Back to school

This may be a missive in the school of ‘Painfully and Slowly Working Out the Patently Obvious’, but in the face of a sudden delay in the start of an edit, I decided to splash out on something to cheer me up until the tapes arrive (four to six hour delay). And being a bit of a sad git at heart, what do I choose? To cuddle up to an Iain M. Banks? To go for a long cycle ride in the balmy summer air?

No, I’m watching training material.

There’s a lot of really great training material out there on very exciting subjects. And I’m surfacing from a long dip in Ripple Training’s Compressor 3. Yes, the thought of ploughing through a few hour’s worth of Compressor training is hardly going to make a spike on most people’s Richter scale, but it pays off.

The first comment I’d make to any new investor in any of the many of the downloadable training programmes from the likes of Ripple Training, Lynda.com and Total Training, is to watch EVERYTHING, don’t skip the first few chapters even if you’re drumming your fingers through it thinking that this is all in the manual. I suddenly discovered the ‘Upload via FTP’ destination and the ‘FLV’ encoding elements in my Compressor that I didn’t know I had. Soon you’ll be into deep dive stuff, inserting chapter markers, hooking cheap hardware to accelerate your H.264 Compressor encodes, optimising your WMV encodes, learning how not to reduce your Mac to an unresponsive jelloid mass by not switching on unnecessary options and using job chaining, how to avoid unnecessary key frames cluttering up your natural stuff, and making very nice video for distribution and optimal use within Final Cut Pro. And on and on.

The benefit for any UK based Final Cut Pro editors is that the dollar is so Euro amp; Pound friendly that good training is an absolute bargain. Lynda.com and Pixel Corps offer very very broad ranges of materials (The Corps has a more cliquey follow-on meet-your-tutor, discuss-with-peers feel, Lynda has oodles of everything to watch and learn, but doesn’t follow on – take your pick). Ripple Training is focussed on the Final Cut Pro niche, and if you ‘dress to the Adobe’, Total Training makes training you want to watch. Beyond that, many kind and talented souls have made screencast tutorials and all of them have much to offer.

Okay. Now and again, there’s the occasional dog. A ‘what a waste of everything’ moment. But at least by churning through the tutorials and the training, you’re able to discern, and that means you’re learning. Learning and training leads to doing better, doing it faster. Increasingly effective earning power. And now, with any luck, that bike with the tape hasn’t left yet, so I can take another sneak peek at Ripple Training’s Motion 3 Deep Dive.

Being a Monitor

Thanks to those who suggested alternatives to the HD25 headphones, which are now repaired thanks to the lovely people at Richmond Film Services. But this debacle has illuminated an interesting angle on things.

Yes, there are headphones that are ‘better sounding’ than the HD25s. Yes, noise canceling is really great, and the HD25 doesn’t do that (relying instead on a vice-like grip that glues your earlobes to your skull, which I hate). Most assuredly yes, there are more comfortable cans than HD25s.

My HD25s are audio monitors. I don’t want them to make things sound good, I need them to tell me what things sound like (Behold, the sound of a stable door being bolted over an empty void).

Ditto video monitors. I can buy a very very nice TV set for the price of my modest 15″ monitor, and it will display beautiful video images. But it’s not showing me what I’ve got, it’s showing me what I want to see. My interlace rant is a good expample: if you don’t check your interlaced footage on an interlaced monitor (CRT), you may never see the horrors of field dominance errors – usually from motion graphics inserted into a DV edit, or DV and higher end formats on the same timeline.

Analogy time. If your doctor took an X-Ray of you, and the X-Ray display device sort of fluffed your bones up and made them look nice and hid some imperfections in the internal organs, it wouldn’t be much use.

So we need to understand why we pay more for a less flattering result. The only trick is knowing how to spot a high quality monitor from a poor reproduction unit. Apart from peer review, sadly it seems to come down to the weight of the price tag.

Analogue Audio, now there's a thing!

In the virtual local pub that is the interweb’s many forums, a few of us gathered to pontificate about HDV audio recently.

Of course, DV audio is all nice and dandy, and HDV has a little taint about it because it is compressed. Oh, I can feel hackles rising and feathers fluffing from here. Purists want ‘anything with pretentions of broadcast or film-out’ to have separate sound recorded onto a proper device. Now, I’ve got no problem with HDV sound for voice, on the basis that I usually record HDV audio at a little higher level than is considered polite for DVCAM (e.g. I allow levels to simmer around -12dB rather than the more conservative -18dB). But then again, we all know that most people set the level in any format so that the little red dot doesn’t get lit. Whatever.

Lots of beard stroking about dynamic range, frequency response, preponderance of ear wax, and so on. But just before it all got too boring and sounding like a pitch shifted playground conversation, somebody piped up that today’s HDV camcorders have audio systems with dynamic range that supersedes Nagras of a decade ago. And yet Nagras are still insanely popular and make great recordings used on the silver screen to this day.

There’s more to good sound than its recording format. In these enlightened times, lots of boxes in the chain (radio mic transmitters, receivers, mixers, camera inputs, ingest methods, audio out in edit, compressed audio in final output) can do lots and lots of helpful things to prevent you from buggering up your audio, but at the same time, their automatic helpfulness can sometimes hide big problems under the virtual carpet. Alarm bells don’t ring, but the audio sounds muffled because… oh. Right. Now you remember – you lent your wireless dongle to somebody who’s upped its levels for mic use, and now you’re plugging in a quiet line level from a sound feed. Sounds a bit fluffy – must be the feed.

No. It was the limiters in the wireless TX. Working hard to make sure that the cloth-eared wouldn’t notice that it was being fed the equivalent of molten lava and passing on pure spring water.

And hopefully my HD25 cans will be repaired soon. Monitoring sound on iPod ear buds is like monitoring video wearing cheap scratched sunglasses.

Food for thought

It may be a little post-modern to blog about a blog, but you may be interested in Alex Gollner’s recent post over at Editing Organised.

He’s teased apart a little innocuous patent approval from Apple, and from there comes a dizzying view of a potential future of media funding opportunities.

To be honest, my first reaction to the announcement was ‘oh great, Apple are trying to patent something that already exists’ and thought little of it, other than perhaps buying shares in IP law firms. Then when I read Alex’s post, I noticed the ‘Access denied’ route. If you don’t want to watch the ad, you can’t watch the video. You pay for the video by watching the ad. Hence it’s just another form of DRM.

And that’s where it gets interesting. You can pay to not watch ads in your media. Hmmm. That could get very expensive very quickly. As in making the UK BBC License Fee seem quite reasonable. Tot up the BBC, a standard satellite or cable subscription, add your mobile, roaming charges, internet dues, a few online subscriptions, maybe even the occasional tip jar payment, and this is before one starts paying $2 per episode of whatever. I’d like a bit of free, quite frankly.

But that little rant misses the interesting tie-ins between companies with cash and content creators that are possible in this system.

It’s an interesting read.

The Progressive Society – Pt 2

Right. That’s it. I’ve had it with interlacing.

It was a cool trick back in the days of Ye Olde Cathode Ray Tube and valves, but interlacing is hanging around like a bad smell in these days of LCD and Plasma displays.

  • Is this web page interlaced? No.
  • Are any computer screens interlaced? No.
  • Is a video projector interlaced? No.
  • Is your TV at home interlaced? Well..

Maybe yes, if you haven’t gone flat panel yet (guilty m’lud), but you’d be hard pressed to pick up an interlaced TV set of any sort of quality at your local TV store.

And herein lies the rub: putting interlaced video onto a progressive scan display device LOWERS the resolution. Either by quite a bit (25%) or by a lot (50%). A lot of the cheaper LCD TVs simply chuck out every other field and double up what’s left. That’s why it’s cheap – or ‘Good Value’ and why TV looks all fuzzy and horrible. Higher end sets do some magic and scaling through hardware, but it’s not quite that beautiful astonishing look you get when you work out how to feed a true progressive source into a progressive screen.

But that’s exactly where television is moving. People are consuming audiovisual entertainment in places other than in front of the family screen. Web video, downloaded movies and the like are becoming the norm.

Now this is why I’m all hot under the collar: I’ve been producing progressive scan video for ‘data delivery’, and recently had cause to shoot a job in interlaced DV. Of course, it had things like captions in it, some graphics. Looks great on a PAL CRT monitor. But it was detstined for a life on an intranet, and being played from within PowerPoint. It needed to be deinterlaced (the horror of the Mouse Teeth is still in working memory). And behold… the zing, the sharpness, the ineffable vim of the whole thing has been diluted.

When web movies were 320×240 and MPEG1 files for PowerPoint weren’t much larger, the loss of resolution through deinterlacing wasn’t noticable, but mark this well: Web video has supersized. Measuring between 512×288 right up to 1280×720, there isn’t enough scaling down to hide the deinterlacing softness under the carpet.

So that’s it. It’s official.

I’m not shooting another frame of interlaced video.

The Progressive Society – Pt 1

I’m wrapping up a little trio of edits which involve bringing together existing footage from a variety of not-exactly-optimal sources (odd MPEG1 files, WMVs, some DV, all 4:3) with some professionally shot 720p footage. Thank goodness for FCP’s multi-format timeline (and MPEGstreamClip for converting virtually anything into anything else).

Of course, I’ve been editing 720p pretty much exclusively for months now, so when some DV footage needed to be inserted, I faced… Cue dramatic chord: The Curse of the Mouse Teeth From Hell.

I guess that if you’ve only ever edited DV footage, especially if you edit your own material, you’ll just shrug your shoulders and wonder what I’m on about. But if you’ve ever dropped in a bit of NTSC into a PAL timeline, or scaled up some DV, you’ll have seen those unsightly blocky edges that suddenly appear around anything that moves. As if some monster rat has been nibbling away at your video.

We’re not talking that blocky pixels from overworked compression or a bad tape dropout, we’re talking bobbly edges on things that move fast in frame. It’s caused by the interlaced video being stretched in a non standard way. For example, NTSC being stretched from 720×480 to 720×576, or PAL being stretched up from 720×576 to 1280×720. The on-off-on-off cadence goes to pot, and the fields are chosen in a ‘knit 3, pearl 7′ way, and you get… video that’s been attacked by monster-mice when anything moves.

Well, all this rodentry is only mentioned because I found a quick and dirty fix. Whilst not exactly perfect, it doesn’t rely on a quarter of a million quid’s worth of Snell & Wilcox Alchemist either.

Get the properties of your upscaled and interlaced footage, and set the clip’s properties to a field dominance of none. It gets scaled progressively, gaining some softness and quasi motion-blur at the expense of the crisp video like motion.

Spoiled

Last Saturday, shot a very interesting event for a colleague. Lots of action, lots of fun, beautiful day for it. Only caveat – he needed it to be a Z1 shoot. HDV. 1080i50.

Not a problem. So I arrived and shot as usual using a mutually agreed Picture Profile (Black Stretch On, Sharpening at 9, No Cinegamma or other diversions). Audio consisted of camera mounted short shot-gun on channel 1, AKG reporter mic with Sennheiser wireless dongle on channel 2 – I should point out it was a very windy day with vox pops shot outdoors. The AKG 230 is an amazing tool. You can bash nails in with it, play rounders with it and even record very nice sound with it in noisy windy environments. I was recording interviews in a Sea Breeze next to fire engines and diesel generators, and getting really nice sound considering the impossible surroundings.

And herein lies the rub: it sounded great. The Z1′s unburstable audio circuitry coped with everything from quiet teenager interviews with event PA echoing in the background, to enthusiastic organiser almost shouting down the mic in a stiff wind. All shot on HDV, and it’s… well, it’s all very okay.

Shots of a lifetime: BCU of police helicopters, RNLI rescue boats, and it’s all nice. Well exposed, in focus. But I’m seeing HDV compression in areas of blue sky around my helicopter. I’m seeing sharp shots of Lifeboat go fuzzy when I deinterlace. I’m seeing the limits of exposure range in shadow and highlight detail as an interview is conducted with sun going in and out behind clouds. And through all of this, watching it ingest, I’m thinking ‘if only I’d shot all this on my EX1′. The truth is this: the footage is fine. I’ve turned into something I used to hate: an anti-HDV bigot. And that on top of being a Progressive Zealot. There is no hope…