News for January 2006

Freedom of choice poses “death threat” to cinema…

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film “Bubble” has sparked off some controversy in the plan to release it on DVD at the same time as it hits theaters, with the NATO (the other one) president practically forecasting the end of the world. I guess by the same flawed logic, the restaurant industry will be in turmoil over those new-fangled microwave ovens…
From StudioBriefing:

Landmark Theaters owner (and Dallas Mavericks owner) Mark Cuban has lashed out at National Association of Theater Owners President John Fithian following Fithian’s warning to exhibitors that proposals to release movies in theaters and on DVD on the same date represent a “death threat” to NATO members. Cuban’s production company, 2929 Entertainment, is releasing Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and on HDNet Movies on Jan. 27. In a statement posted on his website, Cuban begins by remarking, “How sad is it when the president of the National Association of Theater Owners doesn’t think his members can create a better movie-going experience than what we can see in our houses and apartments? Guess what, John, I can whip up a mean steak, but I still like to go to restaurants. Because I enjoy it. I enjoy getting out of the house with family, friends, whoever.” Cuban points out that when he took over the Mavericks, he put every game on TV — and attendance rose. “It didn’t take me long to realize that the business of the Mavericks was not selling basketball, it was selling a fun night out.” Cuban accuses theater owners of failing to create a similar “fun” experience for their patrons — particularly older ones. Moreover, he notes, movie theaters currently serve as a platform to create demand for DVDs. “Your problem is that you don’t get paid for it.” By contrast, he remarks, every theater showing Bubble will receive a percentage of DVD sales.

Posted: January 25th, 2006
Categories: News
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Digital Production, Part 2 – Tests…

Well, it’s been a long time since part 1 of this article, but a lot has been going on. We ran tests on different scenarios, looked at different technologies and workflows, and of course, reworked the script several times. So at last, here’s a breakdown of the things we decided.

The Shooting Format
Undoubtedly one of the most important aspects, deciding on a shooting format proved a lot more challenging than I’d anticipated. Originally, I was sold on using HDV for its winning combination of good quality and low cost. The problem then was trying to decide whether a higher frame rate would be better, how the depth of field would affect the look and so on. The reality proved quite different. I set about to test Sony’s HDR-Z1U camcorder. The aim was to use it in conjunction with Serious Magic’s HDV rack, to enable us to capture material direcly onto a laptop with an attached USB2 disk drive. Unfortunately we ran into performance issues with this configuration, sometimes the footage would be ok, sometimes it would fall over. I suspect that the problem lies with the specfic configuration of the laptop rather than any particular fault in the software, which had proved very robust until now. (Note: at the time of writing, Serious Magic’s support forums are down, so I am currently unable to get an update on the status of this problem). So we opted to do without HDV Rack for this production, as we don’t want to take any chances. So I proceded to shoot some test material using the Z1U to tape, and then digitize the footage afterwards. I shot a very simple set-up, a garden scene with a slow pan and zoom, and repeated this for both the 1080i50 and 1080i60 formats supported by the camera, as well as several of its “colour correction” modes, to see how it looks. You can see the actual unmodified Z1U footage for yourself, if you have the ability to download using the bittorrent protocol. Here’s the bittorrent file (approx 500MB)… I then went on to try something with more action, to get a feel for the visual quality (see the images below). All in all, I have to say that I was very impressed. The picture quality was great, the camera was very user-friendly and portable, and it seemed that we’d be able to use it to get some great shots very quickly. But then everything started to go wrong.

The Test Edit
Avid recently announced an HDV update to their popular Xpress Pro editing software. Since we qualified for the update, I installed the new version to try it out. After a spending a day waiting for their support team to tell me how to update the dongle, I loaded it up to discover that I couldn’t use it. (I’ve given Avid enough of a battering in a previous review, so rather than regurgitating a rant, let me just say that the problem I encountered was that the application window was trying to load outside the screen area, and the only option was to force it to close.) At this point, someone recommended that I should take a look at Sony’s Vegas system, which also has HDV support. Sony kindly gave us an evaluation version, and I have to say I was impressed, it’s a very well designed piece of software. I was able to capture the HDV material in its native format with no real problems, and load it for viewing. This led to the next stumbling block. HDV is motion-compressed, using MPEG-2. When you transfer HDV footage, you typically end up with a series of .m2t (MPEG-2 Transitional) format files. There are a few applications available that can play these files directly, but the problem is not with playback, it’s that the performance is just not good enough to edit with. There’s a lag between going to a frame in a clip, and the frame actually being displayed. I preseumed the problem was that my hardware was simply not up to the required spec, but after going through Sony’s support forums, I discovered that this simply was not the case. It seems to be an inherent limitation of the format. To make things worse, there aren’t really any applications that can convert m2t into something more useful. There are a couple of options available, namely buying an add-on that creates proxies that can be substituted for the full-resolution footage during offline editing, but really none of these seemed to be any good and it just seemed like it would be an additional thing to go wrong down the line. I found myself having to think in terms of film digital intermediate pipelines, with generating EDLs and doing an online edit, and suddenly the benefits of using the HDV format seemed to be greatly diminished. It was around this time that (co-director) Mark Sum suggested that we “just shoot on film”. And I have to say, that sounded like a solid approach.

The Digital Intermediate for Film
I revised the plan to accomodate shooting on film, rather than digitally. The plan became (and is currently) to shoot 35mm, develop, scan the neg, and create proxies for output to different formats. This would serve two distinct purposes: we could use the proxies as digital dailies, and we could import them directly into our editing system for the offline edit. One of the things we still need to test is how to ensure that the timecode will be sync’d during the import process, but this is really a matter of using the right conversion format. Because of the way we’re working (and because we’ll have complete control over everything), we can essentially create a single virtual source reel for all the source footage, which will simplify things greatly. After the offline edit, we can produce an EDL and use that to conform the scans during the online edit. As a final note, we will have a video camera on-hand during the shoot, so it may well be that we end up mixing some video footage in with the film footage.

The Finishing Process
We plan to use Assimilate’s Scratch for the whole finishing process, from the conforming to the final grade (using the Scaffolds option). We’ll take the digital source master and use that to generate several output formats, including HD video (as our output master), DVD, Xvid or QuickTime (for web distribution via bittorent), Flash Video (for a version viewable directly on the website), and Mpeg-4 (for PlayStation Portable devices).

Previsualisation has involved the use of Antics 3D Pre-Viz software, for expermenting with camera placement on shots with complex choreography, and traditional storyboards for other scenes. We’ll be posting the results of that on the website soon.

Production Database
The production database we’ve created (dubbed “Synasthaesia”) is taking a lot of work to put together, but so far, it’s proving very useful. We hope to have a public beta version that everyone can try out some time after we’ve completed the shoot.

The Production
Everything mentioned applies to our upcoming production, The Toilet Guy, which is to be shot very soon. For more details on that, including the option to read the script and look at some of our pre-production artwork, visit The Toilet Guy website…


Read on for part 3…

Posted: January 24th, 2006
Categories: Articles
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Scratch 2.5 Update…

Product: Scratch
Version: 2.5 (build 216)
Manufacturer: Assimilate Inc.

See also the full review of Scratch 2.0

Scratch Updated Impressions


I reviewed Scratch about 6 months ago. Scratch is released in builds as well as point releases, and now that it’s up to version 2.5 (build 216), I took another look to see what’s changed.

Read more »

Posted: January 23rd, 2006
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Digital Cinema Event in UK…

There’s a Digital Cinema event this Wednesday. It’s too short notice for me to go, but I’m sure it will be pretty interesting. Details follow.

Digital Cinema: it’s finally arrived!

Panel discussion | Chair: Peter Owen, IBC

Technical Interest

Venue:Brightwell Suite, Courtyard Marriott Hotel, Padworth.

3 minutes from J12 of the M4 at Reading.

Starts: 6.30 for 7.00 pm. Refreshments available from 6.30 pm and a cash bar will be open before and after the event.

Booking: there is no need to book for this event.
Digital shooting and digital screenings – the digital process is here! A mini-panel discussion brings us up to date.

Panellists: Tom Cotton – Technicolor Digital Cinema, Rich Philips – Arts Alliance Media, Jason Power – Dolby UK, Steve Shaw – Digital Praxis

Digital is coming to a Cinema near you. After many years of expectation, standards setting and product development. Digital is being rolled out funded on the one hand by lottery money via the UK Film Council and on the other by commercial solutions. This appears to be the end of Hollywood’s hesitation and opens the door to better screens and a broader range of movies.

Come and hear the future from representatives from the giants of the cinema industry, a digital filmmaker and Arts Alliance Media who are installing the UK’s first rollout of digital in 250 theatres. And from Digital Praxis, how will digital in the cinema affect the filmmaker?

For information, reports on events and news about the RTS and the Thames Valley Centre – winner of
the Tony Pilgrim Award – check out our website –

Posted: January 23rd, 2006
Categories: News
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Digital Vision Update…

I met with some of the guys from Digital Vision today, who are about to move to bigger offices (for their London-based operations at least), and they were telling me about the most recent version of the Nucoda line, which is now close to release.
The big news seems to be the panels. I hope to see these in action next week, but until then it sounds like they’ve got a very well thought-out design. Building upon the now industry-standard tangent panels, Digital Vision have taken a leaf out of Filmlight’s book and just built their own panels. Not only are these fully customisable, as you’d expect, they also have some interesting features. The default configuration I’m told was created in consultation with several graders, and so it should be fairly intuitive even if you’ve no engineering background. I’ve said it many times- the whole point of using panels should be about speed, not just because they look flashy. Well, it seems Digital Vision have done the smart thing and put all the commonly-used functions at the heart of the panel, whilst the less-often used ones are safely tucked out of the way. Most intriguing of all is what they’ve dubbed the “clutch”, a control to set the sensitivity of other controls (I guess that makes it a meta-control)… Other than that, I’m told there are numerous speed improvements over other versions.
Digital Vision will be workshopping the latest version in London throughout next week.
For more information:

Posted: January 19th, 2006
Categories: News
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