Outside Hollywood

Panasonic HVX200 News
Posted: February 27, 2006 at 1:49 pm, by Isaac

This has been a big week for the discussion surrounding the HVX200, starting with the release of top secret, behind-the-scenes technical info on the making of the camera by Tosh Bilowski’s camera blog Def Perception. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly a journalistic scoop, since the entire blog is in fact a Panasonic-owned marketing tool, and they now admit that Tosh doesn’t really exist.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting data here if you overlook the PR spin. For starters, we now know the actual size of the CCD array, and it is not good. However, there’s much talk about the special new processing that upscales the image, and it is supposed to be very good. There’s also quite a bit in there about color depth, but they’re very sketchy about which sampling modes apply to which shooting modes. Having seen some 1080i DVCPRO HD footage grabs, I’m not so sure that it’s still 4:2:2 at that rez.

But most of the more colorful discussion regarding this camera relates to the P2 card system, not the image quality. A few days ago Tommy D. posted a brief run-through of his experiences using P2 on the DV.com forums (also mirrored here). Most of the issues that he ran into are simply due to using a new workflow, and the difficulties of planning around that. Shooting to P2 was all very well, but dumping the P2 cards to the P2 Store took time, and director then wanted to review footage from earlier in the day, things unraveled a little bit.

Admittedly, many of the problems there resulted from trying to use a Mac to monitor the workflow (P2 supported by FCP 5.0.4 and higher only), since the P2 Viewer is PC only, and the final product was destined to be edited on a PC-based Avid. Adding the extra step in the middle was complicating, but the entire process is awkward and confused by the fact that interviews can’t always wait for a card swap if one or more of your cards is being held up for review by the director.

It’s also nerve-wracking to work with untested cutting-edge tech, transferring your data back and forth when there are no backups. In FresHDV.com’s recent interviews, Josh Oakhurst was highly critical of P2’s cost-to-space ratio, a position that he better explained on his own blog. In addition to those concerns he also pointed out that Panasonic has a long history of introducing new formats, none of which still exist. MII was beat by Beta, 6mm tape was beat by 8mm, and so on. Will an upgraded XDCAM format be the future shooting media of choice?

Screenwriting: Three-Act Structure
Posted: February 7, 2006 at 1:44 pm, by Isaac

Ok, the last few posts have been extremely technical, so it’s time to get back to the basics; story structure. When D.W. Griffith invented the feature-length film, it took eight separate reels to hold the entire movie. In order to keep audiences seated while the reels were changed, he and his peers created a cliffhanger moment at the end of each reel, and found that they could best divide the film into two reels for the first act, four for the second, and then two for the third act climax. Even today, three-act features often aim for eight strong climactic moments distributed roughly evenly throughout the film.

In the 1970s, scriptwriter Syd Field was asked to teach a course on scriptwriting in Los Angeles. He began analyzing great scripts to see if there were any recurrent forms and noticed a consistent organization similar to the three-act structure of plays. In 1979 he published his findings in a book, which explained how to use this structure as an organizational tool to build stronger films. It cuts a long script into small, manageable chunks: beginning, middle and end. The most basic organizational concept delegates roughly 30 pages to Act I, 60 pages to Act II, and 30 pages to Act III, as you can see in the following diagram. A good writer will also use acts to manage his plot points, the story arc, and his characters’ growth.

On this graph, the dotted line charts the arc of an anti-hero. Not necessarily a villain, but a protagonist who is simply not heroic. This is called out-of-balance structure, and many films today try to use this to create “realistic” stories of ineffectual characters. The plot meanders along with the protagonist’s circumstances and then in Act III he winds up lower than before. This is depressing and boring. However, the solid line represents a strong character arc. The first act is exposition, not much conflict. Then in Act II the fight begins, and our hero is up and down, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride of success and defeats, until the third act, where he recovers from some crushing blow and rises to victory.

Typically, the first act introduces the main characters, shows the audience a fascinating setting and gets the plot rolling with the “inciting incident.” During the course of the act, the subplot is laid out, the ingredients for the main plot are assembled, and then we have a little mini-adventure, which probably, by introducing the villain or some personal strength, subtly foreshadows the hero’s triumph in the climactic third act. And then, “complications arise.”

Act II encapsulates the jeopardies and tensions that fill out the drama and contains almost the entire story of the film. Here the hero is in for a rude shock as he is run up against the machinations of the villain(s). His tests are often moral as well as circumstantial. If he’s human, he stumbles or fails several times. This is so that he can succeed only by persevering and making the right, difficult moral choices. This is what makes him a hero. Let me repeat that because it’s such an important definition. The hero is heroic because he chooses morality over compromise. This is real heroism.

Then evil lands some cruel blows, and at the end of Act II, the protagonist is shattered in defeat. A lesser man would give up, roll over, or die, but our hero has got guts. Act III begins when he hauls himself off the canvas one last time, passes the tests, and climbs to success. But just prior to the resolution of the film, there is usually a twist, or “false ending.” The jagged line on our chart plunges, but only momentarily. The story is resolved in the climactic moment. The hero wins and the villain is stopped. The hero’s arc finishes higher on the chart than ever.

Now, here’s the Botkin Formula. Imagine that the first sentence is Act I, the next two are Act II, and the last line is Act III. The four events described define the story and what you must have in each of the acts:

A flawed but sympathetic protagonist
summons moral courage to face and then overcome
increasingly difficult, seemingly insurmountable moral tests
to achieve a compelling desire.

Now, before I get jumped on for reducing screenwriting to a simple formula, let me assure you that I believe that every story will have its own requirements. That said, films built on a solid formula will have stronger storylines than those that prefer a meandering stream of consciousness approach. At the moment it’s very trendy to hate the structured act-designated model because of its restrictions, but good restrictions can keep stories focused. However, not all stories fit into the three-act mold. Raiders of the Lost Ark is in fact a seven-act film. This is a good example of the old adage; artificial rules are there for you to break, but only if you know how to break them.

This post is largely an except from Chapter 7 of Outside Hollywood.

Blender Redux
Posted: February 6, 2006 at 1:41 pm, by Isaac

About a month ago, I posted about the release of Blender 2.4, and was kind of harsh in my comments. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and explained myself more thoroughly in emails, but I’ve gotten so many similar questions that I’ll just address some of the comments here. For starters, I also said the hair looked “abominable.” Which I stand by; it looks like the individual volumetric hairs that Alias Poweranimator had in the mid 90s. I’ve been asked why I say that, which is a big question, but where it really falls down is the lighting. The usual furball render tests look pretty good, but they always look good, because it’s just a koosh ball under a single light.

Blender’s hair uses 2D strand rendering, which is “correct,” in that that’s how other, more professional packages do it, but it is lacking in features. For example, none of the industry standard curl/kink/droop/clump/taper/frizz styling tools to control those strands that other packages have. And no dynamics, either. I had the opportunity to discuss the issues behind this with Pixar’s Michael Fong a few years ago, and dynamics are key.

But mainly, the lighting is bad. The tangent shading seems to be on the right track, there’s a form of self-shadowing, and longer hairs show anistropic specular highlights, but it just doesn’t jive. I’m not a huge fan of Blender’s rendering engine to begin with, but this doesn’t even match that. I’m guessing it’s been patched on top and there’s very little integration. For example, I tend to doubt this 2D static particle rendering is fully compatible with reflections, refractions, fog, depth of field, volumetric lighting, or radiosity, and according to the forums, people are having trouble attaching it to moving characters.

The best CG hair to date has been written to specifically accommodate both the rendering engine and project it’s meant for. For example, Weta’s Kong fur or Pixar’s Monster fur. Both of these examples are using a proprietary rendering engine (although in Pixar’s case that engine eventually trickles down into Renderman) created and tweaked by the same guys who are creating and tweaking the fur renderer.

Next up would be the third party hair/fur plugins like Shave and a Haircut and Sasquatch. They have the disadvantage of being additions to the rendering process, not strictly integrated, but Joe Alter and Steve Worley are amazingly knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the engines they support, and have managed to work around that, supplying a professional product that is regularly used for commercial feature film work.

Then there’s the hair that comes built-in with the animation package. Maya’s is pretty good, but most of the others leave something to be desired. It’s something that gets tacked on because “everyone else has it,” but it ends up not being that useable (hence the proliferation of plugins). Which is kind of where the Blender hair is at the moment. Only it still feels like it’s in the mid 90s.

As far as I can tell from the developer forums, this will be a difficult thing to fix because, as mentioned, most of the new features and special shaders have been written by developers that weren’t involved in the core of the project. As a result, there isn’t a lot of integration, and upgrading one thing often breaks something else. Until there’s a more unified object-based organizing structure, Blender is almost too ambitious and complex a project to be cobbled together by individual hobbyists.

Eventually, I think the project will become more organized, and I’ve been asked if we shouldn’t spend our time learning Blender now so that when it “comes into its own” we’ll have mastered it. Frankly, I think that’s a poor gamble. Firstly, Blender’s development path is slow. At the moment, 3D animation is making leaps and bounds more so than perhaps any other time except the early 90s, and the big players are making enormous progress. Blender will always be playing catch-up because its coders are generally finding their own ways to do things that other programs are already doing, not leading the field.

Secondly, even if Blender did take the high ground of functionality, it still couldn’t really be the top program unless it ditched its free status and hired full-time staff for support. At the end of the day, that’s what effects studios need, and the effects studios tend to drive the industry. For example, when ILM dropped Softimage for PowerAnimator in ’95, Softimage was at the time a far superior program in almost every respect. There were a few political reasons for this (SGI suddenly owned Alias and was in a position to offer discounts to ILM), but it mostly had to do with the relationship that the ILM guys had with the Alias programmers.

This relationship was very important since it gave ILM software that was almost custom built for their specific needs, and Alias got to write and test their software around real-world projects. Softimage’s position wasn’t helped by the fact that they got bought by Microsoft, but once they weren’t the main workhorse of ILM, not even MS’s dev budget could help (fortunately, Avid is is now in charge, and managing things much better).

Of course, times have changed. There isn’t just one big monolithic effects house anymore, but the dozens of big-deal effects houses still have the same requirements that ILM did ten years ago. And the big effects projects still have the same needs, which is why the software packages that can afford to hire full-time dev teams end up working on the projects that create the curve. I like Blender, and I like that there’s an OSS 3D package for folks to experiment with, but I just can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone devote a lot of time to learning it on the off chance that it will leapfrog a decade or two of development and become a professional and marketable program.

Sundance 2006 Wrap-Up
Posted: February 2, 2006 at 1:38 pm, by Isaac

Well, the 2006 Sundance festival is now over, and it marked the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute, and the 10th anniversary of the Sundance Channel. Unfortunately, I’m too busy to do much of a real write-up on Sundance itself, but this year it played 120 features, 84 of which were world premieres, and 48 of which were the work of first time filmmakers (although I’m not sure exactly how this is designated). 102 of the films were presented using digital projection, but only 41 films were actually shot on digital formats. There were also 46 documentaries, and lots of shorts.

From what I’ve read of this year’s coverage, the festival itself hasn’t changed much, apart from a put-on, somewhat forced “edginess” to prove that it hasn’t sold out or become too commercial or Hollywoodized. Which is silly, because the world’s largest and most commercially successful indie festival attracts so many big-name celebrities, high-profile reporters, and fashion parties that it is basically a snowbound, less-restrained, mini-Hollywood all on it’s own.

This year, however, the films seemed to have a slightly different flavor. In the past, post-modern indie films could separate themselves from the mainstream simply by leaving off the happy ending, or by not hiring a professional camera operator. These days, though, plenty of studio films are depressing and shaky. So now, in order to be more obviously non-mainstream, indies need to be vehemently anti-mainstream. Which is why most of them seem to focus on negative, sarcastic, and anti-traditional themes, structures, and styles.

This explains why most “vibrant” indie films have hyperbolic political messages and shockingly independent content (allowing the filmmakers to blame any subsequent failure on the unfair puritanical censorship of the vast right-wing conspiracy). Which is also silly, because the whole reason to go to Sundance (apart from the aforementioned media attention and party scene) is to network with Hollywood players, studio scouts, and distribution execs so you can get a mainstream contract or sell your film.

Nevertheless, it’s important to watch what happens at Sundance, and most of the lectures and Q&As with professional filmmakers are very valuable. For example, Quinceanera and Puccini for Beginners were both shot on HD, and their directors explained some of the issues involved in production. Also interesting reading were some panel discussions on the changes affecting theatrical distribution, internet distribution, and internet marketing.

The entire film industry is undergoing extensive change at the moment. On the surface are the new and upcoming developments in camera gear, editing programs, and special effects, which make truly independent and privately funded films possible. The deeper issues, which are ultimately more important, involve the distribution and marketing of the final product. The even deeper issues involve the actual quality of the films being produced, and the creation of an independent industry, as opposed to a bunch of sanctimonious rebels with cameras. At present, the indie film movement has all the organization of a misguided protest rally, and to a large extent, that’s all it is.

RED Camera Interview
Posted: February 2, 2006 at 1:37 pm, by Isaac

Talking of cameras, Mike Curtis at HD for Indies managed to get an exclusive interview with Oakley founder Jim Jannard about the RED camera. In it, Mr. Jannard explains why his sunglasses company is actually well-suited do develop a camera, why he personally is pushing the project, and goes into more detail on what we can expect.

Not too much detail, though… pricing and specific technical specs will be released at NAB (Upper South Hall, booth SU1401, to be exact). Nevertheless, there lots of good data about the motivations behind this camera and what it’s meant to do, and it’s also a good read because Mike and Jim bring up a lot of limitations with current HD camera solutions, and (roughly) how the RED camera will attempt to solve them.

More info should be forthcoming soon, because NAB is only a few months away (April 22-27, to be exact), and they expect to have working cameras by the end of the year. And lenses. And whatever else they announce at NAB. Check it out. The article also includes links to other news and resources about the camera.

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