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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.