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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

••◊ A family visit, part 2

Day two of my family visit in Oregon was an emotionally rough day.  The picture above is the former home of my grandparents, Ed and Elsie.  I spent most of my summers there.  That house meant freedom to be a kid.  I was able to sleep in, play in the nearby woods and open fields, use my grandpa's tools and scrap wood bin to build stuff without adult supervision, and watch as much MTV and Nickelodeon as I wanted - believe you me, it was a lot.  Happiness was much simpler then.  In the daylight basement I made a basketball court out of a cardboard box and a beach ball, played darts (the sharp kind, not the wussy magnetic ones they sell now days), and rode my little Schwinn banana seat bicycle.  There was always some type of model rocket experimental vehicle or wood shop project in various stages of construction, reinforcing a life long appreciating for designing and building things.  A vertical scale stapled to one of the support posts in the basement with a giraffe graphic kept track of my height throughout my life.  Most of all my grandparents made me feel loved and appreciated from sun up until sun down.

Grandpa was a manual labor guy most of his life.  Union until retirement.  Growing up in North Dakota meant being familiar with farm work and driving an ambulance in World War II meant being patriotic.  He was always asking me why this and that couldn't be built in the United States.  On a more comical note, he was also best known for earthquake simulation snoring.

Grandma held a full time job until retirement as well, but being raised as a mid-west girl she kept the house and prepared all meals.  She would call every Sunday like clock work at 7pm to catch up on the family gossip and remind us that she was thinking about us. If there was anything I really wanted I knew to just go to grandma.  One summer I even got a brand new electric guitar (to which my mom snarled in disgust of my triumph).  That meant being one of the cool kids with a nice ax to show off.  It meant the world to me.  Even when I saw my grandma for the last full day of her life I made sure to thank her specifically for that gift.

On Sunday morning I made a trek out to Mountain Home to visit their shared grave site.  Everyone dies.  I still have to learn to be more accepting of that.  It's still heartbreaking to know that all that's left of them are memories.  The lonely, isolating nature of a cemetary quickly reminds you of that.  The last time I had been to this location the grave outline was still readily apparent by the yellow rectangular cut out in the green grass.  That's the point when reality really sets in that someone is gone and you're powerless to bring them back.  I spent an hour just sitting beside my Grandma and Grandpa with the birds chirping and pecking away at the cemetery grass.  I don't really believe in the afterlife, so talking out loud to them didn't seem appropriate.  It was hard to get the words out anyway so I just thought about positive memories of them.  What this experience does reinforce is that I have to work harder to create good memories to leave others with.  That little grave marker and memories are all that are left in the end.  I was able to tell them that I love them and then I had to leave.

Before heading back to Bertie's for brunch I decided to clear my head a bit with a drive up to Bald Peak State Park above Scholls.  A long time ago my grandpa decided to show me a challenging cycling route so he drove ahead a mile and I followed him all the way up that brutal hill to Bald Peak and back.  It seemed like a good place to be that morning.  The beautiful northern Oregon countryside is still transitioning from spring into fall, so there's green everywhere.  Someone from San Diego once told me that San Diego was green and I gave her a look like she was loco.  Growing up in northern Mexico she had absolutely no clue.  The panoramic shot is in the eastern valley just below the peak.  The remaining pictures were taken up at Bald Peak.  Returning to nature typically leaves me at ease.  I grew up playing in the lush forest with my friends.  Clean air, blue skies with fluffy off-white clouds, the sound of wind in the tall grass, and the crackling of tires on back country roads have always been my oasis.  Once re-centered I headed back to Beaverton to rejoin civilization.

Coping with loss in life typically means something changes within yourself.  I'm learning to be more comfortable with saying "love you mom," even though it's mainly been non-verbally inferred in the past.  My family is getting older and most of them will be gone sooner than I would like to accept.  Time flies by too fast when you're busy working to build something you think will be your permanent legacy, which it probably won't.  Create positive memories with your family.  That's all you'll really leave with them.

I miss you Grandma and Grandpa.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

••◊ A family visit, part 1

This last weekend I made a trek up to Portland Oregon to celebrate my great Aunt Bertie's anniversary of her 29th birthday (at least she would want me to put it that way).  It was a surprise party none the less.  Lots of colorful presents, cards, and the usual assortment of decorations.  What I find is after enough anniversaries of your 29th birthday the party conversation quickly turns to who is still alive and what medical problems they have, at which point my brain goes into virtual iPod listening mode.  The sign on my face says "shop closed, re-opening at 9am."  Guess it take a few anniversaries to appreciate the ambient tune.

Then again, we photogs are supposed to be enterprising, yes?  I can just see it now: geriatric trading cards!

"I've got gall stones."
"Oh yeah? I'll trade you for a arthritic knee."
"No way ya old putz. Add in a goiter and you've got a deal."
"Know anyone with the golden card, you know, the broken hip?"
"Haven't heard of one of those in 40 years.  It might just be a urban legend."

Mom had pre-negotiated my presence and picture taking quota.  Not sure, but the Southwest flight itinerary might have been considered a legal contract for image delivery.  I looked at this as an opportunity to create a nice family photo essay.

Bertie is the last of her siblings.  Growing up in the mid-west (North Dakota, can I get a holla?!) her family was of course large and her parents made an agricultural based living.  I remember my grandma telling me stories about growing up as "dirt farmers" in North Dakota during the depression, but somehow those tough old Germans got by and survived.  It's even been rumored that my grandma and Bertie were two of the wilder redheads in town.  Bertie is still a kick so I believe it, despite the more comfortable, and appreciably pink, fuzzy clothing she commonly adorns now days.

So what do you get a woman who has almost everything? A frog prince of course.  I didn't ask if the age of the handsome prince scales with birthday anniversaries.  Knowing Bertie it might even be a slightly inverse relationship.

OK, OK... so she got a Kindle too.  Someone had to get her something so she could be considered the cool grandma.

What's more important that birthday presents?  Birthday cake...duh!  Growing up I had the pleasure of chomping down on more than a few Beaverton Bakery cakes.  This one was especially delightful since there's been about a 10 year gap in my Beaverton based cake consumption (Mom...check if they Fedex).  About 10 minutes later I started sweating and passing out from the high glycemic load and insulin shock of butter cream and white cake filling.  So worth it.

At some point later that evening they ran out of people to talk about with medical issues, so it turned into a picture review party.  I had a few people breathing down my neck while sorting and pre-processing raw images on my mom's Macbook.  Karen (sitting on the couch) brought her Canon G10 and Sharon had her Nikon DSLR, so plenty of coverage.  One person even had printed family photos - whoa, they still do exist!  No one even took out an annoying camera phone (a triumph!).

Sunday was a bit of a rougher day, narrative-ly speaking, but more on that in the next blog entry.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

••◊ Practice, Practice, Practice...

Here in San Diego we have the 48 hour film making competition coming up at the beginning of August.  Teams are starting to form.  Equipment and locations are being reserved.  Producers are bracing for the financial strain.  All I know if that I'll need a good night of sleep on that Friday before the contest.  Typically the filming lasts anywhere from 12-18 hours on Saturday; possibly longer with less experienced teams.

To get ready we started practicing and experimenting with film making.  Not living in LA, my film projects are spread out and so it's difficult to keep my skills sharp.  Ellen (behind the right soft box), a local improv actor and writer, offered to host a practice session consisting mostly of improv acting.

Some things we learned include:
  1. Try not to rely on improvisation.  It takes too long and is too difficult to film properly.
  2. To save time, optimize the shot list around lighting moves.  In the photo you can see that we only had the ability to optimally light one person at the table at a time.
  3. Daylight moves around and changes color - often.  Even the iPhone has a sun tracker app for filmmakers.  Don't count on natural light (which I don't usually).
  4. Keep a list of shooting basics.  When you're filming fast it's easy to forget and produce something that you are forced to use, but makes you otherwise cringe.
  5. You will likely need more physical room that you think at first.  For instance, an over the shoulder shot in this tight space at 24mm makes the foreground person look like Andre the Giant and the background person seem like they share a stature with Danny Devito.  Plus, lights and other gear take up space which makes it hard to move around.
  6. One thing we couldn't do here is use an optimal work flow because of the improvisation acting.  Block, light, rehearse, shoot.  That should be the mantra if you want to pound out footage on schedule.
We have a few more practice sessions, hopefully of a more formal nature, coming up.  If nothing else, this allows our crew to get some practice working with one another.  Last year the San Diego winner was accepted at Cannes, so wish us luck.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

••◊ Wall of Lights - After Effects Project Tutorial

In addition to managing the San Diego Filmmakers Vimeo account, I also got roped into doing the motion graphics for their pre-meeting advertising video.  My first attempt was pretty simple and pathetic, simply because it was the first After Effects project I had done - not saying the new one is pro quality yet, but I'm improving.  As research I went out on the old Interwebs and found a couple pieces of inspiration include a wall of lights and the motion graphics from the Oscars.  For my effort I had to scale it back a bit a lot to something I could do in a weekend, so I went for the wall of lights concept.  After all, After Effects is a dark human abyss of creativity that sucks you in until you (or your spouse, in my colleague's case) realize you haven't showered for two days straight.  A picture of the result is below.  It looks kinda like the stage at a live show.  Rock!

The non-obvious part of this video was making the wall of lights randomly blink on and off, in addition to just making a wall of lights without having to generate and manage 100 or more objects in After Effects.  What can I say?  I'm an engineer.  I want things to be optimized and simplified.  Messy isn't my thing.

The first thing I started with is a simple composition containing nothing more than a circle.  To do this I added a shape layer (Layer-New-Shape Layer), then add a white circle (Effect-Generate-Circle) to the shape layer.  Simple soft yellow Glow (Effect-Stylize-Glow) and slight Lens Blur (Effect-Blur & Sharpen-Lens Blur) effects on the circle made it look a little more like a glowing bulb than a circle.

My next step was to tile this circle in a grid using the tiler effect (Effect-Distort-CC Tiler).  In my case I made this a 10x10 grid.  Pretty simple so far.

The problem is that you can't animate the brightness of each circle using this effect.  Through experimentation I found an alternative that could only exist in the strange universe of After Effects.  First I created a new gray layer (Layer-New-Solid) and added a CC Ball Action effect to it (Effect-Simulation-CC Ball Action).  To make the move in Brownian motion I added a "wiggle" expression to the "Scatter" parameter of the CC Ball Action effect.

To turn this into something I could use to control brightness of the circles I added a Mosaic Effect (Effect-Stylize-Mosaic) to align the random mosaic with the array of circles.  To further control the overall brightness I also added a Brightness & Contrast effect to the ball layer (Effect-Color Correction-Brightness & Contrast).

Now when I turned back on the circle shape Layer and adjusted the Brightness and Contrast of the ball layer the circles faded in and out randomly.  I also added a power mask to darken the area around the logo for read ability, but that's just an aesthetic choice.  The result looks something like the following (without the power mask shown)...

Back in the main composition I imported the background blinky lights composition and added a Red Giant Quick Looks setting that was free, an orange-brown Tint (Effect-Color Correction Tint), more Glow (Effect-Stylize-Glow), and 10 light rays (Effect-Generate-CC Light Rays) to simulate stage lights.

The blinking of the lights is random which is both good and bad for composing the motion graphics, but overall I think the effect has been pulled off.  The final result can be seen on the SDF Vimeo page.