2 10 2010

The death this week of Arthur Penn, the great film, theater and television director, brought back some memories. I worked as a music editor with him on three films – FOUR FRIENDS, TARGET and DEAD OF WINTER and felt him an amazing collaborator, along with his long-time sidekick Gene Lasko, and a gentle man.

One of the first things I learned from him, though, has very little to do with music, but everything to do with how films grow organically and how none of us can know everything.

Craig Wasson, Michael Huddleston and Jim Metzler from FOUR FRIENDS (Courtesy Festivalblog)

It was on the set of the film FOUR FRIENDS, which we shot in the Chicago area. One of the very first days of shooting was a night shoot in which the four high school friends, living in the mid-1960s, met in the middle of a suburban street, approaching each other from opposite sides of the street.

Arthur, who by this time had directed ten films (including the amazing works BONNIE AND CLYDE, ALICE’S RESTAURANT, MICKEY ONE, and THE MIRACLE WORKER), a few TV movies, and something like three dozen episodes of television shows, set up the first master shot so that it followed three of the characters as they danced down the street playing the New World, until they stopped — out of breath.

As the music editor on the film, one of my responsibilities on the film was to work with the four actors so they knew their musical parts (we were recording live, even though we would eventually replace the music in post) and could play it together. I watched as Arthur set up that first wide shot, and worked it until we got it done. We followed two of the characters down the street, as they played a bit from Dvorak’s New World Symphony on their instruments with the other two — who were off camera for most of the shot. Eventually, the camera (which was on Garrett Brown’s Steadicam) moved to the center of the street as the shot turned into a four shot, with the four friends playing to each other. (I should mention that Jodi Thelen’s character was named Georgia, and they all had a major crush on her in some way — hence the choice of the piece by screenwriter Steve Tesich).

After getting a good take on that first master shot, Arthur proceeded to line up the camera for the first piece of coverage. He and the d.p. (Oscar winner Ghislain Cloquet) walked around for a bit with their director’s viewfinders, setting up the shot until Arthur finally looked up and told the first assistant director, Cheryl Downey, that he had actually set up the first (Steadicam) shot incorrectly. Instead of ending up in the middle of the street pointing to the four characters, he really should have ended up with the camera on the sidewalk, pointing to the opposite side of the street for the characters’ four shot.

In other words, the shot we had spent forever setting up and getting would have to be redone.

Arthur looked around, apologized to the crew, and we all went out and prepped for the revised master shot.  Which we got in record time. Happily.

Now, the point that I’m making isn’t that even a director of Penn’s stature can make a mistake. We are all human, and we all can make mistakes. No, what I’m pointing out is that the genius of Arthur leading this crew and allowing himself the ability to discover the best filmmaking approach as the film develops.  Despite an amazing career, a great cinematographer, and a professional crew surrounding him, Arthur learned something about the scene and wasn’t afraid to take his lumps in front of the crew as he admitted it.

He learned as he shot. And that is an amazing ability. In my book THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, I said it myself (I believe in the first or second edition). I have never had a job in which I didn’t learn something. When I get to the place where I stop learning, it’s time to quit.

There was another time when I found myself amazed at something that Arthur did on that film. We were shooting a scene in which a group of high school students, in an auditorium, stormed the stage during an Army recruiting speech, singing “Hit The Road Jack.” We were shooting coverage onto the audience and Arthur put the camera on a very short dolly track and as the students came up to the front of the stage he pushed in ever so slightly. It didn’t look like much on the stage where we were all standing behind the camera. In fact, it didn’t even look so impressive the next night when we all watched it in dailies.

But, several months later, when I saw the scene as editor Barry Malkin had cut it, as I was smoothing out the music for a screening, that short little dolly move took my breath away. Even on my tiny 35mm Moviola screen.

FOUR FRIENDS came and went relatively quickly, but I learned several things about learning from Arthur Penn on that movie — I learned to question my own assumptions — that shot that I was sure wasn’t that impressive turned out to be just right. And I also learned how to act when something I learned changed my thinking in front of my collaborators. It’s never too late to learn, I learned. It’s only when we stop learning that it comes “too late.”



Production and Post Wars (or Why Red Should Buy Final Cut)

29 04 2010

Well, all right, I’m exaggerating there. I don’t really think that Red should buy FCP, and Production and Post aren’t exactly at war (though sometime you’d be forgiven if you thought that) but I want to make a point here.

Every year it seems that camera manufacturers create many “improved” codecs that answer their needs — increased quality with reduced file size. However, that goal is pretty much immaterial to post-production professionals. We don’t care if an image takes up a large file size. In fact, with the faster processors and cheaper storage costs (last I checked, a medium-ish quality 2Tb drive costs less than $300 on Amazon), we don’t much care what size the original file is. If it’s too big to use, we’ll just create a lower rez transcode in ProRes or DNxHD and edit with that. In fact, it’s more important to editors that it be easy to edit.

This means that Long GOP file formats, where most frames are not stored as full frames but as a smaller list of changes from the preceding frame, are horrible. They are exceedingly hard to edit with. Whatever speed gains we might conceivably get from working in a smaller file size are more than undermined by the extra work our NLEs need to do in order to display them.

[Note of ignorance. I haven’t yet had a chance to play with the parts of the new version (5.0) of Avid Media Composer which allegedly make a lie out of that last sentence. Pushing their Avid Media Access technology forward, and allowing the Media Composer to natively work in Quicktime, Red and various Long GOP formats, they promise to make editing much easier with these previously hated formats. This has proved to be true in my experience with the Sony EX-1 and EX-3 cameras, so this could be a great boon. And I’ll talk about that in a few paragraphs, so stay tuned.]

Let’s face it. Editors are never going to get camera manufacturers to stop looking for their version of “better” codecs. We’ve long since learned to live with it. But it does mean that, unless these manufacturers work ahead of time with the NLE manufacturers (the way Red did with Apple, for instance, before the initial release of the Red One) it’s going to take some time for our favorite NLEs to catch up with each new release of a camera codec.

It’s a war and the winner of that war is… well… no one. But the biggest loser is the filmmaker.

This is less of a visible problem on the bigger budget productions where the camera and editorial departments are made up of different people, each of whom have varying levels of tech support that go beyond typing “Long GOP won’t work” into a Google search bar. But as more and more of us are shooting with small crews, and taking it back into the editing room where we have to ingest and edit it (and output it) ourselves, this becomes more than an annoyance, it becomes an impediment to our livelihoods (you know who I’m talking about, you WEVA folks out there).

So, what’s the best solution to this war? Is hope for reconciliation only slightly less feasible than the Democrats and Republicans agreeing on anything in Washington today?

Well, yes it is. But there are some signs of hope.

I’ve already mentioned Avid’s AMA. What that does is create a set of open architecture hooks for camera manufacturers, so that they can more easily create a way for editors to edit natively in the Media Composer. It’s an attempt to make it easier to do what Red did with Final Cut before the Red One’s release.

In both cases, it’s the NLE manufacturers telling the camera manufacturers — “Hey, if you’re going to create your own camera codecs, you’ll have to create your own editing codecs.” Well, not exactly, but Apple and Avid are placing the onus on the camera manufacturers to dig themselves out of their self-constructed hole. And that makes sense, so long as your NLE is one that has enough of an audience to make it worth the camera folks’ attention. I might be wrong, but I doubt that Sony, Panasonic, Red and the HD-DSLR manufacturers are going to spend buckets of money writing plug-ins for Liquid or Vegas.

So, what are our other alternatives?

In the old days, every single camera manufacturer had to create cameras that worked with the industry standard 35mm film gauge. If they wanted to create a film that was a different width — such as, say, 38mm — they had to be able to manufacture the film, the lab processing equipment, the editing equipment and the projectors to accommodate that.

Needless to say, we never saw 38mm film. [We did see 16mm and 70mm film — which at half and double the normal size was easy for Kodak to manufacture film for. When it became clear how it opened up new markets, the camera, editing and distribution worlds came along for the ride (to greater or lesser degree).]

But what if a company could manufacture a camera and editing and distribution equipment (like Sony) and didn’t have their heads up their posteriors (like, uh.., like… oh never mind)? In a frighteningly anti-competitive way, they could then create a camera codec that worked fine in both capture and post production.

We haven’t yet seen that company, though if Red bought Final Cut from Apple (or MC from Avid, let’s say) it would certainly be a start in that direction. Please note, I have absolutely no inside information on anything that Red, Final Cut or Avid might be up to. For all I know, Apple is planning on buying Red, though that would shock me in ways that I can’t describe in public.

In the meantime, Red Cine X and AMA are two ways that post and production are attempting to bridge the gap. last time I looked, Avid wasn’t manufacturing cameras, which will make it more difficult to keep up with Red Cine X.

When Cisco bought Flip last year, I was hoping that we’d see some real synergy in the production and post areas. At the very least, I was hoping that we’d see some changes in the Flip that would enable them to interact with the web backbone much more easily. That hasn’t happened yet, and there’s no indication that it’s imminent.

But wouldn’t it be awesome if someone came up with a series of codecs that could take footage shot by a camera, make it easily editing ready and trivially distribution ready. By this, I mean more than projector-ready (something that I am hoping that Red Ray will pave a path for) but will make it easier to distribute files safely to theater owners, television networks, web distributors, mobile device partners, et al.

And, I’m hoping that these solutions are provided by multiple companies so we don’t have to be tied to one technology.

Whoever creates that chain will be the Dag Hammarskjöld of all things digital video, and their company will be its United Nations. Peace at last!



A Great Example of Crowd Sourcing

24 08 2009

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a great example of a crowd sourced music video which popped up on the web at the beginning of the summer. I meant to mention it then but… I don’t know… life intervened.

Shot for the Japanese band Sour’s song “Hibi no Neiro” (which means something like “Everyday Tone”) this is a great example of how you can make something incredibly creative with very little money and involve your fans in the process. Their fans are much more likely to be involved and support Sour after something like this.

SOUR ‘日々の音色 (Hibi no neiro)’



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.



Test Screenings

15 12 2008

John August, the screenwriter and blogger who is an incredible resource to the online film community, has a post about putting together a test screening questionnaire. I’ll let you go away and read it.

My response:

Three caveats on the questionnaire:

  1. First, don’t be surprised when the scenes that appear on the “scenes I liked most” list, also show up on the “scenes I liked least” list. It happens every time and, in a funny sort of way, means that you’re pushing some buttons. Not a bad thing.
  2. Second, be very very careful how you ask the question about things that concern you (this is especially true in the those awful focus groups after the screenings). As soon as you ask whether the audience had a problem with something, you’ve called it out to them and they start responding to perceived problems, even if they didn’t feel them. If you have an issue with the music in your film, don’t ask about the music, ask if there were things that contributed to the audience’s enjoyment or lack of enjoyment of the film.  You get the idea. As soon as you give them a pencil, they all think they’re Roger Ebert.
  3. And, finally, be very very careful about what changes you make as a result of the questionnaires. Too many people use it to justify something they’ve wanted to do all along, and others use it as a cudgel to beat someone over the head. Each audience is different and each person in each audience is different. Take everything as information, not as marching orders.

That having been said, I’ve often learned a lot about the films I’ve worked on through test screenings.  There was a screening of the film HAIR, on which I was an assistant editor and assistant music editor to the incredibly talented John Strauss, for which we got a comment that the viewer “liked the scene with Claude’s sister.” The problem was that the John Savage character didn’t have a sister in the film — the person was referring to Beverly D’Angelo’s character, Sheila.

What was obvious to us at that point was that at least one person hadn’t realized the relationship that these people really had in the film. And that was important to us.

So, we did a few questions in that focus group trying to discover if others had that perception — asking who else liked his sister, how they felt about his sister, did they like what happened to his sister at the end (well, we didn’t do it that obviously, but you get the idea). And, lo and behold, we found that most people understood that the two weren’t related but a few didn’t.

We fixed it in the next cut.



What Film Production Is Like

10 07 2008

So, this is what happens if you don’t take good care of your film.



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.



How Not To Screw Up Your HD Project

24 03 2008

Chad Denning and the folks over at Gamma Blast, a Nashville-based post-production house have put together a pretty straight-forward guide to bringing your project into an HD format. Subtitled “Be A Hero in Your HD Project” the piece, the guide talks about the various flavors of HD, as well as issues involving Standard Definition. The most important bit of information, to my mind, comes in the first paragraph.

Thinking backwards from the distribution step will guide the process for HD because the technical requirements of the distributor will dictate what you need.

In other words, don’t just shoot. Prepare to shoot. And make sure that the preparation takes into account the full project — all the way through post-production. As any number of wiser people than me have noted, the camera manufacturers are rapidly addressing production issues (easy capture onto the smallest amount of digital media possible), without acknowledging that the needs of post-production are almost the exact reverse (memory is so cheap that we hate what compression — particularly HDV compression — will do to our process).

So, it is wisest to know what you’re going to have to deliver at the end of your process as you’re making decisions about what to capture on.

Thanks go to Larry Jordan and the Digital Production Buzz podcast for the interview with Denning that led me to this website.



P2 and Tech Talk

4 02 2008

Shane Ross, over at Little Frog In High Def, has a post in which he talks about the changes in P2 workflow with the new HVX-200 camera. Here is an excerpt:

I got my hands onto an HVX-200 camera so that I could do P2 demos at MacWorld. I went out to shoot footage and when I tried to apply this workflow, I found that I couldn’t trash the contents. They were locked and I could not unlock them. READ ONLY. And if I reformatted the card as MS-DOS (FAT-32) then put the card back into the camera, it was an unrecognized format. I HAD to reformat the card in the camera. That was the only solution. Oh, I could open the LOG AND TRANSFER interface in Final Cut Pro and delete the files in there. But that is slow and not too slick. And while the P2 Viewer that Panasonic makes can reformat the card…it is PC only. So us Mac guys, a HUGE part of the HVX-200 and P2 market, were left in the cold.

Apart from the value of this post (thanks Shane!!), this raises an interesting issue. In a recent Digital Production Buzz, the usually great podcast with Larry Jordan, Mike Horton and Phil Hodgetts, Larry and Mike were talking with Richard Townhill, one of the heads of the Pro Apps Group at Apple (they’re responsible for Final Cut, Soundtrack Pro, DVD Studio Pro, Logic, et al). On this show, from January 10, 2008, Townhill mentioned the bane of a post-production. Camera manufacturers are continually coming up with new formats designed to solve production problems. Now that we are deeply into tapeless work flow, manufacturers are interested in providing maximum shooting time with minimal space requirements on disk, and also decreasing record speeds (throughput).

As Townhill and Jordan both noted, these are meaningless goals in post production where we have great desktop bandwidth and unlimited amounts of relatively cheap storage at our disposal.

So the needs of camera manufacturers are, in part, opposed to the needs of editors. As a result, camera manufacturers are continually updating their codecs and capture technology. Even at the expense of editors. It took Avid about six months to test and come up with a P2 workflow. The new Sony EX codecs aren’t available yet for either platform. The Red workflow isn’t available on several NLE platforms now (since I’m told that they’ve struck a deal with Apple). Large amounts of R&D money and time need to be spent simply keeping up with camera manufacturers.

I’m not saying that this shouldn’t happen. Lord knows, I’m in favor of innovation wherever it happens (so long as it happens for user needs, rather than marketing). But these changes take time to ripple through the entire filmmaking chain. Just because the camera manufacturers have come up with a format, doesn’t mean that a project can be completed in it. And even if finishing tools are available, there’s no guarantee that they’re workable or clean (we’ve still to come up with a viable backup strategy for tapeless workflow, that combines ease of use in the field with reliable backup — the cheaper Sony EX might actually point the way).

Are you listening producers and post production schedulers?

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Using An iPhone as a TImecode Slate

25 12 2007

iPhone as timecode slateScott Simmons, over at The Editblog, has a cool post about how to use the iPhone as a timecode slate, for the really really really cheap among you producers out there (but who hire editors who can afford the iPhone).

Along the way, he dispenses a few nuggets of information about how to edit music videos which may be shot in low budget mode.

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