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Sunday, March 31, 2013

••◊ Kirtan - The Yoga of Music (Documentary Short)

My back has been killing me from sitting at my editing station.  I hate editing.  It always feels like I'm trapped in a suffocating cage, surrounded by a computer monitor and studio speakers, while I wonder what's going on in the real world.  You know, the real world where people actually go out and experience things...where I carry around a camera, lumberjack-style, and hang with interesting people exploring unusual ideas.  The place that doesn't feel quite like life is passing you by.  I hate editing.

That said, sometimes I have to edit projects because I'm the only one who is willing to do it.  That was the case here.  I talked about my earlier exploits with the equipment on loan from Video Gear at this link.  This project was originally meant to be a quick shoot to test out the equipment, hand off the footage, and post some screen shots of the footage with my usual assortment of pragmatic review comments.  As with most of my life, it didn't exactly go according to plan.

First, the band hired a live sound recording guy to bring in his rig to record the show.  He had a yet to be released piece of equipment from Roland that he decided to take into this concert as a beta test.  I'm a bit practical and always test equipment before asking a client to rely on it, but that's just me.  Much to the chagrin of the band and myself, that wasn't the case here.  Due to an obscure setting in the software associated with the new recording gear all the levels were recorded way too low and the live concert audio recording had to be scrapped.  This meant I had to spend a few days finding concert audio, recorded on the FS-700 shotgun mic - no less, that was somewhat acceptable and piece the snippets I had together into a montage...add a bit of eq and reverb so it doesn't sound like total garbage, and just accept what I had.  The double edged sword of this error is that the editing possibilities were severely reduced.

The lack of music tracks to draw from also meant that I had to take my single camera footage and try to make the edit look like a multi-cam footage.  That took time, as I shot the project thinking I would have plenty of music to draw from.  To fill out the footage I invited Naren, the lead singer, to my house and we recorded a quick 20 minute interview in my living room.

As with any documentary, this was a good chance to learn something new...a new experience in the "real world."  Realistically speaking, the breadth and depth of my sense of spiritualism consists entirely of casual exclamations of "holy crap!" and "oh my god!"  Kirtan (pronounced: Keer-tahn) is the spiritual music of India.  Essentially what Southern Gospel is to the USA, Kirtan is to India.  I'm more acclimated to concerts with coffee tables or mosh pits.  That obviously wasn't the case here since the audience sits on the floor and sings along with the band; heads bobbing back and forth in meditation.  It's the Indian equivalent of 80's head banging!  The band has the subtitle "The Yoga of Music" on their website.  My first thought was "what the heck does that mean?"  I've seen laughing yoga, but this is stretching things even further...at least I thought at first.  Naren explained it pretty well in his interview.

Yeah, yeah, yeah...get to the video, right?  Enjoy and don't forget to head bang, Indian style.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

••◊ Tips For Documentary Interviews

Sorry, no pictures again this week.  I'm in post on a short film, so perhaps I'll have some pictures to share within the next two weeks.  Until then I'd like to talk about what I've learned after a few years or doing documentary interviews.  I certainly wouldn't consider myself an expert on par with a national news reporter or Oprah, but I have learned some things that may be useful to others.

The first thing I start off with is letting the interview subject know that we have plenty of time.  Non-celebrities aren't used to talking in front of a microphone or camera, so their first reaction is to rush the nerve racking experience to get it over with.  Tell them it's OK to start over when responding to a question.  Computer memory is cheap.

Then let I let the interview subject know that they should answer all the questions by repeating the question in their reply.  For instance, if I ask the subject to introduce them self and say what they do I often get, "Burt, Teacher."  The response they need to be coached to say is, "My name it Burt Smith and I'm a third grade teacher at Witmer Elementary School."  It's my job as an interviewer to watch for these gaps in their responses and have them start over if necessary.

When the questions start, I use one or two "fluff" questions to start the dialog.  Unless this is five minute celebrity I-don't-have-time-for-you interview you want to take the conversation from 0 to 60 in a few minutes.  As an interviewer, I don't really care what the responses are.  These questions are to allow the subject to gain their footing while talking in front of a microphone and to get them to calm down.  Look at the person when they talk to you, not at the paper/tablet that has the questions.  They are talking to you, not the microphone.

So how do you decide what the "first question" really is?  The "first question" is the one with the keyword of emotional attachment.  "My mother", "my father", "rape", "murder", "tragedy", "loneliness", "abandonment"...etc.  If I do nothing else right, I must listen for this conversational keyword trigger.  There are lots of interview techniques I've seen, but this is the main one for me.  After you hear the response to the "first" question" you quickly re-order your question list to adapt to that path, postpone the question list, or throw it out altogether.  It's my job to know how much time we have and the required responses I need for the edit.  If I need the interviewee to not be an emotional wreck, then I might postpone my "second question" until the very end of the interview.  That or take a break mid-interview to let emotions settle.

After the "first question" you know what the the person you're interviewing really wants to talk about.  Go down that path with the "second question".  The "second question" is likely to be an ad lib question that explores the answer to the "first question."  That's going to give you the audio bites that are the heart of the story.  Respect what they say and let them explain their rationale and emotions.

The added benefit of this technique is that interviews tend to be shorter.  You get what you need to tell the story more efficiently and avoid wearing out your interview subject.  I've done interviews in 20 minutes and sometimes it's taken 3 hours.  There's no real rule of thumb when it comes to conversational exploration.  Hope this helps.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

••◊ Set Extensions in After Effects

I've been holed up in my bat cave doing VFX work for the last month on a feature film called Neshima.  As with any rush, rush, rush, schedule a few things were missed during production at which point they say...come on, we all know it....................."we'll fix it in post."  I'm pretty sure I heard a collective worldwide groan from outside my bedroom window just as I typed that "p" in the phrase.  Yes, "we'll fix it in post" is a reality we'll all have to deal with at some point.

Tonight I want to talk about a little technique I used to fix a wall that needed to be extended.  Part of the film takes place in straw huts that the villagers live in.  The problem is that the straw walls on the indoor set weren't quite long enough and when the camera panned around to catch the actors movement there was the flat black wall.  At least there wasn't green screen spill! 

So while sitting in my bat cave, I put on my bat thinking hat and opened up my bat utility belt (i.e. After Effects) and went to work.  The first thing I needed was a matte.  This came from copying the end of the wall on the left and repeating it.

To anyone familiar with Photoshop, this was a no brainer.  However the camera was panning around.  That's how we ended up with the black set wall exposed on the left.  Alright, says the After Effects experts.  We'll just do a track on the position of the wall and slave the position of the matte to the motion tracker.  The problem is that we have smoke in the shot that's diffusing the wall.  After Effects can track motion with me manually watching for random incorrect jumps in position, deleting the jumps, then re-starting the tracking.  However, because the wall is diffused with smoke the tracking is slightly inconsistent.  So much so that the matte seems to lag the actual wall in the shot and you get a type of rubber band elasticity between the matte and actual wall when the camera moves.  That's clearly not going to work.

What After Effects did was get me in the ballpark with the motion tracking.  I now had to go back in and key frame the anchor position of the matte frame by frame.  This created another issue.  Since the wall is diffused (kinda blurry really), it's hard to tell if I'm actually lining the two up correctly or if I'm still off.  This is where the innovation had to come in.  After a few minutes I decided to try to align the two layers via color. 

As you can see in the photo below the top layer has a mask with a 27 pixel feather and 27 pixel expansion.  On the top layer I used the Color Combiner effect to remove blue and green.  Likewise, on the matte layer I removed red.  So when I set the top layer mode to "Add" then I got back the wall's straw color in the mask feather area.  If I saw fringes of color in the feathered area then I knew the matte wasn't perfectly aligned to the wall and I adjusted the anchor position just slightly for each frame.  This aligned things rock solid.  No more rubber band wall, even at 4k resolution.

Lucky for me, this was a pretty straight on angle.  When cleaning up another wall shot that was more at an off angle I had to use the same technique, but also tweak the scaling a few percent per frame!  This was despite using position, scaling, and rotation in the track.  The smoke was throwing off the tracking just enough to be noticeable.  Doing these frame by frame tweaks wasn't easy from a time consumption point of view, but it worked equally well as the technique I discuss here.  I could clearly see when the matte wasn't tracking the wall perfectly and make a slight adjustment.

Hopefully that helps more of you After Effects bat-cavers out there.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

••◊ Rejection.

I thought I would take a break from the normal gear and adventure centric posts to talk about something I've been thinking about a lot this week.  Rejection.

This week I received my third rejection letter from a film festival after submitting the documentary "Stronger + One Last Rep."  As artists and film makers we tend to think of our projects as special because obviously they are to us.  Why else would we spend hour after hour producing, editing, and taking that last stray frame out of our films?  The trick, for me at least, now days seems be creating films that others find special too.  I guess there's a reason Hollywood films are so formulaic.  It's not just lack of creativity - Well...sometimes it can be that as well.

Getting into movie making is tough.  I see countless people show up at the San Diego Filmmakers meetings with their enthusiastic approach toward an idea they believe will be special and sets them apart from everyone else on the planet.  How many of those people actually make a film?  Very few.  At least by my count.  Once you get over the financial and organizational obstacles, there's the art and the business of actually delivering a real live project out into the wild, ready for the world to judge.  That first part knocks off 90% of people.  The second part knocks off an additional 5% or so.  Everyone has a "great idea" for a film.  When I tell them OK, you plan and finance it, the great idea most often becomes a burden rather than a great idea.  That magical idea they walked in with somehow isn't so special anymore.

So that leaves 5% of film making inclined people that have the brass tacks to actually follow through.  Somehow that translates to many, many thousands of uploads to Vimeo a day (I discount YouTube because of all the cat/webcam videos).  Of those, maybe 1% represent film festival shorts and even features.  Still, that's a lot of material that becomes competition for film festival submission.

So we filmmakers upload to withoutabox.com and submit our films to film festivals we admire or just want the prestige of being associated with.  My goal with submitting "Stronger + One Last Rep" is two-fold.  First, to share the story with as many people as possible.  Second, to travel to places I want to travel to while following the film (primary goal being the Seattle International Film Festival).  Obviously I'll get more eyeballs viewing the film on Vimeo than at any shorts program, but that doesn't satisfy my second goal.  Rejection is so frustrating because it doesn't allow me to fulfill my goals and I don't have any control over it.  Feedback from film festivals is always generic.  They never say, "the color grading looked like an acid trip and the scene in the kitchen was reminiscent of Ishtar," which is what I want them to say.  That would help me reach my goals.  Yes, I accept that it's logistically improbable given the number of submissions and too much of a burden for a volunteer reviewer.  Still, you wish you would hear something beyond "thank you for your submission."

Sometimes it doesn't even come down the art or technical aspects of your film.  The reviewer may just want to keep all the submissions under 10 minutes each so they can fit as many as possible into the 1.5 hour program on the schedule.  Maybe they decided that each short has to have something to do with world hunger.  You'll never know.  Maybe my film just sucked in comparison.

One thing I heard recently is that highly successful people have a trait that allows them to brush off failure, learn from it, and keep going.  That's what I'm determining needs to be my trait if I intend to stick with film making.  Rejection from a film festival isn't the end of the world, but it's not where I want to be.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

••◊ A weekend with Element Technica, Metabones, and a Samurai

This last weekend left me completely drained.  Salvador from Video Gear called me up early last week and told me that they just got the new Metabones Speed Booster lens adapter and the Atomos Samurai in the rental shop.  He wanted me to take it into the field and test it.  On top of that, Element Technica sent me their FS-700 riser plate and shoulder pad to try out.

So I sent out an seemingly benign email to my director friends, seeing if they had any projects this weekend that were appropriate to test the equipment.  Normally an email like this would be met by many "I'm out of town this weekend" or "we already have plans"...etc, but not this week.  Two replies.  One for Saturday and the other for Sunday. 

I was supposed to pick up the equipment at 11am on Saturday, giving me a few hours to put everything together, pack, read manuals, eat, and generally get in the flow.  Then Salvador calls me up and says, nope - he needs to push back the pick up until 12:30.  OK, I can go with this.  I've used the FS-700 before so operating that camera isn't a complete mystery.  By the time I get home from the shop I only have an hour to turn everything around and start driving to my first location. 

When I try to turn on the Samurai recorder, it won't turn on!  A panicked call to Salvador was quickly made.  This turns out to be a simple battery installation issue.  Fwwewww!  I had enough time to recompose myself and do a quick test.  Yes, everything works.  The universe is in sync again.

My first stop was the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence Conference at the Catamaran Resort in Pacific Beach.  Time to get my namaste on!  Normally PB is known for 20-somethings getting drunk, drunk driving arrests, hit and runs, and a general bar hopping atmosphere.  Once you step inside the hotel it's almost like an oasis from the street side alcohol fueled chaos.

Working with director Tommy Friedman, who was at the helm for a feature I worked on last year, we were recording a Kirtan performance.  Kirtan is essentially traditional Indian music (harmonium, chimes, tablas, and a great big something-or-other).  The band walks on quietly, says a welcome message in a spiritual way, then strikes up a tune.  What caught me off guard for a moment is that all of a sudden everyone in the hall starts singing along in chorus.  I knew this wasn't exactly a Foo Fighters concert, but I wasn't expecting a sing along.  Cool.  I'm down with that. 

Originally I thought the performance was supposed to end at 7:30pm, probably because I wasn't paying enough attention to Tommy's email.  It ended at about 10pm.  I'm exhausted, but the recording seemed to go well.  I'm in bed by 11:30pm after dumping footage, formatting media, and putting the batteries in their chargers.   

But before I go to bed I check my email.  (Darn email!)  Sure enough, director Scott and Clarence finally finished their plans for a short on Sunday.  I have a call time at Clarence's house at 9am.  This means I get about 6 hours of sleep after a long exhausting day.  The camera batteries are recharged, but I'm sure not!

Clarence finds a location right next to the Mexican border out in the middle of nowhere (OK, so it's really considered Dulzura, CA).  After about a 40 minute drive we enter a dirt road and I'm thinking to myself "I hear banjos.  Does anyone else hear banjos?  This can't be good."  We drive past a sign that says "South Bay Rod and Gun Club."  Oh, great.  Not only has he taken me to the middle of nowhere, but they're probably going to shoot us, thinking we're some type of anti-NRA documentary film crew.  We'll have to trade Scott's poor girlfriend for our freedom.

About a mile later we stopped at a small field and get out of the car to look at the view.  Beautiful.  Stunning.  Then a stray ricochet bullet drops near Clarence's feet.  This location isn't going to work.  Another mile down the road we find another hill top that works and go to work filming the short.

It wasn't until later in the day that the U.S. Border Patrol stopped at the bottom of the hill to check us out.  Clarence and Philip are both wielding their air-soft pistols that we're using as props.  I'm thinking (sarcastically) "oh, great."  Our saving grace is that the South Bay Rod and Gun club is nearby, so wielding a gun is almost equivalent to shaking a baby rattle out here.  The best I can do is timidly wave to the patrol officers.  They keep going.

By the time we're done I'm barely staying awake.  It's been two long days and I didn't get anything to eat all morning and afternoon.  Time to go home, recharge batteries, dump cards, and pack everything away to return the gear to the shop on Monday morning.  

For anyone who is a self proclaimed gear head, I'm posting the gear reviews on the Video Gear blog over the next three weeks.  It's two days later and I still need sleep.