Web Video With Attitude

3 02 2009

I don’t know how I’ve missed this series so far, but the web series You Suck At Photoshop is a web based tutorial with an attitude.  Any tutorial that starts off by saying that this is “Basic to Intermediate but, for you, this will be hard” has got my love.  Donnie, who is the tutorial, gives an example of what you could do to a picture of your wife’s old Vanagon if you, for instance, “Had a restraining order that prevents you from getting close enough to do that kind of shit to it [for real].”

Using stand-up comedy, each episode gives you a real tip on how to do something with Photoshop (use the warp and distortion tool, for instance). It’s the perfect way for some people to get taught and, at four or five minutes, not very difficult to watch.

It may not exactly be the Future of the Interwebs, but it certainly isn’t dry and it does point to good ways to distinguish yourself from the other media makers in the crowd.

Editing and The Best Picture

23 01 2009

I love an article in today’s Los Angeles Times.   Called “Can ‘The Reader’ win best picture without an editing nomination?”  It basically lays out the statistics about how few films have ever won for Best Picture without a Best Editing award.

The article doesn’t examine any of the whys behind this, but I’ve long said that most Oscar voters don’t really have a good enough idea what editing is (“It’s cool cutting, right?”) to separate best film and best editing.  If they like a film they’re generally going to vote for it for best editing. That’s why Best Editing winners are often good predictors of what’s going to win for Best Picture later in the awards show.  For me, this means that something that the editors have not judged worthy of a nomination (to reiterate, only editors members can nominate for best editing — everyone can, however, vote in the category once the nominees have been chosen) is rarely going to inspire a filmmaking awe in the Academy as a whole.

Any thoughts on this?

Why Paramount’s Decision To Pay to Go Digital Is Good For FIlmmakers

23 01 2009


Do you know what the acronyms DCIP and VPF mean? Hey, in a world where we’ve needed to learn what DSL means (or at least what it does) what’s a few more letters between friends, right? And it could be very important for your future, if you’re an independent filmmaker.

Well, J. Sperling Reich has a great blog that I found called Celluloid Junkie which basically talks about the business of exhibition. That means, what happens when your film gets into the theaters. In the latest posting, “Paramount Goes Direct-To-Exhibitors With D-Cinema Deal” Sperling talks about how digital projection is going to end up in our local movie theaters.

Many of you may have seen ads for Hollywood movies that announce that they will be screening “digitally” in some theaters. In essence, what this means is that the movie theaters have installed large video projectors, capable of screening films at 2K resolution — slightly higher than High Def video. Now, these systems (along with their hookups to higher quality audio) are not cheap to install. An article in Gizmodo puts the costs at roughly $70,000 per installation. The article goes on to say:

The five major studios involved will help out by paying a “digital print fee” of about $800 to $1,000 per film, which is about how much it cost to send out physical prints. By doing so they’ll help offset the billion dollar bill the theaters will be stuck with when upgrading all of their projectors. This means we’ll be seeing more films shown digitally, as well as more films shown in digital 3D, a gimmick that you’ll learn to loathe soon enough. But hey, more digital projectors is definitely something I can get behind.

That fee that the distributors finally agreed to pay is also the aforementioned VPF (“virtual print fee”). And it took years for the studios to realize that it was the only way they could encourage theater owners to buy those expensive projectors, an argument that still lacks weight among many theater owners. That is why the two organizations that are pushing the Digital Cinema Initiative (the DCIP, and Cinedigm) have been been looking for ways to entice the owners into jumping into the pool.  For awhile it looked like the distributors were going to pay some of the installation costs in some way — partnerships, loans, etc. That approach didn’t attract much enthusiasm from either side. And that’s when the VPf came along.

And hasn’t really taken off.

Sperling’s blog entry talks about Paramount seems to be returning to the idea of offering exhibitors direct financial assistance in some form. And, for that, who needs the DCIP? Sperling notes:

What’s significant about Paramount’s announcement is that previously studios have refused to cut deals to reimburse exhibitors for digital cinema installations directly with exhibitors for fear of future anti-trust litigation.  Instead, they relied on digital cinema systems integrators to provide a buffer between themselves and theatre owners.  But, with the digital cinema rollout at a near stand still, Paramount seems to be throwing caution to the winds.

Sperling’s reasoning behind this is that Paramount would like to see more digital theaters because they’d like to use the technology to see more theaters that could easily show 3-D films like their upcoming MONSTERS VS. ALIENS. I spoke a few posts ago about the distributors’ illusion that 3-D will save their worlds, so I buy into Sperling’s argument that this is why Paramount is breaking ranks, even while I disagree with Paramount’s reasoning. And I certainly like the idea that studios are thinking beyond the simple “let’s lay off the workers” model to saving their financial future.

But the most exciting thing, for me, about Paramount’s decision  to throw their money behind Digital Cinema has little to do with 3-D. I’m much more interested in how the projection technology can help the indie filmmaker.

My favorite film at Sundance this week was, bar none, Ondi Timoner’s documentary WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, which is about Josh Harris, a 1990s New York internet entrepeneur who used streaming video technology, and a very art-event orientation, to convert a Soho basement into a month-long living experience for a large group of people and which would be on camera every minute of every day. Every room — living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms — had video cameras in it, recording the action. The film, which is uses this even as a mere starting point for a discussion of privacy and innovation, was a powerful experience (someone who sat next to me at the screening, looked at me at the end and said “That film freaked me out.”).

Ondi sat on a panel that I ran and mentioned that she had been editing the film up until just a day before the festival and it is truly a testament to the development of digital non-linear editing technology (she worked on an Avid) that she could be editing and finishing so late in the game, it is equally amazing to me that she was able to output a digital tape or two, bring it up to Sundance and simply show it. There was no need for complicated lab runs — color correction had already been done, sound was already added, multiple copies could be created rather quickly.

Observant readers will note that this is hardly new — filmmakers have been able to finish video for television on this very timeframe for years. But that’s only because each and every one of us agreed to buy the projectors that made this possible. We called them “televisions” but that didn’t matter. The public, acting as the exhibitors, agreed to shoulder the cost for the distribution of the studios’ content.  Paramount has finally admitted that that very model won’t work in theatrical distribtution but that it is still important to get that technology into theaters.

So they’re going to pay for some of it themselves.

What this means for us, as filmmakers, is that we’ll be able to create all sorts of films, using all sorts of capture formats, and finish them at our own pace and in our own manner and there will be thousands of theaters able to help show them. With high-end HD camers out there (JVC just announced a sub-$4000 camera at Macworld, RED has a more expensive series that are still within reach of the serious filmmaker) it might just throw some of the balance towards us. We can leave 3-D behind us, and take advantage of the digital theater that the studios hunger for 3-D brought us, and bring really great images to an audience that just might get interested.

Who knows, the studios might just be helping out the indie filmmaker.  You can say “thank you” in a few years.


A side note here — I met Sperling by stumbling across him on Twitter. The mass, social-networking, text-message service proved to be a real boon for me at both Macworld and Sundance as I was able to keep up with people, parties, announcements, etc. from people who I thought would be interesting. The service, which was initially mocked because its users were posting mere status reports on their life (“Going to bed now, see ya!”) has now transformed into a great referral service for information. Guy Kawasaki, for instance, uses Twitter to post links to news and analysis articles. Services like Twitpic allow users to post images of events as they are happening. A number of people like John C Dvorak and Dave Hamilton have used it to get personalized information (Dave asked his followers today for dinner recipes that “involed sundried tomatoes” and within five minutes received great responses.).  It’s turned into a great resource and information finder. For those of you who are looking to develop networks in this difficult job climate, you’d be smart to start using Twitter, to figure out whether it works for me.

I know that I would have never found Sperling’s great web site without finding him on Twitter.

3-D, This Year’s Savior

19 01 2009

3D Film Image

3D Film Image

There’s an exhibit here at this year’s Sundance Festival, at the Sheffield, which highlights two different 3D technologies (the correct phrase, I’m told, is not 3D, but stereoscopic). And while I really loved the expansive, trippy, artwork that was displayed on the screens (created by the talented Justin Knowles, from CGI Studios) you have to wonder if stereoscopic is really something that audiences are clamoring for.  

Back in the 1970s, I remember a few 3D films which always involved the filmmakers tossing something directly at the audience. It was the fastest way to create the “oooh” effect in the audience. Last year, when I was at the CILECT Conference in Beijing, I saw an incredibly impressive 3D experience which was completely controlled by the viewer. So, the technology is impressive. But, like HD televisions, it’s hard to see how the audience is going to need to buy into the technology, especially if it requires buying anything.

The problems with convincing people to buy into the stereoscopic world were obvious at the exhibtion, just from the physicality of the presentation. First off, there were two incompatible technologies (how did that work for you HD-DVD??) — one with two stacked projectors and the viewer wearing a pair of glasses that combined the two into one brain image. Then there was the Mitbubishi style — 60fps projection, which alternated left and right eyes. It required a pair of expensive glasses that blinked the alternating eyes, synchronized with the screen so each eye saw only the frames designed for it. This amounted to, sorta, a 30fps image with depth.

Two competing technologies. Let me say that again — two technologies.

Each required a computer to play back the movies, but each required different standards. Good luck with that.

Second, in both cases, there were a limited supply of glasses and when too many people were using them, you got to stare at an unwatchable image.  Very 60s trippy, but not very satisfying. Unless the consumer is willing to buy a large supply of glasses, you’re going to have a limited supply at home as well (especially with the Mitsuibishi electronic glasses). And as soon as your seven year old kid marches off with one of your pairs, someone’s not going to be able to watch 3D in your house.

[I actually offered the kind Mitsubishi sales woman some advice — the company that invents a pair of glasses with a cheap tracking device, is going to make a mint. Think of how many times you use your car door remote to locate your car in a large parking lot.]

In its defense, at least the 3D experience offers enough different from the 2D one to make the average viewer notice (as opposed to HD, which I still maintain is not different enough to convince most of the American public to repurchase all of their SD DVDs). But if filmmakers spend the next three years throwing objects at the camera, in order to create that “oooh” moment, we’re going to grow tired of this gimmick rather quickly. It’s hard to believe that there are millions of people ready to throw away their 2D movies so they repurchase a more expensive experience that won’t involve things being thrown at them. And while people didn’t mind watching Ted Turner’s colorized movies on TV years ago, I don’t know anybody who refused to watch those movies in black and white when they were at more convenient times. In other words, 3D doesn’t rise to the level of “must have” or “it will change my life so it’s too cool to pass up.”

Except in games. The Beijing experiment, in which I could control how I perceived the space around me, was so immeasurably more satisfying than its 2D equivalent, that I was immediately thrust inside the experience.

Films are, basically, a directed experience — someone else is helping us through the story.  Games are much more player-driven and, as such, benefit from an expanded world. There is much that 3D can do to help us explore our world in film (I edited one short in 3D and it was not a wonderful experience), and I assume that as filmmakers get better at telling stories in that landscape, we will get more mature works. But it is in the world of immersive entertainment, where presenting the audience with a world that they can control, that steroscopic has some value.

To that end, everyone would get a better return on their investment if they stopped paying to give us Miley Cyrus in 3D, and instead invested in giving us Master Chief in 3D.

Why Kvetching About Small Screens Makes You Look Stupid

3 01 2009

lofaDavid Lynch’s infamous hissy fit about how horrible it is to watch Big Movies on small screens was one of the funny viral videos of 2008. But now three commentators on the New York Times’ Tech Talk podcast start out 2009 with the same dumb comment.

Talking about Slingbox’s new beta software which will let Blackberry users see some of their DVR’ed content streamed to their phones, they make the point that no one wants to watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on a two-inch screen.

Well…. Duh. Who does? And who’s making you?

The problem with a comment like that is simple – users will always find their preferred level of experience and content producers/filmmakers will follow.

I doubt I’d want to watch 2001 on a Blackberry or iPhone screen. But I’m happy to watch “Ask A Ninja” or ZiO’s “Designing Minds” that way. That way I can get those experiences at the gym, or waiting in my doctor’s office, or in a room in my house without a TV.

I’ve said it before, now I’ll rephrase it. “It’s all about the screens baby.” There are many different types of content. Why shouldn’t there be many different ways to absorb it?

(As a side note, that means that there should be many different ways to MAKE it.)

What I worry about is these complainers whining about the problem of forcing square pegs into round holes and convincing people to stop making square pegs. What they should be doing instead, is encouraging people to make more square holes.

Shooting… the Independent Way

14 06 2008

Stu Maschwitz, author of the great book, DV Rebel’s Guide and filmmaker, blogger (over at Pro Lost), techno geek, has a really interesting blog about “clipping.”  For those of you who know little but could care more, that term refers to the point when video (or audio) reaches a saturation point and can no longer take any more light.  Stu refers to it this way:

Throw enough light at a piece of color negative and eventually it stops being able to generate any more density. Clipping, i.e. exceeding the upper limits of a media’s ability to record light, happens with all image capture systems.

In the posting, titles “On Clipping, Part 1” Stu gets into quite a bit of detail about how our eyes perceive light, as oppose to our digital capture systems (read that as “cameras”) and, at times, it went clean over my head.

But he makes the good point that film treats clipping much more forgivingly than video and digital capture does.  DPs have learned to expose for the whitest whites as much as possible, and to let the color timing bring the image down to respectful levels. This approach works fine, according to Stu, but falls apart when images clip, because bringing down a clipped image leaves you open to many digital imperfections — including milkiness and noise.

Editors have dealt with this for years, especially as more and more of us are pushed into the realm of color correction (way beyond most of our skill sets, I should point out, and that’s a topic for another post). But Stu lays it out in a great way.  And, along that way, he points out that clipping isn’t always bad.

And that’s OK. While HDR enthusiasts might disagree, artful overexposure is as much a part of photography and cinematography as anything else. Everybody clips, even film, and some great films such as Road to PerditionMillion Dollar Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey would be crippled without their consciously overexposed whites.

Go check out the posting, and while you’re at it, take a look at the other postings on Stu’s blog.  You’ll find it way worth your while.

Fun Red One Demo

12 06 2008

Red One cameraTed Schilowitz, public face of the RED CINEMA Digital Camera, knows how to put on a show. He, and Michael Cioni (Plaster City Digital Post), put on a short demo of shooting with the RED, and playing it right on a Final Cut Pro system.

There’s nothing really special about that.  FCP can do that with the P2 cameras. Avid can too. But the way that Ted does the demo is really fun. He and Michael have two red cameras (take THAT, Red Camera fanatics) and shoot a little mini show called “Mythbusters.”  While still rolling both cameras, they walk into the next room, which has a spiffy 27 foot screen, plug one of the cameras into a second Mac (eight-core) system, and immediately project the footage onto the screen.  Frankly, it’s a demo that Sony and Panasonic could do as well, with their technology.  The cool thing is that Mike is demonstrating it using the 2K movie files right out of FCP (something that Ted advises you not to do, by the way). And there are some occasionally funny titles laid over the picture.

There are 4K and 2K versions of the film posted on the Red Cinema bulletin board.

3D Movies and Theaters

15 02 2008

MarketSaw, a blog which focuses on 3-D movies, has a list of theatres which screen 3-D films in the Real D technology. There are more and more of them each time I check back it seems — actually the list was last updated at the beginning of December, but we know it will continue to grow.

Grand Central Freeze-In

1 02 2008

ImprovEverywhere loaded a video on Vimeo which documents mass event in which 207 people stopped at exactly the same time in Grand Central Terminal in NYC. They didn’t move despite being poked by curious onlookers or being honked at by workers in vehicles trying to get by. The way the video is edited it creates a real shape to their event, including applause when they broke their poses after five minutes.

By the way, from ImprovEverywhere has a whole bunch of these events captured on Vimeo, including a pretty cool synchronized “swimming” event in the Washington Square Park fountain.

iTunes video and the future of distribution

30 12 2007

Ira DeutchmanTwo recent news items and a fascinating podcast interview with Ira Deutchman have combined to get me thinking about how Steve Jobs and Apple can have a role in the future of filmmaking rather than tagging along on the sidelines.

The Financial Times had an article a few days ago about an about-to-be-signed deal between News Corporation and Apple in regards to renting Fox Films through the iTunes store.

In a deal struck between the maker of the iPod gadget and News Corporation, the parent company of The Times and owner of Fox, consumers will be able to rent the latest Fox DVD releases by downloading a digital copy from Apple’s iTunes platform for a fixed period.

It is understood that Apple has been trying for months to persuade Hollywood studios to sign up to a digital rental model, in which subscribers would be able to download and view films for a set period, but until now no studio has agreed to a deal. Studios are understood to have had concerns over issues such as pricing and piracy.

I would assume, by the way, that Disney is soon to follow.

I’m going to omit any discussion on how this reflects a change in Apple’s business model that’s been a-long time comin’. Most people don’t want to own films. The main reason why they buy DVDs and download films for storage is so that they can watch them whenever they want without a trek to a video store. But that ground has been over covered by many bloggers much better than I. Instead, I’d like to combine it with another news story, one from last month. In an interview with George Sirois on 411Mania, among a zillion others, Ed Burns described how he was releasing his new film, PURPLE VIOLETS, directly to iTunes, rather than take any number of half-assed theatrical releases.

We got a couple of half-assed theatrical offers, but the last couple films I’ve done I’ve done that and, you know you do all this publicity and then the movie’s released in New York and LA, and maybe Chicago and San Francisco, and if you’re anywhere outside of those four major cities, your audience can’t find it. So, we’re gambling and we’re gonna be the first film that is released exclusively through iTunes. It’ll be available for four weeks exclusively, and the idea is we’ll promote it the same as you would a theatrical release and we’ll see what the numbers are. If the attendance, if the downloads, which we expect to be a much higher numbers than the attendance, I think it’ll be the way I would go in the future for small movies like this. You know, and then we’ll do more festivals than you might normally, so you can hit kinda smaller markets for the theatrical experience, but for everyone else it’s available, kinda like what people do…

Then, just this morning, I was listening to a fantastic interview with Emerging Pictures CEO Ira Deutchman on the usually interesting TCIBR (This Conference Is Being Recorded) from The Workbook Project, a really interesting website which has, as its slogan, “An Open Source Social Experiment for Content Creators.” Deutchman, who is somewhat of an articulate visionary in regards to distribution, makes a number of really great points about what is broken with theatrical distribution today, much of which has been said before. On the other hand, he talks about the things that Emerging is doing to move in new directions. With digital distribution, his company has set up a series of monthly screenings of films that play simultaneously in all of the 40 theatres that they have deals with, called “Undiscovered Gems” in which unreleased films are run. Deutchman also is interested in creating “events” for distribution, allowing press to get excited about a film that would normally disappear into the vast morass of unreleased or small released projects.

But What If We Put Them All Together?

We know that Apple has now accepted the idea of a rental model for some of its films. We also know that they distribute music and movies for free, when prompted. If you look at podcasts, for instance, most of them are free I would note that they have worked with studios to allow free downloads of episodes of “The Office” and others for TV Academy members and readers of the Hollywood trade newspapers. All we needed was a passcode.

What would happen if they moved just slightly further and started looking towards sliding scale rentals? In fact, what if they decided to become the corporate sponsor of something like Emerging’s “Undiscovered Gems” or took on that task themselves. In a flash, Apple could become a film distributor for films that don’t have other distribution channels. In short, they could become a broadcaster. Singlehandedly, they could become a viable channel for all types of popular and niche films and television. We wouldn’t have to disguise them as video podcasts anymore (and house them on our own servers). In one bold stroke, Apple could become the dominant force in independent (for now) film distribution. Rather than simply being a retailer (the way they are with the record, film and television distributors) they would be a distributor.

And maybe that’s where it’s all going anyway — back to the days when the film distributor and retailer were one and the same (until the Paramount Consent Decree of 1948 outlawed the ownership of movie theaters by the studios).

And that, my friends, is probably studios like NBC/Universal are out to kill iTunes That is a future that they don’t like at all.