How to Make a Bad Thing Even Badder — The Oscars and Transformers

24 06 2009

I just had a conversation with someone last night about going to awards shows. Though I AM a member of AMPAS — the Academy of Motion  Picture Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscars, I can think of nothing that would be so boring as to actually attend the Oscar awards. Frankly, if I can’t be shouting at the screen at how stupid the result is, or how ugly a dress is, or how moronic a dance produciton number is — well, then, what’s the point of watching the show as opposed to simply reading about it on the web?

Not all shows are like that, of course. When I look at the Golden Globes, where people are drinking wine before, during and after the ceremony, that looks like a damned fine awards show. The A.C.E. Eddie Awards isn’t as free-flowing with the vino, but comes equipped with food and desserts.

But the Oscars are you father’s awards show. And they wear that tedium proudly (and I say that as a proud and happy member of AMPAS, who has attended many events there and serves on a committee or two when asked).

Now, with a set of cojones that staggers me, the Academy has announced that the Oscars will expand the best picture race to 10 films. Citing history (apparently that category “usually spanned 10 films” back between 1932 and 1943, according to Daily Variety), President Sid Ganis was quoted:

“After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,” said academy President Sid Ganis. “The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.”

Wow. Now we get to have our own Top Ten List. And fewer surprises, of course. And a larger pool of people spending money on “For Your Consideration” ads.  And more screenings and screeners.

And, I’m sure, a few more pictures by major studios in the list.  Which is, I’m sure, what is largely driving this change. After all, it is the major studios who most actively support the Academy during the year, and it must sorta kinda suck that they get so few movies nominated for Best Picture. It always seems to be those pesky indies who are stealing the nominations. Wouldn’t it be great, they must have thought, if we could make sure that we get some more of our movies into the nomination list.

But then they took at look at the films that they want to release and realized that the films that they do best are those that are guaranteed NOT to be liked by us (take a look at today’s major opening — TRANSFORMERS — if you’re looking for validation of that claim). “Hmmmm,” they must have said to their collective imaginary selves. “How can we beat that reality?

“I KNOW!!! Let’s have more films in the nomination list!!  And then, even if a few more indies sneak in there — at least we can get our usually horrible Oscar fodder in there as well.”

Voila, today’s announcement was born.

The biggest question that I have, of course, is whether that, with the clips and speeches, means that the Oscar show is going to be six hours long.

Or just feel that way.

Mama Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away

23 06 2009

In a brief article/obituary today, the New York Times related the announcement by Kodak that they have stopped production on their iconic film stock Kodachrome.

Made famous by its sheer ubiquity long before Paul Simon sung about how it gave ‘nice bright colors’ Kodachrome was, for some in my family, a synonym for ‘camera.’. As in “Hey, could you hand me my Kodachrome from the table there.”

In this age of super-cheap digital cameras and Flip Minos I’m not going to mourn this chemical technology. But it’s always interesting when an icon, like Fidel Castro, steps down.

Brighter hopes for Digital Theaters

22 06 2009

The recent news that Sony and Regal Theaters reached an agreement to install 4K projectors at Regal Theaters, combined with Friday’s item that the German Federal Film Board (FFA) agreed to provide 40 million Euros (that’s over 55 million US type dollars) to help the digitization of German theaters, shows that the feature film world is finally beginning to get its digital film houses in order.

Of course, there is plenty of desperation in these measures, as well as a large dollop of politics (the FFA co-produces films, and Sony is one of the majors and mini-majors that is still standing). But as the panicked move into 3-D and IMAX shows, the distributors and exhibitors — who are often on opposite ends of the interest continuum when it comes to showing films — are both smelling the snapping dog of internet distribution behind them.

It’s not that 4K makes the films look much better than a typical HD projector. Of course, there are those who see the differences, but most filmgoers couldn’t tell the difference if the words “This Is Better” were flashed on screen during the 4K projection. But it’s that 4K fits into the present filmmaking workflow so much better when you start to look at the very gimmicks that could keep recalcitrant filmgoers in theater seats. The high-powered digital effects of Big Tentpole monstrosities like TRANSFORMERS are created in that high res.  Digital Intermediates are increasingly being done in 4K. 3-D begs for higher resolution in order to create lower cost distribution.

In short, 4K finally makes sense as a differentiator between the theater experience and your living room (even if you’ve got a nerdlike sound system and huge-screen television there). If you don’t have the story to bring them in, at least get the high-priced splash and, for now, that looks way better on a big screen with great sound and incredible effects of things blowing up. All things that the smaller-budgeted indie films and web-based projects can’t really deliver.

I’m not sure where this leaves a film like Woody Allen’s latest WHATEVER WORKS, which had a visual effects component that could barely fill up one screen’s worth in the end credits. But, after years of pooh-poohing 4K as a real possibility in theaters, I must say that I’m thinking that it could really happen. In this case, it’s not the audience that is clamoring for it. And it’s not solely the distributors, finally. It’s the entire chain — all the way to the exhibitors.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Will it make the filmgoing experience more awesome? I doubt it. Will it make the filmmaking experience easier? I doubt it. Will it make the transition of films to all sorts of ancillary markets easier? Probably, by a hair’s breadth. I’m waiting to see if it does what the industry clearly wants it to — to bring more butts into the seats, and to make the entire process a little cheaper.

What User Groups Can Do

18 06 2009

Just got back from the June meeting of the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro Users Group which was, as usual, a blast. Let me tell you what was on the official agenda (and please stick around for my point which follows two paragraphs down).

Andy Neilgave a demonstration of the design capabilities of Motion, two people from Adobediscussed some of the new things in Premiere CS4.1 including the ability to do simpler RED workflow and read VOB files directly without ripping, Bruce Nazarian discussed some of the new developments in Blu-Ray that might make it even usable for most of us, and SmartSound’s Stephanie Joyce gave a demonstration of the new Sonicfire Pro Plug in for Final Cut Pro which actually is a major step on the way to simplifying and improving needledrop music.

But let me tell you about the things that were not on the agenda that were even more valuable.

I got to talk to Philip Hodgetts about how his program First Cuts can be integrated into the workflow of an editing room, despite its brute force method of determining editing points. Along the way, we had a great discussion about the various types of editing rooms, editors and clients, and how to teach a new generation of editors who often have more to teach us then we have to teach them.

I chatted with  a representative from, and got to see a demo of Veescope
Live, a program which does live keying.

I got to chat with a woman who was an early proponent of digital editing in Los Angeles, who is now a farmer who has recently completed a film about a restaurant owner who has developed a clientele for locally-based produce.

In short, I got involved in a lot of discussions that were more about ideas and breaking boundaries, than about uses for Final Cut.

And this is the great advantage of any user group — whether it is one devoted to Avid, Final Cut, Premiere, the RED, or a group of local basket weavers.

it is the contacts and conversations that will provoke your mind and help you grow, and it is those very things which will make you more and more attractive as a filmmaking collaborator.

I’m sure that you’ve got a user group near you.  Most of the companies that make the products that you like to use have lists of them on their web sites  Avid, Final Cut Pro, and Premiere (among others) all have active, thriving user groups.
One of the biggest events each year are the Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeets, which attract hundreds and hundreds of rabid fans, who listen to people present, exchange tips and tricks themselves, and vie to win raffle prizes that can reach thousands of dollars. The next Supermeet will be held in London and for those of you who haven’t been to one, I’d insist that you go.  To be held on Thursday, June 25th, at the KensingtonConference and Event Centre in London, the FCPUG SuperMeet will feature speakers from major equipment and software manufacturers, filmmakers and a speech by Walter Murch on his work on Tetro.”

This will be an event that you will kicking yourself in the butt for years to come if you miss it. And because it only costs £15.00 to get in, there’s virtually no excuse to not go (I will accept the fact that you won’t be in Europe as a valid excuse — that will be mine).

But if you’re anywhere near London around that time, I guarantee that you’ll have a great time meeting tons of great people.

And that is the real value of User Groups. It’s how we move forward in this Freelance Editor world of ours.

Just What Did Videotape Leaders Look Like Daddy?

16 06 2009

Larry Jordan’s latest issue of Final Cut Studio Newsletter has this interesting flashback tip for those people who are printing to tape. I’m still used to seeing this for delivery to networks, but file-based workflows may make some of this obsolete.

In any case, this about what a video leader should look like. Perhaps the most useful bit in here is a description of what should be on the tape delivery slate. I was actually doing something similar to this for the new edition of my FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, which should be out early in 2010. Until then, Larry’s site is a must-see for this kind of cool information.

Hell, even after my book comes out, his site will be must-see.


Most final deliveries for high-end productions are output to video tape, either HDCAM or HDCAM SR and not delivered as a file. When outputting to tape, you need to allow room for leader material which the engineering types use to make sure the tape playback matches the spec of when the tape was recorded.

Traditionally, this leader material is:

Timecode Content
00:58:30:00 Bars and tone
00:59:30:00 Black audio and video
00:59:40:00 Program slate
00:59:50:00 Black audio and video
01:00:00:00 Program start

A program slate consists of:

  • Program Title Producer / Director / Agency responsible
  • Date output to tape
  • Running time (Never include frames and always round up)
  • Audio mix format (stereo, mono, multi-track)
  • Timecode format (Drop-frame or non-drop-frame)

To create these leader materials in Final Cut you can either use File > Print to Video, or build them yourself in the Timeline. If you create them in the Timeline, go to Sequence > Settings > Timeline tab and change the sequence timecode to 58:30.

That way, the timecode of your sequence will match the timecode on your tape. Note, to make sure all your program times are correct, use File > Edit to Tape to record to video tape.


The iPhone and the Future of Filmmaking

16 06 2009

Okay, that title is more than pompous, but just follow me for a second.

Debra Kaufman writes in her blog “Mobilized TV” about an application for filmmakers that she found at last weekend’s Cinegear.  Called Helios, it is ideal for cinematographers — it shows “a graphical representation of the sun’s position on a compass dial (azimuth) for any time of day, showing the sun’s elevation and proportional length of shadow an object would cast.”

What I’m interested in seeing, now that the new iPhones and the new operating system is all about to hit the street, is how developers start to create niche applications that they can really make some money out of. There are several advances that Apple is giving there that can make all of the difference.

The first is that the hardware interface will be opened up — so people can start to sell gizmos that hook into the iPhone and interact with it. Think of engineering firms that can input directly into an app on the phone. Think of medical instruments being able to hook directly into this tiny phone/iPod touch and interact with an application inside that gives real time feedback in both directions.

And then think of how your iPhone can hook directly into your Red One or a script supervisor’s keyboard and then broadcast timecode data, along with subsets of any necessary metadata back to a post house or the editing room. It’s going to make the set, the editing room, the producers’ office, the lab/post house, and all of the other pieces of the film chain much more integrated. At very low cost.

So, for now, go read Debra’s review and start imagining.

Waiting for the Blu-Ray deluge

15 06 2009

I’ve been down this road before, but a recent announcement by Bruce Nazarian on Larry Jordan’s Digital Production Buzz perked my interest again.

Here’s the set-up:

  1. More than a year ago, Blu-Ray finally (after much payment of money to the various film distributors) triumphed over HD-DVD in the HD Format Wars. However the rush to adopt the format has been conspicuously slow.  We were told at first that this was because people had been holding up on buying players because of the war.
  2. Then the war was over and very few people ran to buy.
  3. Then we were told that it was because of the high price of the players and when they came down, in time for the 2008 Holiday Season, then all would be well.
  4. Then the player prices went down and sales went up — but not ferociously. (As of May 31, Blu-Ray accounts for only 12% of all DVD sales according to the most optimistic figures).  Accoring to the web site Blu-raystats, sales of Blu-Ray disks are up 81% from last year, which seems impressive on the face of it.  But when you consider that the number of Blu-Ray release is up 210%, that figure doesn’t look quite as good.
  5. At the same time, we were told that a huge impediment to adoption of Blu-Ray in the independent market was the high licensing fees for replicatable disks. Once those were licked, that group of content creators would leap onto the bandwagon.

Now the good news is that through Bruce’s (and the International Digital Media Alliance‘s) incredibly hard and diligent work, it appears that the most expensive of the two licensing organization for Blu-Ray — AACS — may finally be relenting. And that is great news for independent producers.  But I’m still not convinced that anyone cares enough to make this the straw that breaks the Standard Def DVD’s back. Even with the growth of large screen TVs.

Ask yourself this question. I’m going to assume that most of you reading this blog are interested in Content Creation in some way — either as filmmakers or film watchers. That puts you in a group of people who are Interested In Content. Now, out of this group, how many of you own a Blu-Ray player and regularaly purchase Blu-Ray disks.

Hell, let’s make the question even broader.  Out of all of you people, how many of you even know of someone who regularly purchases Blu-Ray content?

If that percentage doesn’t approach 50%, then Blu-Ray is dead.  If we can’t even get those of us interested i films to watch them on Blu-Ray, how are we going to convince the rest of the world.

This goes beyond the Current State of the Economy. As I’ve said before, the leap from VHS to DVD made a huge difference in terms of the visual and audio quality.  In fact, it made a big enough difference so that it passed the Mom Test — that is, even My Mom would notice. That, and market factors, eventually drove VHS out the window.

But, even with great big wall televisions, the difference between SD-DVDs and Hi Def Blu-Ray DVDs is just not that huge that my Mom would ever care or notice. Hell, my Mom hasn’t even bothered to use the component video outputs from her DVD player.  (“Nothin’ wrong with those cute red and white plugs, right?”) And it’s a pretty steep curve to get her to upgrade — both the hardware box and all of the movies that she’s accumulated over the years.

In short, the drive to move to Blu-Ray, with my strongest apologies to Bruce, is completely led by the studios — who are looking to give consumers a reason to re-purchase all of their already purchased content. This isn’t coming from the consumers (except for HD sports on television most of us couldn’t give a damn) at all.  It’s not even coming from the producers, directors, and cinematographers of the world. Nope, this is almost completely market driven.

Which means that, for now, those of us who love HD content would rather download it over the Internet then go through the upgrade path. The Future of Blu-Ray may be Broadband.

Internet Meming — It’s Chilly Out There

10 06 2009

Heads in Freezers and In The Internet

If you do a search on the word “memes” over in the search box over to the right, you’ll see that I’ve spent more than a few postings talking about how memes spread on the web, including this absolutely hilarious South Park episode which had all of the Net Celebs in a fight to the death with each other. Now you can watch one evolve before your eyes with the tag 241543903.

This is a consciously created attempt to create a viral web moment, something which has been eluding marketeers for several years. People are asked to take a picture of themselves with their head in their freezer and tag it with the number 241543903 when they post it to the web.  There are over 300 of these pictures on flickr alone. There is also a web page devoted to the phenomenon of these pictures, which have moved onto YouTube as well.

Now, how cool is that?

Except, it may not be cool at all.  The web site owners, and starters of this meme, are so conscious of the viral nature of what they hoping to achieve that they’ve even been taking polls on when readers think the phenomenon will hit the mainstream media and which major network will break it first (Fox beats CNN more than 2 to 1 and no one mentions print media at all).

The point for me is this. For years, mems like “the Star Wars kid” and the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” sprung up on their own and attempts by the people like the Numa Numa Guy or the “Leave Brittney Alone” weirdo to duplicate their success have been death-defyingly unsuccessful. No one has been able to package a formula for success (though you might argue that the “You Suck At Photoshop” guys came close) though everyone’s been trying. Even the second iteration of “Where In The Hell Is Matt?” failed to catch the Web Consciousness in the same way.

Now, the company behind 241543903, Toscana Enterprises Corporation (a “traditional business consulting outfit” which does “strategy and branding consulting”) has decided to try out this approach — which involves coming up with a silly idea and seeding it in a lot of places. Then they stoke the fires by providing polls (read “even more user-generated content”), as well as a central location to make things easier. It remains to be seen if this is any more replicatable than the other engineered attempts.

The key to viral mems is that they are unexpected. Part of the joy is discovering something, deep in the recesses of the web, and spreading it around to your friends – in much the same way that water cooler talk worked pre-Internet. Marketing companies tried mightily to influenced what people talked about on their coffee breaks then, and it had varying levels of success. The fantastic thing about public perception of marketing is that it resents being manipuated. Of course, we (in the media) are all about manipulating the audience — it’s how we get them to laugh or cry at our projects. But manipulation only works if the audience doesn’t feel the overt hand doing it.

Now here’s a poll for you — how many of you have even heard of 241543903?  How many of you were interested in it?  And how many of you changed your level of interest after I told you who was behind it?

And that’s what I’m talking about, when I talk about viral.

METal Media Festival

10 06 2009
Taste of METal Media Festival

I’m part of a group of people who get together about every week or so to talk about events in the Media, Entertainment and Technology spaces (don’t you just love when someone uses the term “space”?). The group, which is called METal — for the Media Entertainment Technology Alliance — is run by Ken Rutkowski, who you have heard me talk about in the past.

This Thursday, June 11th, for those of you who will be in the Los Angeles, Ken and Michael Kaliski, will be hosting a very low-cost Media Festival, which will a cross between a film festival and the TED conferences. Excerpts from a large number of films will be shown, and each one will be followed by a short talk by someone representing the film. Here is how the Taste of METal site describes it.

The Media Entertainment Technology Alliance (METal) presents its inaugural media festival on Thursday, June 11th displaying an eclectic selection of meaningful shorts accompanied by speakers who will give brief, insightful presentations following each film. Moderator Ken Rutkowski will be wielding “the hook” to keep things zipping along. It’s speed dating for the mind!

The event will take place at the state-of-the-art 400 seat screening room at Los Angeles Center Studios. 450 S. Bixel Street LA, CA 90017.

Arrivals and refreshments will begin at 7:00PM with the program kicking off at 8PM.

Details can be found at the TASTE OF METal site and you can RSVP at

I am totally going to be there. It looks like it’s going to be a very interesting and provocative evening.

The Erratic Future of Education

8 06 2009

A recent episode of This Week In Tech, Twit 197, focused on education.  Along with host Leo LaPorte were Don Tapscott, Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Jeff’s son Jake Jarvis. Now, Don is the author of a number of books, including one of my favorites — Grown Up Digital, which looks at the generation of kids who have no memory of world without computers and the Net.  The group spent a large amount of time talking about what is wrong with high school and college education today.

They’ve mostly got it right, but not really.

Now, most of you know that I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, normally known as the USC Film School.  So I have a bit of vested interested in both improving education and making sure that it doesn’t get destroyed in the rush to improve it. Some of you are going to claim that I’m part of the problem, and I’ll cop to some of that, as well.

But, let me back up a few seconds. Just what were those Twitters talking about?

First, let’s say that I agree with them that much of 7-12 and college is broken.  There is way too much teaching to the test. Jeff made the point that Jake (who is beginning his college application thought process now) has to take these crazy AP courses, which force him to regurgitate facts, just so that he can apply to Really Great Colleges.  I’d add that here in California, high school students spend more of their valuable class time and homework time ingesting facts that normally don’t make it anywhere into their brain in any lasting way.  And, with a student/teacher ratior of 35 or 40 to 1, that’s completely wasted time.

At USC, I see a lot of teaching that is, what I’d call, “Sage On The Stage”  That is, it’s the professor dishing out The Facts to the student, who needs to take it in, so that he/she can get proper grades. I find myself guilty of that at times as well.  Sometimes, it’s just easier.

But there’s no class that I teach that doesn’t rely primarily on projects. Honestly, I can’t figure out how to teach otherwise. Projects are considered a vital part of what is called “learner centric education” (in which the curriculum takes into account the learning style and capability of each student).

The guests on TWIT 197 spent a lot of time talking about how formal education, as it exists today, just doesn’t work. Taking a look at the success of a number of tech entrepreneurs who didn’t complete college (or who never went at all) they surmised that it was better not to be taught in our present system.

But here’s the thing that the guests on TWIT 197, in their glee at piling onto the faults of the normal educational model, fail to take into account. Every student learns differently, and students in different cultures learn differently as well.

Right now, I’m working with a group of Vietnamese filmmakers who have come to USC to take a six-week course in digital filmmaking, in the hope that they’ll improve their world storytelling skills. I’ve done two lessons so far — in one I played a number of film clips and discussed the shape of the story with them. In another, we worked on the Avid to examine alternatives in cutting.

Surprisingly, this group wanted more of the film clip discussion. And we’ve added an additional class on just for that purpose (they’re going to be making four short films, so there’s going to be plenty of time for project work).

Some students in my regular classes look at the editing screen and need to start moving things around. Others need to understand some of the “why” behind it, before they can feel good about moving things around.

In short — everyone learns differently. Not everybody works better when they’re left to their own devices. And not everyone works the same way in every subject.

So, while I basically agree with most of what was said in TWiT 197 about the failures of education, a huge missing piece in the discussion for me was the acknowledgement that sometimes the Sage on the Stage does work — for some students, in some subjects, at some ages. Most of the time, it’s a combination of many different methods. At some point, I’ll tell you about a project on learning that I’m working on in New Mexico — that can be a real incubator for change in teaching. And some time, you’ll hear about the really exciting work that Nolan Bushnell is starting in education — something that can revolutionize that industry in the way that he did for gaming with Atari.

But, for now, what I’m going to say is that anytime anybody makes a broad statement about anything — look twice at it.