t need to change the tape when the client was around! The Z1 was a workhorse, though, and I learnt to focus on composition and storytelling and getting the lighting right with it. But the big problem with the Z1 was what I couldn’t learn from it that other filmmakers were learning from their newer kit. Little things like shallow depth of field, lens theory, picture grading and using Log profiles. The filmmakers who were getting into it on the back of the DSLR boom were learning and putting all this stuff into practice.

And producing much nicer work than I was as a result. Work that got them more work.
I know I can learn to be better at this stuff. Not because I want to be a better cinematographer per se, but because I want to be a better visual director. I want to know why I might use an 85mm for this close up over a 50mm. I want to know if we need more lights to pull off the depth of field I want from this shot. I want to know what can be done with picture grading so I can put the right coloured mis in the to-coin-a-phrase scene.

I want to learn.

This is why it’s an investment in myself. I am going to get better at this if I keep practicing and have a better tool to practice with. If I can get a better grade of job or earn more money from gigs because of said tool, then happy days!

The face of a man with a new toy!

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Storyboarding “Bless of an Angel”

February 2, 2014

I’ve been storyboarding again!

I’ve mentioned before how useful I find storyboarding. That it makes you think about your story visually and through editing. That it’s like a first pass at making your film. Yeah, it takes ages to do and you frequently find yourself cutting illustrative corners (the end scenes of so many of my flicks were boarded with rough, wireframe-like sketches), but the level of preparation it gives you and the opportunities to try things out in relatively cost-free safety is invaluable.

I’ve also discussed how I’ve gone through a variety of approaches over the years- lots of little frames to a page, three to a page, one big image over a sheet of A4, hand-drawn, photoshopped, drawn in pencil, drawn in ink, designed like animation elements so you could create an animatic… But now I have a new way. And in my opinion, the best way to storyboard.

On an iPad.

Now, I’m not an Apple fanboy. Very rarely does something come out of Cupertino and give me a hard on (although the new mac pro does raise the pulse a little) but I tend to adopt a “best tool for the job” attitude for the most part. I do use macs exclusively and have done for over a decade, I edit on Final Cut Pro (including the new, marmite-like prodigal son FCPX) and 18 months ago, I bought an iPad. Why? Shits and giggles I guess… But I soon realised that by using a stylus and a half decent drawing app, this stalwart of the gadget freak and clueless pensioner alike would become a very useful storyboarding tool.

When I first blogged about this I was using an app called Penultimate to draw storyboards with and described it as “a hipster MS Paint” because of its retardedly basic controls, limited options and moleskine-esque notebook stylings. You couldn’t zoom, shading was impossible and, like those small boxes of crayons you used to get bundled with colouring books, you only got about five colours to work with (and one of them was “rancid yellow”). But it got the job done and I could export the images to the camera roll where other apps like Celtx Shots could import it.

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Concept art drawn in Sketchbook Pro

However, I soon found that there were better options for drawing on an iPad. Sketchbook Pro was the first I tried and with its varied toolsets and photoshop-like layers, was actually a very good app. You could actually zoom in (as opposed to the frankly pitiful magnifier loupe thing the Paper app promotes as a better alternative), you had a pencil tool that actually looked and “felt” like a pencil tool and you could export the full file, layers and all, to something like Photoshop if desired. Downside? It was optimised for the weird dimensions of the retina display, meaning that if I wanted to export and print anything, I’d end up with a large chunk of space on A4 paper and possibly some scaling artefacts. I also couldn’t import images from elsewhere, like storyboard templates, and draw over the top of them- which meant I had to draw the bloody frames in the app itself. Not ideal, but then, this is a drawing app not a storyboard drawing app so I can’t be too harsh.

My current app of choice for drawing storyboards (and anything else for that matter) is Procreate. Unintentionally hilarious names aside, this app has all the functions I need as a storyboard artist. There’s a setting for A4- which means I can print the images properly and at the right resolution. You can import images too, which means I finally get that storyboard template I want and since its A4, I can fit the right number of frames on it. The pencil looks like a pencil, the pencil shaders feel like pencil shaders… The whole app seems geared towards artists being able to create the sort of work they could if they had paper, pencils, paint and other things beginning with P.

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Using Procreate and the Cosmonaut Stylus

Anyway, I’ve been using it to storyboard the music video for “Bless of an Angel.” Being a dramatic music video with actors and performances and visual storytelling means that storyboards are a necessity. Particularly since I’m not the one operating the camera, so it’s a great communication tool for me and Ashley, the DoP. It’ll also help when Emily and I start putting together the schedule because we can work out the set-ups based on position and lens used. Actors like to see storyboards as well- in my experience because it gives them confidence in the script and in you the director. Like everyone, they get to see how the film will look (or more accurately, how it could look!) and their role in bringing it to life.

I’m lucky enough to be able to draw well enough that there’s little distance between what I see in my head and what ends up on the page (or in this case, screen). But storyboards don’t have to be elaborate, detailed or pieces of fine art (although if you’re trying to impress cast, crew or investors, that might be wise…), they just need to tell the story and show your vision of the film. Just like the script, they’re not blueprints. They’re a starting point, a way of exploring what the film could be and a way of communicating that to everyone else.

And I’m only about halfway through them, so I really must get back to doodling…

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My Love-Hate Relationship with Editing

August 17, 2013
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Couldn’t resist.

I have very mixed feelings towards editing. On the one hand, it’s the defining part of the filmmaking process and where the film actually becomes a film. On the other, it’s a massive ball-ache where you have to dredge through hours of footage, find ways to mask or fix continuity and sound issues and tread that fine line between systematic and creative approaches. And don’t get me started on NLEs and their buggy performance issues.

The strange thing is, my history with editing is pretty much my history with film and video production in general. Although I was innately a storyteller, I don’t know if I’d have taken to the craft of the moving image quite so readily were it not for the availability of consumer editing software.

When I started paddling in the pool of filmmaking, the first things I shot were fight scenes. It soon became obvious to me that the camera-sat-unmoving-on-a-table style of cinematography I was using was not only dull visually, but playing out the whole thing from this one angle made it doubly so. I realised I needed to shoot things from different angles and edit them together into a sequence. At this point I knew only what most people know about editing- that it’s just about “taking out the bad bits” (a definition so narrow, Victoria Beckham would have trouble walking down it). The only source of information I had on the subject was a copy of Jackie Chan: My Stunts on VHS and the brief sequence where he illustrates, amongst other shooting techniques, how continuity of motion was achieved with editing. This was “cutting on action”- one of the basic principles of continuity editing- and I had learnt it, even if I didn’t know the name, from a man who falls off things for a living.

(I couldn’t find the exact clip, but you get the idea…)

Since digital camcorders and consumer NLEs were new and I was shooting on Hi-8, my first attempts at editing were done between the camera and a VCR. Anyone old enough to have experimented with this method knows how much of a ball-ache it is to pause the recorder and frantically find the next bit of footage before coordinating the play/record button presses so things actually go to plan. I’m fairly certain that splicing on a moviola would be less stressful. Would I have chosen film as a career based on this experience? Doubtful. While it taught be how to plan a shoot and see something edited in my head before I shot it (both excellent and necessary skills that new filmmakers don’t always pick up right away), it was a real pain and just wasn’t as immediate a creative process as I’d have liked.

Needless to say, when I got the money together (courtesy of getting fired from my first full-time job and payroll accidentally paying me twice for the last month!) to buy a DV camera, a FireWire card for the PC and some editing software, things became much more malleable.

Urgh. Just urgh.

Urgh. Just urgh.

The first NLE I used was Pinnacle Studio (later called Ulead). It was a fairly simple drag and drop affair with clip boxes rather than a timeline and very limited sound options. But it enabled me to cut clips at a frame by frame level, assemble them into a sequence, add some music and shitty titles and create a digital file of my creation. It also allowed me to add a myriad of crappy transitions, but even then, naive as I was, I knew that starwipes were tools of the devil and stuck to straight cuts or dissolves if I wanted to transition from a scene. It was from using this less-than-impressive software that I learnt about the importance one frame can make to a cut- as Tarantino said in an interview it’s like the difference between a sour note and a sweet note in music. I also quickly realised by shooting these fight scenes that there were only certain places I could put the camera so things would edit smoothly. Person A needed to stay on one side of the screen and Person B on the other otherwise no one would know where the hell things were in relation to each other. Yep, the 180 degree rule. Again, from fight scenes. I realised if I wanted to shoot from the other side, I needed to either move the camera during the shot or cut to a direction-neutral shot in order for it to work. I also intuitively discovered cutaways and inserts by shooting these fight scenes, the former for bridging gaps in continuity and the latter for highlighting details. My education in editing had begun.

At this point, I still had no formal training. My interest was martial arts and kung fu movies and while the internet was definitely a thing and we had access to it, I was only interested in the martial arts fights amateur stunt teams were shooting and editing. So even though filmmaking was a topic of discussion on these sites, it was rarely beyond the concept of shooting angles and editing techniques.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that I wanted to study film and video production properly and enrolled in a course at the local college. Immediately, I felt out of my depth. Everyone else had done some kind of course before. They knew the terminology, they knew the process and they knew Final Cut Pro- which was the editing system of choice at Reading College. I struggled to keep up, desperately trying to internalise lecture notes, read up on things I didn’t understand and try stuff out with my friends on our next fight scene shoot.

Eventually, after about eight months, I quit.

I got a full time job which I hated. I saved some money. I started to get over my depression. And I got withdrawal symptoms from not doing any filmmaking.

Realising I might have made a mistake in quitting, I bought a new camcorder since the old one had died, my first Apple computer (the hernia-inducing eMac) and a copy of Final Cut Express. I shot a short action film with my friends and realised I had actually learnt things from the course. I had learnt more about shots and composition, about continuity and storytelling and I had learnt a bit about Final Cut Pro. This was the first real project I edited in Final Cut and the process was several magnitudes of difference from Pinnacle Studio. I had a timeline, I had a viewer and a canvas, I had bins and filters and colour correction and audio tools. I could do L and J cuts (again, something I figured out for myself rather than being taught it) and I could do admittedly crude slow motion- I think that might have been the holy grail for me!

FCP screengrab

But Final Cut was a bit of a beast. Like before, it took ages to capture my footage from tape, but this time I felt compelled to log it as I went, setting in and out points, naming scenes and shots. This was something I hated, but it did mean I was viewing my footage as I went looking for the good take (this was 2003- I only had an 80Gb hard drive and DV took up 1Gb per 13 mins so it paid to be frugal).

Somewhere along the line, editing stopped being fun. It became a slog. That necessary evil that has to be done so you can enjoy the fruits of your labour- like changing the bedclothes before you hump in it.

And I started to hate it. Mostly.

I still enjoyed the magic of making something work and seeing it how the audience would and I still enjoyed editing when I was in the zone at 2am, trying to get the narrative to flow. But like a panda in London Zoo, I was rarely in the mood and frankly, it all looked too much like hard work.

Van Damme couldn't believe just how long this render was going to be...

Van Damme couldn’t believe just how long this render was going to be…

When I re-enrolled at Reading College (now the diet coke university TVU), I found myself to be far more experienced than many of my classmates. This meant that I could help them with the things they found difficult, but it also meant that I had the time to expand and develop what was being taught rather than scrabbling to just keep up. I still hated editing for the most part but I also acknowledged that editing was where the film actually became a film. And I wound up doing a lot of editing myself because I was much more comfortable with Final Cut than some of the others but also because I frequently shot stuff with the edit in mind. And for someone who wasn’t me, this was often a problem.

Editors are both craftsmen and creatives. They’re like engineers, using a complex series of tools to assemble something else. But they’re also like collage or mosaic artists, taking tiny bits and putting them together to make more complicated, much better pieces of art. It’s a real straddler of a role and it relies on having a range of raw materials to work with. The problem is, I would frequently save time or energy on set by knowing how I wanted something edited and only shooting the material necessary to make that happen. So when the editor sat down to edit it, he found that the footage could only really be assembled one way, thus robbing him of his creative involvement, or worse still if he couldn’t see that end product and only saw insufficient footage to edit it how he wanted. On The Good, The Bad and The Undead, a movie I co-produced, DoP’d and somewhat visually directed, the editor frequently found I hadn’t shot the coverage he needed to assemble the scene. I’d shot enough to assemble it my way, as per my storyboards, but I’d left no room for leeway or his creative choices. And I didn’t exactly deal with the situation well either. When he pointed out I didn’t have enough coverage for the main fight scene in the flick and said it flat-out wouldn’t cut together, I took the footage, cut it and mixed it overnight into a pretty good fight scene just to cuntishly prove him wrong. This antagonism was probably one of the reasons why that film took ages to edit but it left me with this feeling that if I was going to shoot things this way, I needed to be the editor. Not for any sense of auteurism, but because I didn’t want to annoy and frustrate an editor.

So for every project I directed after that, I did the editing. Even Persona, where Don Allen the producer really wanted to get someone else in to edit, I insisted because I knew that at the pace we would be moving I was likely to cut corners (and I did) and for an editor, this would be a nightmare. Strangely though, I have grown to like shooting coverage more and more in the last few years- in the main because I don’t need to plan as much as I used to and I can pace things better and add to the performances in the edit if I have a reasonable level of coverage. And if a particular shot is definitely what I want to use, I will structure that coverage around it, making it integral to the scene, but giving myself (or another editor) some degree of flexibility.

Now we have a new generation of NLEs. Final Cut Pro X was hated by many professionals on its launch (I have to confess, I didn’t like it much either) but over the last year I’ve grown to like it, even as I find its new ways of doing simple things frustrating and liberating at the same time. One thing I have found though, is that I’m a faster editor with it. I used to be a slow, picky perfectionist with editing, but FCPX is very much a slam-it-together-and-see-what-sticks NLE and I’ve found this means I put together an assembly quicker and then spend my time tweaking and tidying it rather than plodding through it on Final Cut Classic. L and J cuts are actually easier, stuff doesn’t go out of sync as often when I’m in full-on tweak mode and thanks to the codec-agnostic engine and background render, the whole video format thing is something of a non-issue.

Given that the tools are somewhat improved, you might be surprised to learn I still have my love-hate thing with editing. I’ve mellowed somewhat and I like it a bit more because I’m better at it with the new tools, but it’s still Vicks in my Vaseline.

I’ve always thought that, as a director, when working on a project you end up making your film several times over- each draft of the script, each bit of concept art, the storyboards, the shooting script, your vision of the film in your head, every subsequent edit and revision… each is a new stab at telling the story. And I think a lot of my negativity towards editing is because by the time I’m sitting there with the timeline, the script, the continuity notes, a big bag of crisps and a 2 litre bottle of pepsi max and everything else in front of me (or next to someone else who’s going to do much of the donkey-work), I’ve already made the film several times and really can’t be fucked to do it all again.

But then that magic happens. That moment when a scene comes together and feels natural and effortless and… good… and suddenly you forget all the waiting and the procrastinating and the software bugs and the format issues and the swearing and the frustration and realise that you’ve made a film. And it works. And you keep going because you can’t wait to see how this thing unfolds in the next scene.

And by the time you stop because the screen is blurring and your eyes hurt like someone’s poured lemon juice in them, it’s 4.30 in the morning and you have work at half 8 and you really really should get some sleep…

…I’ll just finish this next scene… I’m in the zone…

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Toys and Wishlists

September 1, 2012

Like a child going through the Argos catalogue in late September, I’ve been looking in longing at shiny new toys to hope for (in lieu of spending my nonexistent money on). And as with a lot of filmmakers, it’s a camera I’m in the metaphorical market for.

My current camera is the ageing if ever-reliable Sony Z1. I’ve had a few good years of use out of it but I really need to join 2012 and get a “proper” HD camera that records to something other than a strip of magnetically charged plastic ribbon. I also need a camera with a larger sensor so I have more leeway to create shallow depth of field- given that I shoot a lot of drama, this is something of a necessity.

But I’m poor. Or flat broke if I’m honest.

Which makes the prospect of buying a new camera daunting and stupid which is why I’m a) looking at the cheaper end of the market and b) just looking. Which is a tough scenario to be in when there’s this nagging (if largely unfounded) feeling that you’re hired for work based on the kit you bring to the table. I need something that gives me the creative control I need to produce the work that will get me hired again, it needs to look professional (clients are often as shallow as the ideal depth of field) and it needs to be low cost. I also need it to have pro audio inputs, monitoring aids and an image that doesn’t fall apart with a whip pan.

Which is why DSLRs have never figured in my game plan. Lovely though the image can be, they’re just a bit of a ball-ache to use and work with in post (on a related note, it’s always amazed me that the people fellating DSLRs for video always seem to bang on about great grading as well- you’ve really backed the wrong tool for the job there guys…). At the budgets I work at, I’m often finding workarounds for things on set- angles, production design, lighting, performances… I just don’t need the camera and it’s weird ways to be an extra arse-ache I have to work around:

Very very wobbly rolling shutter effect with moire and aliasing. Arse-ache.

No NDs, no zebras, no picture or audio monitoring. Arse-ache.

Extremely awkward video codec with compression in all the wrong areas and a nightmare to edit with. Arse-ache.

Dual system picture/audio and syncing in post. Ache of true arse-like proportions.

Add to that a form factor that’s understandably only useful for taking stills and needs a meccano kit of Zacuto gear to give such things as a usable EVF/viewfinder, shoulder rig and follow focus and they really weren’t on my radar at all. So I’ve been left to look at the low-pro large sensor cameras like the Panasonic AG AF101 and the Sony NEX FS100 and their £4K+ price tags. And by “look” I mean just that…

But recently, the choice of large sensored video cameras has broadened in both price directions- Canon’s C300, the RED Scarlet and Sony’s FS700 have filled the higher seven grand plus bracket, Black Magic have unveiled their Cinema Camera (with a stupidly low price, a beautiful image that DoPs will love and missing audio features that self-shooters will lament) and last week Sony announced the NEX EA50, a semi-shoulder ENG style camera for about £3000. Which to be honest, is more in my price range.

Okay, so it’s aimed at event shooters with its form factor, power zoom lens and not-unmanageably-shallow APS-C sized sensor and I shoot primarily drama where this doesn’t really matter.

Okay, so the sensor comes from the NEX5- a still camera- and possibly suffers from the same image issues if all the forum slandering is to be believed.

Okay, so just like Sony’s other “affordable” camera it hasn’t got any built-in NDs and I, like many shooters, find NDs really really fucking useful, Sony…

…but it’s three grand. A whole thousand pounds on average cheaper than the next best thing, Panasonic’s AF101. Which for a filmmaker with little to no money matters a lot. I for one will be interested to see what the camera is capable of when it’s released in October. As long as the image is less problematic than the DSLRs, I can learn to use a matte box and ND filters like the film boys do and feel happy about my investment.

Just need to scrape some pennies or finance together and I’m good…

“So about that loan, Mr Bank Manager…”

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The iPad and the Joys of Celtx

July 4, 2012

Recently, I joined the 21st century and bought an iPad. I’d resisted joining the Apple iGadget fraternity for a while (even though I’ve owned and been decidedly pro-mac for years) because, while I really liked the iPad and knew I wanted one (unlike an iPhone), I couldn’t justify getting one.

And I was broke- which didn’t help…

But I decided to buy one when I recently figured out some great filmmaking uses for it- and I’m not talking about those poxy clapperboard apps, either…

To put things in perspective, I always used to take my scripts, notes and storyboards on set with me in a big black ringbinder. Old school, yes. But not efficient. Fact is, I never used to print out or write down everything, meaning some stuff was missed out from my giant shooting bible. I also never had an easy way to connect my marked up script with individual storyboard panels- I was forever flicking pages back and forth and things were all over the place.

Old fashioned folder, meet the future!

But now I have an iPad. And thanks to a range of apps that can interconnect and trade material just like you can import/export files on a computer, I now have quite an efficient way of working in pre-production.

Before I get onto the apps though, a word about the hardware. If you’re going to get an iPad for on-set use, do yourself a favour and get a decent case for it. And I don’t mean that lame excuse for an add-on sale that is the Apple smart cover. Get something that will actually protect it against something more substantial than a sparrow fart. My suggestion?

The Griffin Survivor Case

There are a ton of choices out there, but I went with the Griffin Survivor case. A high tensile plastic shell with a big lump of rubber wrapped round it that, according to the blurb, is “military tested” (which in my mind means it was probably shot out of a tank turret by someone with a crew cut and camo paint!). Okay, so it isn’t as pretty as Steve Jobs would’ve liked and it certainly hides the fact that you’re using an iPad (so if being a pretentious wanker is important to you, this case won’t impress you or the object of your pretention much), but it feels pretty tough and actually, the look grows on you. It’s solid and grippy- something a naked iPad arguably isn’t. It does add some weight, but that just makes the iPad more palatable and substantial- while it can strain the wrist after extended holding, you don’t fear it being dropped because it’s buttery light. It’s also somewhat dust and moisture resistant with rubber flaps covering all the ports, even if they can be a pain to pin back so you can use the dock or hear the speaker (I’m also afraid that they’ll tear off through use, although so far I’ve had no problems). The silly plastic stand is shite, but it doubles as a bit of added purchase for hand-holding which is very welcome and probably an unintentional bonus. The whole thing was £55- not cheap (Amazon currently has it for half this- not impressed!), but a worthwhile investment to protect the more expensive investment of an iPad.

The Studio Neat Cosmonaut

It don’t look like much, but…

The other bit of hardware I bought was a stylus because I wanted to be able to draw storyboards on the iPad and fingers just don’t cut the proverbial mustard. Now if there are loads of different cases on the market, there’s a confusing array of shockingly-similar stylii floating about- from the quite excellent Wacom Bamboo to the cheap and cheerful Pogo. Somewhat fortunately though, my choice of case made my choice of stylus pretty limited. You see, iPad stylii are capacitive and respond by conducting electricity at a similar rate as the human finger- which is how the iPad touch screen works. The Griffin Survivor case has a plastic screen built in which, while fine for human digits, is a lot less responsive for the soft tips on most stylii. After a bit of research, I took a risk on the Studio Neat Cosmonaut. It doesn’t look like much- compared to the fancier stylii with their spongy nubbins and silver grips it looks like a wax crayon. Or more accurately, with its grippy rubber coating and solid, phallic stubbiness it looks like something a modern woman would keep in her sock drawer, but it’s this solidity that makes it work well with the Survivor case. Rather than squishing its nib like other stylii would, the Cosmonaut is a solid lump of metal and rubber with a slightly soft tip. This means that you can apply just a bit of pressure and the iPad picks up the contact pretty reliably through the screen barrier- ideal for drawing apps. It sometimes feels like you’re using a magic marker- like you’re Rolf Harris on Rolf’s Cartoon Time- but generally, it’s pretty good.

Celtx Shots, Scripts and Cloud Services

Which brings me onto the apps themselves. Top filmmaking marks must go to the Celtx family of apps. My first introduction to Celtx was as a free script writing program for the computer. I used it just to write and format scripts correctly, but Celtx has a lot of indexing and pre-production tools so you can structure story, create a catalogue of locations and characters and ultimately create breakdowns and schedules from it. But all that has been augmented by the use of their cloud service to sync data between the desktop program and the Celtx mobile apps. You can now write your script on the desktop program, send it to the Celtx cloud, edit it on the Celtx Script mobile app or, as was of more interest to me, send it and its indexing to the Celtx Shots app.

Screengrab from the Celtx Shots app

Celtx Shots allows you to do what the desktop Celtx does and add shot lists and storyboard panels to the scenes. This will be my go-to app on set because not only can I view my storyboards and shot lists but I can also read the script at the tap of an icon. Shots also has a library of graphics and top-down icons so you can create floor plans or knock up quick compositions- with more you can purchase in-app. A nice feature, although since I can draw, this is less useful for me- I can just import a drawn storyboard panel, add some notes and attach it to the scene. You can’t draw directly in Celtx Shots, so what app do I draw my boards in?

Penultimate

There are so many drawing apps on the iPad that I’m not even going to bother exploring them all- or even the ones that I’ve got on mine (like the wonderful Sketchbook Pro). I’m just going to mention Penultimate. Now Penultimate isn’t a replacement for Photoshop- its more like a hipster MS Paint with a handmade notebook feel and retardedly simple controls. But it comes into its own because of its simplicity- the lack of options means you concentrate on scribbling down your shot rather than fiddling about with fine details and shading. Also, with the custom papers created by ProLost.com‘s Stu Maschwicz, you have some great templates for 16:9 and scope aspect ratios, making it easy to scribble an effective panel and send it to your photo library where Celtx Shots can import it. (You can find the links to his custom papers in this article)

All in all, the iPad has so far made me more productive with regard to planning my shots and pulling stuff together. If the Celtx cloud service works as well as I hope it will, then it’ll also allow for better collaboration with my AD and other crew members. Overall, a win-win for the 21st century filmmaker.

In fact, the only losers in this are WH Smith when I have no need for any more big black ringbinders. Perhaps they should sell more iPad cases instead…

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iPlayer, iDirect

May 25, 2012

It’s often said that technology is the fastest-changing industry on the planet- new gadgets and kit come out every year. Just with cameras alone, in the ten years or so I’ve been knocking about with video, we’ve gone from affordable DV to affordable HD, tape to solid state, we’ve seen the rise, flatten out and sort-of decline of DSLRs for video, large-sensored cameras at prosumer prices and the attempt to give 3D a foothold.

Just as with cameras, the canny filmmaker knows that being on the threshold and cutting edge of technology can be a very effective way of getting work. But it’s not all about using the latest shiny shiny to make your cookie-cutter film with (and thus hope people throw money/work/their lady-parts at you). It’s about knowing what future technology will or might do for the film and video-viewing experience.

There’s a lot of choice as to what platform you “consume” media on right now- cinema, TV, internet catch-up, DVD and BluRay… Some would say too much choice. Some more would say that many of those platforms are “un-policable” and open to piracy… and that’s a rant/discussion for another time. But new distribution platforms are cropping up a lot right now- hell, I’ve spent the last few months working on a soap (a standard programme type) viewed on a smegging smartphone (a not-so-standard plaform), something that would be considered impossible just a few years ago.

But let’s back up a bit…

Back in the day, there were only really two exhibition methods for the moving image- cinema and private screenings. The whole process was costly and cumbersome since film prints needed to be made and sent round to all the screens that’ll show it. But it was the only way to see films, documentaries, newsreels and anything else. Then came TV. When it first started to appear in people’s homes, the established movie studios were fearful that the small square box with the porthole screen was going to take people away from the theatres with its “right there in your house” USP. And to some extent it did. But over time, it found a niche for factual programmes, serial fiction, entertainment shows and news and these things started to fade away from the cinema, leaving only feature films. Then came home video- again, a worry for the film and TV studios- and it too eventually found a place of its own as a “watch whenever you want” facility for TV and films you missed/loved.

In the last couple of years we have gained internet streaming video which you can view on pretty much any web-capable device. But for the most part it’s just re-broadcasting stuff from the other formats- Netflix, iPlayer, LoveFilm… all offering films and shows from cinema/TV/home video as an on-demand service. The overriding USP is “what you want, when you want it.”

But IPTV and On-Demand services haven’t yet realised their full potential- that of being a medium with its own unique shows for its own unique audience. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time. I reckon that within the next four years, services like Netflix and other On-Demand apps will start commissioning their own content and then syndicating it to others the way TV networks do. And this means they’ll be looking for programme makers and directors to create material for this new medium. Technical standards and resources will vary and audiences will have a huge amount of choice so budgets are likely to be low to begin with. Which means, as an aspiring working director, if you can establish yourself as a strong contender you are likely to carve out a niche for yourself making quality work in this new-ish arena.

I’ve already started building a reputation and credit list in internet media- The Collector’s Room and Persona are both good examples- and a lot of the jobs I’m finding now are internet-based. Actual fiction shows whose broadcasting destination is some streaming facility- usually a bespoke website or a media app. Very rarely do I see anything destined for TV.

The tide is changing and if a director can hang ten with the best of them then they should come out of this recession quite well.

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The whole 3D thing

December 16, 2011

 

I’m not really sold on the whole 3D thing to be honest. Don’t get me wrong it’s a fascinating technology and I have no doubt that unlike it’s other attempts to break into the media mainstream during the 50s and the 80s, this time 3D will eventually succeed.

But…

It isn’t there yet. At the moment, 3D is still treated as a gimmick, by both studios and audiences alike. It’s a way of charging more at the cinema (it’s over a tenner at our local flea-pit!) and more for the TV equipment and the broadcasts for something of an impressive effect. And audiences flock to it for that very reason- it’s the latest thing, it’s a spectacle, it’s an event.

And filmmakers are just as guilty of perpetuating this. I’ve seen a number of jobs in the micro-budget arena pop up, shooting some thoroughly un-worthy film in 3D because it’s the multi-dimensional hottest shit and they hope that by adding the immersive bells and whistles, people will buy their film no matter how wank it really is. Which is not how it should be at all. Not right now anyway…

Given today’s audiences and their preconceptions, 3D should probably only be used for films that make the most of it- and I mean more than just the occasional “stuff thrown towards the lens” shots. At the moment, 3D can’t be used for “normal” films because audiences won’t engage properly with it- if it’s in 3D it’s a spectacle and thus it’s counterproductive for the average drama/comedy/rom-com/period piece. But for big-budget, sci-fi/action event blockbuster type films- 3D can work very well. Take Avatar, the first major film most people saw in 3D. It worked because everything in the movie was larger than life- it was a scifi adventure flick with explosions, aliens, mech suits and an immersive world. It would have worked well in 2D (and does- I still enjoy the decidedly flat DVD) but became a spectacular 3D experience. Tron Legacy is another +1 in the 3D success story. The filmmakers used 3D as a way of making the computer world of the film different to the real world- the real world sequences are shot and presented in warm-graded 2D, while the sequences on “the grid” are presented in CG-heavy, predominately cool-tinted 3D. This is much the same approach the creators of The Wizard of Oz used in 1939- black and white in the real world and colour in Oz- and it serves to make the fantasy world more visually interesting and adds immersion and effect.

The big problem with 3D from a filmmaking perspective, in the lower echelons particularly, is that filmmakers still adhere to the old rules and conventions of 2D production. Some of these- such as the use of coverage, close-ups and cutting on action- still work, but many do not. It’s still early days in the world of 3D shooting, but here are my thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. Bear in mind, I’ve never actually shot 3D before so this is just theory and possibly smoke up the proverbial sphincter.

1) No fast camera movements. Dolly shots can work okay if they’re slow enough because audiences have a chance to follow the motion, but handheld shots or whip pans can be problematic. Audiences aren’t yet used to 3D and it takes a fraction of a second longer for us to adjust to changes between shots. Kinda like how early movie audiences needed to move from long shots through mid shots to get to close ups rather than just cutting in close. You know how some people complain of nausea when watching 3D? This is why, so if you want to avoid rivers of vomit in the aisles, don’t move the camera around like it’s on a bungee cord.

2) Lenses need to be very carefully chosen, even more so than in 2D. A telephoto lens will compress the distance between planes, which in 3D seriously messes with the perspective an audience takes away from the shot. Ditto for wide angle lenses with their stretching of the perspective. To preserve the way human eyes perceive the world, we’d have to stick to a 50mm lens (assuming we’re using 35mm imaging) for everything- but as any DP will tell you, this is both limiting and decidedly boring and uninspired. However, 50mm is perfect for close ups (for the most part anyway) since the human face is the thing we’re the most familiar with and a 50mm lens preserves the shape and depth characteristics we expect to see. If we use anything other than a 50mm lens on a shot, it will seriously alter our perception on relative space- so we’d have to make those choices very carefully.

3) Considering everything said above about lenses, it stands to reason that zooms are almost a definite no-no. The human eye doesn’t zoom and if 3D is supposed to be truly immersive it has to reflect our experience of the world- thus no zooms. Also, they’re shit and tacky anyway…

4) Also on the subject of lenses, focus pulls are a mite trickier in 3D. In 2D, focus is used to insinuate depth (along with lighting, motion and other depth cues) but in 3D this is a moot point. Focus itself is not really the problem, but the dramatic focus pulls so beloved of 2D cinema, can be. Since you already have depth cues through the 3D perspective, the focal changes feel like they’re forcing you to change your attention, rather than being as subtle as they feel in 2D. Also, in a 3D frame, the audience is drawn to areas of the image through the point of convergence- the depth plane where each eye’s perspective matches (if you take the 3D goggles off when watching a film, this’ll be the bit of the image that has virtually none of the double-vision effect). Because of the way human eyes work, biologically-speaking, this point of convergence is also the point of focus. For a filmmaker to decide to manipulate the focal plane without adjusting the point of convergence is visual mind-fuckery of the highest order and it’s one of the reasons some audiences get headaches and nausea from 3D viewing.

3D will definitely become the way we view video in the future. Just look at how colour overtook black and white. In the beginning it was badly executed, the equipment and processes clunky and awkward and it never looked right. By the 30s and 40s the systems and stocks had improved but the colours looked oversaturated and false and it was used as a marketing ploy. Something to draw audiences back to the cinema- particularly when TV started to gain a foothold in viewers’ homes. As the technology improved (and colour eventually became the standard for TV broadcasts), it couldn’t be used as a gimmick anymore and producers had to find other ways to promote their shows- like story, cast and how good it was! You know, little things…

This sort of situation happens with all new technology- widescreen cinema formats came about because they wanted to have something spectacular over TV’s 4:3 square frame to draw punters back in to theatres. Cinema surround sound was a response to the way home box office and video was stealing film viewers away from the silver screen and keeping them in their lounge. It’s always the same way- the domestic viewing approach starts to take the event experience away from cinema in the name of convenience and cinema has to retaliate with something bigger and better that TV can’t match… yet. 3D is just another step in the never-ending pissing contest of one-upmanship that cinema and TV have been engaged in for decades.

I suppose smell-o-vision’s next but I seriously can’t work up any enthusiasm for that one…