CMU Student Film Festival

April 23rd, 2009 by Don

The Carnegie Mellon Filmmaking Club is hosting it’s 16th annual Student Film Festival this Friday.  We’ve gone with a bike-in theme and we’re showing the films on a big outdoor screen.  Should be lots of fun.  The details are at .  Check it out if you’re in Pittsburgh.  Films start at 8pm in front of the College of Fine Arts.

Will Consumer HD Always Suck?

April 23rd, 2009 by Don

As the number of pixels goes up on every imaging device on the market, the video image quality has not kept up.  It is true that video is getting better but I can’t shake the impatience I have with devices marketing “HD” that compress the hell out of the image to fit it in significantly less space than good ‘ol NTSC 25megabit DV.  Pixel counts sell these days but I am hopeful.  Certainly, the prosumer market (and even the consumer market) for digital still cameras indicates that image quality matters to people.

The problem of course is data storage.  Solid state storage has finally scaled to a level where it is cost effective to replace tapes or (gag) writable miniDVDs in consumer cameras. Still, the size of these storage devices is still a bit shy of the roughly 12GB a miniDV tape could hold.  As a result, the camera makers try to mae due with less, cranking up compression to make big marketing claims like “holds 1 hour of video” and the all-important “HD”.

Truth be told, the problem was present from the very start for consumer HD.  The entire HDv format of cramming an HD image into a 25Mbit stream, was flawed.  But it set a precedent, and it set the bar very low.

So, we can only go up from here.  The DVCProHD100 is a good start.  Similar strong codecs are appearing on the fringes of the consumer video camera market.  Presumably that will be the trend going forward.  This is what we can hope for: the camera manufacturers, unable to advertise more pixels (at least until 2K projectors hit the market) will start to focus on more quality.  Then we’ll just have to figure out how to store all that video weighing in at as much as 1GB per minute.   Still that’s a problem I want to have.

Post Production in the Cloud

March 3rd, 2009 by Don

 To what extent is it possible to move film post-production into a completely distributed cloud-computing environment?

Film production has seen major changes in the last decade.  Although hot new video cameras often take center stage, a lot of the most important new technologies are living in post.  It’s true that the hot new video cameras are driving a lot of new post production technologies.  “All Digital” workflows are not easy.  Consider the American Society of Cinematographers’ recent efforts to standardize color decision lists (CDLs).  As digital files are passed through the post-production pipeline, these standards will allow color decisions to carry through in a non-destructive way.  It may seem odd that something like this was a problem, but then you must remember that this is a new wild west of standardless technology.  I would argue that standards (or a lack of them) are not the whole problem, nor are they the most interesting solution.

With Amazon’s release of Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) and Simple Storage Solution (S3), there has been an explosion of new ventures in software development to outsource heavy computation to Amazon.  Maybe it’s just history repeating itself, as we’ve come full circle to the days when one large mainframe was shared by many who paid based on their usage.  The appeal of such a system is the virtually limitless computational power available.  Need to bring up a thousand servers to crank away at a huge data set?  Go right ahead…

But wait a minute, do you need a thousand servers?  An elastic cloud is good for uses where there is need to scale both up and down.  If you needed a thousand computers all the time, you’re better off buying a thousand computers.  If you need a thousand computers for 7 days a year, the cloud is your dream come true.

So that brings us (finally) to the point.  Why can’t digital post-production be moved into the cloud?  In particular, I’m thinking of compositing and effects processing, color correction, and onlining.  Also, I am considering mostly small to medium, independent post-production houses.

The advantages:

  1. All the computational power you need to crank away at a 4K DI.
  2. Easy transfer of material through the pipeline.
  3. Instant feedback.
  4. Location insensitive.  That color genius living in Siberia can do the job.

The disadvantages:

  1. There is a high initial cost to get all the data into the cloud in the first place.
  2. There are concerns about privacy and security of the data.
  3. The tools do not exist yet.

I’m sure there are many more advantages and disadvantages that I’ve left off the list, but I’d like to at least get the conversation started.  If anyone knows of any projects related to this, let me know.  Post production has been largely a closed game with few players.  The possibility of lowering the cost of entry for small to medium sized post-production houses could expand that market in a way that really benefits the independents.
What’s next?

Three Rivers Film Festival Short Film Symposium Recap

November 15th, 2008 by Don

Yesterday, I took part in a day long symposium on short film conducted as part of the 3 Rivers Film Festival (  By and large it was pretty successful.  There seemed to emerge a couple main themes in much of the days discussion:

  1. Is short film different from feature film in some respect other than length?
  2. Everything on you tube sucks.
  3. Nobody has figured out how to make money from short film.

These last two themes may seem a bit pessimistic and depressing (if you’re a maker of short films), but somehow the real cynic attitude towards these issues didn’t really find a voice.  Nobody said that the reason people don’t want short films is that there isn’t enough short film worth watching.  That’s not to say that there aren’t lots of good shorts made every year.  It’s just that there isn’t a critical mass of them to generate a market.  The strange inversion of supply and demand in consumer entertainment markets is not to be underestimated.  We are not used to thinking of supply preceding demand but it is actually the case.  I am not usually one to reference Sartre, but he had a good point in Being and Nothingness when he notes that emptiness (demand) requires the possibility, or at least the imagined possibility, of fulfillment.

Is short film fundamentally different in some way other than length?

All art has a kind of economy to it.  It must do more with less.  Otherwise it would have no more value than the physical materials from which it is made.  Short film manifests this economy in duration. Most of the quibbling around this discussion dealt with definitions and guidelines set forth by film festivals and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  This is a shame.  I think the more interesting discussion about what makes short film interesting or different should necessarily address human psychology and the role of duration in understanding.  I am often reminded of Edgar Allen Poe.  He believed that there was a “right” length for a poem, no more than 120 lines or so.  Certainly, the “right” length would differ by poet (I’m not sure if Poe believed this part).  I think the same holds for film and it’s therefore a shame that we get so caught up in these length categories. If your story doesn’t fit in a 20 minutes short, that doesn’t mean it should be a 90 minute feature.

Everything on Youtube sucks

This oft-repeated sentiment was uttered with dismay.  Many folks seemed to feel that Youtube brought a combination of lower standards, negative expectations, and overwhelming noise from which it is too hard to rise above the noise.  The Youtube view count should not be anyone measure of success.  There is a positive note.  The traditional audience for independent short film is almost entirely made up of other filmmakers.  At least with Youtube, there are a lot more filmmakers out there.

Nobody has figured out how to make money from short films

There are plenty of internet ventures out there that will either help you distribute your short film or they will pay you add revenue for your work.   The problem is that none of these are worth getting excited about. The type of video that generates enough traffic to make reasonable advertising revenue is not the kind of video most serious filmmakers want to make.  Self distribution has not really taken off, despite new tools, because the overhead of extra work and tech know-how is prohibitive.  If the internet really is the answer for delivering short film (and I’m not sure it is), we are still waiting for the killer app.  The consensus is, Youtube is not it.

Bonus: Check out this video from the Onion.

American Cinematographer, a complaint.

June 25th, 2008 by Don

I have been an American Cinematographer subscriber for a while now, and though I do enjoy many of the articles, I have a complaint. Here it is.

Enough with the puff pieces.

Sometimes the cinematography is not perfect, even in the big-budget blockbusters. Sometimes, it’s bad. I would love it if just once, an article acknowledged this simple fact.

An example. Last night I saw Get Smart. It was funny and enjoyable but there were a number of shots that looked like really crappy video. Today, I open my mailbox to find a new issue of AC and inside is a lame piece about how much Dean Semler, ASC loves the Panasonic Genesis, and how add +1 (can I get a unit here?) gain and opening the shutter to 360 degrees allows him to shoot in the dark.

The problem with hiding the flaws is that it cuts out 90% of the learning. Tell us about the 10% of the time when you took a risk and it worked, but don’t forget to mention the crashing failures.

Any good complaint should come with some constructive suggestions so here is a list of some questions that might liven up the sometimes monotonous recital of ungodly wattages and film stock codes.

  1. What piece of equipment was a total waste of money?
  2. What piece of equipment caused the most stress?
  3. What was the biggest risk you took on the set that failed?
  4. Which shots did you lose the most sleep over before the shoot?
  5. Which shots did you lose the most sleep over after the shoot?
  6. Where did your reliance on a digital intermediate come back to haunt you?
  7. What computer debacle cost the most time and money to fix?
  8. What critical shots still look bad to you?
  9. What were the biggest ego clashes on set? That is, among the technical crew (who needs more celebrity gossip?).
  10. Who did you have to fire?

These are just a couple ideas I had of things that I, personally, would like to see in a future issue of American Cinematographer. Feel free to post more suggestions in the comments.

How to write for the camera

March 11th, 2008 by Don

Screenwriters are constantly reminded that they are not directors.  Their job is not to write camera movements.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of communicating particular shots without violating this screenwriting taboo.  Over at TriggerStreet, there is a nice article about some great films in which the writers give a clear idea of where a camera might be placed.  The article gives four examples and includes the excerpts from the screenplays: Blade Runner, Dark City, Chinatown, and The Long Kiss Goodnight.

One of my favorite shots that was “written into the script” is in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey.  In one scene, Wilson (Terrance Stamp) is thrown out of a warehouse where he was asking too many questions.  He picks himself up from ground, dusts himself off, and pulls a gun from the back of his pants.  He walks back into the warehouse but the camera stays outside.  We hear gunshots and see muzzle flashes in the distance and then a teenage employee runs away.  Wilson emerges and shouts after the boy, “Tell him I’m coming.” Writer Lem Dobbs and director Steven Soderbergh discuss the relationship between the screenplay and the finished film all througout a great commentary track on The Limey dvd.

Why would you want to do this?

This is an important question to ask.  If you are a writer and not a director, why would you write in a way that implies specific camera movements?  Can’t a real director do a better job?  The answer is yes, and she will, but she’s not the only person you are writing for.  People reading your script will be trying to imagine it on screen.  The kind of visual imagination that can turn the printed words into a concrete image of the scene as it might appear in a movie, is rarer than people think.  Think of this as giving your readers a little help.

How Hollywood sound designers work

March 11th, 2008 by Don

Over at Film Sound Daily, there’s a great collection of videos from a panel of the sound mixers and editors for the movie Transformers.  It’s a nice insight into an often overlooked aspect of the filmmaking process.  At some point in the discussion someone points out that “editor” is not really a good word to use for the people doing this work; really, they are “sound artists.”  Here is the link: Transformers Sound Off.

Video Art with Processing

February 26th, 2008 by Don

Images by Jared Tarbell

I had dabbled with a program called Processing in the past but didn’t get to into it before other projects took my attention away from it. I was mostly inspired by the beautiful work of Jared Tarbell who created the beautiful images above.

I recently came across the work of another Processing master Robert Hodgin. Below, I’ve embedded some of my favorites. I encourage you to check out his website, Flight404.

Solar, with lyrics. from flight404 on Vimeo.

Tendrils mod from flight404 on Vimeo.

For my day job, I am a computational geometer, so this video of kinetic Voronoi diagrams piqued my interest.

Voronoi from flight404 on Vimeo.

Host your HD videos on Vimeo for free

February 19th, 2008 by Don

I’ve been looking into alternatives to Youtube for hosting videos to embed in web sites. A couple big players that immediately jump out are MetaCafe and Revver if only for their revenue sharing programs. Both allow you to make money from the videos, but then you have to deal with ads popping up over your videos. I had what I felt was a reasonable wishlist. I wanted

  1. High quality video
  2. an unobtrusive player
  3. a player that easily allows moving back and forth through the video
  4. No ads!

Well, it turns out, I can get all those things and more from a great video hosting site called Vimeo. Some of the other great features of Vimeo include

  1. Different aspect ratios/sizes for videos
  2. HD, yes, HD
  3. The player is gorgeous, when you aren’t hovering, it has no frame or controls
  4. Commenting is built in to the player so you get this functionality even when using it for embedded videos

Vimeo Logo

Definitely check them out as a better alternative to Youtube.

I was trying to find out a little more about them but their about page contains the following hard to believe statistics.

“We currently have over 7 billion users who have uploaded over 950 trillion videos”

So, unless every human being on the planet (and then some) is a Vimeo user with an average of over 135,000 videos, there are only two possibilities. Either, this is a Vimeo joke or they have really failed in the fight against spammers.

Also, while on the topic of alternative video sharing sites, I’d like to put a plug in for another great niche video site called Video Jug. The idea here is to focus on howto videos. Although, I think many people still go to Youtube first for a video howto, there is a lot of good content there worth checking out.

J.J. Abrams discusses mystery, special effects, and democratization of filmmaking technology

February 15th, 2008 by Don

J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias, Mission Impossible3, Cloverfield, the upcoming Star Trek, …) gave a talk last March on mystery, special effects, and new possibilities for filmmakers today. My favorite quote from the talk:

“Ten years ago, if we wanted to do that, we’d have to kill a stunt man.”

Here’s a link to the talk: J.J. Abrams at TED.

The talk was part of the TED Talk series. The talks are all ~20 minutes and tend to be very good. I found this particular talk from a post over at Projector Films.

I get the impression that JJ is a really cool guy in addition to his cinematic achievements. Randy Pausch, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon and lifelong Star Trek fan wrote an update on his website that JJ heard about his struggles with cancer and affinity for Star Trek and offered him a small role in the upcoming Star Trek movie. (JJ Abrams on IMDb)