Outside Hollywood

In Remembrance of Howard Phillips
Posted: May 2, 2013 at 5:55 pm, by Isaac

When I was a very small boy growing up in Washington DC, there were four heroes who shaped my life and how I saw the world. At that time the Soviet Union was a very real and present danger to the United States, and the four public figures most actively engaged in fighting the USSR were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, and Howard Phillips.

Heroes of the 80s

My father would describe their actions and policies to me, and for three of them, he would do so with caveats. “The President issued a great statement to Gorbachev today,” he would explain, “but remember that the Republican Party is wrong about these four points.” Or, “Mrs. Thatcher is fighting for what is right, but her strategies should be modified this way.” And he communicated how deeply he appreciated the Pope’s fearless stance on Communism before clarifying why our family was not Roman Catholic.

My father has always been very quick to point out the best qualities of imperfect men, but is careful not to condone their flaws. The only one of my four heroes whose praise he didn’t have to qualify was Howard Phillips – the moral backbone of America’s conservative movement. While he never achieved the fame of a President, Prime Minister, or Pope, he cast a large shadow in the world, and leaves us a legacy that will last for generations.

Dad first met Howard Phillips in 1981, the year I was born, and he became one of the few people to see and experience both sides of this great statesman’s life. Most of Howard’s colleagues in Washington saw him as a powerful political player; the confidant of presidents, the founder of many conservative organizations (and the driving force behind dozens more), the ultimate policy analyst, the second-best public speaker in DC (after Reagan), the leader’s leader, and always the dominant mind wherever he went.

But what most politicians missed out on was Howard’s personal walk with the Lord, and his life at home as a father. After all, every politician claims Christ and family values, but a very few make total obedience to God’s Word their ultimate goal in life. A personal friend and student of R.J. Rushdoony, Howard Phillips was a man with a powerful, child-like faith, and was a loving and nurturing father. At his funeral on Monday, his friends and family gave testimony more to his love, compassion, and faith than his vast record of political achievements.

Various obituaries have marveled at his ability, or even his attempt, to master these two separate spheres; internal faith and external work, the emotional and intellectual, or family and career. Howard would just laugh at the foolish idea that these spheres should or could be separate. It was his faith and love that drove his political pursuits, and his hard political experiences that added to his faith and drove him back to scripture.

It was his family that motivated his defense of freedom, and his participation in brutal ideological battles that motivated the education he gave his children. His youngest son Sam, educated at home, had an excellent explanation of what made his father such an exceptional man. “Dad’s commitment to principle was always inspiring to me growing up,” wrote Sam. “I appreciated that Dad always took his beliefs seriously, but never himself.”

I believe that this is what enabled him to be supremely confident and supremely humble at the same time. This enabled him to be ferociously adamant about right and wrong even when he was the only one doing so. It enabled him to shrug off the vilest personal attacks even when they were printed in the most widely-read newspapers. More impressively, it enabled him to resist the temptation to compromise, even when conceding ground would have bought him power and fame at the highest levels of government.

During his vast career, Howard Phillips made many powerful enemies, each of whom demonstrated that Howard couldn’t be intimidated or conquered, even in defeat. His amazing intellectual abilities and personal discipline brought him many opportunities that demonstrated that he couldn’t be bought or corrupted, even in success. And despite experiencing a number of amazing and often unparalleled successes in many areas of life, he never acted out of pride or ego.

Even when lauded for his principles and sincerity of belief, Howard would sidestep the compliment and point to the source of those beliefs, and to the responsibility of all men to live in obedience to God’s Word. In all my personal conversations with this exceptional man, he described himself as simply a normal and unexceptional person who owed everything to the blessings of God.

Most of the obituaries written over the last week highlight his truly remarkable career, and the incredible influence he has had in the conservative movement. Even many of his opponents have honored his personal consistency, his unswerving commitment to principle, and the honorable way he opposed them. Many of his allies have lamented the future of conservatism, now that Howard Phillips is no longer around to be their “true north,” and the example of political faithfulness.

What people should realize, however, is that Howard’s greatest legacy, and greatest example, was as a father and a Christian who applied God’s Word to his life. That is a legacy that will last even longer than the fortifications and craters he left on our political landscape. My father taught me many lessons about those battles in Washington, but how he taught me was shaped partly by Howard’s example of fatherhood.

This legacy is another aspect of the exceptionalism of Howard Phillips. Unlike most political players, he has left behind several loving children and grandchildren, and, even more rarely seen, thousands of grateful spiritual children and grandchildren. It must seem strange to the world that one of the most embattled, most slandered, most betrayed and most hated men in recent American history would also be the most admired, most appreciated, most emulated, and most loved… but this is not surprising to anyone who knew him.

Howard-Phillips-Quote

Blackmagic Design’s New Cameras
Posted: April 9, 2013 at 11:53 pm, by Isaac

A year ago, BlackMagic Design announced their very first camera. Not being a camera company, they created a clunky box that was a short on ergonomics and frills, but being a top-flight digital imaging company, they built a sensor and processor package that shot excellent images. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera shoots a rather unorthodox 2.5k image on a standard 16mm sensor, accepts standard EF lenses and records to standard SSD drives. The 12-bit RAW image quality easily rivals that of the RED Scarlet, but the BCC ships ready to shoot for only $3000.

This year at NAB, they announced their second and third cameras. First, they unveiled an upgraded version of the BCC which shoots 4k video on a Super35 sensor through a global shutter. Like its predecessor, it comes with a free copy of daVinci Resolve (normally $945), and is still only $4000. As astounding a camera as this is, I found the announcement of the Pocket Cinema Camera even more interesting.

Blackmagic Design's 2013 Cameras

This camera is a mirrorless point & shoot, with a Super16 sensor shooting native 1920×1080 HD footage. Currently, the prototypes record 10-bit ProRes to SD card, with a slightly compressed 12-bit DNG RAW codec coming soon. The sensor promises extreme dynamic range, and by shooting at a native res, there will be no problems with aliasing or moiré, and it will have larger photosites that should give it very impressive low light capability.

In addition to standard SD cards, it takes standard Nikon batteries, and has a standard active Micro Four Thirds lens mount. This gives it a pretty wide selection of Panasonic and Olympus lenses, and adapters are in the works to support a number of classic 16mm lens mounts. It’s pretty capable video camera for $995… especially when you consider that this is roughly the current price for a used Canon 7D.

Of course, a video-enabled DLSR like the 7D is a dual purpose device, primarily a serious still camera. The Pocket Cinema Camera, despite looking like your average point & shoot, will not have even have the capability to take cellphone-resolution pictures. Its tiny size and cute design aside, this is meant to be a pro camera, with a pro sensor recording to pro codecs. I’m pretty sure that the ungraded RAW footage won’t even look that flashy.

That’s not a downside, though. What might be, however, is the somewhat limited control scheme. It uses the same menu system as the original BCC, which is a very full-featured touchscreen-based setup. The PCC, on the other hand, doesn’t have a touchscreen. In a way, that’s good; since a tiny camera like this will probably need a finger-blocking viewfinder eyepiece, it’s nice to have buttons off to the side.

pcc_menu

The problem is that using directional buttons to navigate an interface designed for a touchscreen can be slow. For a cinema camera on a controlled film set shooting planned shots, speed is not essential… but the price and size of this camera make it perfect for run-and-gun documentary shooting, and in that environment speed is much more important. If I’m moving fast, I might need to adjust iris, ISO, shutter, white balance, and audio levels in between shots, and that’s five different settings with only one set of buttons.

To make matters worse, a number of MFT lenses don’t have physical focus rings, so that’s a sixth set of parameters to adjust using five tiny chicklet buttons. I wish the camera had a control wheel in addition to the directional pad, since it will be very hard to rapidly press the clicky buttons on a camera this small and light without jiggling it. Not a great way to do follow focus, so clearly physical focus rings are a must. At the moment, there’s no telling if this camera will have auto-focus or auto-exposure; the original BCC is purely manual control, with only a very basic one-time auto-iris.

Nevertheless, it is nice to see a no-frills camera designed purely for video quality, especially when it has been priced lower than DSLRs that have squeezed video in as an afterthought. The more professional features like focus peaking and the headphone jack (I never thought I’d consider a headphone jack a “professional video feature”) make it easy to overlook a few rough spots, and there’s a lot of room for firmware updates between now and the late July shipping estimate.

I am seriously considering pre-ordering one of these. The native lenses are pretty cheap, older S16 lenses are abundant, and if the dynamic range and low light capabilities of the sensor are similar to the original BCC, it will shoot an amazing image. To some extent though, despite being cheap and tiny, it is more camera than most of us actually need. Canon’s compressed MPEG4 video is sufficient for most video productions, and the full frame sensor of the 5D is still very hard to beat.

bcc4k

I believe that the 4k Cinema Production Camera will do very, very well. It brings all of the RED Scarlet’s capability to the table for a fraction of the cost. It can’t compete quite as well with the Epic or the Sony F65, but the people who buy or rent cameras in that rarified price range tend to be able to decide what they need and could pick it up. In comparison, the Pocket Camera is practically an impulse buy, but it is a more complicated product to predict.

Ultimately, the success of this camera will depend on how many shooters are serious videographers who want to get better at their craft, and how many wannabe filmmakers just want a fancier camera because they think that their tools (or toys) define them. The PCC is capable of shooting a vastly superior image to existing DLSRs, but it will take a lot more work to get that better image. The codec open up a whole new range of grading options, but it also requires a whole new level of grading.

Casual shooters will probably be frustrated by this challenge, and serious pro shooters should probably be considering the more expensive 4k version. A pocket-sized RAW HD camera feels custom-made for guys in between those two groups – like me – but I’m just not sure how big that demographic is. Right now, the original 2.5k BCC is highly sought after, and even after the 4k version hits the market I expect that used bodies will be scarce and expensive.

So the only reason that I’m holding back on the pre-order is that I’m not sure how many used Pocket Cameras will be for sale by the end of the year. Any thoughts?

Thoughts on the VFX Crisis
Posted: March 19, 2013 at 7:06 pm, by Isaac

If you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen a number of users who have replaced their pictures with green backgrounds. These people, normally used to being invisible, are trying to give a little extra visibility to a crisis that isn’t getting much attention in the media. While almost every industry is being affected by today’s global recession, a disproportionate number of visual effects studios are shutting down even as their own films set box-office records at home and abroad.

90% of the background and 50% of the Avengers will be added in post.

This year, Bill Westenhofer accepted the Oscar for Best Visual Effects while his employer, Rhythm & Hues, was filing for bankruptcy. To add insult to injury, the Academy organizers cut his mic when he tried to mention that his team of award-winning effects artists were now unemployed. This was a painful snub, since on most of today’s films, visual effects artists put in the majority of the man-hours, represent the largest chunk of the crew, and often create the vast majority of what the audience actually sees on screen.

For example, 2012′s Disney’s Marvel’s Joss Whedon’s Avengers’ climactic battle took place in an entirely digital New York City, was fought against entirely digital alien invaders, and usually involved digital stuntmen protecting digital extras from digital explosions. For Life of Pi, most of Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography was actually shots of flat blue walls that were replaced with completely original renders from the Rhythm & Hues team.

life-of-pi

So, if more and more of today’s blockbuster filmmaking is done in post, why are post’s mightiest unsung heroes closing their doors? The two biggest reasons are that Hollywood studios aren’t sharing their profits, and that foreign animators are willing to work cheaper. Every year, more effects work is being outsourced to Canada, eastern Europe, and Asia.

This situation is kind of personal for me, since I’ve worn most of the hats in the effects and animation business, and over the years I’ve gotten to meet Bill Kroyer and other members of the Rhythm & Hues team. I’ve also worked for a New Zealand animation studio that picked up a lot of outsourced work from American and Canadian productions, some of which we further outsourced to Malaysia.

Outsourcing is an inevitable part of free market economics. If high-quality workmanship can be purchased cheaper overseas, the buyers of that workmanship will go there. In 2008, James Cameron employed Weta Digital to create the effects for Avatar, rather than Digital Domain, the effects company he co-founded in 1993. Last year, Digital Domain filed for bankruptcy, and is now owned by Chinese and Canadian investment companies.

tron-legacy-bluescreen

The problem is that the basic economics of outsourcing are confused by the complicated tax subsidies that various nations have set up to attract international productions. Yes, Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues did lose valuable movie contracts to foreign effects houses, but they were also financially weak after building their own foreign branches in an attempt to get those subsidies themselves.

Today, protesting animators are blaming studios, bankers, and foreign and domestic governments. It’s not a very coherent message, since some are demanding an end to foreign film subsidies while others insist that California and the U.S. must fully incentivize their businesses and their art. To be fair, most of us effects artists are pretty inexperienced when it comes to politics and business, but this situation is nothing new.

Several years ago I watched as a number of Australian effects studio startups dove deep into debt while preparing for the giant Hollywood films they presumed would come to Sydney after the Star Wars and Matrix trilogies. These big-budget co-productions never came, and most of those companies disappeared in a cloud of liquidated computer hardware.

jar-jar-binks

Ultimately, the “free money” that other counties are handing out to buy movie productions is costing them a lot, and it’s unwise to bank on incentives that could change at any time. Besides, a government forcing taxpayers to support art only gets you bad art, and a state-patronized industry is never industrious for long.

The other solution that’s been bandied about is an effects artists union, designed to compete with all the other guilds and unions that have a stranglehold on Hollywood. A union, after all, would enable American animators to demand bigger contracts and make it harder for them to compete with each other. On the other hand, those bigger contracts would make it impossible for them to compete with the cheaper international companies that are already undercutting them… and now they’d have to pay union dues.

Besides, the absence of a rigid, innovation-stifling union is part of why the VFX industry has developed so fast in the first place. The whole reason that the early ILM wizards were able to be such creative problem-solvers was a freedom from big Hollywood studio compartmentalization. Optical printer techs could invent new cameras. Makeup guys could build hydraulic rigs. Matte painters could create Photoshop. Any person could wear any hat and do any job.

denis-muren-raiders

I realize that an effects artists’ guild might not be as restrictive as, say, the Teamsters union, but now is a time when the industry desperately needs flexibility. Entertainment markets are changing in almost every conceivable way, and we have technical breakthroughs turning our workflows upside-down every few years. Perhaps a simpler guild or trade organization could help standardize processes and streamline adaptation without the rigidity of a typical Hollywood-style union.

And if it turns out that big-box effects and animation companies can’t be competitive in the 21st century, let’s not feel compelled to try and build a bunch of artificial walls to prop them up. Those walls will only get in the way if we actually need to be smaller and more agile. If it takes fewer artists to do specific jobs, then we need to accept that now, rather than overextend ourselves to maintain yesterday’s system, and be unprepared for tomorrow.

When ink and paint departments started to be replaced by Xerox machines and computers, some people complained about the jobs that would be lost. And eventually, hundreds of diligent painters who had spent thousands of hours putting tons of paint on millions of cels did lose their jobs. But in traditional 2D animation today, we no longer think of those countless menial hours of mind-numbing drudgery that we don’t have to do as time lost, but as time saved.

ink-and-paint

The big Hollywood studios should definitely demonstrate more respect toward to the men and women who are creating 80% of their motion pictures, and the directors who are honored for those animation-dependent films could show a little more gratitude to their animators. The effects companies themselves, however, will need to share part of the blame for financial failure.

If we have underbid on too many projects or signed bad contracts, that’s really our problem. In the same way that we can’t blame it on other governments or the big studios, we’re also not going to solve the problem by making it the responsibility of our own government or some union officials.

The effects and animation industry, as a whole, is famous for being flexible and innovative, and for being able to solve problems and create solutions for any movie challenge. Now is the time for individual artists to be responsible and creative – and to use that creativity off the screen as well as they do on it.

captain-america
Images sourced from BeforeVFX

Experiments in 3D Printing
Posted: November 16, 2012 at 10:52 am, by Isaac

Earlier this year I printed some 3D objects at Shapeways. 3D printing is a fairly new technology, with lots of methodologies and applications. In its simplest form, it’s just like regular inkjet printing, but instead of the print head laying down a drop of ink, it lays down a blob of plastic, and once the first layer is done, the print head starts printing plastic on top of the plastic. After several hundred layers, a 3D object is finished, and can be assembled into a UAV, or a rifle reciever, or a magazine.

Different printers can print different types of resin, plastic, ceramic, and even metal. Some printers have an ink nozzle right next to the media nozzle, so it can paint objects in full color while printing. Other dual-head printers can print a rigid plastic and soft rubber at the same time, or ABS and wax. This is useful for objects with a lot of non-touching moving parts, like gears. The gears and axles can be printed in hard plastic, supported by the printed wax until the object is done and the wax can be melted or crumbled out.

Objet Printed Gear Widget

There are even experiments in printing blood vessels and human organs, cell by cell, custom designed for transplant surgeries. As the printers get more sophisticated, they can do more things. Researchers are building machines than can print optics and electronic sensors directly into objects during printing. One of the great advantages of this system is that the cost is the same to print one object as it is to print a thousand. Mass production of injection molded plastic still might be cheaper in the long run, but there’s no setup cost to print a single custom product.

Despite a number of homebuilt printers and successful Kickstarter campaigns to develop cheaper models, it’s still a fairly expensive field to get into. That’s where Shapeways comes in. The entrepreneurs at the company have invested in several different types of printers, and allow users like me to upload our models and pay for the materials and machine time to have them printed.

Compass models

I was making jewelry. I made several different pendant designs, since the price was the same if I was printing ten individual models or ten copies of one model. Shapeways prints a variety of materials, even food grade ceramic, but I wanted to try out the metal options. The cheapest material is a nylon polymer. It’s fairly strong, flexible, and reasonably detailed. It’s a great substance for prototyping, but because it can be polished and dyed, it can also serve an a finished product.

The metal printing is similar to the plastic, with one extra step. The print head lays down a steel powder, which is held together with a glue. Once the object is finished, it is placed in an oven, and sand is packed around it. The oven melts the glue out, but the sand holds the steel dust together until it fuses to itself, and a bronze material in the sand is drawn into the tiny gaps left by the glue. Here’s how it compares to the nylon print.

Nylon and Stainless Steel prints

The final result isn’t particularly strong, since it’s a steel/bronze alloy that has been essentially cast at low temperatures. It also loses a little detail on the edges during the firing, so it’s not going to work for machine parts, but it was fine for my purposes. Shapeways technicians can also plate this object with bronze or gold.

I built the objects in Lightwave 3D, and uploaded .DAE files to Shapeways site. It actually took a few tries to get an object that was actually printable; their automated software would let me know if a model’s points were too sharp, walls too thin, or details too fine to physically duplicate, and at first all of my models had errors. As you have seen, the steel pendant’s edges are a little blurred by the limited resolution of the printer.

Mesh Detail

Another printing option is Sterling silver, which requires yet another step (and is understandably more expensive than steel). The silver process starts with a wax print that comes off of an extremely precise printer. A plaster mold is built around the wax print, and when it sets, the wax is melted out, and molten silver is poured in. When the silver cools, the plaster is broken off, and the finished cast is cleaned and polished.

This is basically the ancient “lost wax” method of casting, but today the wax model is handmade by robots. Because the wax printer is capable of building models at a much higher resolution than the metal printers, the silver objects have much greater detail. All in all, I printed nine objects, and I’m pretty happy with all of them. Some handled detail better than others, and now I have a better idea of what type of geometry works with the different materials.

Shapeways Sterling Silver Print

By the way, Shapeways is more than just a service bureau. Every object uploaded can be added to the Shapeways store, which is packed with tools, jewelry, coffee mugs, phone cases, camera mounts, insanely complicated Rubik’s cubes, detailed models of obscure dinosaurs, and more. A lot of the objects can be customized, and most are available in a variety of materials. This means that the store contains a possible 6 billion different products. It’s a great example of a disruptive company, even if the technology is still in its infancy.

As various companies are working to bring to cost down so we can all have 3D printers in our homes, other companies are bringing the technology up, so we can print machine-ready replacement parts for our cars, or complex electronics. It will be fun if this becomes a second industrial revolution, and high-end manufacturing goes back home as the giant factories close. I don’t know what’s more interesting; a return to the cottage industry model for production, or the ability for basement inventors to make literally anything they can design.

The Global Election
Posted: November 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm, by Isaac

As the American election cycle comes to a close, I’m looking forward to being able to have conversations about things not related to the White House. In fact, I might even get around to talking to folks about the other offices that we’ve elected people to today.

But in all seriousness, I’ve found it very interesting to follow the progress of the discussion, both here and abroad. The American presidential election is the largest, most popular, and most globally scrutinized political contest on earth, and watching world opinion can be very revealing.

When I lived in New Zealand I had just come from working in American media, and I was amazed at well international television reports from the BBC and Deutch Welle covered some things and how inaccurately they portrayed others. Being away from home provided perspective our own news, and made it easier to compare cultural ideas.

Even after moving back, I’ve tended to follow international coverage of our elections, and there were a lot of international opinions that arose on a recent Quora.com question: “If the current US presidential election candidates (Obama Vs. Romney) were running in your country who would you vote for and who do you think would win?

Of course, some statistics actually exist, and a recent Globescan poll of 21 countries resulted in a final tally of 50% voting for Obama, 9% for Romney, 31% various don’t knows and don’t cares, and an insightful 10% who didn’t believe that there was any difference between the two.

As an Australian pointed out, “I’ve been following the election and I still can’t work out what it is Romney actually stands for. I know he really wants to be president but I can’t understand what he will do if he gets in.”

As much as I would love to blame the Australian Broadcasting Corporations’s news coverage for his ignorance or take this obvious opportunity to pick on Seven and Nine’s hilariously unresearched sensationalism, I can’t say that this is a media fault. I’ve been reading statements directly from Romney’s own office for over a year, and I don’t know either.

Is that why Obama’s international polling is so high? Quora members chimed in to try to explain the breakdown, and their comments ranged from the tactless “I would be shocked if Romney wins and I would be sorry for the stupidity of Americans” to the harsh but difficult to argue with: “Republicans have proven incapable of producing viable candidates for leadership of still the most important country in the world.”

For the most part, however, they described why their nations would almost unanimously vote Obama. One Indian gentleman broke down his response to a number of platform issues, like Social Security: “Obama wants to protect and strengthen SS. Which means free stuff! Indians love free stuff! Romney wants to encourage people to create individual accounts. Who will get the government’s money then? Something is fishy here!”

Apart from not really understanding the definition of “free” or knowing where “the government’s money” actually comes from, this was a very accurate description of the board’s general feelings. Nearly all contributors praised Obamacare, slammed the free market economic system, and were oblivious to the fact that Romney’s introduced socialized medicine to Massachusetts. A Canadian described the overall tone of the discussion: “Canadians trust our government programs more than we trust the market.”

This gentleman went on to discuss gun control: “How ridiculous is it to let just about anyone own a gun. As if there wasn’t enough crime already. Clincher for Obama. Deal breaker for Romney.”

It should be pointed out that neither candidate has dared to say much about guns. In this case, Romney has been saddled with a bunch of subjective Republican stereotypes, rather than personal promises. International viewers, like American Christians, see Romney as an unshakably pro-gun, pro-life, pro-private-business, religious firebrand, rather than the pragmatic fence-sitter that his record shows him to be.

And Obama isn’t the CEO-smashing, gun-grabbing, war-stopping Malcolm X-cum-Ghandi that the secular left has been praying for, either. Ironically, he has probably driven the sale of more firearms to more private individuals than any single person in the entire history of gunpowder. And in a recession, too.

Despite the global economic crunch, few commenters mentioned the candidates’ positions on debt, budgets, or trade, and nobody ever asked for more jobs. Apart from a desire to tax the rich, there was no suggestion of making money even while demanding more Federal financial aid. A Ukrainian dogmatically underscored this: “A country is not a business and should never be lead by an ex CEO. Any business mentality is to make money… This mentality is not appropriate for running a country.”

Despite Turkey’s 34-9 Obama win in the Globescan poll, a Turkish voter disagreed: “I am not supporting Romney’ s perspectives for Foreign issues and the things like education, health, resources etc… but, till to be a super power country on the world, I would vote for nationalist people.”

The term “superpower” came up a lot, but was inconsistently used. Sometimes it meant the obvious and acceptable goal of any nation, and sometimes it was an unfair advantage that should be destroyed. A lone Obama critic piped up: “Of course the rest of the world prefers Obama because he is on the path of making the US like the rest of the world.”

And the rest of the world is more to the left than the United States. Most other nations clearly govern less conservatively than the America has, and even the labels “liberal” and “conservative” have shifted. “I’m from China and I’m now living in Canada,” wrote an Obama supporter. “I used to think myself as a conservative, albeit a moderate one. Having followed the US election for sometime, I now think I would probably be labelled as a communist in the US. Our Canadian conservative party seems to be more liberal than the Democrats in the US.”

A Brit explained: “I think for most of Western Europe ( and say nations like Canada and Australia, it would be impossible for a Republican party to ever attract more than around 10% of the vote, there are so many Republican views that are simply impossible for any remotely balanced person to ever become comfortable with.”

The “unbalanced” views he then described were things like any opposition to socialized medicine, abortion, or gay marriage. A Canadian added, “running against gay marriage in Canada is a good way to get yourself labelled an extremist and to make yourself unelectable in all but bible belt ridings.”

There were comments deriding the “religious fringe,” someone claimed Romney was bringing the “Christian variety of a Sha’ria ruled state,” and all the other tired old tropes were brought out. One Obama supporter from India described his position: “I find it disquieting to think of someone in a position of power whose decisions might be influenced by religion.”

This is an idea that I’ve heard over and over again, usually from whiny Westerners who owe almost everything they have to the Christian character of their ancestors. It is a much more understandable sentiment from someone whose country is teetering between the lunacy of Hinduism and the brutality of Islam, but it is still impossible.

All leaders, voters, and internet commenters will be influenced by religion. All ideological belief systems are equally religious and equally influential, whether they point to a god, a man, a system of government, or even just a collection of widely-adopted cultural principles.

The belief that government must not be run like a business is a moral and religious idea. The convictions that gun ownership is wrong, that self defense is right, that the State can deem what is fair, or that man should be free – these are all equally religious ideas. They are moral frameworks will direct the thinking of anyone who holds them. Everyone on earth has a cultural bias, an ideological system, a religion.

This is why moral relativism doesn’t work, and why a transcendent standard is needed. Without standards, labels like “liberal” and “conservative” can move so far that they stop meaning anything. By moving away from standards, countries and cultures will keep moving and not even realize it.

“I am from India and I say with all my heart that the day India finds its Obama we will be the fastest growing economy and well on our way to being the superpower.”

Ideas for New Audio Gear
Posted: September 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm, by Isaac

There have been some amazing advances in video tech recently. In post, Adobe has been leading the way, with new workflows, faster everything, and a very cool new warp stabilizer and some extremely competitive 3D camera tracking. Premiere and After Effects both have a whole bunch of new tools, and these are accelerated by a bunch of new advanced GPUs from nVidia.

Also, there’s no shortage of fantastic new HD cameras, like the Blackmagic Cinema camera, which gets you uncompressed 2.5k video for less than $3,000, or Sony’s just-announced NEX-VG900, which is a full-featured camcorder with full-frame 35mm sensor, and next week Panasonic is going to unveil the Lumix GH3. Everything is getting better, smaller, and cheaper.

With pro audio, however, not so much. Sample technology for composition is advancing by leaps and bounds, but mics, mixers, and recorders haven’t changed much since the digital revolution over a decade ago. Stu Maschwitz has a great post up asking for a new revolution in audio support for newbies, or in other words, video guys.

Being the mastermind behind Magic Bullet, Stu has had some great ideas on how to give not-quite-professional users very professional results with fast and powerful color grading tools. Now he has some great ideas about how better software could get us better audio using the tools we already have. I’m completely behind his suggestions, but I’ve got some specific requests for the industry. I want new hardware.

Case in point, the wonderful and bulletproof Sennheiser EW 100 series. I’ve owned four sets of this wireless kit from different eras, and they’ve never let me down. They, more than the Zoom recorders, are my go-to audio tools; rugged, simple, they run on AA batteries, and they never fail. I can’t say enough good things about them. That said, they’re big, heavy, and really expensive. As far as I know, their cost hasn’t come down, ever. It used to be that a set of these was 5-10% of the cost of a camera. Now, however, they’re about 100-120% of the price of a brand new 60D.

Realistically, though, I’m not expecting the price to change; in fact, I’m just impressed that Sennheiser has kept the price steady during inflation while adding features like IR frequency sync and better displays. But it’s still old tech. It’s the same analog UHF radio system that we’ve used since the very first wireless lavs were invented. I think we can do better.

Sansa Clip+

Just for illustration, check out the Sansa Clip MP3 player. It plays almost any audio codec, has an FM radio, voice recorder, microSD slot, OLED display, great battery life, and weighs less than five grams. It packs a processor beefy enough for variable speed audio, full EQ, compressor/limiter, and, with a little tweaking, it can play games, like chess or Doom. When it’s not on sale, it retails for $30.

It has the raw ability to be a serious pro audio recorder – sampling rate up to 96khz, WAV, MP3, or lossless compression, prebuffering, manual gain, hot-swappable external storage, etc – but it’s limited by a terribly tiny built-in microphone and a consumer-based menu system. How hard would it be for Sandisk to put a bigger and better mic on board, add a few features to the menus, and sell us a recorder small enough to be a lavalier mic all by itself? Just clip it inside a collar, pocket, or lapel and start shooting!

Motorola Headset H9

And why couldn’t we have a wireless lav that size? Bluetooth headsets these days are tiny. Now, it should be pointed out that regular, old, original Bluetooth 1.0 is terrible for video. The quality is low, it cuts in and out because the range is incredibly limited, and worst of all, it has variable latency that slides all over the place and makes it impossible to get good lip sync. But Bluetooth has come a long way.

Enter Bluetooth 4.0, the latest standard. It uses the higher bandwidth of Bluetooth 3.0, plus some new low-power features. In short, it means higher quality audio, up to 300ft range, less power consumption, and much less latency, somewhere between 3ms and 6ms (for reference, 41ms throws you off by a single frame). Being a standard, plenty of manufacturers are making radios for it, and it’s globally usable (UHF and VHF radios might be illegal to operate in certain countries, depending on the band you have).

So let’s take the brain of an upcoming Bluetooth 4.0 headset, ignore any of the telephony protocols and the speaker, give it a really nice omnidirectional mic, and power it off of an easily replacable AAA battery. It would be a little over two inches long (since the largest part of the system is the battery), but that’s still very small. Documentary filmmakers would love it. Affordable to buy, easy to carry, and easy to use. No more running long, thin mic cables under shirts, and then spending hundreds of dollars replacing them when they get kinked and snagged.

For the receiver, let’s have two radios, two high-gain antennas, run it all on two AAA batteries, make the output hot enough that you can bypass consumer grade preamps, and give it the duotone OLED screen from the Sansa Clip (stuff is cheaper if it already exists). Now you can connect to two Bluetooth lavs at once, and send both channels out to your camera’s stereo input jack. Stick it on your camera’s hotshoe, or clip it to the strap; it’s that small.

Now, there are a number of companies that make products for digital wireless audio streaming and a lot of them use proprietary codecs and chips, for good reason. Any one of them could build the gadgets that I’ve just mocked up using their own tech, but I think there’s some merit in sticking with Bluetooth. The more devices that use it, the more flexibility the filmmaker has. Shooting a TV show in a really loud environment? Use a Jawbone headset’s incredible noise-cancelling ability to get clean audio anyway.

And hey, can your smartphone connect to multiple Bluetooth devices? Boom, it just became your software-based audio mixer. Record individual tracks on it and send a mixdown feed to your camera at the same time. Does your phone not connect to enough devices? Some enterprising electronics company can just build an add-on case containing multiple Bluetooth radios and you’ve got the equivalent of a full flyaway case of rack-mounted audio gear in your pocket or attached to your camera rig. It would sure beat carrying all the analog equipment.

As an aside, I’ve discovered that Sennheiser receivers fit perfectly into M4 mag pouches, so if you attach four of those to a Molle vest and wire them into a four-channel mixer in a dump pouch on your chest, you can run its headphone jack out to your camera, and its line out to a Zoom H2 in a radio pouch, and you can add an H1 in a pistol mag pouch for backup. It works great, but it’s not exactly low-key. It’s also simpler and cheaper to have everything Bluetoothed into a single receiver.

And we might even be able to ditch the receiver. Lots of cameras these days have GPS and Wifi radios… why not Bluetooth radios too? A lot of off-the-shelf wireless chipsets have all three anyway. Just stick the audio levels for these lavs in the camera’s audio menu, which is usually a touchscreen anyway, and simplify everything. Nikon and Samsung have both released point-and-shoot cameras running Android, and Samsung’s Galaxy camera actually is a working cellular device – with 3G and everything. Eventually, this is coming to camcorders and dSLRs.

Of course, using Bluetooth for wireless audio connectivity is only one idea. It could just as easily be work over Wifi, or a proprietary system. But the point is that some consumer gear has more raw power now than the dedicated professional tools. My $30 Sansa Clip has a higher sampling rate, better battery life, and cheaper storage than ten-year-old $1000 DAT tape decks. Stu’s idea of using GPS clock data to line up audio and video files is probably more accurate than jam synced smart slates, and costs nothing. Digital audio streaming can use less power, less bandwidth, handle interference better, and operate using cheaper parts than analog wireless audio radios.

And being able to easily use multiple, cheap, wireless lavalier mics on set is the fastest and most idiot-proof way to improve audio quality. Tiny capsule mics on collars will never sound as good as an expensive shotgun operated by a pro, but they’ll never sound as bad as cheap shotguns run by amateurs. There’s a lot of money in semi-pro audio gear for pro video production, and a lot of money to be saved in making these tools using existing digital technologies.

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