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Thursday, December 24, 2009

••◊ When to step away from a client

I'm currently stuck in my man cave with a severe case of film editor's block, so my blog seemed like a reasonable excuse to slack off for an hour. For those who observed it yesterday, happy Festivus. I hope your family members provided plenty of disappointment fodder throughout the year.

On a totally different topic, I had to step away from a project with a photo client yesterday. It was a decision that I personally struggled with because it always seems like a personal failure. However, I thought it might be good to write about my experience such that others can, at least, get a sense of when they should consider the same.

My decision was based on a couple factors; one of which is my adopted working philosophy. I used to hang out in the creativecow.net forums, listening to others talk about the trials of being a video and production professional. One person pointed out that you really shouldn't accept work that you would be ashamed to show to future clients. The entertainment industry is often so flooded with qualified individuals that you are only as good as your last job. Anything you do should represent your best work. When you know the circumstances of the job won't allow that, it's best to step away. I took this advice to heart and follow it to this day.

Some of the other common warning signs are scheduling changes, changes in art direction after it's been agreed to, and sudden non-cooperation when the client is asked to spend reasonable sums of money for common, known items. I have also heard of cases where clients expect the first job to be free or discounted with a promise of future work. Some clients go so far as to expect deliverables that weren't in the initial statement of work for free (not in my current case).

A film maker acquaintance of mine, Robert, once mentioned that a he felt a professional can work with anybody. I believe that's true. He worked with many A-list Hollywood producers on big budget films as an art designer, a subset of whom were known to be quite unreasonable. In Hollywood he was able to build a successful career out of the movie industry based on this philosophy, as well as a few others not highlighted here. The difference for me here was that I finally concluded the other party wasn't interested in producing high quality work, so it wasn't a matter of working relationship. I didn't have a personal or relationship issue with this client. In fact, I believe the client relationship ended quite amicably by me explaining that given the specific circumstances involved that I didn't feel I could produce my best work for them. I even offered to help them find another photographer.

The real trick here it to find out about these issues as early as possible so you don't waste time on a project that won't come to fruition. My photo colleagues recommended using non-refundable deposits and hourly rates as a client motivation factor, however that's a fall back plan rather than a detection method. Business is business, but given the choice I would rather not have to say that I made money on my last few clients by them defaulting on their deposits and me not producing any work. It doesn't seem to represent the work ethic and industrious nature that I would ideally like to portray.

Thanks for letting me distracted. Back to the dreaded semi-empty Premier Pro sequence time line.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

••◊ We rocked the portraits.

Yesterday I took part in a world-wide charitable giving campaign called Help Portraits. The idea was to give people nice portraits that they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford this holiday season. The picture below is from one of our morning session setups at Solutions for Change in Vista. My setup was on the blue wall opposite the picture below (not really shown). I worked with Renay Johnson, who normally shoots boxing matches! So if any of the photogs starting fighting over who gets the Pocket Wizard next, at least we would be able to get the photos to prove it. The running joke was that our assistant, Ryan, kept bringing us larger and larger families. With 6 to 7 kids, oh boy, did we have our work cut out for us. At one point, just to tease us, Ryan came over with a straight face and said I have a family of 15. It took me a second and then I thought,"wait a minute, we're not in Utah."

The picture below shows Cresente, Lauren, Mike, Pol, and Emese working with one of the families that came in for photos. Then there's the photographers (photo by Mike). Mike's camera nearly got dumped over while he tried to beat the timer to run and mix in with the group. Not a good fate for any D300.

In the afternoon we went to a girls group home in Mira Mesa. We were shooting about 6-7 teenage girls. Chriselda, a student from Oreste's class, volunteered to help so I put her to work. She is pictured below and also in the class photo from the previous post. I don't have proper permission to post portraits of the girls, so Chriselda's test shot will just have to be the help portrait proxy model. Since she's just learning about photography I showed her how to setup lighting and put her to work taking many of the portraits. The girls got all gussied up and were excited to play model for the day, although we had to get them to lay down their guard a little to take the good shots.

I just finished retouching the photos this morning. So where are the photos going? The rules for contribution call for hard copies of photos. Yes, actually printing them. Remember those days?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

••◊ I practiced the "Dr. Phil" response all week

Oreste Prada, a work colleague, asked me to make a guest appearance at a UCSD extension course he's teaching about photography to help give feedback on the students' photos. I told him "sure, that sounds fun." So I practiced my best Dr. Phil (southern drawl inferred) "What were you thinking?" all week. Then he let me know that the introductory class probably wasn't the best use for this type of feedback. However, when we get to the intermediate class we can make the students cry like Jimmy Swaggart after he gets caught buying a "date." (switching accents to Dr. Evil) Buhhh ha ha, Buhhh ha ha. I can't wait.

Each student submitted three photos for examination and we gave constructive feedback on color, DOF, white balance, proportion balance, leading lines...etc. A good review of the basics. It also helped me to start thinking about Portraits again and the various things I'll need to remember this weekend as I participate in the help portraits campaign.

Me? I learned by flash card. No, not the math cards. The Compact Flash memory cards. Burn through a card, then find out all the images stink, then do it again.

Of course I couldn't leave without a class picture of Professor Prada and the gang. The usual, everybody crowd together, just seemed a little mundane so I decided to mix it up. Besides, how many times do you get to put your college teacher in immediate peril during class? I was in an engineering discipline so that answer would come back as 'i' or 'j' depending on if it was a math or engineering course.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

••◊ Online in HD, part 3

The last part of this trilogy has to do with cleaning up the noise and other gunk that is in the video, so it's viewable in 1080p. It's amazing what a difference downscaling makes to the average video. In my particular case, this video was the first thing I had shot with the 5Dm2 and only my second weekend with the camera - thus there was plenty of gunk to clean up. However, that's the reason I took the gear out. I wanted to learn what I was going to mess before messing up on an important project.

The most notable gunk in my laundry list was high ISO video noise. Anyone that owns an SLR knows about the strong direct relationship of high ISO to high chromatic noise. With film we call it "grain" and it often ends up looking like luma noise (i.e. dark dots that appear as noise). In contrast digital cameras produce colorful noise that's extremely ugly and distracting.

So...how to fix it? We need to select a clip. This fire side shot in the evening does quite well as an example. You'll need to click on the photo to see it larger since the aforementioned downscaling hides the noise. After color correction there's all types of red and green noise, especially around the chair and fire.

Step 1. Right click the clip in the Premier timeline and select "Replace with After Effects Composition." This will open After Effect, which has a de-noising effect.

Step 2. When After Effects opens the video from the clip should appear. Go over to the "Noise & Grain" settings in the "Effects and Presets" window and select the "Remove Grain" effect. You should be able to drag and drop this effect onto the video.

Step 3. Since the Remove Grain effect is now applied, you need to manually select how much noise to remove. Too much and the picture becomes blurry. Too little and it's still noisy. To do this open up the effect options in the "Effect Controls" window at the left. I usually find that just using the "Noise Reduction Settings->Noise Reduction" control is easiest. However, the effect allows much more control for the more sophisticated user.

Step 4. This step falls a little into the area on color correction. Individual colors can have their shadows crushed to black using one or more of the color correction effects. I did this on a few scenes and it provided a really nice way to kill off the noise in the darkest areas of the picture.

Step 5. You may also need to restore any Brightness, Contrast, Hue, or Saturation color correction settings you had in Premier. I used the "ProcAmp" effect in Premier and it didn't automatically transfer into After Effects, unlike the "Color Balance" effect which transferred in just fine.

Step 6. Save and exit. That's it. Premier should pick up the After Effects composition and make it nearly impossible to play back without a long, long, long render time. Here's the 1/3rd scale result. Again, the downscaling is hiding any noise improvement, so you'll have to click on the picture to enlarge it and see the result. It should be noticeably better and maybe a little more film-like with the chroma noise obfuscated.

On to the next death defying project.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

••◊ Online in HD, part 2

This next post really falls into the area of unexpected consequences of inexperience. After spending nearly 12 hours rendering out a quarter resolution preview last night one of error I found is messed up audio. Why, oh why? The tracks copied properly with the necessary key frames when I pasted into the new sequence.

Well, first off I forgot to re-mute the tracks that I had muted in the original sequence. These were muted because the audio from these tracks represented proxy sync audio recorded by the camera's on board microphone. This audio was mostly overwritten by the good recordings from my field recorder. So why did the audio sound wonky (technical term)? I was playing back the horrid sounding sync audio at the same time as the good audio.

Step 1: Remember to mute audio tracks that were muted in the offline sequence. You can tell which ones are muted by the lack of a speaker icon next to the track name.

Another items that doesn't get copied when you copy and paste a sequence is the audio mixer and it's settings. In my original sequence track 7 was set at -5.9dB, so obviously audio track 7 was twice as hot as I intended it to be in the rendered preview.

Step 2: Set the audio mixer to the same levels as the original sequence. The setting is the the "Audio Mixer" tab next to the "Effect Control" tab.

This just goes to show you that I'm still learning. Life in offline editing was a cakewalk. More to come.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

••◊ Online in HD, part 1

A friend recently asked me to create an HD version of my 24 Hours at Hurkey Creek video so he can invite the boys over and let them see themselves on a 100-inch home theater screen. Sure, I thought, that should be easy. Nope.

For newbies here; the process I originally used to create the video could generally be referred to as "offline" editing. This means that you edit the video with a lower quality, lower resolution proxy. Why? Well, most computers heavily choke, puke, and die when it comes to editing full-rez HD. When you want to create the full resolution high quality video you do "online" editing and use the high resolution video files. The exact process used to do offline/online depends on your editing software. Since I was only planning to go to the web with this video, I never went through the online editing process. 640x360 was more that good enough, until now...

So these series of articles will hopefully chronicle my (hopefully not too pathetic) attempt at online editing an HD high quality video. It was actually my friend Marci who queried me about the process I was using.

So...step 1: The video was already edited, however Premier Pro doesn't let you change sequence settings (i.e. the resolution of the video) dynamically. You have to create a new sequence. In my case I selected the "General" tab and set the editing mode to "Desktop." Then I set the sequence resolution to 1920x1080, 30fps, square pixels. Why those settings? Well, that's the native characteristics of the video from a Canon 5Dm2 camera.

Step 2: Copy-Paste. I simply selected all the audio and video clips by holding down the mouse button and dragging a rectangle around the clips. Ctrl-C to copy. Select the HD sequence tab (i.e. "Timeline: Sequence 1080HD") and Ctrl-V to Paste. Who ever thought up "V" for paste anyway? I digress.

Step 3: Replace the footage. This is actually quite straightforward in Premier. You right click on any clip in the list of clips in the "Project" tab and select "Replace Footage..." Note that this works for audio, video, or titles. There's a little pre-planned trick to make this easy. When you create the offline proxies, use the same file name as the online video. I used H.264 ".mp4" video files for proxies, whereas my camera produces Quicktime ".mov" files. Since the file names are the same all you have to do is look for the same file name with a different file extension when you replace the footage. Seems much more manageable to me.

Step 4: Replace Titles. As I found out the hard way, titles do not scale in Premier. You can't just take title text that was done for a 640x360 frame with some one's name and set the Motion-Scale Effect to 300% to get 1920x1080. For me, this meant re-doing all the titles with new text. My titling is simple, like people's names or an opaque color band. 15 minutes later they were all replaced with new full HD versions.

That seemed harmless...UNTIL dah-dah-dummmmm, you see all the noise and artifacts that downscaling hid. Ick, augh! Next up; how to fix a few of those.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

••◊ I wear my sunglasses at night

I thought it would be appropriate to give this blog entry a historical perspective by using the title of an 80's pop song (ala Corey Hart). Will tie it in later in the post. Saturday evening I had an opportunity to attend a local gallery showing for Dave Stewart, normally of The Eurythmics notoriety. Little did I know until recently that Dave is involved in many aspects of art, both musically and visually. He has produced feature length films and currently acts as a new media consultant for Nokia. A brief introduction of his work can be seen here. Of course, being a celebrity, Dave has coerced quite a few celebrities into his work such as Bjork, Isabella Rossellini, Sinead O'Connor, and Carla Bruni just to drop a few names. Then there's the obligatory portrait of Miss Nekkid-ness herself, Demi Moore. As if anyone needs to see that...again, despite the rumored $600k pre-Charlie's Angles bodylift.

Getting back to the point, Dave was in town to show his photos at the Morrison Hotel Gallery and to promote his book, "The Dave Stewart Songbook Volume 1." The place was packed. I mean, wall to wall people with people lined up outside looking in through the windows. Not bad for a musician whose last big hit as a headlining act was in the 80's. To me this is a sign of a person who really connected with his audience when the time was right and they've stuck with him since. All I could really see from the sweaty gallery mosh pit is the back of people's heads. The best I could do to get a picture is pre-focus, put my camera into live view, and try to extend my arms up as high as they would go to get a picture while hoping someone didn't actually start slam dancing. Thank goodness for live view, but next time I know the semi-secret location to squirrel myself away in before the presentation starts. Henry Diltz, one of the gallery owners and a well know music photog, evidently had the inside line because he was perfectly placed. Maybe I should just shadow Henry next time.

The evening started out with an introduction from Rich, one of the gallery owners, followed by a short greatest hits set of Dave and a violin player he used in one of his photos. The sound system was horrible; I mean the vocals were complete mud and the normally warm acoustic guitar sounded like a lap steel. We could only understand about every fifth word between cringe-worthy strums. At least the violin sounded decent. Dave made the best of it and the crowd didn't seem to care. I soooo wanted wanted to jump in and take over the PA (...my precious...) and start EQ-ing. Sometimes I feel like no one understands the horrors audiophiles face.

Afterwards, Dave autographed copies of his book that attendees had just purchased along with a promotional photograph. People were pulling on his sleeves like it was 1986 again. Surprisingly no one was wearing ripped jeans or a fishnet tank. Dave kept wearing those sunglasses all night. Somebody should tell him it's OK to look old. We're your fans and we're old. Then again, maybe that's not such a good idea after all. People have already tried the "bald is beautiful" approach with the Edge from U2 and we can see how far they got.

I was surprised to see my co-worker Max and his girlfriend Andrea there so I asked if I could take a picture of them together. Max is a fellow engineer, but you wouldn't guess it from girlfriend (I salute your woo-ing skills Max - plus she's a photog - bonus cool points). It begs the question, does she have a sister?

Friday, November 6, 2009

••◊ Spaceward Ho!

Wednesday I had an opportunity to observe the Lasermotive team as they competed in the NASA sponsored space elevator competition at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Airforce Base in Mojave, CA. Time to let my inner nerd...oh, who am I kidding, my outer nerd fly (sorry for the pun). The goal of this part of the competition was to climb a steel cable attached to a helicopter a distance of 1km at an average rate of 5m/s with wireless power beamed from the ground; the prize being $2 million dollars if they could do it. NASA holds these competitions as part of the centennial challenges. The most well known one so far in the x-prize won a few years back, which is now spawning the space tourism industry. (warning, self indulgent part here...) I provided the Lasermotive team with a design for the power supply and motor drive circuitry, which mainly consisted of knowing the right industry contacts to get reference designs. Now if only the prize money was divided up by climber weight (yee haw!).

I really wanted to make a panorama of the base camp all the way up to the helicopter, but it was too difficult to align the pictures even with a 200mm lens. Click on the picture below to get a feel for what the helicopter looked like from about 1.5 miles away with a 200mm lens. Thank goodness for a 21MPixel camera. Surprisingly I can make view the stripes on the side of the helicopter with the full rez image.

For the greater part of the day I was in a NASA hangar (i.e. home for wayward scientists) about a mile away from the launch base camp. Their rules precluded using an optical viewfinder on my camera because even at this distance we weren't safe from stray reflections from the 10kW laser firing at the climber. I wish I had rented a 600mm lens and borrowed a 2x extender. It was nearly impossible to find anything with live view without zooming in 10x. Because the hangar opening was in full sun I had to improvise a shade in order to see the LCD at the back of my camera, so I pulled out a photo umbrella cover and used it as a black overhead cover, sort of like what you see with the old-old portrait cameras. Looks odd, but it worked.

The first team up was the Kansas City Space Pirates. After a couple failed attempts to start their climber they were finally off, only to have the climber stall about 3/4 of the way up the cable. Ouch. Time's up...NEXT. Can't say I was di$$$appointed.

During the lunch break there was a "media hour" where I managed to sneak into one of the media vans and shuttle out to the launch base camp. Seeing as how I only really knew one person on the Lasermotive team, and he wasn't there, this was actually my first time meeting most of the flight team. After making a few introductions I went around and started taking pictures. First was the vast lake bed itself. On the north end of the air force base there is a dried up lake bed where all of this was taking place, so if it started raining fiery bits of space elevator - no biggie. In this photo the steel cable is laying on the desert floor beside the two people.

The second picture above is the actual climber. Not the most visually appealing industrial design, but it's really designed to be light weight. 5.2kg to be exact, with 180 grams of "payload" (pink toy video cameras to record the flight).

In the third picture above you can see Tom Nugent, President of Lasermotive being interviewed for an upcoming documentary on the competition. Behind them is Anela, whom I started a conversation with later in the day with regards to her Pentax Spotmatic camera as seen on her hip. I have one of these too, but she actually uses hers. Anela is a shooter in LA. Her work can be seen here. Just a warning; definitely NSFW.

Soon the media hour was up and the cat herders kicked us off the launch site so Lasermotive could take their turn. Back at the hangar we could watch the team on a television they had set up above a couple tool chests with communications radio for audio. I, of course, chose to fry under my black umbrella cover out in the sun trying to at least get one decent picture with an anemic lens. The photo below shows the launch site with the climber hanging about mid-way up the photo. Click on the photo to see it full size. Still can't see the climber? Well, the right half of the photo shows the climber with a 100% crop. Yeah, this was what I was dealing with.

Lasermotive set their climber out on the steel tether, then they had to bring it back down. Jordin Kare's wife, Mary, and I were back in the hangar thinking "oh no, not us too." Mary starts to literally hyperventilate. I tell her, "how bad could it be." She replies, "you weren't here for the last competition," which evidently was less successful than the current state of affairs. Dave Bashford goes running out the climber (we see it on TV) and wiggles a few wires on the climber...etc...we have no clue what he's doing; Nervously waiting for radio communcations. Then they fly the climber up to the 100m start line again. This time the laser fires and the climber is off. They set the record time with 4:03. With time left in their window they do another climb of 4:01. That's 3.83m/s, or enough to put them in for the secondary prize of $900k.

Mary was jumping up and down all excited, so I took a picture of her in front of the TV. As a self-described "team mom" she was very proud of her boys.

After this excitement we were done for the day and the teams headed back to the hangar around 5pm (sundown). The local and national media blitzkrieg-ed Jordin and Tom. I'll admit it. I fired my camera flashes just to give them a little extra pazzaz to their interview. After all, they invaded the space I had preset for the team portrait.

After a climber weigh in we headed outside to take the team portrait. Perfect light to do it.

The team bested their time the following day to achieve 4m/s. The USST and Kansas City Space Pirates had technical difficulties and failed to make a climb.

Finally, I present the Mojave flight team (left to right, top to bottom): Carsten Erickson, Jordin Kare, William Boyde, Thomas Nugent, Nick Burrows, Steven Beland, Stephen Burrows, and David Bashford. Well done team.

News coverage can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and many other places with a google search for "space elevator lasermotive."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

••◊ Them's some fine lookin' toys Mr. Hurlbut

On Monday I was restless at work and decided to see what was going on with the San Diego film maker's on their Facebook page. Shane Macdougall of Infant Monster Productions had left a brief note saying that anyone who wanted to meet Shane Hurlbut, ASC could do so the following evening. Wow, this was quite a conincidence. I was just on his blog earlier that morning checking out some of the amazing work he does with the 5Dm2. To say Shane is an evangelist of the HDSLR movement is putting it mildly, sort of like saying the Pope is kinda Catholic. Check out the $40k Panavision glass he has attached to the left 5Dm2 in the following picture.

Shane brought in his main filming equipment, including two under water cameras, a shoulder rig, his "man cam" (second picture below), and tripod based big lens rig. With only half a dozen observers showing up, not including his crew, it worked out quite well. I had a chance to try out the rigs, which was good and bad. Good experience, bad news for the future of my wallet. I have shaky hands like a junkie looking for a fix, so a camera stabilizer is somewhere in my future. That, or I need to work on the next JJ Abrams shaky-cam Godzilla knock off.

So, here's a bit of what I absorbed.
  1. Shane mostly shoots at around f/2.8 or so, which is wide open on my lenses. He said that they quickly switched over to Carl Zeiss prime glass to get better performance at wider apertures. Totally understandable from my perspective. The Canon glass doesn't *really* get sharp until about f/8. It's made for studio portraits and still photography, not film. I run into this too.
  2. Camera stabilizers make a big difference (good ones at least).
  3. The Canon 1Dm4 coming soon seems to have 4x the performance of the 5Dm2 in terms of noise. Wish I had $5k to find out. Shane mentioned that having the little less shallow depth of field on the 1Dm4 can be helpful. Shooting the 1Dm4 at f/2.8 is like shooting the 5Dm2 at f/4 because of the 1.3 sensor size crop factor.
  4. Shane confirmed what I already experienced. The 5Dm2 does have incredible light sensitivity.
  5. The Panavision glass seems to give him a 2-3 stop increase in contrast performance over the Canon or Carl Zeiss lenses. I didn't know the lens made *that* much difference above a certain price point. Canon, if you're listening...better lenses please!
  6. After talking with his focus puller I found out that they use both distance estimates and a range finder to pull focus. Pulling focus with live action shots is definitely something that I think hindered me while filming mountain bikers. I had real issues trying to pull focus with moving subjects without auto-focus and while using the barrel instead of a proper follow focus setup.
  7. Standing in front of firing machine guns (with blanks) may cause dental problems. After a couple days filming Navy Seals head on while they fired their weapons, there was enough teeth grinding going on that Shane's dentist took notice.
  8. Other stuff, which is more technical...and I want to talk about pretty pictures again.
I have to say that it's guys like Shane who are busy industry professionals and take the time to talk to us that make film making great. This was done gratis on his part and he hosted us for nearly 90 minutes after a long day of shooting. We all need a little encouragement every now and then to just keep going.
This is just a side note to the evening. Before the evening commenced I went upstairs to the hotel balcony and took some photos of the city at night. Nice view, but I wish I had brought my tripod. I really wanted to get a panorama at night. Mr. Shaky Hands prevented that, even with stabilization on a balcony fence post.

More exciting news this weekend.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

••◊ Color Correction for Noobs

First, I am in no way an expert on color used in film. This entry is mainly about what I learned while trying to do a minor bit of color correction for my own film recently.

What a lot of people don't realize is that pretty much all film and commercials are shot with available or neutral colors (as much as feasible). With film, the raw color balance is determined by the film stock so you don't get a choice of white balancing the camera and have to do it in post. When the video or DI is edited, the footage is put through a process called "color correction"or "color grading."

Color correction is done as an aesthetic to convey a time, place, or mood. Take for example the current incarnations of the TV show CSI where highlights are ultra-saturated into primary colors and everyone is orange. ...or Cold Case where everything is blue and desaturated. The Matrix is perhaps one of the most common examples where the world inside the matrix is green.

So to give a film look you most likely need to do color correction. My introduction to this came in the form of a tutorial on creativecow.net called "Creating a Summer Blockbuster Film Look." Stu Maschwitz dives in to how create a typical blockbuster look, which means turning peoples' skin orange and making the shadows teal. The unfortunate thing is that now I notice this color scheme in nearly every Hollywood film I watch. The background of why this came to be so common came from the practice of apply complementary colors. Stu also points out the Adobe Kuler tool online that helps you design a color scheme based on established rules of thumb for complementary colors. Nice skin tones just happen to complement teal, as Kuler points out.

For the more advanced (not me), there's 3-way color correction. This separates the pictures into highlights, mid-tones, and shadows, allowing you to change the color balance and saturation of all 3-regions. I am definitely not at this point yet. There's a tutorial here specifically for Adobe Premier Pro. Maybe when I have more time I'll delve into this subject. It's detailed enough that they make sub-$1M machines from DiVinci and Quantel just for film colorists to do their work. You can do most of it on a desktop, but it's not the same accuracy or real-time feedback the pros get to experience.

So, what did I learn? I approached this from the standpoint of a photography. Step 1 is to find the right frame that shows skin tones or the subject of interest. We'll start with a frame from an interview I recently did for my 24 Hours at Hurkey Creek documentary. Below is a (low quality) frame grab of the raw footage. No correction applied. When I was shooting I used auto white-balance and a -1 setting for the contrast (because I was outdoors with unpredictable lighting). This video was shot in late afternoon, so I wanted to give it at least somewhat of a sun setting feel.

The first adjustment was to the contrast and brightness. These are the really big knobs in any picture correction. I brought down the brightness 2% and brought the contrast down 5%. You can just barely notice a difference in the skin and his shirt, but it's significant to the setting sun feel.

The second adjustment was color balance. I made the skin tones a little more orange to reflect the late afternoon sun. You can also see this in the trees in the background. They have a warm wood feel to them now.

Finally I applied saturation to really give that sunset feel and make the skin tones pop.

So that's my quick and dirty process for color correction: brightness/contrast, color balance, then saturation. No, it's not the total professional route but it worked sufficiently for this project.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

••◊ An Enumeration of Failures

As of 9pm last night I completed the editing, sound design, rendering, and publishing of my short film about a group of mountain bike racers competing in a 24 hour race. This self initiated project was a last minute opportunity to test my brand new equipment before heading off to do a more formal assignment two weeks later (footage is still on a hard drive nagging me). So long story short, there were a grand assortment of failures learning opportunities during this first pass at shooting with the 5Dm2 and my lav setup. Click on the picture below to be taken to the exposureroom.com site hosting the video.

So as the title so poignantly puts it, this post is about my failures and what I learned from them for the next project.

  1. Always get more b-roll. I came home to find that I basically only had bikers passing along on the trail as b-roll and sometimes that really didn't make sense for the video. However that's what I had, so I had to use it. What I should have done is take mental or written notes while interviewing people and aquired b-roll that reflected key words in their conversation.
  2. Watch focus. There are two scenes where my focus is wrong, but I didn't have a choice but to use that video because there was no b-camera or backup. One of the issues with the tiny LCD on the back of the 5Dm2 is that it doesn't show focus really well when zoomed out to 100% view. I watched this like a hawk during my next project. I'm especially ashamed of Bob's night time interview because what he said is just so perfect for the feeling of the scene.
  3. Carefully aquire more audio. 80% of this video's audio soundtrack was rebuilt from recordings I made on to my field recorder. What I should have done is say a scene# or a short description at the beginning when I started to record audio. That would have most the sound design go a lot faster. I also didn't record all the scenes onto the field recorder, just a subset. This meant that some of the background sounds came from other scenes. You would never know by listening (hey, it's Hollywood...it's all fake).
  4. Failure to use full manual mode. This was simply a technical issue. It turns out that in addition to the "M" dial settings you also have to set another menu item to get full manual control of the video mode. At the beginning of the video where the focus shifts from the 24 hour sign to the clock is where this issue showed up. If I had full manual working I would have completely de-focused the alternate focus point and the shot would have been greatly improved. Oh well...there's no going back. It's a documentary and the scene, not quite, but almost made it's point.
  5. Carefully place the lav. I didn't pay as much attention to this as I should have and there are a few interview scenes where you can hear the lav scratching along the polyester clothes. I should have taped everything down or chose a better position for the lav clip.
  6. Think like a photographer. I was so excited to learn my new gear and chase people around that I sometimes forgot to be a photographer first. There were plenty of beautiful scenes to capture and I missed quite a few of them in retrospect. Experience does matter.

Things to think about next time...

  1. I need a better way to stabilize the camera for handheld shots. This could mean a steadicam rig or a should mount rig like Zacuto or Red Rock Micro make. On the financially light side of things a simple mono-pod would have greatly helped. The grips on the camera provide too short of a lever arm to maintain stability for handheld shots.
  2. Lav audio will always need tweaking in post, so be less concerned about the mic and more about the mic position.
  3. Time lapse would have been awesome for this project. I really would like to get a Canon timed remote like the TC-80NC. Hint, hint Santa Claus. Amazon has a good deal on them - just saying.

Things I did right...

  1. I have to admit that this came from another bloggers idea. I turned down the contrast on the camera before heading outdoors. This kept me from blowing out more highlights in daytime outdoor shots. Color correction always needs to be done in post, so starting with low contrast originals is probably better.

So for anyone reading this I hope my experience and failures help. I plan to get better, but it's always good to reflect on what it takes to get there. Off to my million other projects...

Monday, October 5, 2009

••◊ Forget knee deep

I just arrived back from Seattle at noon today and I'm knee deep in documentary footage. There's about 50-60GB of digital stuff from the mountain bike race and nearly 100GB from the bodybuilding interview. I'm up to eyebrows in footage (yes, about to drown). I guess this is the expected result of owning 32GB flash cards.

Needless to say, I'll be spending quite a bit of time in my man cave editing suite in the next few weeks. Just hope to not get burned out. If I need a break I'll post some screen shots from the bodybuilding interview. Intense stuff.

Friday, October 2, 2009

••◊ Fortune Cookie

Well, duh! I thought this was supposed to be about my future(?) Fortune cookie bakeries must have recently downsized "cost optimized" their fortune teller department.

Monday, September 21, 2009

••◊ 24 hours in Idyllwild

I'm not one to let sleeping dogs lie. I'm the type who gives them a quick pull on the leash and tells them we're going for a walk. So this post is mainly to partially futiley satiate my anxiety about not working on a project. I attached a few raw frame grabs from the video to this post.

I spent this last weekend at an extreme 24 hour mountain bike race in Idyllwild, California called "24 Hours of Adrenaline." My main intent was to give my new video equipment a test run before embarking on a more serious project next week.

Idyllwild is in the high desert in the San Bernadino mountains in the Cleveland national forest east of Hemet and north of Anza (not that anybody really knows where those places are without Google Earth, latitude= 33°40'38.05"N , longtitude=116°40'36.75"W). The course starts at Hurkey Creek Park and quickly ascends 900 feet, then turns around shortly after the summit and returns for a 10 mile loop. The team I went up with, "Old Arrogant Bastard Amber Ale", came in first in their division with 27 laps completed in 24 hours. Like any challenging race the it started out with excitement, followed by "what the hell were we thinking", then "we have to finish what we started", then "do we really have to finish what we started?", and finally "final push - this was soooo worth it". Final racer body count: 1 banged up elbow/shin combo and one broken spoke."

My energy seemed to follow that of the race. I sort of eased into it with apprehension since I wasn't completely confident in my equipment yet - and as it turned out I didn't have manual mode working for video yet. As a side note, Canon doesn't let you use manual mode with exposure simulation so I was shooting in auto/dummy mode all weekend and not understanding why it wasn't working perfectly for me. Probably best anyway with me fumbling around with all the controls on various gadgets. Good experience for next time.

The experience that I feel really makes this event noteworthy is the night time rides. The race takes on a surreal feeling early in the morning with lights coming completely out of the dark randomly highlighting desert foliage as handlebars sway side to side. Eiry quiet surrounds the camp site even though the racers are still rocketing into the finish to energetically hand off the baton to the next rider - or check in for the next lap if they are a solo rider. Yes, the top solo riders do 21 laps (210 miles) over 24 hours. My body decided to wake up just before 2am due to the random beaming of a flashlight on a rider's helmet outside my car. With all the wisdom that comes with sleepy thoughts at 2am I decided it was a good time to go for a walk and shoot some night time shots. At the start/finish I grabbed some wonderful, colorful night time images that wouldn't be possible with most video cameras. The 5D really accels there, thank goodness. Then I decided to go walking up the race trail....yes, trouble ensued. Now I'm old enough to know that stuff happens due to carelessness, however it was 3am by this time and my judgement was less than optimal. After shooting mysterious trail footage of bike lights coming through the pine trees and dry desert shrubs I was walking back when I heard a racer coming and I needed to step off the trail to let them by. So I try to do so in complete, pitch black darkness and of course fall flat on my face. Even worse my lens hood is completely cracked and trashed. My main shooting lens now has scratches across the front that interfere with the screw on filter threads. My new wireless transmitter and field recorder fall out of my backpack and get scratched. Oh, and my shin and thigh took a beating. It's one thing to beat up your body, but equipment is expensive and doesn't heal. Ordered a new lens hood today. I'll repair my lens when I get back from the shoot next week. To put is politely, "dang."

Mentally I had to tell myself it will be OK and that I should continue. This wasn't bad kharma, just a small mishap; keep going. I guess my feeling of hope for the project dropped at the same time that it does for the racers, which probably gave me a sympathetic outlook on how to shoot the project (a good thing).

The next day came around and I started shooting more on the trail. It was my own push to the finish. Motivation toward a deadline is something I've understood most of my life and just accept it as a functional asset. It's the same for most racers. They understand the race is 24 hours and there will be that time when there is 16 hours left and you aren't self motivated anymore. There's 12 hours left and now motivation and energy are gone. Then there's 4 hours left and the motivation somehow comes back. In the final hour it's a complete relief because it's almost over and you know you've done what you can do. Anyone who has shot a large project knows that this is a direct parallel.

I'm really proud of the "Old Arrogant Bastard(s)" and Amber as well. Oh, did I forget to mention that this was a co-ed team with a kick butt chick racer on board? Phil posted the fasted lap time of the event at 43 minutes.

24hr race team from left: Phil, Amber, Bob, Gary, and John

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

••◊ lav'd up

It's been much too long since I wrote my last blog post. There have been multiple projects in the fire and we all know how that goes. One of those projects this last Monday was a corporate shoot at HP for internal communications - sorry no video here. It was a basic sit down interview with one interviewer and multiple interviewees. I viewed it as an excellent chance to break in my new lavs and transmitters.

Colette, pictured below, was my willing test victim subject. I labelled the picture below to show how I had her wired up. The mic is just at the edge of her lapel on the inside of her jacket. The transmitter was mounted near her right hip. No ugly tie clips hanging out. OK, nothing really special here, however Colette asked about how I had the lav attached to the inside of her jacket and I thought it might make a good blog posting to pass on this information.

These next two photos show how the lav was attached to Colette. I'm using my jacket as a reference (no, I don't own any pink jackets for this simulation). The first photo shows the lav taped at the edge of the lapel. The trick that audio pros use for strain relief is to attach a piece of tape on the mic wire 1-2 inches after the mic, form two loops of the lav mic wire, and wrap the tape around the loops inside-out so the sticky side sticks to the fabric (as opposed to the loops of wire). The two loops held inside the tape form strain relief so your talent doesn't rip off the mic while shifting around or worse - break the lav mic wire. Not shown here for clarity sake is an extra step. You want to put another piece of tape over the strain relief just to make sure it sticks to the fabric otherwise the strain relief will quickly be dangling and useless.

The second photo shows me tugging on the loop. You can see that one of the loops is starting to close in as it should.

There are obviously more elaborate techniques out there, but this is a basic one any shooter should know. A google search will give you more information than you ever wanted to know.

For this demonstration I used medical tape to attach the lav to the jacket. In the interview I used gaffer's tape. For this configuration it doesn't really matter all that much. When you want to hide the mic under a shirt on some one's chest, the side of their cheek, or on their forehead under bangs/wig then medical tape is probably the better option. At least your talent will think so.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

••◊ Returning to Mecca

Yesterday I took myself on a little birthday shopping trip to the media Mecca - Hollywood that is. The intent was to buy a wireless lav system for my 5D camera, so I can have a much improved field documentary setup. More importantly, the first stop was lunch.

My friend's girlfriend lives in the Silver Lake district in LA, so she sent a laundry list of restaurants to try. I was only going to be in LA for the afternoon, so the selection had to be parred down to one: Local. Local is a place on the north corner of West Sunset Boulevard and Silver Lake Drive just off of 101. They specialize in using local product (thus the name). I'm always a fan of locally produced organic stuff, so that made the choice somewhat simple. People were nice, friendly, and definitely treated you like a local. It reminded me of a place in the University or Fremont districts in Seattle (that's a good thing). Highly recommended if you have to be in LA and feel, well...not like a local.

Since traffic was backed up from Irvine to Santa Ana due to a traffic accident I didn't really have much time to be a tourist. The next stop was Coffey Sound, which is a retailer, rental gear place, and online shop that is situated just across 101 from Universal Studios. The reason I drove all this distance is that I'm really picky about sound gear. On the Creativecow.net's audio professionals forum I inquired about medium priced lav systems. They replied with various suggestions to at least get me on the right track, but microphones really need to be heard to understand the difference. What I ended up getting is the Countryman B6 lav mic and a Sennheiser G3 wireless system. Unfortunately they didn't have any of the B6's pre-wired for sale (just rentals), so I have to wait another week to get those shipped to me. The other two recommended mics: Sennheiser MKE2 and Sanken COS-11 just didn't sound nearly as good at the flat response B6. I didn't even like the mid-bump B6, so that shows you just how picky I am. The G3 purchase was a financial compromise. The Lectrosonics sound a little better in my opinion, but are 4x the cost and I didn't have $5k to spend. Overall, I'm glad I went on this trip in person. Kristie, their sales person, is a super nice gal and spent about an hour with me demo-ing the equipment...and she just bought a pro-tools rig and is ready to do sound post for anyone looking in LA. As a side anecdote, I was thinking just last week "I wonder what ever happened to all those laser disks?" Now I know. Coffey Sound uses them to decorate their bathroom walls.

As you can tell by the initial picture I had time for one brief tourist in-n-out mission up the hill to the Hollywood sign (and yes, I realize I'm whiter than the sign). For anyone looking the directions are 101 to North Beachwood to Ledgewood to Deronda. Oodles of nice homes up there tucked away in the brush. They don't let you hike up to the actual Hollywood sign for some reason. The gate that blocks the road is about another 50 meters up the hill from where I'm standing in the picture. Nick, a tourist from London, gets the photo credit here. He and two other buddies were in LA as tourists. I took a picture of them in return. On the way down, sure enough, there was someone filming in the crosswalk. I had somewhere more important to be - had to go.

Amy Campion is a high school alum and I was meeting her in Korea-town at a place called Cafe Mak just off of Wilshire and Shatto Place. Amy has an MFA in dance, teaches, and manages a hip-hop dance company that performs all over. She is definitely living the Hollywood life, making movies and doing public performances, but more importantly she has an alter ego: "Bgirl Catfox." It seems like celebrities now days have managed to get their alter ego names down to one or two syllables (i.e. Puff Daddy=Diddy or Madonna=Maddy/Mads). Something for her to contemplate. Even in high school I remember Amy as being smart, motivated, and willing to live a more daring lifestyle. The rumor was that she spent more days skipping school than generally allowed to go snowboarding, but made up for it by not having to study very hard.

Back to the subject of food...Cafe Mak offers a sweet potato cake, which is a very different take on cake. It's like Russet potato with sweet milk in a form factor that looks like a scoop of ice cream. So interesting I had to try it.

Since LA traffic is so bad on Fridays I had time to kill before attempting the long haul back on I-5. Traffic moves like a constipated snail before 8pm, and only slightly faster there after. Amy recommended the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a few miles west on Wilshire so I decided to spend a little time there. Among many items are original Warhol's, Picasso's, and many artists I've never heard of, of course. My favorite object among them all was a 10 foot tall metal sculpture that looked like a balloon animal of a dog; shiny Mylar-type finish and all. Fun.

On Friday nights the museum is free with a donation and they also have a concert stage with a jazz band in the courtyard (pictured above). A lot of neighborhood families gather for a picnic in the grass or couples dress up for date night. It's a nice community atmosphere.

So that's it. I'm waiting for the mics to show up before giving the system a go. I guess that will be another blog post waiting to happen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

••◊ Skewed Perspective

I've been actively watching the discussions regarding health insurance reform lately. What really troubles me is the skewed perspective given to the american public by major media corporations. When the nightly news comes on you see citizens angry and yelling at politicians. Passive observers may be lead to think that the majority believe that this is the wrong direction for America. In reality the statistic is that 27% of Americans currently oppose one or more of the four bi-partisal drafted proposals being developed in congress. It's one thing for a documentarian to push an agenda, but it's completely another to have a news organization that is supposed to maintain journalistic integrity to have an agenda.

Take for instance my last post of the
Ranchos womens' racing team. I could have editted together a very selective video showing the women stuttering their sentences and made the video about them failing to finish the race. That wasn't my agenda. I wanted to show them as the competent racers and intelligent individuals they are. Having worked on a documentary before and seeing enough of others' work you realize that most documentaries aren't told from a neutral standpoint because you want to make people passionate about the story. When news organizations cross this line, such as is typically done with Fox News, what we end up with is a mis-informed public opinion that leads to doubt. When people have sufficient doubt they tend to vote no by default. Let's face it; those citizens who are too lazy to take the time to understand the truth behind something as fundamentally shifting as health insurance reform are more likely to accept their favorite web site's/news channel's headlines and five second flash of disturbing images.

The headline grabbing part of this equation comes from bitter Republican politics, such as those from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. She recently went on the attack telling the public that the administration will allow end of life councelling (i.e. "death panel") in the bill. This provision, which since has been removed, was initiated by *Republican* Senator Johnny Isakson. Palin's objective is to promote fundamental Republican-ism by denouning the provison as belonging to Obama, not reform health care. Of course news organizations latched on to this headline and showed town hall meetings where citizens were screaming at their senators about this very subject. Did the news show the real discussion? No, but that wouldn't have made for as interesting of a five second video.

The Democrats have been less than perfect as well. The government accountability office (GAO) says that the current set of plans are not budget neutral, as President Obama has said in recent media statements. The President has also recently claimed that the AARP has endorsed his plans, but in reality they haven't yet. I watch one of his town hall meetings in Colorado yesterday where he made this claim again. The meeting was broadcast on C-SPAN, which tends to have fairly neutral (but borning) coverage of government affairs. With a neutral presentation of the public discussion at least only the political rhetoric remains.

Surprisingly the most neutral coverage I have seen recently is the PBS show "Bill Moyers Journal." Despite the show's documentary facade, he brought on generally neutral experts to discuss the points of the proposals. Maybe this has something to do with not having to sell E.D. drugs and soda pop every 15 minutes.

The point of this post isn't to push my opinion of health insurance reform; it's to understand the difference between a documentary and journalism. Good journalism is neutral, a good documentary generally isn't. I am personally disconcerted that the major news organizations have chosen to cross that line which seems un-democratic and, as such, un-American.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

••◊ Ranchos racing

This last year Robert Fagnant, an experienced bicycle racer and member of our team, coached the Ranchos women's racing team. I have to say he's done an extraordinary job. The women are racing hard, winning state championships, *and* they all seem to get along. Not an easy job for any "directeur sportif."

Given the wonderful job these women are doing in promoting Ranchos and our sponsor, I knew I had to do a short documentary on them at our cycling club's annual race. Once again I borrowed the LX3 camera (with cringe-worthy audio quality) and my DSLR to do the task. The wind kicked up in the afternoon making me a little nervous about the interview footage, but the audio was mostly usable. I also had to dial down the exposure compensation a little to compensate for the southern California summer sun; which almost works if you can see the viewfinder. A new technique I tried this time was to gather some over head shots by sticking the camera on a tripod and waving it over the cyclists like a poor man's jib. Despite having to estimate the shot framing I was surprisingly able to get usable footage.

So here's my latest short interview with the ladies. As always the HD version can be viewed

Friday, July 24, 2009

••◊ I think I wore out my scanner.

Welcome to my dissertation on world peace, or at least it might have taken an equivalent effort. For the last six months I have been patiently waiting beside a film and/or photo scanner to archive family photos. So what's the body count? 192 film-negatives, 362 printed photos, and 228 slides scanned; and this was *after* removing the redundant, inconsequential, and bad pictures. Thank goodness for digital cameras and cheap storage.

I thought it might be nice to compile a list of my favorite photos from the bunch. This series will probably seem pretty long, but it's just a random glance at the highlights. First let's start with me. I'll spare my friends from my baby "clothing optional" pictures...you know, to keep this safe for work. The first photo I like because I was an audio-centric person growing up. I once sent a copy of this picture to my mom with the caption "Some people believe in destiny. I like to think I found my own way." The second picture...well, I just like it. Awesomely posed if I do say so myself, however I should have moved a little to the right to capture more facial highlight. What do you expect? I was like three.

Next up out of the pool is a rather random entry of my Aunt Bertie. The color, the stare, the subtle hand at the left of the frame that she is turning away from - You have to pay big bucks for a model to look this sad in a photo now days.

There are a few classic portraits of grandma (Elsie) and grandpa (Ed) in their earlier years. All my life I grew up with my grandma having short hair, but I personally think she looked better here. My grandpa was an ambulance driver in Japan in world war two, so I felt like this shot really captured a time, purpose, and place well.

Then there's mom. I thought the concept of a "free burro ride" at Fairyland really captured a time and place again. Funny, I've never seen her ride an animal since. Hmmm.... I also had to throw in a picture in from mom's younger years sans rug-rat (i.e. me).

Then, and most importantly, there's mom and I. I'll probably get ousted from her will for showing her in a swimsuit on my blog, but it wouldn't be the first reason. Here's mom and I, probably on Oahu circa the late seventies. Then there's mom and I in the backyard probably in Beaverton Oregon. Notice that she has bare feet outdoors, tracking in dirt onto the inside carpet. ...and she gave *me* a hard time about bringing dirt indoors. "Girl dirt" must be OK.

Off to the bicycle races tomorrow. Probably won't make it to the Strobist meeting this month.