Feeling my way

So Apple’s looking for somebody to ‘Take Maps to the Next Level‘. If ever there was a phrase that falls with a dull thud, there it is.

There’s nothing wrong with maps. Not Maps, just maps in general. They’re great. It’s an amazing spin on our experience of the world, where our vision is translated into a top down view of the world. We dream of flying, yet our imagination does this over abstract concepts and three dimensional experiences with ease every day. It’s not even a particularly modern or hi-tech thing, but more an innate human understanding, as the Mappa Mundi and Australian aboriginal art demonstrates.

So that’s why I have two rather un-thumbed tomes on my desk: Objective C for Dummies and iPhone Application Development for Dummies. Hey, I had a Sinclair ZX81 and learned BASIC on a Commodore PET, I’ve written Lingo that makes an Interative CD-ROM do vaguely useful things. I too can write iPhone apps!

Because maps are Old Skool.

When the iPhone 3Gs came out, with its combination of GPS and compass, I was so excited. In an interface-geek kind of way.

I want to fondle my iPhone in my pocket or wear it up my sleeve. I want to wave it hither and thither like a hyper accurate dowsing rod and follow a route that you can feel as little ‘bumps’ by rolling over a virtual string that’s been created by location-aware helper apps.

Your GPS location and your iPhone’s compass orientation work together to give a simple non-visual feedback that works in any language, in any environment. Reach out and feel the virtual guide rope. As you wave your arm around, or simply spin it in your pocket, there’s a little ‘clunk’ – not a buzz, but a short yet heavy ‘clunk’ you can rock over. Like rolling a mouse over a big bit of grit. Just like Derren Brown feeling for micro-motor anomalies in an Italian passer-by, but a lot easier and quicker; you navigate round a strange space by a sort of virtual touch.

So all I need is to work out a direction finding routine – surely built into Maps already, and tap into the APIs for the GPS, the Compass and the wobbler (sorry, the documentation I’ve read so far doesn’t say what the API refers to to make the thing go ‘clunk’).

I’ll then generate some really great marketing spin at the tail end of beta testing – do some viral video with lots of people waving stuff in front of them, the parody of dowsing, then cutting a deal into a bit of pulp fiction centering around some American city that also has ties into more European cities, then sit back and wait for the millions to roll in from the iStore.

Except I fell at the first fence.

I really shouldn’t write code. I am really bad at it, I don’t have the mathematical knowledge, the patience or the raw skill to get beyond the ‘hello world’ stage. And I haven’t enjoyed getting that far. It’s like trying to write poetry in a foreign language or write a National Anthem for an obscure musical instrument. You really need to know stuff that’s not about what you want to do. There’s so much stuff you need to know just to get over the Programming 101 that, well, really, look – I don’t do Pointers or memory management or all that stuff. I thought I could explain a bubble sort, but I got it all wrong. Programming will shorten my life, and the gravestone will have a syntax error.

So maybe I’ll make that ‘iPhone Torch’ app that’s a tenth of the quality of the worst of iStore but I will use because I WROTE IT (no I didn’t, I copied the code from an example and modified it in the hope I could make a 2900K version but settled for ‘white’). And even that will develop a memory leak and my once reliable iPhone will require a twice-weekly restart until I restore the thing from scratch.

So folks, ideas are cheap. Implementing them is really hard. Funding their implementation is extremely risky. Risk gets more reward than hard work. Hard work gets more reward than coming up with an idea. But coming up with an idea, working hard at it and backing it up at risk to yourself can be very successful… or not.

So I really hope we can take Maps to the next level. Not just super-maps, but something beyond abstracted wiggly lines. Even just a little quiet variable-pitch whistle that does the ‘warmer/colder’ childhood game to find your goal.

And no, that’s not my idea. Ian Flemming, Goldfinger, the book, not the film.

Dedo LEDzilla – a lustworthy toy

ledzillaI’ll admit right up front that one of the joys of the work I do is the acceptance that a lot of the kit I use is actually my own grown-up toybox. There are my favourites, there are some let-downs, and best of all there are the amazing press-nose-to-window must haves to yearn for. And the latest one of these is the Dedo Onboard LED Lamp, affectionately known as ‘LEDzilla’.

At first glance, it’s another in the litany of on-camera lamps – sun guns, bashers, reporter lamps, many of which are used like searchlights in the dark. As such, their lighting quality is more technical than aesthetic, being the equivalent of an on-camera flashgun for stills. Sure, it illuminates what ever is in front of the camera, but the subject ends up like a medical specimen or a startled rabbit rather than a beautiful picture. News doesn’t happen where the best light can be found, and there comes a point in any videographer’s work roster where your camera is going to need some help. But that’s where many of these devices sat.

The issue with on-camera lights and dark surroundings is one of the fundamental laws of physics: the Inverse Square Law. Basically, if you have a light close to your subject, the amount of fall-off is pretty huge, so the tip of a nose could be over exposed and the ears too dark. As distance increases, so the fall-off gets much better, but the amount of light in general falls off too, so you have to start off with more light, or focus that light into a narrow tunnel – and putting lenses on lights (Dedo owners have already guessed where I’m going with this) makes them heavy and not exactly camera-top friendly. Throwing more light without lenses requires a lot more power, and that brings back unhappy memories of doing a Chewbacca impression by wearing a couple of PAG belts to power a sun-gun and camera (as the camera assistant I might add – in the days of plumbicon ENG cameras) but I digress.

I’ve purchased a lovely little ‘helper’ lamp – the LitePanels Micro which has done a great job of filling in the shadows under eyes in office lighting, putting a little sparkle in hair if held over the top of an interviewee, or to cast a ‘screen glow’ from a computer display or laptop. Its light weight and battery power means it can be stuck in all sorts of odd places. But it’s a close-up lamp. The LEDs’ light dissipates too quickly for any sort of distance work beyond a couple of feet as a primary source, and maybe double that as a fill.

But overall power of a lamp isn’t the deciding factor. As cameras get more and more sensitive in low light, you need some control to perhaps lift an interviewee out of a dim background by washing just a leetle bit of light, not blasting them out like an out-take from close encounters. So the dimmability of a fill-in lamp is extremely desirable, to take ambient light up one stop, or to fill ambient light and take shadows up to one stop below.

So to cut to the chase: Rick and I meet up at a big job recently, and he’s got his new Dedo LEDzilla. In the daylit foyer of a big convention centre (okay, let’s name drop – the Palais des Festival in Cannes), he’s able to boost the shadows enough to give a nice glow to faces in a contrasty lighting area (with spill from neon, tungten and the like). The rushes are great! I get to play with it a bit – it’s a miniature, battery powered Dedolight. The Dedo lens system is there, focusing an intense beam for long throws, or putting out a nice wide glow with edge to edge evenness (no bright spots or dim doughnuts, or spurious colouration towards the edge). A flip down Tungsten filter doesn’t knock the lamp back much – loads of power to spare. And it seems to run forever on a Z1 battery.

Okay, so it’s a hard light source. Nothing wrong with that – key lights were hard for ages. It takes more precision to set a hard keylight as a soft key is very forgiving, but I’d be tempted to use it more in natural lighting situations as a filler, as well as a hard key in indoor situations like voxpops – even if it goes on a bendy arm hanging off the tripod to get it off the camera’s axis. It’s light enough and wire free to have in a stuff-bag, and whilst an Arri Magic Arm might be required for a mains powered Dedo, the LEDzilla is small enough to be supported on a gorillagrip or gooseneck.

And because it’s small and battery powered, it’s a great effect lamp too. We did a little setup where I could hide the lamp between a couple of props, and because the light is focused through lenses, there’s so little spill that the attached barn doors are for shaping rather than flagging – so its position is invisible.

In comparison with other LED lamps I’ve played with, it’s an incredibly well thought out tool: the lamp body is like an anglepoise lamp – getting the lamp away from the lens axis to get some modelling from shadows. The spot and flood control is incredible when you consider how small this unit is. The dimming is a lot smoother than the LitePanels and can do that ‘gleam’ barely-on setting that will lift shadows in dark environments. It will also throw a beam of light across a room with enough oomph to key an talking head.

Although I’ll be keeping the LitePanels, I know I’ll get far more use out of the LEDzilla, and I can even fantasize about having several as a miniature interview lighting setup.

So Long SD

I’ve spent the best part of today trawling through the raw footage that I and my colleagues have shot of a particular event over the last five years, and found myself musing at the astonishing jump in quality we’ve witnessed.

So I’m looking at DSR570 footage – this is standard definition, 16:9 DVCAM done right. Putting Z1 footage next to DSR570 was like putting a vesta meal next to a proper curry. A DSR570 in good hands will capture great things and whilst not quite DigiBeta, the cameraman will make sure the images pop.

Now lets roll in an EX1 shooting at 720p. It’s a third of the cost of a DSR570 with good SD lens. It’s a little cocktail sausage of a camera – a big pointy stick through the middle of it would be a pleasing image to many people. It has a fixed factory lens on the front of it, and if you want to go wider or longer, you have to screw bits of bottle-bottom glass to it.

But the difference in picture quality – gawd, even though we have to scale it down to SD, it just kicks the DSR570 and 450′s butt. Okay, so most of the DSR footage is interlaced – because that’s what we did in the last century. Sigh. Interlace brings with it such a heavy payload to web video that I never wish to deal with it again. As for the Z1? How did we let this camera get away with its soft lens, oversharpened image, poor light sensitivity and dull image?

Yes, I did say web video. We’re now in a position where web video is at full SD quality (approximately 960×540, which is quarter 1080p) on YouTube, and full-on 1280×720 over at Vimeo. We can make beautiful and iridescent video at these resolutions that make the old school DVCAM 2/3″ cameras look like pin-hole cameras. Because most cameras were never set up to capture the full exposure range they might have been capable of, and stuck slavishly to broadcast video specifications from several decades ago, their images have to be pulled through post like an A&E victim.

Okay, so I am hamming things up a little. De-interlacing, scaling up and applying some colour correction to add a little zip to the images is hardly open-heart surgery. It’s more like tipping a spoonful of Calpol in its gob and sending it back to PE. But SD is so ‘done’, so ‘over’, so ‘finished’. An EX1 makes images that a DSR570 was never designed to do.

So now I need to cajole all my cameraman and DoP friends to pick up a Sausage-On-Stick EX1(R) and treat it like the decent tool it is, not that horrible little box-brownie called the Z1. But that’s unfair. I have spent too long in 720p to take SD seriously any more. I’m about to launch into a proper grown-up film-ou 1080 project too. After a couple of years in these lofty formats, Standard Definition – even PAL – seems just so… Lame?