Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Making Movies in the Not So Distant Future

You’ll never believe where I’ve just been! I recently returned from a possible future reality where I was visiting a movie set. The crew was so awesome and showed me so many phenomenal things. I can’t talk about the movie itself because they don’t want anybody to steal the idea before they get a chance to make it. But I can tell you about their workflow and the technology they were implementing.

Okay, lets start with the camera. Man, that thing was amazing! It didn’t really look like a typical camera you’d see today, more like a giant eyeball on a gimbal. They rigged it all sorts of ways and controlled it with a tablet. And when I say controlled it, I mean pretty much every aspect you could think of. You see it’s a light field camera so it captures everything in front of it with depth. Through an app you can control things like focus, focal length, exposure, and frame rate. What was even crazier is that none of that was baked into the actual raw files! It was all settings passed on through metadata. You could also control physical movements of the gimbal like pan and tilt with the tablet. Camera position and movement is also saved as metadata so camera tracking later isn’t even necessary for visual effects.

I noticed that the camera assistants were never reloading fresh media cards, so I began to wonder where the data was being saved to. What was even crazier is that most everybody was getting a live feed from the camera onto their tablets and smart phones, plus they could go back and watch earlier takes. The clips even had clean audio from the audio recorder and all the information from the script supervisor was saved with them. How was all of this possible? I asked and found out that apparently everything was being fed wirelessly to an on set server. The server was processing all of the files, combining and labeling them, and keeping it all organized. It was automatically generating dailies with timecode and title overlays and then pushing everything (including the raw camera files) to the cloud. What was more unbelievable is that all of this was happening instantly!

I had to go check out this server. It happened to be in the editing trailer and it was about the size of today’s Apple TV. I couldn’t believe that the massive amounts of data for an entire feature film shoot could be stored on there and on the cloud simultaneously! I noticed the editor was working on a large tablet, which was nicely mounted into a table, and the full size picture was on a bright 32” monitor in front of him. Magically, there was no cable running from the tablet to the tv monitor. In fact, I realized there weren’t many cables anywhere.

I was amazed by all of this and decided to strike up a conversation with the editor. He explained to me that a lot of the tasks he or an assistant would have done in the past were now automated. Not only was he able to see everything coming from the set live, his video editing application was creating an assembly edit for him! I thought this sounded ridiculous, I mean isn’t that the editor’s job? He explained to me how media and metadata from the set was analyzed and organized. Then that was combined with the shooting script. The more detailed the script, the more accurate the assembly was.

I got to see how this works in action. As each successive take would roll a clip would grow on the timeline. A new take would create an audition over the previous take. When the crew was done with a particular setup the script supervisor would label the director’s favorite take and that would be the selected clip in the audition. As they did more setups the video editing program would live switch between new angles depending on who had lines or what action was taking place in the scene. It kept doing this over and over until they completed the scene. It even added cutaway shots, but how? Well for example, the script might call for a cut away shot of a briefcase and the program automatically knew where to cut the actual shot in! Unreal!

This really got me wondering, why do you even need an editor? If he isn’t the one putting the scenes together, how was he earning a paycheck? The editor laughed at my questions and explained to me that while the artificial intelligence of these systems was good and could get a lot of the monotonous tasks out of his way, there was still a lot of creative work that needed to be done by humans. Humans have taste and style. And while perhaps those things can be somewhat emulated by a computer it always feels inauthentic and artificial. Our emotional response to material is very subjective. You can’t tell a computer to make the scene more funny or more sad, it just doesn’t understand that. Maybe someday, but even at this time in the future, it still wasn’t fully realized. 

For now, here’s what he actually had to do: he began working by reviewing the automated assembly, making notes, and adjusting edits for timing. Maybe some shots or entire scenes needed some reordering. Or maybe he needed a reaction shot where there wasn’t one. He then looked for ways to cut down the scene. Sometimes what looks good on paper and even feels real on set doesn’t jive in the edit, so it would need to be omitted. It was his job to make these kinds of creative decisions in order to tell the story.

What really blew me away is how the producers and director, or even another editor halfway around the world, could collaborate with this editor in realtime through the cloud. In fact if a producer wanted to watch the latest edit of a scene they didn’t need to come in and bother the editor. They didn’t even need to open the project in a video editing application. Plus the editor didn’t have to export and upload a movie file. The producer just needs to login online and stream the latest edit through a video player wherever they are. This can be done on a home television set. Whenever they want to make a note they just pause the video, type it in or speak into the remote, and press play again. Then the editor receives a notification and can choose to sync those notes right in his timeline immediately.

That all sounds awesome, but what if the editor is in the middle of making changes? Apparently this system is smart enough to track the edit the producer watched and compare it to what the editor is currently working on and make the proper adjustments. For example, if the producer made a note on a specific shot and the editor moved it earlier that change is tracked and the note would find its proper place. Honestly a lot of this was over my head, but I can say what I saw worked elegantly.

You might wonder how multiple editors collaborate on the same project. Well, their work is constantly backed up and revisions are searchable, even by the name of the editor. It is really important that the editors communicate so they aren’t wasting each others time working on the same scene. But let’s say they didn’t communicate and they did just that. Their two timelines can be merged, and where there are differences a compound or nested clip is created for each variation of the edit and grouped together as auditions. They can show the director both versions and decide together which edit to go with. I thought that was a very elegant solution to a potentially messy situation.

This system was really responsive and fast. I was really curious about what was happening under the hood. I mean the files generated by the camera must have been massive and therefore processor intensive. At the same time everybody was working off of mobile devices. It appeared invisible to me, but apparently what was streamed over all the devices were extremely high quality proxy files generated immediately on the camera at the same time it was capturing the raw files. The settings and metadata of the original clip is always accessible, changeable, and new proxy files could be regenerated. Let’s say you wanted to reframe a shot. It instantly creates a new proxy. Now when it comes time to export deliverables all the original data is accessed to produce the highest quality output. But honestly, you didn’t have to think about all of that, because it just worked!

As I returned from my trip to the future I was obviously overwhelmed. How on earth did we come so far? As I thought long and hard about that I realized that the seeds of this technology already exist today. In fact many pieces of the puzzle are already being used or are in development. Obviously companies like Lytro, Light Iron, Lumaforge, and Intelligent Assistance are doing a lot to push towards this kind of future. But I also had a new found appreciation for what Apple is doing with Final Cut Pro X. It thrives on metadata organization: Content Auto-Analysis, ranged based Keywords, Smart Collections, Compound Clips, Auditions, and Custom Metadata were crucial to making the system I saw in the future work properly. The proxy workflow in Final Cut is already seamless today. Not only that, but the current Magnetic Timeline will make editing a breeze on multitouch devices. A track based timeline would be cumbersome and slow on the future system. Is this the future that Apple and others are already seeing now? They must be at least seeing something like it.

Before I left I was reminded that this was just one potential future and there could be variations to it depending on what we decide to do today. And those who embraced the changing world now had such an advantage in the future. The ones who got it were creating at their pique potential. The ones who didn’t were bitter and unemployed. I realized that even though many people had held on to what they already knew and fought really hard to prevent this future from happening, the change was inevitable. Somebody out there was taking advantage of new technologies and workflows and pushing them forward. It really is in my best interest to always be learning and keeping up with these changes. I’m not talking about blindly embracing every new idea. But testing things out, breaking them, and improving them realizes the full potential of the future. If we have this attitude I really think the future I saw could become a reality within the next decade. I really hope that is the case, because it was incredible!

Friday, July 8, 2016

What Video Literacy means for Video Professionals

In the 21st century everybody has the means to make a movie. You no longer need a lot of money or connections to Hollywood to get going on your first project. Got an idea and a smart phone? Great, go out and tell your story! Of course that doesn’t mean your movie will automatically be an Academy Award Winning Blockbuster and make over a billion dollars. It’s a little more complicated than just that. But on a fundamental level, whether you are shooting a video of your kid playing in a pool or a scene with Tom Cruise running through the streets of Paris, the basic principles are the same. Light reflects off of objects, gets captured by a camera, and moving images are produced.

The power now found in ordinary people’s hands cannot be overstated. We no longer live in an era of trade secrets only shared to the initiated. The curtain has been pulled back and we see the Wizard of Oz for who he really is. Very technical processes have been demystified and simplified to the point that a child could understand them. Video has been democratized. Hallelujah!

But hold on a second! Thousands of people make a living by creating videos. I’ve devoted most of my life learning how to wield this complicated technology in order to create high quality work. And now you’re telling me that my special skills have little value? Video is a commodity, it is ubiquitous, and anybody can learn how to do it. So, have I wasted my life? This is a scary realization to come to.

I’ve come across many video professionals that feel threatened by our current environment. It is easy to get frustrated with all the changes. Budgets have shrunk. Most videos made today are just noise. Equipment that once costed hundreds of thousands of dollars has depreciated in value and is now worthless. These professionals often react to change by guarding what little they have left and defending old ways of thinking. But that attitude doesn’t get them far or make them happy.

There is a way to succeed amidst all the turmoil. It involves being open to the new and embracing change instead of fighting it. We have to accept that while technology used to take decades to evolve it now only takes mere months. You don’t necessarily have to be on the bleeding edge of adaptation, but you should avoid getting blind sighted by new disruptive technology by staying informed. Keep your head up and always be learning. Share your ideas freely with others and ask questions. We can all benefit from this together. Don’t close yourself off in bitterness because things aren’t the way the used to be.

I think about these philosophies when I see debates about what a video professional should do in different challenging situations. When should I work for free? A client just asked me for the raw footage, should I give it to them? Someone asked for my professional advice, should I charge them? While the circumstances can vary greatly in these situations you can be guided by some core values and principles.

Lets start with working for free. I’ve seen people get really bent out of shape when it comes to this issue. The obvious fear is that someone might take advantage of you. I’m going to make this bold claim that may sound contradictory at first: You should never work for free, but at the same time, you don’t always need to be paid money for doing a job. Instead, look for how this job may benefit you in other ways. Based off of that, decide whether or not it is worth the time you will put into it. If you are just starting out in video production you need to gain a lot of experience. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn just because they pay little or no money. For those of you that are further along in your career there are still reasons to take on a non paying job. You could be working for trade or calling on a favor later. Maybe you are sponsoring a cause you believe in. There are many situations where free work makes sense. Give these kinds of offers some consideration. Evaluate the deal. If you honestly won’t get anything out of it then perhaps it isn’t worth your time after all.

What do you do when a client wants a copy of your original footage? This can be an awkward situation. Especially if you haven’t discussed these terms before hand. You may worry that the client is unhappy with your work. Or maybe they are too cheap to finish paying you. And if they take the footage away from you to edit it themselves the project could turn out to be total crap! In these situations I try to be as easy to work with as possible. I believe that if my client has paid me to shoot the footage they already own it. Of course it is reasonable to charge them for the time it takes to copy off the footage and certainly for the cost of the drive if they’re not providing their own. But in my opinion, I’d feel like I’m nickel and diming them if I’m charging extra simply because I want to protect my work. It really boils down to the trust you have with your client. They could have a completely valid reason for wanting the footage that has nothing to do with you. Maybe you finished your video, they loved it, but they want to repurpose the footage for other simpler videos that really aren’t worth your time. Communicate with your clients and be generous and understanding. If you still believe they are making a huge mistake that’s their problem. If they don’t trust you then you probably don’t want to work with them again anyway. But the truth is that as a result of video literacy we are going to collaborate more closely with our clients as their understanding of the process of making videos grows. And if you are stubborn and difficult to work with they won’t hire you.

I love the free flow of information and ideas. I seek out opportunities to share advice. I find it very fulfilling to help people out. So the idea of charging others for my advice is very foreign to me. Some might argue that since it takes years to learn video why share all that hard earned knowledge freely? Personally I find the desire to protect trade secrets doesn’t really do anybody any good. So much is in constant flux now and as a result we are all having to keep up with the new information. What’s the point of holding on to ideas for ourselves? Everything will be different tomorrow anyway. Of course there are educational services that I would expect to pay for. There are in-depth online courses and seminars that took a lot of effort to prepare and therefore they should come with a price tag. But it doesn’t hurt to take a few minutes to answer a question or to point somebody in the right direction. Why not be the go to person as a source of knowledge? The clout and authority that comes with sharing your ideas open up doors to new opportunities. The reality is that proprietary intellectual knowledge and trade secrets are relics of the past. Those who fail to understand this are doomed to a similar fate.

Ultimately this all has to do with your perception of change. If you choose to evolve with the times you will find new opportunities for business. This is a healthy attitude that will assist you when you have to overcome unforeseen challenges. If you resist change and all you see is doom and gloom ahead then you will become a miserable self-fulfilling prophecy. As for me, I am very optimistic about the future of digital video. It is the current state and a piece of the much bigger art of storytelling. Because it is always changing we must always be learning. And often times learning something new requires us to take a step back in order to leap forward. You must accept this in order to find success.

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...