06 December 2011

On the definition of film-making

We often use the term 'film' (especially here in the UK) in place of 'movie' or 'motion picture', despite the relative rarity of celluloid in modern movie production.

The word 'filmic' is banded about to describe a film as being film-like (despite how unneccessary that sounds); but it could mean that the film in question exhibits the gloss and elegance of a classic Hollywood production, or merely that the film maker has achieved the hallowed 'film look', otherwise known as disguising the consumer video origins of the footage.

And amongst all this are the film makers. This one term bridges the gulf between the hobbyist grabbing shots at an antique car rally, and the household name in a far-flung country managing a crane shot with equipment that costs more than our house. Both of those film makers each see something that pleases the eye, that describes the moment so succinctly that we must preserve it for others -- which could be the intense stare of an outlandish character that we've come to know so well in just 30 minutes, or it could be the evening sun glinting off the chrome bumper of an Austin Healey. Nevertheless, we film makers nod to that dividing gulf with qualifiers such as amateur, or novice, or hobbyist -- lest someone might suppose we claim to be in the same business as Kubrick or Minghella.

Film makers are often described as storytellers. I've found that only good film makers qualify as storytellers; only great ones can be called story makers -- so refined is the skill to make film tell a story without the anciliary aids that other media can employ. But all of us film makers possess the core ability to visualise a shot and translate it to the screen. To develop we have to show patience and diligence to hone those choices, one day go beyond the pleasant images, and say more with less.

22 October 2011

Lessons from The Wheels: Auto WB

Back when I bought my Canon 600D specifically for film making, I had everything set to manual.  Most of the settings had to be locked anyway; 25fps, 1/50th shutter, ISO 100 unless you're indoors, and so on.  This bit me in the bum during a shoot for a friend's film when I realised my first half-dozen shots of the day were at the wrong white balance setting.

So white balance went back to Auto and this served me well for a while, until recently when I was shooting The Wheels.  Once again when I was reviewing footage (back home at the computer this time, far too late to do anything about it) I found it to be all wrong.

The cause this time was the mixture of light sources.  At the location I had mistakenly assumed that the outdoor light coming into the room from two sides would be sufficient, but we ended up using a couple of domestic incandescent lamps as well.  I knew the footage would look a bit orange, but what I didn't realise was that the Auto WB setting is taken from the brightest part of the picture, rather than the centre of the frame (as auto exposure is, when taking stills).

When Auto WB gets it wrong

The pictures above show Dave at the table, mostly lit by the incandescent lamps, but the brightest part of the picture is the outdoor scene beyond the patio doors.  The Auto WB has set itself to suit the bright outdoor scene, and as a result Dave and much of the interior is a red/orange hue.  This can be corrected in post but I found the shot above was so pushed to red it was tricky to bring it back to resemble something approaching normal without ruining the rest of the frame, especially when trying to brighten the noisy shadows. (My discoveries about noise in shadows is a whole other post.)

When Auto WB gets it right

This picture shows a different composition, which does not have an outdoor scene in the background; on this occasion the Auto WB has set itself to suit Dave and the interior rather than the outdoors.  As per my usual workflow, some colour balancing was made to match the shot with the others, but you can see it required far less work, and therefore the image wouldn't need to be 'pushed' so far and degraded so much to achieve this.

Learning a lesson
When you're on an important shoot (as opposed to grabbing some shots on a day out with the family), white balance should enter your consciousness as one of those things you just need to check, like adjusting ISO to get the histogram looking right.  Unfortunately white balance isn't something that's so visible on the camera, but luckily allowances can be made in post if the results aren't terrible.  Perhaps a reminder on the shot list / storyboard would do the trick.

17 October 2011

New film: The Wheels

"Sometimes you don't realise you're working too much..."

A short film created specially for the fixed theme of "The wheels went round" for the Chairman's Challenge at Huddersfield Film Makers Club, October 2011.

Although the upcoming Chairman's Challenge had been known of for some months, it didn't feel like a proper challenge if we couldn't cram all the work into the final 10 days before the show.  It was at this point that I, and my semi-reluctant star Dave, realised we had just one weekend left.

I cobbled together the basic premise of the story and drew up a storyboard, only the second time I had bothered to do so.  I thought it would be useful to tick off shots once they were in the can* but it was also very handy to ensure shots followed-on from one another and didn't look too disjointed.  And of course I looked very professional, so much so that I left the beret at home.

We shot during Saturday and Sunday and I spent the next four evenings beavering away at the computer.  There was a lot of time consuming post-production effort for a modest project like this one but the deadline really helped to spur me on.  By this time Dave's work was done and he was relaxing in his trailer.**

Shot on a Canon 600D digital SLR with Rode VideoMic.  Raw footage was transcoded to Apple Intermediate Codec using MPEG Streamclip.  Edited in Final Cut Pro, transferred to After Effects using BasicFCPtoAE, where graphics were composited and shots were colour graded.

* I keep all my camera memory cards in a biscuit tin.
** Dave lives in a trailer.  The house in the film has been empty for months so we helped ourselves.  We call it 'being resourceful.'

14 October 2011

Loading a Picture Style into your Canon DSLR

If you want to load a custom Picture Style into your SLR and use it for movie mode (such as Technicolor's CineStyle), it seems Canon's EOS Utility has a funny way of doing things.

To save anyone the hassle of finding out by trial and error, or perhaps trying to decipher convoluted forum threads, the process is as follows:
  1. Connect the camera to your computer via USB, start up EOS Utility (version 2.6 or later).
  2. Switch the camera's mode dial to a still picture mode, such as M.
  3. In EOS Utility's side panel, click the camera button to show the Shooting Menu. Click Register User Defined style.
  4. Choose one of the User Def tabs at the top, then click the Open File button. Choose the picture style file. The picture style is now on the camera.
  5. Switch the camera's mode dial to movie mode, click Register User Defined style again, then you will find your new picture style is in the drop-down list.

You can upload picture styles whilst in a stills mode.

Once the picture style is uploaded, it can be chosen in movie mode.

For some reason, movie mode won't allow you to upload the picture style file, this has to be done in a stills shooting mode. The picture style then becomes available in movie mode and you can assign it to a user defined setting.

10 October 2011

Transferring projects from Final Cut to After Effects

I'm a big fan of using Final Cut Pro for speedy editing and sound mixdown, then switching my project to Adobe After Effects for colour grading, graphics and titles.

The hard way
This workflow can be a pain. FCP can't migrate projects to AE seamlessly like Adobe Premiere, and since I've doggedly refused to adopt Premiere, I've been forced to manually re-create my edit in AE, either by exporting my FCP sequence in Uncompressed 10-bit* (for MiniDV projects), or importing the native clips into AE and setting in/out points (for file-based clips, e.g. from solid-state media). The first is restrictive and hogs hard drive space, the second can be enormously time consuming even for a short sequence.

*At home I have FCP 5, so no ProRes codecs.

The easy way
The alternative was a very good utility called Automatic Duck, which looks like it has recently been assimilated into Adobe. It transfers to and from FCP, AE along with Avid and other software too, but was a bit pricey at several hundred dollars/pounds. Edit: Automatic Duck software has recently been made free. As in beer. Download your copy now before they change their mind!

The easy & cheap way
Recently I found an excellent After Effects script from Popcorn Island called FCP2AE, and it does a good job converting FCP's XML export file into After Effects CS3, CS4 and CS5. I have tried a legacy version on AE CS3 and it worked well. Unfortunately I can only use After Effects 7 at home, for which this script is not compatible.

The easy & cheap way if you're stuck in the Dark Ages
Shortly thereafter I made an even more fabulous discovery -- a similar solution which is compatible with older software all the way back to After Effects 6.5 and Final Cut Pro 4. BasicFCPtoAE is an application that converts FCP's XML file into an After Effects script, which can then be run in AE and imports the edited sequence and all the native footage. It uses an earlier version of FCP's XML, so it cannot transfer transitions and effects, but if all you want is to get your straight cuts into AE without re-editing the whole sequence again, it is proper bone-fide awesome.

In fact if you're just after no-nonsense cuts, BasicFCPtoAE is actually better than the more modern FCP2AE.  For the latter, the imported sequences and clips are structured in a hierarchy of folders, whereas for BasicFCPtoAE your After Effects project shows the sequence and the clips, that's all.  Much simpler to navigate.

09 October 2011

A few DSLR practicalities

After four months of using a Canon 600D purely for video, I've come to appreciate the following:

  • Interchangeable lenses are full of complete awesome.
  • Old, cheap manual prime lenses are fine to build up a collection of big-aperture glass for gloomy indoor shots, but at some point you get tired of the white bloom and chroma aberrations, and you start saving for better quality stuff.
  • You quickly get over the sound drawbacks and 12 minute recording limit*, unless you're mainly shooting documentaries, in which case you might be better off with something different. Treat it as an image sensor and get used to using dual-system sound on productions that need it.
  • H264 compression is a pig. There is always noise in the blacks, even at 100 ISO.
  • Never set the manual audio gain above halfway, it just introduces a hiss.
  • A Rode Videomic is a great piece of kit, but only when you remember to switch it on. It has a bright LED right in my eye-line but I still have facepalm moments after I realise why my latest clip is silent. My advice: to hell with the battery life, just leave it on all day and make sure to carry a few spare 9Vs.
  • After making do with a consumer MiniDV camera for the past seven years, I've found the 600D's on-screen histogram and the 10x zoom preview are indispensable features for keeping an eye on exposure and manual focus. Make sure you use them.
  • When setting sound levels manually, all sorts of fun can be had with varying degrees of background hiss. I will investigate this further another time, but it looks like another motivation to use dual-system sound.
*The Canon SLR limits on video clips are actually 30 minutes, but the file format used on the memory cards have a file size limit of 4 Gb, which equates to about 12 minutes when shooting either 25fps 1080 or 50fps 720. You could, of course, try the Magic Lantern firmware to get around these limitations.

13 July 2011

Making high-definition DVDs using FCP 7

As a new owner of a Canon 600D and capable of full high-definition filming for the first time (!) I soon set about trying a technique of burning a HD video onto a regular DVD disc, as documented at the excellent Ken Stone site.

The end result is what is called an "AVCHD disc". The disc itself is your average blank DVD media. The difference is how the HD video is encoded and burnt onto the disc, using the AVCHD codec which is a popular recording format found on many low-to-mid-range camcorders. The disc is not a Blu-ray disc, and the video isn't a Blu-ray video, but it is compatible with many Blu-ray players. A regular DVD player will not play the disc, since the disc doesn't contain any DVD-video files.
(Some versions of DVD Studio Pro allow you to burn a "HD-DVD" which is neither a DVD or a Blu-ray disc. It was a competitor format to Blu-ray in the race to become the most-adopted high-definition disc format, but is now mostly forgotten. This method of burning an AVCHD disc is not related to HD-DVDs.)
This, then, is simply a way of getting your HD video out of your computer and into your Blu-ray player without the need for a pricey Blu-ray burner or blank discs. There are of course some caveats. Ken Stone says the length of the video is limited to about 20 minutes due to the smaller capacity of the DVD disc. This method requires Final Cut Pro 7 and a suitable Mac to run the software. Luckily, my work provides me with both of these and I gave it a go.

Unusually for FCP, the process of burning the AVCHD disc appeared to be a little unstable. It took me a few attempts before I had a usable disc; the encoding took hours during which there weren't any prompts to insert or remove a disc. On my last attempt I impatiently ejected the disc after a good long while, thinking that it had had plenty of time to burn correctly, and to my surprise it worked. I'd prefer a bit more confidence in the burning process though, but it looks like my case was an exception.

The AVCHD disc worked perfectly with our film club's Panasonic Blu-ray player, and also my Philips BDP-5200 at home, operating just as a conventional Blu-ray disc would. However I'm not sure I'll be burning AVCHD discs in the future, as I've been testing MKV files on a USB thumb drive and they work well on my Philips player which has a USB socket. For me, this AVCHD disc burning feature in FCP 7 will remain something of a curiosity, and I wonder how much it is used by other FCP editors.

08 June 2011

Playing FLV videos in Keynote

If you've ever wanted to download an online video* to use in a Keynote presentation, you might have found, like me, that often it doesn't work.
* YouTube, Vimeo and other video websites don't 'stream' their content to your computer directly; as that grey progress bar fills up, the video is actually downloading to a temporary file on your computer's hard drive (the file is deleted when you close your browser tab), in a hidden folder several levels deep. And the file type is usually disguised and needs to be renamed with a .flv extension before it can be played.
Downloaded FLV videos can be played using QuickTime 7 with the Perian component, but embed them into a Keynote presentation and they often won't play like other video files. (This is annoying because if a file is compatible with QuickTime, you'd expect it to work with other software that uses QuickTime functionality to play media - which is just about everything on a Mac.) Sometimes the video can't be converted by QuickTime into an alternative format; the sound comes out fine but the video is just white from beginning to end.

Try to save a FLV as a regular QuickTime MOV and you often get this message.

(I managed to successfully convert some FLV files into QuickTime MOV using VLC, a popular video player with some comprehensive features. In order to match the excellent picture quality of the FLV file, the quality settings in the export had to be set rather high. My best attempts were to export with the ProRes 422 LT codec, resulting in an enormous 745 Mb file converted from the 45 Mb original FLV. Anything less looked awful with horrendous compression artifacts. I guess this shows how good the FLV codec is.)
Instead, open the FLV in QuickTime, choose to Save As and create a reference video*. Embed this reference video into Keynote, and voila, the video plays fine. And without the need to create a huge transcoded file.
* A reference file is a bit like a shortcut you have on your desktop or dock. It doesn't contain the video itself, but merely points to the original video file. This is why the reference file is tiny in size.
With the original video open, choose File > Save As to create a reference file.

Make sure to keep the original FLV file, and in the same location, so that the link to the reference file doesn't break and scupper your video. Always use a practice run through your presentation to make sure the videos play correctly, and of course to hone your delivery to stun your audience.

I've got no idea why this method works fine, but embedding the original FLV file fails; in theory they should perform the same, since it's the same media that is being played in the presentation slide. Perhaps Keynote has a problem with playing certain QuickTime-compatible file types, despite its close integration with QuickTime.

Edit: Above trick was using Keynote '09 (version 5.0.3) and QuickTime Pro 7.7.

04 February 2011

Authoring a DVD with mixed 4:3 and 16:9 content

Last week I was quickly throwing some short films onto a DVD project, and somehow I stumbled across a method of authoring a DVD which correctly displays 4:3 and 16:9 movies without any unwanted scaling or stretching of the picture.

Firstly, some provisos...

This tutorial requires the iDVD software running on an Apple Mac computer.  Unfortunately I don't know of any similar solutions using Windows software, although I'm sure they exist.  I was using iDVD 7.0.4 within Mac OS X 10.5.8, but any version of iDVD with widescreen options should work fine.

The finished disc worked perfectly with the Panasonic Blu-ray player and HD projector used by Huddersfield Film Makers Club.  However when tried at home with a cheap DVD player and widescreen TV, the 4:3 videos did not display correctly; they were scaled up to fill the width of the frame and therefore the top and bottom portions were cropped somewhat.  I suspect this is a function within the DVD player but there were no options to adjust it.  So this is not a foolproof method but it does work with our club's display equipment.

How to do it

If you've already exported a high bit-rate file of your video, feel free to skip the first step. 
  • Export your videos from your editing software. Export using the ‘Current settings’ that you edited with -- don't worry about making any changes to the frame aspect at this stage.  If you have the option to ‘Make movie self-contained’, un-check this box. The editing software will now make a small reference movie file which does not contain any media but points to your captured media that is already on your hard disk.  (Note: to learn more about reference movies and how they can be useful, see this Larry Jordan article.)
  • Open iDVD from the Applications folder and create a new DVD project. From the menu choose Project > Project Info and make sure the project is set to 16:9 frame aspect ratio (see below). After setting this you may be asked to reload the project theme or choose a new theme.  You will notice the DVD menu screen is in widescreen format, if it wasn't already.
  • Find the reference movie that you created earlier, and drag the file icon directly into the iDVD project. A button will appear on the DVD menu (usually a text button showing the filename of the reference movie). iDVD will start encoding the video, either immediately or when you ask to burn the disc.
  • Add any other movies that you've prepared.  Whether they are 4:3 or 16:9 they don't need any special preparation, just drag them straight into the DVD menu.
  • When you burn the disc, iDVD will finish encoding and then write to your blank DVD disc.  When it's done play the disc and check the results.  The 4:3 videos should appear in their proper frame aspect, displaying black borders on the sides to fill the widescreen frame.

    31 January 2011

    Filming with an iPod

    The latest versions of Apple's omnipresent mobile phone, iPhone 4, and its slightly-less featured sibling, iPod Touch 4, have raised a few eyebrows with their ability to shoot HD video.  When given the opportunity to buy one of these iPods on the cheap, I was curious as to how good the footage would turn out, and these are my first impressions from a film-making point of view.

    In case you're not familiar...
    The iPhone 4 and iPod Touch 4 are slim devices the size of a regular mobile phone, albeit with the entire front face as a touch screen, and only a couple of other buttons around the edges.  The device is very light and can generally be carried around even in the tightest of tight-fitting jeans pockets.  I imagine.

    Touching up
    Handling the thing is tricky.  At first I held the iPod in my thumb and forefingers at the corners, and soon found a murky, vaguely finger-shaped shadow in the picture; the lens is situated in one corner on the back of the casing and easily picks up a clumsily-placed digit.  Eventually I found the best way was to hold the iPod like a judge at a ballroom dancing competition would hold a numbered card reading '6.0'.  So I understand.

    Video format
    The two devices have very similar video shooting capabilities, and as mentioned above, they shoot HD.  It's not Full HD though, just 720p (or 1280x720 resolution in progressive scan, if you're not a fan of abbreviating in general).  Still, not bad for a glorified telephone or glorified Walkman.  This particular feature was what originally interested me in the film making possibilities, partly due to YouTube et al now showing video in 720p format (and lately in 1080p too), and partly because my most capable video camera is an old standard-definition MiniDV example.
    (Indeed, the iPhone/iPod Touch even gives you the option of uploading your freshly-shot video direct to YouTube or send by email, before any editing has been made or audio added, which makes me shudder a little.  Apple thoughtfully provides a special version of the iMovie application for editing on the device itself, which you can buy for a few pounds.)
    The video codec is H.264, familiar to anyone filming on solid-state camcorders or video-enabled SLR cameras.  Putting the footage into a traditional editing workflow, such as with Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, entails some jiggery-pokery before computer-based editing can begin in earnest.  The iPod's video bit rate is around 10-11 Mbits/sec, quite a bit less than the 30-35 Mbits/sec recorded by a proper camera.  A lower bit rate means less data in the video file, but the file is smaller and takes up less space on your memory card or hard disk.

    Frame rate foolishness
    I was concerned by only one feature of the iPhone/iPod's video recording capability, when I read reports of a variable frame rate.  The software adjusts the FPS to a figure somewhere between 24 and 30, purely to control exposure.  The frame rate is established when shooting starts, and that rate is maintained to the end of shooting the clip, no matter how light changes in the scene; if you happen to start shooting in a bright, well-lit area and move along to a darker composition, the frame rate will not adjust to compensate, but noise appears in abundance.

    1:1 crop of a video frame under domestic lights, click to
    view at full size to appreciate the sheer noisyness.

    The FPS figure can be rather arbitrary; recently I shot a clip at the rate of 26.73 frames per second.  A video editor baulks at the thought of arranging a number of clips with different frame rates on the same timeline.  As far as I can see, there is no indication on the device what kind of random assortment of numbers it has decided to bestow on the frame rate, so you have to wait until you transfer the file to a computer, open in QuickTime and check out the properties (as per the screen grab below).

    Movie properties from within QuickTime.

    It's not all bad
    If the above sounds like a tirade of cynicism, that's because it is.  However, more professionally-minded folks have squeezed some impressive performance our of these little gadgets, the most well-known and earliest example (it was filmed a few days after the iPhone 4 was launched, and edited the following day using iMovie on the phone itself) is Apple of My Eye by Michael Koerbel:

    Apple of My Eye from Michael Koerbel on Vimeo.

    More to come
    I'll have more feedback about my experimentation with iPod video in the coming weeks.