iPad – or should that have been LooBook Pro?

Or even ‘a little something for the weekend’?

Like the 2000 network engineers whom I’m filming in Barcelona this week, I downed tools to watch the Apple announcement of their new toy: the iPad.

It is, to all intents and purposes, a big iPhone. Big enough to watch stuff on, read stuff (in colour, in magazine format, rather than a Kindle-like virtual page), browse stuff, send stuff, tweet stuff, and do a whole lot of things that iPhone applications do and more besides (page layout, spreadsheets and so on).

So is this brand over substance?

Well, here’s my thoughts after watching it through.

This is the computer that non-computer users will like. One could say it’s the Flip Camera of the notebook world, but that would be unfair.

I think it’s the computer my parents would want, now that they’ve owned an iMac for nearly a decade.

A computer more at home on the sofa than the desktop. A computer that they can take on holiday, or take to the dentist, as well as accompany them round the TV or even in bed.

One could get all techy and think of it as a mix of portal to the cloud, media browser and communication tool, but like the iPhone blended a music player, phone, satnav, torch, blackberry and gameboy (but better), so the iPad does the main jobs of email, web, photo, music and video browsing, adding books, magazines, then there’s the games, the distractions, the visual toys, the educational toys, and so on.

So it’s a computer for people who don’t like computers – and that, ladies and gentlemen – remains a huge untapped market. And a steep mountain to climb in getting the message to them that the iPad is a Nice, Useful Device.

It is also going to appear in places where a laptop is currently used, but not comfortably. Tried using a laptop in Economy? Ever wanted to catch up with reading in a waiting room and couldn’t find a power point and a horizontal surface? Ever wanted to fire up the BBC iPlayer in bed? Ever burned your lap whilst surfing in the loo? Okay, don’t try that at home, kids.

Noteworthy is the lack of a camera. I think this is Jobsian purism at work here, and that future iPad devices will have them. Ye Gods, try the ‘PhotoBooth’ app that encouraged use of the built-in webcams on Macs. Think about skyping home, virtual meetings, guided tours, quasi augmented reality. The iPad needs, REALLY NEEDS front and back cameras.

And then there’s the really amazing things that iPhone application developers do, filling in with niche products.

I am going to use my iPad as a prompting device on my camera. I am going to use it as a clapper board for filming. I hope soon to be at least doing rough edits of freshly shot footage on it whilst chilling in the hotel bar. But I think those are fairly pedestrian in comparison to what the community, the ‘crowd’ will create over time.

The iPad is a very clever, very well researched device that I really hope will set alight a whole new world of computer usage. My fear is that its best target market (the non computer user) is going to be very negative and a very hard sell.

In 20 years time, I could be buying one for my grandchild for the price of a box-set of books, but right now lots of people who could really benefit from such a device will not pay the price, and get a cheap laptop from PC world instead. And they will still hate computers.

iPad isn’t all sharbat fountains and shang-ri-lah. Apple is a shrewd company adept at emptying the pockets of its fans, telling them that is the price of simple things that work well. But they are also the company with the bone-head policy of banning some applications that might be something Apple doesn’t want, or falls foul of some idiotic interpretation of draconian rules – a news reader application is classed for Adults Only, may contain nasty stuff… News can be nasty. A browser gets an 18 Certificate because it’s possible you might see a saucy picture or too. An app might upset the hidden marketing of an Apple Partner, so you’ll never see that one. Yet a crass and shameful prank app (Shaken Baby – you can guess) is passed and approved.

Apple may have billions of apps and millions of units shipped, but they still can’t work out how to intelligently vet their App Store, and continue to muck up the businesses of many developers – big and small.

I’m not a developer (I wish I could be). But I am a media maker, and I’m very interested on what this class of device will excel at in media terms. Casual learning like Rouxbe.com?

So the iPad might drown in a sea of apathy that surrounds the tiny island of the Mac Faithful. The iPad may shrivel on the vine of ‘a good idea badly marketed’. The iPad may fall at the first fence of performance by being too little too early like its embarrassing uncle Newton.

But it could be good. Very good.

Papa’s got a brand new drive

I’ve upgraded the internal hard disk of my main MacBook Pro this week, and whilst it’s not the most stunning upgrade in the world, it has left a rosy glow on things. It’s also left behind a very useful little disk drive that will be a constant travelling companion. It has also given me absolute faith in Time Machine as a backup system. You simply MUST use Time Machine – it’s so easy and works so well…

Here’s why:

Two years ago, I had an internal hard disk drive fail the day before going on a job abroad – thankfully it didn’t happen on the job, as I needed to offload SxS cards whilst on site. The only solution that would work for me was to just go out and purchase a whole new MacBook Pro, and ‘restore’ my old identity onto it. That’s when having backups really saves the day – but I learned the value of REGULAR backups after that.

Now, before the failure, I have to say I did notice some tell-tale signs. The hard disk was louder in operation, I had a few odd things happen with software suddenly not working, or losing preferences. But the sound – the sound of a hundred mice tap-dancing in clogs inside my hard disk – will stay with me for a long time. I listened to that sound as I tried to reboot my machine over and over again…

So when I heard my internal hard disk on THIS new machine begin to get louder, and for a couple of FCP plugins to misbehave all of a sudden, I remembered. I tried out SMART Utility

http://www.volitans-software.com/smart_utility.php

and it didn’t like my hard drive either. It reported it as ‘FAILING’. Now, SMART is, and I quote: “Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology … a system built into hard drives by their manufacturers to report on various measurements(called attributes) of a hard drive’s operation.”

It can tell you that your hard disk is working. Yay. It can tell you if your hard disk is broken. Boo. But some would say that diagnosing anything in between is a bit of a crap shoot. SMART Utility has a go, by looking at a variety of reports on read errors and some technical stuff I don’t understand. It also knows how old your hard disk is, and quite frankly I think this is its most reliable feature – a bit like a weatherman who reports rain when his corns hurt.

So, with a two day lull in procedings, and a religiously up-to-date Time Machine backup on hand, I took my MacBook Pro to the Mac Daddy in North London

http://mac-daddy.co.uk/

who took my old disk out and replaced it with a Western Digital Scorpio Black 320GB 7200RPM drive

http://www.wdc.com/en/products/products.asp?driveid=477

whilst I tried to purchase some more disks at a local emporium. But that’s another blog.

Back home, I attached the Time Machine drive to the Mac, booted up off the original DVD-ROM and rather than install the OS, I opted to use Time Machine to restore my hard disk. This reformats the entire drive so you start from scratch, so don’t bother doing anything to it beforehand.

The process is simple: select the Time Machine backup you want to restore from (latest, or any other stages in the past), select which drive to restore to, and hit the button. The time it thought it would take varied from three to six hours, but it took two and a bit.

Everything worked straight away, except for Mail where I mistook its desire to reimport – it sounds contradictory, but let Mail do this. If it goes wrong, just use Time Machine to restore the Mail folders in the Library and try again. A couple of FCP filters needed reinstallation (probably because they were damaged).

Totally without drama.

And now I’m left with my old hard drive. It still works. Maybe not trustworthy as a day to day drive, and in its post upgrade state, pretty useless.

Aha! No! Buy, for about a tenner (maybe £15 in your local store), a USB-2 enclosure for a SATA 2.5 inch drive. Pop it open, snap in your old hard drive, plug in a USB cable, and…

No, don’t format it. This is far more exciting:

Shut down your MacBook Pro. Restart with the option key down. Your old hard disk and your new hard disk appear to boot from. Select your USB drive, and lo – your Mac boots from it. Everything functions as it did.

That excites anyone who has faced the nightmare scenario of working on-site and your main machine develops a fault – I’ve had PCs get killer viruses, hard disks fail, machines get dropped, stolen, soaked – and the time involved to ressurect a sick machine, reinstall OS and software, iron out the problems make for stomach churning stuff.

So should you need to bring in a backup machine in a hurry, your little magic drive enables you to imprint it with your apps, documents and plug-ins and work as before – if a little more slowly – until you can make more permanent arrangements.

And I hope I NEVER have to use it.

PS: Update – the MacBook Pro feels a bit snappier and alert – like it’s had the second cup of coffee in the morning. A combination of 7200RPM and having 15-20% free space has improved the general responsiveness of launching apps, working with big files, system stuff and so on. However, I still work with external 7200RPM drives for all footage, assets, project files and renders.

In the future, I will order MacBook Pros with 7200RPM internal disks. And I’ll clone the drives to bootable externals too.

Where’s yo’ head at?

nullI’ve been restricted to quarters due to Man Flu recently, and have kept some rather odd company, in the form of the boxed DVD set of ‘Visual Effects for Directors’.

Over 7 intensive DVDs, the Hollywood Camera Work team takes you through the basics and the not so basics of working with 3d software, compositing, match moving, a deep dive into chromakey (from painting a studio to planning shots in a small cyc studio), and dealing with simulations that overlay your movies – explosions, collisions, hard/soft body interaction, particles.

All this is from the point of view of an Indie film maker with an HVX200 or something similar, non-esoteric 3d and compositing software running on desktop computers, and a big vision.

It’s not a course in how to use 3d or compositing software, though it pulls no punches on giving you very detailed information. Rather, it’s to gain an understanding of the process to enable the director or producer to fully comprehend the unfolding workflow when ‘we’ll comp that in post’, and how to plan a chomakey shot that tracks round a subject so they can be inserted into a CGI scene.

Like the other product in HCW’s stable – “High End Blocking & Staging”, this is not an easy watch. You’ll be ‘drinking from the firehose’ so to speak. Info comes thick and fast, and you’ll benefit from repeated watching. There’s over 10 hours of stuff in there, spread over 7 DVDs, and there’s no time for tourists. Buckle up, take notes, and there’s coursework for you to test yourself on hosted at the HCW website.

These courses are sometimes called a ‘film school in a box’, and that’s a pretty good description. It’s 25 years since I’ve sweated through intense lectures and come up gasping for air. But then I find that sort of thing an enjoyable experience….

It’s not going to be suitable for every videographer. It’s aimed squarely at indie film production of the high-tech type (Blocking & Staging is much more general and recommended for all ‘film makers’). The price, $329, is a bargain for what you’re getting. A wise investment. But since I bought my set, HCW are now offering you an option to download images of the DVDs, and they will post you a box and some labels.

Why? Because I had to pay VAT and import duty on my set, suffering delays and surcharges along the way. This way, you download the DVD images, and burn your own disks – the official labels are valued at $3 so do not attract surcharges and duty.

Besides which, this is the sort of thing that’s great to dip in and out of on a small screen as well as the home setup. There is SO much information, it needs repeated viewings to allow all that great knowledge to become part of your own mental toolset. It may not be as instant as Neo’s upload – “I know kung fu…” – but you’ll empathise with with the intensity of the upload experience.

http://www.hollywoodcamerawork.us

EX1R SD Workflow – tales from the front line

I shoot with Sony’s PMW-EX1 (and now an EX1R). Brilliant cameras, they shoot onto solid state ‘memory cards’ rather than tape. They shoot ‘files’ rather than ‘footage’, and the benefit is that it’s quicker to copy an hour’s worth of video from a card than it is from a tape. A half, a third, even a quarter of the time. With expensive hardware, even a fifth of the time. If you have lots of rushes or short deadlines, it’s great.

Okay, now lets say you’re a producer and you hire a cameraman to shoot something for you. Usually, you just take away the tapes and hand them to your editor (or even ingest it yourself). That’s easy. So what if you hire a cameraman with one of these new-fangled EX1s then?

The polite answer is that the cameraman goes behind a metaphorical curtain and does a little bit of alchemy, then hands you a hard drive with all your rushes, ready to edit.

Except it’s not actually like that.

There’s physical formats and there’s metaphysical formats for video. You can get a tape that’s a physical format – a DVCAM cassette isn’t going to be a snug fit in a BetaCam SP player. We understand that. So there’s P2, SxS, SDHC, XDCAM disks, and so on – you need the right shaped hole to receive its bounty. Then into the metaphysical – there will be video clips that are basically computer files, and each file will have its container format – QuickTime, AVI, MXF and so on. Then inside each is the ‘flavour’ of video – is it H.264, is it MPEG2, is it DVCPro-HD, is it DV?

This is way beyond the point at which most sane, intelligent humans cease to care about such minutiae and simply nod in empathy whilst trying to sneak a view at their watch.

Because all you want to know is ‘it just works’.

So I do a shoot for you, and everything goes great. We huddle round my laptop to quickly view the rushes after the wrap so you can go home with that eager rosy glow of great footage to cut. But before you leave, you get this speech:

“Right, I’ve put Sony Clip Browser on there, so after you install it, you can view the shots on each of the cards and transfer them over to your NLE.”

Huh? Wait, what software? I have to install something? How do I use the software? What am I doing or achieving here? Will my computer run it? Can I do any damage to anything? Is there something I might do wrong that will cause unknown hell to break loose later on when you’re no longer within reach?

Can I have a tape please? I like tapes. But I’m in the edit suite tomorrow, so just send them round tonight when you’re back home.

So the cameraman with his shiny new edit-ready footage goes home and either transcodes everything to DV (one long process) then plops them onto DVCAM (assuming deck or device, not wishing to even comment on TimeCode here). Or maybe does the nice thing and uses XDCAM Transfer to make beautifully named and equisitely perfect QuickTime movies and copies them onto a MacOS formatted disk. The producer uses a Mac.

Now, just like Sliding Doors, we enter a world of Duality:

The DVCAM Producer gets the tapes the next day as the cameraman was up all night nursing the four hours of footage through, trying to get TimeCode working. The tapes go in, the editor asks what it was shot on, and the producer says it was supposed to be one of those edit ready things, but tape’s so much easier. The cameraman, having watched the dawn, retires to bed.

The DVCAM Producer gets a little USB disk that is Mac formatted, so it appears on his MacBook Air, just as promised. Except the movies don’t work. He can hear them, but no picture. So he calls the cameraman that evening. Ah, yes – because the Producer doesn’t have Final Cut Pro installed, he doesn’t have the codec, so can’t see the video. The cameraman asks him to go to the Sony site and download Clip Browser or XDCAM Transfer. Which is a big download and the hotel broadband is as broad as a drinking straw, and do we really need to download stuff to view it? Why did it work earlier? Why doesn’t it work now? Will the editor have to do this? Then another phone call to the cameraman – the Producer is in the edit suite with the editor, who says he can’t read the disk because he’s on a PC, and the Avid doesn’t do QuickTime, and can we have the rushes on tape please…

So, this imaginary episode of Stressed Eric was brought to you by the Sony EX1-R.

The EX1-R shoots Standard Definition video to SxS, SDHC (in appropriate adaptor) and Memory Stick Pro Duo in the MEAD (MEmorystick ADaptor) as AVI files.

If you purchase something like ‘NTFS For Mac’

http://www.paragon-software.com/home/ntfs-mac/

you can attach PC disks to your Mac and write to them. Not just those piddly little naff files handled by ‘FAT32′, no, you can use NTFS which is the PC equivalent of Mac OS disks.

The practical upshot is that:

- You spend the day shooting AVI files onto your cards
- You copy the AVI files from the cards to a hard disk
– Bought from PC World if necessary
- You hand the hard disk to the client
- Client can read them on Mac or PC.
- Editor can use them in any editing software

Now… THAT is a workflow.

I still think the best SD quality comes from 720p, and that I prefer a folder full of exquisitely named QuickTime movies with embedded information like Speaker, Title, Location and Good Take markers, but I have Editor DNA and I am lucky enough to eat from my own dog bowl (associates ‘Drink their own champagne’ apparently). But there you go.

To all you Producers out there who want a simple, easy workflow from one of those funny new-fangled cameras with the nice pictures and the cheap price tag, just ask for the EX1-R.