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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.