Thursday, December 20, 2012

Return to Middle Earth in 48 frames a second

I've learned a lot in the last ten years.  While I like to think that I'm the same as always, experience has definitely had an impact on me.

One constant is that 'The Lord of the Rings' has remained my favorite movie franchise.  It's a pinnacle in cinematic achievement and an inspiring series of movies.  They haven't lost their luster.  However, I don't care for the extended editions as much as I once did.  I now recognize that the theatrical releases are superior edits in most ways (the one exception to that is the exclusion of Saruman's death).

It was easily foreseeable that 'The Hobbit' would see its big screen debut with all the money there was to be had.  I'm glad the same New Zealand team took on the project.  Much of the world has looked forward to returning to Middle Earth through their unique perspective.

Peter Jackson did loose some credibility with his overindulgent 'King Kong' movie.  When I first saw 'Fellowship of the Ring' I knew nothing about him so he gained a lot of respect in my eyes.  By 'The Return of the King' I had done my homework and knew the director wasn't perfect, but was still amazingly gifted.  And more importantly he had built a team around him of amazing talent.

I was accepting and open to the decision of breaking 'The Hobbit' into two parts.  But I felt that one movie would still be the best way to show appreciation for the quaint nature of the book.  There's a reason why the Necromancer story remains largely in the appendices.  Tolkien did a great job of backing up his stories with an elaborate history.  It gives the stories depth.  But the magic of the actual books is a feeling of the larger world in the background while the story movies forward, not being force fed every dry detail.  Understanding Tolkien's notes is important for making the film.  But there is no pressing need to explain all of it to an audience.  In spite of all that I was willing to give them a chance to prove me wrong.

When the project was split into a trilogy it felt like the studios were overindulging  Peter Jackson for a money grab.  Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games are all franchises that began slitting up the books for no good story reason.  From a story perspective, splitting 'The Hobbit' into three parts leaves the conclusion that the third movie will mostly likely be one giant three hour battle.  After barely getting through the long battle that took up over half of 'The Return of the King' I am not particularly looking forward to the third part of 'The Hobbit' trilogy.

Another bold and controversial decision made by Peter Jackson was to shoot not only in stereo 3D, but to double the frame rate.  If you haven't already had the history lesson:  Silent films were shot with hand-cranked cameras at about 16 to 18 frames per a second (fps).  When sound was introduced 24fps was settled on as cost/quality balance.  I've heard the human eye can discern around 50-60 images a second.  This means that movies move in a different way than we perceive motion in every day life.  When digital high-definition came around George Lucas was adamant that the cameras support a 24fps format.  The Japanese Sony engineers told him 60fps is better because it's more life-like and smooth.  Part of the need for digital 24fps was that movies were still being printed on actual film and converting 60fps to 24ps is a pain and doesn't work quite right.  Also, 24fps is why movies look like movies and not soap operas or sports broadcasts.  "Better" is relative.  There's more to film exposure versus video capture but I'm not going to get into that in this post.

Digital image capture has advanced to the point of replacing celluloid.  As the technology races forward perhaps we don't need to be locked into the conventional thinking of the past.  Movie-making has always been split into different disciplines: Art, Business, and Technology.  All three play off each other for better or worse.  The technological and business decision to shoot at 24fps had an artistic implication.  Now the technology doesn't lock us into that original decision and financially it is becoming viable to change things up.  Shoot at 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, or even 60 frames a second.  People all over the world will be able to watch your video.

Over ten years ago I was all for replacing film with digital high-definition video.  I love the advances in technology that democratize movie-making by making the tools affordable to anybody.  But there's always a price.  When affordable digital video cameras supported variable frame-rates I saw so much abuse by videographers who lacked in understanding of the technology.  They complained about 24p recordings largely because they captured/processed the footage incorrectly.  And the introduction of DSLRs that record high-definition video has led to even more crimes.  There's a large lack of understanding in how to properly capture an image.

Peter Jackson's team are not among those people.  They are professionals.  The decision to shoot in stereo 3D led to the idea to try out a new frame rate.  And that led to tests which brought them to informed decisions about how to properly expose images at this new frame rate.  The benefit for those of us not ready for the new frame rate is that 48fps down converts to the conventional 24fps in a simple way.

I first watched 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' in 2D at 24fps.  I've always found 3D to be distracting and with the addition of the high frame rate on top of that I figured I'd be unable to focus on the story if I saw the HFR 3D version upon my first viewing.  So I returned a second time to see the movie in HFR 3D.  There's split between people who love the new format and those who hate it.  While I don't hate it, I also don't prefer it.

This was my reaction:  At first 48fps felt unnerving, like the movie was playing back on fast-forward.  I got a bit nauseous.  But after some deep breaths I felt like I could hold on.  Half way through the film I acutally found myself enjoying a few shots here and there.  But overall it felt wrong.  By the end of the movie I had a mild headache.  When I made a stop to the restroom after the movie I looked into the mirror and saw my eyes were red.  I don't think I am ready for this new format.

While the higher frame rate probably helped most audiences enjoy the 3D by smoothing out the motion, I found it to be an information overload.  I have really become accustom to 24fps and after hours and hours of editing my brain has learned to read each image as it plays back in real-time.  Doubling the frame rate never allowed my brain to process or catch up with all the images and my eyes gave out.

I believe future generations of movie-goers will accept faster frame rates and even look at 24fps much like we look at movies from the silent era today, stuttery/jumpy.  But at the same time I believe that there is a larger-than-life magic to 24fps and it should be looked at as an ascetic choice.  It will not disappear overnight.  There is still a cost concern, high-frame-rates translate to higher data-rates and not every production has the budget of 'The Hobbit' to handle that.  It has taken ten years to replace film with digital.  And digital has taken the last five years to increase the number of pixels and in quality to surpass the quality of film.  With all of this to consider, 24fps is not on its way out the door.  Personally I'm more open to a compromise between higher frame rates and classic cinematic motion.  30fps seems to be the best of both worlds to me.  As I see it now, we will have choices in frame rates for the years to come.

As far as my review of the storytelling in 'The Hobbit':  I enjoyed the film, I even enjoyed it more with a second viewing.  But I feel it has its weak points.  I still hold to my belief that the additional material interrupted the flow of the story.  Radagast the Brown forced his way in.  Gandalf's meeting with Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman dragged.  Other complaints include: The troll with the high-pitched voice was obnoxious.  The Goblin King, while entertaining, had an over-the-top death.  The goblin kingdom fighting sequence became too side-scroller video game like for me.  And why was the main bad guy, Azog the Pale Orc, the only CG character who really stood out?

The strengths of this film are: Martin Freeman as Bilbo, brilliant!  Riddles in the Dark was really well done, Gollum tops himself again.  Overall superb visuals with gorgeous cinematography.  Highly detailed props, sets, wardrobe, and make-up, it held up even at the higher frame rate.  And the 3D, although still distracting, is the best I've seen.  In short, I was happy to return to Middle Earth.

While I do look forward to the next film, I am reserved about the third.  I am still of the opinion that one movie would have given me everything I wanted out of 'The Hobbit'.  This trilogy comes with a lot of extras I don't care for.  An extended home movie release would have sufficed as a way to include the additional content.

As I said at the start of this blog post, I have learned over the last ten years.  Another ten years will inevitably bring more change.  I don't change my opinions lightly and I hope my current perspective maintains its validity in the coming years.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hogle Zoo Adventure

Kim and I finally got to the Zoo before the end of the summer!  We brought our cameras.  Combined we took over 650 photos!  I posted a few here.  Kim took the one of the polar bear, the rest are mine.  Too see more pictures taken by Kim visit her blog.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Editing a Feature in Final Cut Pro X

Those of you who have read my previous post about Final Cut Pro X already know that I'm a fan.  I've been using the software for a year now.  I am still enthusiastic about it.

I recently completed an 80 minute feature called "Saint Street" which was written and directed by independent filmmaker Rob Diamond.  And I used FCPX to do it.  Everything from organizing the media, syncing sound to picture, assembling the rough cut, trimming a fine cut, color grading the footage, mixing and sweetening the audio, creating the titles, and exporting the final deliverables for distribution was done using this software application alone.  Essentially I used the program exactly as Apple advertised it, an all-in-one post-production tool.

Where this software really amazes me starts with the intelligent ways it manages data through keywords and metadata organization. Synchronizing sound was a breeze.  Its trimming functionality beats anything else out there.  Compound Clips and the Magnetic Timeline kept my project clean.  And the render performance/quality cannot be matched.  Little things like the Timeline Index paired with To-Do Markers really sped up the process of making changes the director and producers wanted.  And utilizing Roles simplified exporting Stems and Multi-Track QuickTime files significantly.

I did run into a few issues.  Like any software out there it does have bugs.  One bug I found had to do with the EQ randomly resetting on certain clips.  There are areas where I feel the program needs improvement.  I wish chapter markers could be placed and saved to an exported movie.  It still has a ways to go before audio mixing is as efficient as the other features (but I'm really excited to see what they come up with later this year).  And I do have a handful of other small complaints here and there.

The biggest problem I faced with this project was when it got too big and FCPX would crash.  The issue wasn't the length of the project.  It was the number of filters, effects, and layers I was adding to it.  I ended up having to split the project up into 3 chunks in order to complete everything.  However, this is not unheard of.  Feature films are typically split up into 20 minute "Reels" anyway.  And most projects have color and audio done in separate programs like DaVinci Resolve and Pro Tools.

I knew I was challenging the software, but that was the point.  I wanted to see its limitations to understand how to utilize it best.  I am optimistic about its future and firmly believe it is the best NLE available.  I've become an evangelist of the software because so many have turned their backs on it.  I'll admit Apple failed at FCPX's launch, but if people open their minds to a new and better approach to editing they'll find everything that was missing plus more possibilities than were ever available before.

This project took me less than 4 months for the entire post-production process.  Aside from a music composer and input from the director and producers, I worked entirely on my own.  No assistants, no sound editors or mixers, no colorist, no graphic designer, no post supervisor, there was just me.  And I am proud to say I did the whole thing with Final Cut Pro X.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

John Carter of Mars

This is a movie I've been looking forward to seeing for a couple of years now.  It all started in March, 2010 when Michael Stone (aka "Garrett") asked me if I would take a long drive with him to the Wahweap Recreation Area just outside of Page, Arizona and back to Salt Lake, all in one day.  He had an interview lined up for a production assistant position on what we were told was "Pixar's first live action movie."  The hope was that I could be squeezed in for an interview too if I tagged along. Plus he wanted to take turns driving.  Anyone who knows me knows I said I'd go, absolutely!

I was thrilled to get even a remote chance of being a part of such an amazing project.  Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame: Finding Nemo, Wall-E) was directing his first live action movie and it was based on a classic sci-fi book published in 1917 (that unfortunately I'd never heard of) called "A Princess of Mars".  It sounded so cool.

There wasn't a silent break in conversation the entire trip down there or on the way back up.  Just too much excitement.  We arrived midday searching for the address provided.  Garrett made a quick call and we found the place.  It was a small information center/boat rental store.  A paper was taped to the door letting visitors know that the place was closed for regular business.


Garrett checked in.  Andrew Ward, the Second Assistant Director, came out to greet us, fortunately he said it'd be fine for me to sneak an interview in too.  Then he noticed my U2 t-shirt and jokingly said I had the job because I wore the right shirt!

While Garrett was in his interview I waited nervously.  But I tried to hide it from crew members who came in and out. Office assistants buzzed around in the small rooms, faxing and making phone calls.  One burly man came in and jokingly asked about boat rentals, he was obviously crew and I got a chuckle out of this.  This is where magic happens.  Film crews are often overworked and under appreciated so I wondered if they had any idea how badly I wanted to be a part of what they were doing, even in the smallest way.

Garrett came out of his interview professional yet sheepish, which is in his nature.  I'm the polar opposite.  Now it was my turn with Andrew.  We had already got off to a good start thanks to my shirt.  Andrew was from Ireland, a huge U2 fan, and had even worked with their band manager, Paul McGuinness.  How could this interview go wrong?

After a few laughs the excitement died down and we got to business.  He asked me about my experience in film.  I told him what I was doing at the time, mostly shooting and editing web videos for corporate clients.  He said he saw this as the future of production and asked me why I would want to leave that for this.  I explained that working on epic movies would fulfill my passion and dreams.  He shared his passion with me, his love for photography.  Then he showed me a video he shot of U2's opening in Spain on their 360 tour.  It was around then that his assistant came in and reminded Andrew that there were other candidates waiting for their interviews.  I felt a good rapport with Andrew and really hoped he would hired me.

Then two weeks later the call came.  Andrew's assistant informed me that they really liked me, would keep my information on record, but that production assistants with nine plus years of experience had applied and they decided to go with them instead.  So I didn't get the job, bummer.  Garrett was passed on as well.  Less than a year later I made friends with someone who did get to work on John Carter.  Antonio Lexerot, a local independent filmmaker, got a job as Williem Dafoe's stunt double.  Antonio's skills on stilts paid off.  A skill required to play a nine-foot-tall Thark from Mars.

Fast forward to today and we finally get to see the result of all the hard work put into this ambitious project.  And it is a fantastic result.  A movie that has plenty of potential to do really well at the box office.  So why does the media forecast doom and gloom for John Carter?  Why haven't my friends been highly anticipating its release?  There has been no hype for John Carter.

Disney sunk $250 million dollars into this giant epic of a movie.  So at some point they believed in this project.  Yet they've done little to promote it.  A perfect example of how broken the studio system really is.  Over the past couple days and weeks I've seen evidence of their stupidity come to light.  First mistake, this is clearly a summer movie.  And in fact, its original release date was scheduled for June.  Why did they move it up?

Another mistake, market a movie for what it is, not what you wish it was.  The movies title was originally "John Carter of Mars".  Dropping the "Mars" was the result of market research that said young girls wouldn't go see a movie that had "Mars" in the title.  They successfully marketed the Pirates movies. Why did their market research team not come back saying that young girls don't like "Pirates"?  And so what if not every person and their dog wants to see this movie?  Is there a single film out there that EVERYBODY likes?

So Disney put a ton of money into a movie they don't know how to market.  Since they couldn't solve the problem they decided to drop the ball entirely.  As a result when I texted friends encouraging them to watch the movie they either replied that they didn't know anything about it or that it looks stupid thanks to crappy advertising.

Disney, the corporation that convinces pre-teens that poorly made bubblegum music is worth killing for, can't figure out how to market a movie that's even better than the most successful box office movie to date, Avatar?

Better than Avatar?  Of course it is.  First, let's look at the similarities.  Genre: sci-fi/fantasy/action-adventure.  Story: a man finds himself on a foreign planet and must chose sides in an en-evadable war.  Characters: primitive indigenous tribal race, militaristic humans, and a love interest that wins our protagonist over and convinces him to fight for her cause.  Budget: $250 millionish.  And so on...

However, John Carter has a key difference that makes it far more pleasant than Avatar.  It's not preachy.  Complicated issues such as war, natural resources, race, and greed are so dumbed down in Avatar that they have no meaning.  John Carter touches on similar themes without resorting to one dimensional characters with obvious agendas.  The irony is how one dimensional Avatar's characters really are for being in such a visually stunning 3D movie.

John Carter is a fun, entertaining, adventurous movie with plenty of action, romance, and a good measure of comic relief.  If you enjoyed Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Pirates, Harry Potter, or any similar movie I see no reason why you wouldn't like John Carter.

My hope is that audiences become smarter than the studios (studios who feel inconvenienced by and obviously hate their audiences).   A bit of research on who is actually behind making your favorite movies (the writers, directors, producers, etc) and what their next projects are will result in a more enjoyable experience at the cinema.  Remember, studios can only make movies people are willing to pay to see so make your dollar count!  Go out and see John Carter!

About Me

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Sandy, Utah, United States
I make movies with my friends. I like to find humor in just about anything. I live in a dark cave similar to Batman's as far as cool computer equipment goes. But my cave lacks the gym, car, and suit...