BVE2013 – Did the dead cat just bounce?

Accountants have a lovely phrase – even a dead cat will bounce if it’s dropped from high enough. The world of video has been feeling the pinch for a few years now, but today – wandering the halls of the Broadcast Video Expo now in its new home – maybe it bounced back. People were smiling, feeling a little more confident. A real tonic to the system.

On the negative side, there was talk of how video clients were acutely aware of the cheapening of tools and how budgets were so squeezed. On the other hand, there was a genuine feeling of ‘democratisation’ in the markets I’ve frequented. On one hand ‘clients don’t feel comfortable with work-at-home editors’ but big names will now admit to ‘colour correcting on an iMac’. Clients may raise an eyebrow to DaVinci – ‘that’s the free software, right?’ but Grading and Colorists are back in the game. Just need to get our audio back in the limelight too. Broadcast is making it all very tricky again.

The big 800lb gorillas of the broadcast industry are not quite so dominant (!!) – but then, maybe it’s more telling that the show is now far more indie/corporate-friendly. I remember the BVE show was almost hostile to the corporate market. The visitors I met seemed to be 90% indie/corporate. Maybe birds of a feather stick together, but I definitely felt ‘amongst friends’ here.

Maybe that’s the grass roots poking through. Now that we’re hearing the parables of Netflix commissioning their own series, Google investing in content, these are a new round of broadcasters that the Web Generation of videographers and the avant garde of broadcast are taking to heart.

So are there new releases and excellent toys? Yes. The DJI Phantom stand – quadcopters with GoPros and NEX-7s on gimbal heads – was astonishingly busy. Queues to touch and feel the Sony F5 and Black Magic Cine Camera, Nikon out in force with a nod to ebullient Atomos, the Rode SmartLav (snark!) is in demo (tip – the Rode Lav is actually more interesting) and there’s a litany of distractions and shiny things…

Speaking of which, got to see some lovely lamps. Dedo has a booth where you can play with the new line of LED fittings – the 20W ‘son of LEDzilla’ particularly caught my eye. Small, neat, flexible, and can chuck light long distances. Only trouble is, so Teutonic is this company that ‘they’re not quite ready yet’ and have been so for a while. LEDs can be odd beasties, and the broadcast industry have said how LEDs ‘should’ work, but having worked with lesser LEDs and suffered challenges in skin tones, will be looking forward to lamps with true and fair rendition of skin tone.

Sad to find that there were a few companies I wanted to meet that weren’t here. But conversely, good to visit a show that can’t be swallowed in a day, let alone an afternoon.

3D isn’t here really. This year has a decidedly British take on 4K (jolly nice! Isn’t it doing well! Now, about HD…). If you need it, it’s here. If you think you need it, plenty of people to give you both sides. There’s a whole 4K pavilion, but it’s a separate side show. Another area which I felt sorry for was DVD duplication and its ilk. Vimeo and YouTube have their faults, they drive me nuts, but the concept of burning DVDs seems a little ‘Standard Def’ – and even BluRay seems a little difficult to justify.

If you can get along (this is a self-selecting audience, I know) do try the seminars. You’ll have to queue a bit, or suffer the standing, but unlike other years I’ve not been left out in the cold and there are some great presentations. Hopefully some will make it onto the web (a few are up already).

I have my take-aways from today, some I want to keep for myself, some I’m not sure make sense until I go again, but the biggest take home was the positive sleeves-rolled-up attitude of the people here.Just when many thought of upping stumps and retreating to the pavilion, there are clients out there who need video professionals who get great results because they’re good at what they do (whether on free software or high end systems).

So whilst I don’t feel we’re in recovery mode, maybe the bottom was scraped a while back and the bounce has happened. I’ll learn more on Thursday. If you can make the time to drop in on BVE, it should cheer you up if nothing else.

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.

A Case of Upgrader’s Remorse

FCS3Final Cut Studio ‘new’ is out. It’s been two years since the last major update, and we’ve been waiting for some pretty spectacular new features. Personally, I’ve been waiting for some pretty spectacular fixes, but that’s a different story.

Cut to the chase: should a Final Cut Pro user upgrade? Is it worth £250?

Short answer: sort of.

The speed tools (ramping from slomo to fastmo) are welcomed. The markers that move when the edits under them move are welcomed but frankly should have been there from the get-go. The new codecs are great if you know how to use them (and I reckon 70% won’t touch them), and there were little irritations – inconsistencies and pseudo-bugs – that have disappeared.

Motion’s got better, though still no preset for anamorphic PAL. Color is almost usable by mortals. Hopefully, SoundTrack Pro is stable enough to be relied upon to get something useful done by the deadline. LiveType’s gone.

But in its stead is a nasty ‘auto’ fashion, the auto-everything – auto export, auto burn, auto voice levels, that’s not necessarily what a pro app wants or needs. And then there’s simple stuff. The FCP text tools are STILL broken, so certain fonts aren’t selectable. The FCP lower third can’t do multi-line text – not because it can’t, but because FCP developers have chosen not to. No, the answer isn’t ‘do it in Motion’. The 16:9 action and title safe are not industry standard, just a 10% 20% rule of thumb. Thank goodness for developers like Martin at Digital Heaven and Alex at Alex4d, who leverage the latent power of FCP and get the little things right.

Bells and whistles? None of my clients, nor my colleagues’ clients have or want iChat – we use Skype’s screen share instead. Not everyone has a use for AVCIntra. The BluRay discs that Compressor burns are only ‘screeners’ – nothing wrong with that, but it’s hardly ‘authoring’.

And you really know when Apple’s casting around when features such as ‘tick marks’ for SD get big billing in the features, when 4:3 crop marks would be more useful but aren’t supported.

The community is pretty unanimous in declaring themselves Underwhelmed. Good word. Sums it up. As much as I love Apple products, it’s as if the company has done the bare minimum – the absolute minimum – to get us to shell out for an upgrade. The FCS3 upgrade feels like the recent MacBook Pro upgrade where we got a nice machine, nice screen, but lost the PCIe slot in favour of an SDHC slot.

There’s repairs to the facia – thanks for that. But many users are thinking ‘how is this going to change my work? What will my clients notice after I’ve upgraded?’ and the answer is ‘nowt’. Which is a pity, because there’s lots of little things that are a great step forward for the platform. Which is why this should have been FCS 2.5 and FCP 6.5, not a full revision. After all, Compressor’s just got a .5, and DVD Studio Pro hasn’t been upped at all.

It’s a classic case of Buyer’s Remorse, that awful trough of disillusionment we often go through having just purchased something but can’t quite get immediate gratification.

Give it a couple of months, and there will be no way I could work with FCS2. Just in time for the Snow Leopard upgrade and we’ll do it all over again.

VLC Wins Again

VLC PlayerI deal with a lot of Flash video, and use the Jeroen Wijering’s LongTail FLV player for web use. However, there’s many a time when I want to ‘audition’ an FLV, and that can pose a problem ‘on the desktop’.

Often, all I want to do is get an accurate size of the movie in pixels. This info is surprisingly hard to get if you didn’t encode the FLV yourself. The dimensions are important when embedding the FLV on a web page, as it needs to be accurate to achieve optimum quality.

There are FLV players, but I’ve found the Mac versions overpriced or unreliable, or even both. Some are installed with applications such as On2 Flix Pro and Sorenson Squeeze, but these don’t like opening FLVs compressed in other applications (such as Episode Pro, my main encoding application). These apps will report bandwidth and other info but not the size. So I end up taking a screengrab and measuring it in Photoshop, which is far too much like hard work.

Yes, you can install various codecs for QuickTime to open it, but these interfere with Final Cut Pro, especially if you deal with XDCAM EX footage.

So imagine the joy of discovery that the venerable open source VLC player from VideoLAN also does FLV, a.k.a. On2 VP6, Flash 8. Open up the Info panel, twiddle down Stream 0, and there’s the video information including size.

VLC also opens a huge range of movies that the QuickTime Movie Player claims to be unplayable, it plays the Video_TS folder of badly formed DVDs – even the .TS files of BluRay disks based on MPEG2 and H.264. Is there no end to this app’s talents?

It’s cross platform too, so an ideal app to pass onto clients who don’t realise there’s life beyond the Windows Media Player.

So – fellow Mac users – load VLC up, ‘Get Info’ on an FLV, find the ‘Open with:’ pop-up and select ‘Other’. In the dialog that opens up, the ‘Enable’ pop-up should be set to ‘All applications’ (as the Mac doesn’t see VLC as an obvious choice, even though it is), and navigate to your copy of VLC. Whilst you’re there, check the box marked ‘Always Open With’. That’s it – you’re all set to examine any FLV that comes your way.

Who will test the testers?

What a day. What a horrible, puss filled, cankerous waste of everything.

Yes, folks. Today, I am trying to test a DVD. It’s quite a biggie – ten programmes taking up 2.5 hours, to be delivered on a single sided DVD-R.

DVDs used to be a nightmare. Compression glitches, authoring glitches, media glitches, it would all pile up together to form a single amorphous problem blob that everyone would describe as ‘it doesn’t work’.

We’re not talking Cinema DVD, here. We’re talking the journeyman titles pumped out by our massed hoardes of corporate, videographer and event producers. We’d have a clutch of DVD players at our disposal, testing out on our expensive home set, the nasty cheapo picked up at the supermarket, and the one we had ages ago which was great then but is now in retirement.

As time went on, troublesome DVD players fell by the wayside. Meanwhile, we learned that AIFF audio wasn’t a good idea, that few players could do 8 megabits per second, and only very expensive or very cheap media seemed to be consistently good.

Then a few years ago, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and DVD authoring was straightforward. Problems were bad links as we got more adventurous with our authoring. It’s been a sunny old time recently. DVD authoring was a quick process of assembling suitably encoded material into proven templates. Testing becomes a ritual. A sort of sugar topped process that really doesn’t mean much because a title plays, it works, it all looks lovely, and really feels superfluous.

So. Here’s today with my big 800 lb project, and it’s trickling through my nice big fancy DVD/BluRay player and I’m half ignoring it whilst playing with son. And I spot something. Oh. That’s wrong, thank heavens I spotted that – how did that get through? Right – back to the office. Fix it. Encode it. Burn it. Test on the DVD player in the office. First movie is fine. Second movie – it barfs.

And so I tried it again, reencoded, and it barfed in a different place.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

So try a newly authored disk on a different machine, whilst playing a known good disk on the retired machine. Aha! The retired machine barfs 30-40 mins into the programme, which is interesting. On my disk, I’m playing through a series of 15-30 minute programmes, and the barf happened towards the end of the second or in the beginning of the third programme. You’re getting the picture.

What’s so obvious now is that I am testing on my ‘retired’ home DVD player. It’s really useful because it’s old, it’s connected to a 4:3 CRT domestic TV set of similar vintage. The TV set is good at spotting Title Safe violations, the DVD player has been a reliable old brick for ages.

So I take a breather in search of cats to kick, when wife offers solace and a cuppa. And a reminder why I retired the DVD player – complaints from son that his DVDs kept hanging. Okay, at the time, I used this comment as an excuse to go out and get a nice BluRay player whilst providing the opportunity to get a DVD and TV set in my office for testing. And maybe watching my own TV when son’s Cbeebies or Cars or Nemo or Wall-e DVDs tipped me over the edge. Every man needs a shed to retire to.

But (sharply apply palm of hand to forehead and repeat ad nauseam at this point) I didn’t get round to actually soak testing the retired DVD player. Sure it worked for all the DVDs I’ve produced since then – all under 30 minutes. Groan. So I have had one real problem, and now I look at the disk, it may have been a scratch. But since then I’ve been doing the burn, test, tweak cycle for almost 24 hours on a damaged DVD player.

Madness is definitely doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So the rest of today’s duties revolve around a little trip to the council recycling centre (aka tip), and my shed where I keep a 48 foot high Yard Arm which – if you stand close enough – the sun is always under, therefore signalling the time for a medicinal and industrial strength G&T.

Today’s lesson: don’t forget to test the test equipment.

Live long and prosper

I’m on the sunny side of a disaster. Backups and archives functioned, and my Mac systems are back at cruising altitude. But, lest that one should sound smug, I am aware that archiving is an interesting case in point, especially for an EX1 owner.

I’m using hard disks, with archive to DVD-R and now Blu-Ray. That works out well – in that everything is on hard disks, and every project has double Blu-Ray media managed backup, and if the footage isn’t on tape, Blu-Ray backup too (though I back up the EX1’s QuickTime files, not the original data – oooh, I can hear the sharp intake of breath from here).

But that’s not what’s on my blog-radar today. What has caused a blip is reading a little note from the BBC News website:

Yes – film is falling apart.

Sure, Star Wars was rescued, re-scanned, twiddled and is now a lot of ones and zeros on a great many hard disks. Lots of other films have gone or are going through this process.

But going digital can cause problems: what if the format you store it on becomes redundant?

I have this problem. I have a project dear to my heart – an interactive touch screen application I made more than 12 years ago. I used Macromind Director 4 then, and I updated it to 5, 6, and MX. But now its projectors do not run on Macs. I cannot open the older files in new versions of Director. Such is the pace of progress, the files are too old – Do Not Resuscitate.

That’s the fear of many archivists. How do you open an image saved from a ZX81? How can you grab an original visicalc file to present today? Digital files change so quickly, and so many works are in esoteric custom formats. JPEG and MPEG may be safe for now, but for how long?

The film industry have a solution: 35mm! Common standard, easy to store, can’t erase it by mistake, could last for ages if looked after.

But wait, aren’t we trying to resuscitate 35mm originals that are rotting before our eyes? Ah, but that was old fashioned film – not new tough film, but sloppy stuff made from recycled cow hooves. Today’s material is far more scientific. But expensive.

So what of all those careless snaps now, which will mean so much to generations hence? Not the major epics, but those little glimpses into a century forgotten. Hundreds of years from now. No printouts from your desktop are going to survive like those ancient sepia bromides. No CD-ROMs are going to survive unless hermetically sealed in a protective gas and shaded from light.

But digits are digits. I had another project in Director that I diligently upgraded, and copied, and exported and re-saved. And its still with me. Not sure if it was worth saving, but it’s still there. And that seems to be the secret: revisit your archive, copy it, view it, don’t just back it up. Use open standard formats. Use widely accepted media. I still have Syquest drives with data on it. The data isn’t quite worth spending specialist money on it. The contents aren’t particularly earth shattering. Not now. But in 300 years? Who knows? What’s worth saving?

And has anyone tried buying VHS tapes recently?