Sunday, October 19, 2014


Cinematic depiction of Pluto abducting Persephone to his underworld kingdom.

In video or film shooting we use the term cinematic to express resemblance to shooting and editing techniques used in feature films. Traditionally we consider a shot being "cinematic" when:

1. It is shot at 24 frames per second (fps). Traditional feature titles shot in film have had this frame rate, whereas traditional video uses 25fps (PAL) and 30fps (NTSC). This is kind of weird though. Does all of a sudden shooting or cutting a scene at 24fps make it... cinematic??!!! Anyways...
2. The shot is stylised, graded or colorised. All these are synonyms of the same editing process whereby shots are undergoing a series of digital color transformations to create a sense of 'sphere' conform the movie's storytelling.
3. Bokeh. The effect of shallow depth of field. Larger digital capture sensors combined with the right lenses, and set at widest possible apertures, create the necessary cinematic shallow depth of field, a.k.a. the bokeh effect. Bokeh is a term first appeared in Japanese. This effect is considered highly cinematic. Furthermore, the effect of changing focus from a near point to a further point is also considered highly cinematic and is known as focus-racking. If there is excessive ambient light that makes it hard to maintain large aperture settings at the common shutter speeds used (ie shutter speeds of 1/50th or 1/60th of a sec), often cinematographers and camera operators use Neutral Density a.k.a. ND filters, practically diminishing by a number of stops the quantity of light entering the lens all the way to the sensor. All this happening in the service of bokeh and implied cinematic affect. This is actually the main reason that all of a sudden shooting video with traditional DSLRs, the so called VDSLRs (V for video), became so fashionable and even employed professionally by Hollywood and Indie filmmakers around the world.
4. Camera movements. Using cranes, dollies, sliders, tracking, droning, panning, and handheld shooting techniques, as well as time-lapse shots and sophisticated motion control, makes scenes even more cinematic. Of course, the far more expensive and complex CGI techniques used in large multi-million dollar productions can not be afforded by low budget filmmakers and play far above the league of most professional and/or amateur filmmakers. Camera movements are indeed among the most powerful tools in cinematography to render scenes and shots cinematic.
5. Soundtrack used. The role of background sound and music in providing cinematic experience is beyond any conceivable doubt. Sound is the invisible fourth dimension (the three other being the spatial dimensions we live in) in making a scene sequence 'feel' like a movie.

But is that it? If I do shoot some scenes and edit them together following the cinematic rules per the points above (there maybe more, but those 5 points I found to be the most important mentioned in the literature of the film industry), can I then claim my work is cinematic? Short answer: probably not. For amateur video shooters without film-school education, even most probably not. "It's not the vestment that renders someone a priest", claims a Greek proverb. In other words, it's not because you shoot 'cinematically' that your shots become cinematic. Point 1 above, about 24fps, is the living proof of this argument. I bet you, you may shoot a scene at 24 fps and the same scene over again at 60fps... you ain't gonna see the difference. I don't anyway. If someone does, please tell me and teach me to do the same. I doubt there are many around who can tell the difference, despite the far too many that claim they can.

If that's the way it is, then, what do you need to become cinematic? Short answer as well. You need a story. In fact, cinematic is by definition everything that is related to (visual) story-telling. All of the techniques used in the five points above and many more so (new being invented as we speak in shoots of new feature films around the world), are used to serve storytelling. In the same sense, a simple novel, a short story, and a still picture or a sculpture can also be cinematic. Anything that tells a reader or viewer a story that engages him/her, and makes her/him experience it with some degree of human emotion is "cinematic". Literature in all its styles and forms is mostly cinematic, scientific papers and books are mostly not. 

In all arts in general, the human emotions triggered by the artwork largely depend on a subject's past experiences, as claimed by the philosophers Gadammer and (his infamous mentor/teacher) Heidegger in the first half of the 20th century. For this reason, among other, emotions triggered by artworks are rarely identical among experiencing subjects. I mentioned 'among other' because emotions also depend on a subject's general culture, genetic material, his/her upbringing, and spoken language. Presumably, all works of art do trigger emotions among their target subjects. Joy, sorrow, awe, disgust, laughter, tears, and more. Do artists need to trigger emotion in order to pass their underlying message to targets more efficiently? The stronger the emotion, the deeper the understanding and future recollection of the message; this is a scientifically proven fact. Subsequently, could we thus claim that all art is cinematic too? I don't think so. Genuine art most certainly creates human emotion among its target subjects, but it doesn't necessarily have to have a story to tell. 

Good filmmakers know that every scene counts and every scene needs to advance the story narrative and create the intended emotions among their viewer community. Every object used on stage and appearing in the film's frames is put there for a reason. Nothing is accidental in good filmmaking. Therefore, there's a lot of planning going on before even shooting begins. The film Director, the story Author, the Scriptwriter, the DP and the Film Editor continuously exchange opinions about the raison-d'-être of each and every shot and scene in the final cut. The visual and/or technical quality of a given shot, or the masterly interpretation of a character role by an actor are not simply adequate to make it acceptable for inclusion into the final cut, unless they do 'advance' the story properly. In that respect, the role of film editors is extremely important. Among the series of takes and coverage shots available to them to cut a scene, they have a critical responsibility to select those shots, and  cut them in ways most suitable to the actual script. In the filmmaking trade's literature, there are countless examples, about the same scene being cut in a number of distinct edits, based on the same available shot coverage, and, not amazingly, the results actually appearing to advance the visual story in more than one ways. The positioning and sequence of cuts in the scene, their viewing angles, focal lengths and camera movement applied, each one of them cause viewer emotions with distinct, stereotypical characteristics. It's like emotions are transmitted to human subjects during projection following a visual code language that viewers come to learn over time by watching movies in theaters or on TV. There are literally dozens of books written about the subject. Unfortunately, most of those who write such reference material are not professional experts in psychology! They are mostly film practitioners, theoretical and/or empirical. 

I am often amazed by the ability of professional cinematographers and editors to creep into their Director's mind and understand his/her intents and express them clearly in the final product. The team members must have mutually compatible chemistries. This is why, some great directors often stick to their winning teams and make films with the same crews as well as casts of actors. It's often even so that some outstanding actors are only used by certain Directors in their movies and are rarely seen in other productions. Some Directors even go that far to provide their own cinematography and editing too, if they don't sufficiently trust others (Cohen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, etc.). Each frame, to use Darren Aronofsky's claim in a recent interview, when at a given moment he has been talking about his film 'Fountain', has been carefully planned beforehand to the level of (his own) obsession and with so much passion, in order to best serve his narrative and the film's message the way he personally intended. No doubt why with only six films (masterpieces indeed) in his portfolio he is recognised as a real Master of the craft. The other critical element that I admired in Aronofsky was his ability to articulate the basic message of his each and every film in very simple terms. If you come to think of it, in filmmaking most often it all starts with the central theme and message of the film. What is the film to be all about? What are we left with when all is said and done? What has mostly impacted us when we exit the theater or power off the TV? Did we really get the message? To make sure this happens, Aronofsky mentioned that great Film Directors (he referred to Fellini and Kurosawa in particular) were able to convey their message in each and every scene of their movies. As an example, he referred to Marcello's dilemma about choosing between 'getting a life' or continue 'chasing hot chics' in Fellini's 8 1/2.

Unbelievable but true... the more someone enters the domain of filmmaking the greater respect one develops for filmmakers and videographers alike. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Alexander's tomb? Only time will tell...

Since the beginning of August I am following the news about the excavations of a monumental tomb at Amphipolis, Greece, allegedly Alexander the Great's. Before then, I wasn't even aware there was a place called Amphipolis. And when I heard about first, I thought it was somewhere near Athens! So much for my history and geography genius. Listening recently to friends from my youth, I was told that I should have also been nearby during school trips in the 1960-ies, and I must have definitely seen the Lion of Amphipolis.

The lion was found in ruins during the Balkan Wars, early half of last century, near its current position, a few km away south-west from the tomb hill, at the banks and bottom of the Strymon river. The ruins were put together by a team led by Swedish archaeologist Oscar Broneer and a Greek sculptor in the late 1930ies. The project was supported by the US Ambassador Vy (?), a friend of Greece. The monument can be still admired today if you make a stop there during you travels on the Egnatia highway. That's a hundred steps away, literally, from the Strymon river banks as it flows towards its delta to the Aegean sea.

I was fortunate to find, from very early on, a blogger site called Amfipoli News that posts updated and of reasonable quality articles multiple times a day, 24x7. Since the discovery of historically significant findings in the tomb hill (aka known as Kasta), the Amfipoli News blogger seems to post almost exclusively articles related to the works. Most of the info and pictures I have summarised in this post I have borrowed from that blog. It is true that other blogs run 'professionally' by the main Media establishments in the country are not half as good, and I have abandoned those altogether. Sheer waste of time and Internet space.

So, the known facts are the following: (Click the Google maps satellite view above for a larger view. The arrow shows the exact location and the inset shows a closer view from above of the Kasta hill.)

There is a round hill of a circumference 500m, along which an impeccable marble wall 3m (10 feet) tall was unearthed. At the south-west side of the hill, facing the ancient city of Amphipolis, archaeologists discovered an entrance to the tomb that for more than two millennia was hidden away, under tones of earth. The surrounding marble wall was also hidden inside the soil 3m deep! Nothing to witness from the outside for thousands of years. The 15m tall Lion monument mentioned earlier was recently proven to have been removed from the top of the Kasta hill, presumably during Byzantine times, and was demolished to pieces to serve in the construction of a Byzantine dam at the Strymon river. It was eventually found a few km away at the banks and bottom of that river. Until recent years Kasta was merely a hill in the community of Mesolakkia (Amphipolis area). Feeding place for goats and wild rabbits.

The compelling event that triggered the start of archaeological excavations was the discovery of few ruins as late as back in the autumn of the year I was born... 1953! Same year that Jozef Stalin passed. It took modern day Greeks 60 years to decide it was worth looking at that hill seriously. In the meantime, the US has flown astronauts to the moon and brought them back safely. An entire electronics and computer industry has popped and changed out lives for ever. The Soviet Union emerged from its Stalin era, scared the sh*t out of us in the West for decades, during the so called 'Cold War' (better that than the current hot wars against jihadists) and subsequently fallen apart. Another infamous Wall was raised in Berlin and decades later torn apart. Steve Jobs was born, raised, created Apple Inc, gave us an entire iCulture that changed our lives, and passed, far too young of pancreatic cancer. Half of the original Beatles passed too. The US (once more) has flown to Mars and beamed pictures back to earth. We entered a new millennium for crying out loud! We have even flown to the end of our solar system and continued to travel away from it, for billions of miles. We dug a hole into the ozon layer and almost started filling it back. And only now after all this has happened and much more, ourselves, 'lightning speed' Greeks, we are finally about to discover our greatest hero's tomb. Sitting under our nose for that long! We been sitting on it for 60+ years, pissing against the wind, leaving that tomb hill to the mercy of hungry rabbits and stray goats, looters and tomb-raiders. Better late than never though, one could claim.

Thanks to the current project manager, a very serious person, Mrs Peristeri, excavation works advance at the necessary high pace. Like I said, better late than never. Here's what we publicly know they have found so far:

Starting at the top of the outside marble wall, there's 13 stairs leading downwards to a first chamber (θάλαμος). The entrance to that chamber was concealed by a large stone wall. After  that wall was taken down, the first monumental discovery of this project emerged. A pair of sphinxes facing each other, missing their heads and wings. Needless to say, workers and archaeologists had to pour away the sand and soils covering all these structures. The original architects of the monument took good care to fill in all chambers and gaps with sandy soils to discourage and potentially trap inside ambitious raiders and looters. 

After the extraction of the sandy soils another prohibitive wall appeared at its other end. Taking down the upper part of that wall revealed the second breathtaking discovery of the tomb. A pair of Caryatides extending their arms together to form an entrance below them. Only parts of their bodies were unearthed to this day, the following days scheduled to clear out the wall in front in its entirety and reveal them girls in all their glory. Unfortunately one of them had her face missing probably because of pressure from the ceiling exercised upon the head of the statue. The second lady only misses her nostrils, and for the rest she looks pretty solid.

The pencil drawing depiction shown earlier shows the first two chambers as they were found. The drawing is signed by the architect who is in charge for years now of the restoration of Parthenon and the Acropolis in Athens. It clearly shows what I described so far. 

The second chamber, shown in the drawing as still covered with soil up to half its total height is where the team is working as we speak. As they dig further, they encounter ambient temperatures and humidity conditions like being in caves. The back of the chamber wall appears to only have one gate in front, not as glorious as in the previous two passages. The ceiling and walls show damages that could turn lethal if the whole structure is not urgently supported with the necessary means. Indeed, along the excavation works, supporting structures are set in place to keep the entire chamber from collapsing. Even large amounts of the hill soils are being dug away to lighten the gravity forces from the soils from the outside, on top. These folks are leaving nothing to chance.

Needless to say, the side walls, and the floors were found to be decorated in marbles and stones and a few rests of colours. The original engineers who built that 24 centuries ago made sure it was built not to be entered easily by your typical looter. The tools necessary to enter from this gate to the final tomb/s (one doesn't know yet) would be highly sophisticated for a small team of looters trying to enter the tomb. Peristeri mentioned ironically that she hasn't found any human remains of skeletons yet of those presumably perished in their effort to enter, thus responding to those with an 'opinion' that the tomb was previously looted and all valuables removed.

The army was called in the meantime to safeguard the works from curious passer-by's and potential modern day tomb raiders. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras follows progress personally, step by step, literally by the minute, and the main opposition party is sitting on burning coal. We suspect they asked their own 'expert' professors and wise noses to publish articles diminishing the work of the team in charge. They'd wish that not much was eventually found as the discovery of Alexander's tomb would mean their collapse in the next polls for reasons only comprehended by Greek Political Party dogs! The entire charade by so-called experts, historian, architects and archaeologists, not involved in the works whatsoever, criticising shamelessly Mrs Peristeri and her team is beyond belief. Modern day Greeks, hardly yet recovering from the financial cluster-f*ck they managed themselves into, have plenty of time to critic the real doers and express their useless opinions about a matter they are standing so far from and are so remote to. "Opinions are like a-holes, everybody's got one", said Confucius and few select intellectual and poisonous Greeks are a living proof of that saying.

I can only applaud the works of the experts as well as their attitude towards the Public. They appear to be genuine professionals. Everytime I surf to the Amfipoli News blog my heartbeat speeds up, and the day I saw the Caryatides pictures I couldn't hold the emotion. Imagine what those expert workers felt when they saw it in real. "We all wept" mentioned Mrs Peristeri yesterday...

How far are they still from the real thing? Some simple geometry math can easily help you calculate that. They have now reached 23m towards the centre from the stairs. There are about another 50m to the actual centre of the circle, if one assumed the tomb to be located at that spot. If the original architect wanted to fool potential raiders even more, he might have created a sort of a maze leading to blind spots. Who knows what they are going to find in the next days, or months. A picture taken of the area by academic researchers years ago with soil penetrating waves/rays (I am unaware of the exact technology used) shows strange concentrations below the hill of areas supposedly looking solid, like interior walls, and more chambers. They seemed to move in various asymmetric directions all over the place, which kind of supports the 'maze' hypothesis. That university study dates from more than ten years ago. Even then nobody asked the right questions about what to do with that hill. Civil servants sitting on their fat ass then were too busy looting the national cash safes instead. Anyways. Besides all that, it currently sounds extremely intriguing and promises to overwhelm the planet with a worldwide sensation. The greatest archaeological discovery for more than 100 years, to say the least.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Video experiences

I spent the last six months accumulating video gear of all sorts, and learning about pro-level cinematography, and filmmaking in general, in all their aspects. Not much changed in my practical ability for better video work however... a filmmaker is not something you become overnight. It takes practice, persistence, plenty of creative thinking, and of course lots of skill and experience. For amateur videographers like myself, one needs to do everything on his/her own. Screen writing, directing, cinematography (staging, lighting, shooting), color correction and style-grading, non-linear editing, sound/music. Where in professional productions there are a few dozen up to thousands of specialised workers employed for many months or even years, a simple amateur videographer needs to put on all sorts of trick hats and do same tasks (far smaller in scope, though) on his/her own. One learns a lot by reading specialized blogs and watching instructional and other films by pro's and gifted amateurs on Youtube and Vimeo. It's remarkable, knowing what it takes in terms of equipment, technical knowledge, skill, creativity, and post-production work, to watch what young filmmakers can achieve in practice. When did they learn to do all this, you may wonder. Eternal sceptics might claim that making a motion picture is quite simple, and anybody can do it. I think not. During many years I have performed with some success a variety of 'artistic' endeavours in my life like painting and drawing, stills photography, digital and film (I've got almost 30K pictures on my Flickr channel), but, despite my recent acquired knowledge and equipment in filmmaking, I can definitely state that I'll never be any near to most of these kids, who produce and direct successfully entire feature films at barely half my age...

I initially thought of shooting shorts, but even that requires seasoned skills. So, I basically resorted to spending leisure time by shooting simple scenes of the 'miracles' of nature... flowers, animals and landscapes. I am obsessed with technical picture quality in terms of colour and sharpness, but video compression may kill all that if you don't pay the necessary attention. With professional gear, a captured signal might still be near-perfect as output by the sensor, but as recorders and NLE software use their own codecs, quality might easily be damaged during signal storage, post processing, and delivery. Furthermore, a technically almost perfect video file, encoded in a high quality delivery codec, can and will be further degraded if uploaded to Youtube or Vimeo, as both streaming services need to recode those files with their own proprietary codecs for obvious streaming optimisation reasons. In analog videography we used to undergo huge quality loss from one copy generation to the next. In digital accordingly, we have to be quite careful and knowledgeable about the type of compression our codecs will apply in order to avoid similar degrees of quality damage as in analog.

Shooting video is like shooting stills. Sort of. Composition, lighting, depth of field, ISO, aperture and exposure times, lenses used, are all quite the same. Of course, there are quite a few filmmaking specific elements that have little to do with stills photography. Examples include the frame rates (fps), and the 'rule' that shutter speeds (exposure times) 'have to be' twice the fps to guarantee fluent movement of objects and persons in the video shots. Also camera movement during individual shots is one major filmmaking factor, as viewers are emotionally 'manipulated' by cinematographers by the way the latter hold and move the camera while shooting, as well as the camera angles used. Types of lenses, apertures used and focal distances, camera movement and points of view (angles), along with edit 'cuts' and time-length between cuts are some of the most critical cinematographic tools used to trigger viewer emotion during story telling. Some of those tools hold even true for stills shooting. Stills do tell stories as well, you see. Like painting and all man-made 'artificial' imaging. It's all about the story. Only that filmmaking is the most explicit and dominant among all known imaging art forms in the process of visual storytelling.

The particular clip I embedded in this post above is something I shot and edited yesterday, during the usual rainy afternoon, like so many we've seen this August in Belgium. My compatriots back in the fatherland are heavily sweating, as I type this, under 30+ Celsius temperatures, whereas I have to wear a sweater to get thru the day. Uunfortunately, this year autumn started in Belgium at the end of July.

I haven't tried any special camera movements this time, other than a couple focus tracks, and it was all done handheld, with only a few shots slightly stabilised after the facts, in post. To preserve maximum resolution and sharpness quality I avoided crops and Kern Burn effects in post as well. I used a brand new Lumix GH4 V1.0 to capture and output a clean HDMI 1080p 4.2.2. 10 bit signal and recorded it in ProRes HQ on an Atomos Ninja Blade. I used two different lenses, the 14-140 mm that came with the Lumix and a Canon 24-105 mm with an MFT adaptor. With the Canon lens, lacking aperture setting ability, I should have used ND filters too, but I didn't. Was to lazy to go back to my room and fetch them, as the shooting took place two floors below, in my backyard. Thank God it was quite dark outside and lowering the ISO solved my problem. Shooting at 24 fps meant I had to keep the shutter speed at 50, and get on with it. The GH4 picture style I used was the CinelikeD, without any further parameter adjustments (as many experts suggest to lower further in order to yield flat LOG-like footage for color correction and grading purposes in post).

The ProRes footage captured by the Blade was readily usable in FCP without further transcoding since Apple uses ProRes as its standard format for post processing. What I was particularly awed by though, were the fine-tuning luma and chroma adjustments made possible in post. All this due to the extra 2 bits of chroma subsampling that the Blade gave me. Most experts argue about the elimination of banding in higher subsampling bit-rates, but my personal experience points more to the ability to implement subtle color and tonality changes with more bits than the traditional 8 bit encoding of commercial VDSLRs. In other words, the extra subsampling bits help colourists in the first place, before all the rest. The final video file that I watched on a FHD TV, and not the YT encoded stream you are watching here, practically convinced me to let go for the time being the 4K workflow that I initially bought the GH4 for, and continue shooting 1080p at 4.2.2.-10 bit instead, until I found a way to get a similar ProRes encoding at 4K / 10bits minimum. Does this sound a bit like the upcoming Atomos Shogun? Am I looking for more excuses? I might...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dedicated to Film Critics.

Their job is to watch early previews of new movie releases and tell us, the audience, how they felt about a given film, and whether it would be worth spending our precious money and time on it at all!

All I can recall from most professional critics’s reviews that I read is mostly a long summary of the movie story/plot, without revealing the «who dunnit» of course, then its comparison to some of the universally accepted ‘best’ movies in the genre (often doing this to boast about the depth of their own cinema knowledge, and amplify the weight of their opinion), and finally loathing or loving what they saw. Often the loathing is overly critical, cynical and far too unfairly negative. We are then supposed to simply and unequivocally trust their opinion. Also, a fact well known, it is practically a few select leading critics, whose opinion is universally respected for all sorts of reasons, who set the primary trend on a given new movie, and most of the remaining critics will continue to pompously echo the few experts’ «loathing or loving», just like a herd of «His Master’s Voice» doggies... The fact that far too often films loathed by critics became huge box-office success tells a lot about critics too.

Compare this with product reviews we see in YouTube. A world of difference. We see and hear almost everything concerning a given product, even experience its unboxing. We won’t have to see or even feel it ‘in real’ anymore. We could easily trust our
acquired knowledge obtained during these online reviews, as most reviewers actually test them products right in front of our eyes. If we feel that certain aspects are not covered sufficiently, we dig further until we find someone to provide satisfactory answers to all our remaining questions. By the time we have purchased and received the product, it’s like we already used it for ages.

Not with movie reviews, though. With most of them it seems like someone asked a few blind men to describe an elephant by simply touching parts of its body. Some feel soft, some wet, hairy, hard, huge, especially huge. Opinions are like a-holes they say: everybody's got one... Descriptions of the beast will be all over the map. Likewise, most professional critics appear too ‘blind’ for the job, as they are often much too incapable of seeing through the movie and grasping the genuine
message of the movie's Director. This is why most successful moviemakers despise and are dreadful of critics for their poorly informed, partial, opinionated and unfair coverage of the formers' work. In a spirit of justified avenge, moviemakers will then claim that most critics are in themselves failed moviemakers. However, jokingly, they could still be ‘acceptable’ but only as critics, it is claimed. Like, bad wine can still make excellent quality vinegar !

Movie making is an art form that is extremely complicated and expensive to execute properly. Distinguished from most other art forms, it is being pursued by large groups of people working together on the movie project, often with opposing and contradictory philosophies, ideologies, preferences, and talents. Colours and tastes, like the French say... Movies will have then to be completed within tough constraints of time and budgets, and after formal launch, they need to become genuinely popular among audiences
in order to 'cover' their incurred expenses and turn out some profit. In each and every movie, most of the ‘public’ figures involved, actors, directors, cinematographers, music composers, producers, studios, with each and every single new movie project, they all take a tremendous personal risk concerning their future survival in the industry. And that's despite how glorious their ‘past’ work has already proven to be. Unfortunately, movie failures remain strong in audiences’ and critics’ memory. In each and every new project the leading and visible contributors (especially directors and performing actors) risk to become unemployable for the rest of their careers. Never forget that... Movie making is as risky as gambling... maybe riskier! It can make or break the moviemaker!

First and foremost, movie making is about manipulating audiences and carrying them along a story telling adventure, in which the movie Director, leading/managing each and every member in his/her crew, will tell the audience what he/she wants them to hear, and convince them about his/her own truth of reality... the latter being the "movie story". The key words here, again, are the combined conscious/unconscious audience manipulation. Conscious for moviemakers, unconscious for audiences. Audiences do indeed want to get fooled by watching a movie, and experience the sense that even for the couple hours of its duration they'll live magic like in a dream. Or a nightmare...

Audience manipulation is a difficult feat to achieve properly. The tools and techniques moviemakers use to achieve their goals are technically complex and come in multiple shapes and colours:

a. The script and storyboards. The narrative story a Director wants to tell audiences and how he/she plans to do it with pictures.

b. Actors and character roles. How well actors understand and perform inside their character roles and how effective both, characters and performing actors, fit the Director's storytelling approach and overall film goals.

c. The Stage Design during location and studio takes. The movie's post production color grading as well as the appropriate lighting used during takes that will yield the ambiance and atmosphere
aimed for. All objects in a scene. Costume design. Special Effects. CGI. The works. How well will they all support actor performance and story telling? Up to the wee-tiny details that camera lenses can and will see.

d. Movies are made by shooting thousands upon thousands of different photographs (a.k.a. frames) projected at the rate of 24 frames per second in front of a viewer’s eyes. Frames are two dimensional depictions of the three dimensional world (the stage) in which actors perform and story-lines are being deployed.

e. Space and time are being heavily manipulated by movie makers to create the necessary emotional reaction among audiences. Movie watching is more about emotion than it is about logic inference. As Tarkovsky, a genuine artist moviemaker, once suggested: «I want audiences to experience my films, not to understand them.»

f. The selected camera angles used to shoot given scenes are also a critical factor in story telling. Different angles trigger different emotions. The eyes are triggered by and focus upon evolving changes in frames. Things that move or do something. Therefore, aesthetics and composition are important. Camera moves are important too for the same reason, especially with static staging and performances (a sleeping actor, for instance - to be remarked here, Warhol didn’t mind much about this particular rule). Also the covered scope during each and every camera angle is critical. Ranging from long shots to extreme closeups, they all have to be used for a reason. Like someone, whom the 19 year old, now celebrity French Film Director Luc Besson, asked to watch his first ever short, told him: If you have nothing to say, shut the fuck up! Every scene and cut and picture we see parading in front of our eyes has been put there for a reason. For their own specific ‘emotional’ message towards the audience. All of course serving and advancing the same story-telling, remember? The particular point,
exactly where in space the cinematographer decides to depict a ‘change’ occurring is equally critical. Even focal lengths of lenses used, as well as filters attached, add emotional punch in their own implementation of the movie language towards audiences. True story!

g. Sequences of frames are stitched together in what is a.k.a. «the Cut». Many cuts compose a scene. Scenes together built story lines and movie Acts. All of that put together creates The Movie. The very exact frames selected by film editors to cut shots are often the most critical factors used to build audience emotion. Cuts are indeed one, if not the strongest, implementation of movie language! Suspense moments, especially in horror movies, is the best proof of this argument.

h. Last but not least, the sound and music attached to cuts, and their timely positioning in the selected sequence of frames are among the key contributing factors in emotion creation too. Moviemakers know that extremely well. Sound and music are indeed among the strongest triggers of viewer emotions. ‘Graphic’ shots without the right accompanying sound or music lose two thirds of their potential emotional impact. If,
every time you hear Wagner’s «Valkyries», many years after you saw «Apocalypse now», and you still experience in your mind’s eye the horror of napalm firebombs devastating Vietnam forests, and ‘smell’ the odour of burning flesh... this is the living proof of the role of effective soundtracks in engraving into audiences' collective memories unforgettable emotional experiences.

Audiences progressively learn to communicate
passively (ie. being at the receiving end) in the «language» of movies via their cumulative film viewing experience, through their continuous exposure to movies upon movies in the different genres, over years of movie watching. This is Gadamer's point of view too. Audiences learn this language without specific knowledge of its structure and rules. Like I mentioned, the language is formed and expressed by all contributing factors described in points (a) to (h) above. It’s very much like toddlers learn to speak before they can even hold a pencil or learned to read. The learning happens almost unconsciously, a combination of feeling and logical inference, where the feeling becomes the stronger aspect. It’s how biology and evolution works. Nothing we can do about. 

On the other hand, moviemakers learn and use the movie language all too well, its structure and rules. They are all trained in exactly that at Film Schools. Directors, DPs, Film Editors, Producers, Actors, every single one of them.  They learn to 'consciously' manipulate their audience's emotional 'unconscious' and guide them through the storytelling process. However, in the passage of time, and during the last 130 years of movie viewing, audiences have had tremendous watching exposure and have become quite demanding and sophisticated indeed. They have learned what to like and what not. They have become quite difficult to please and convince, for sure... by either critics or moviemakers...

Therefore, descent cinema critics should pay attention to these (not too) humble ideas of mine:

First of all, when a movie critic decides to inform an audience about a film, all and foremost, he/she should understand, once and for all, that their own personal experience and knowledge about cinema subjects is the least relevant aspect of the review as far as audiences reading the reviews are concerned. Critics are not the subject of the review. Nobody is interested in them personally, anyways. The films under review are the real focus! Parallels and comparisons to past ‘films’ in the critics’ Knowledge-Base are not relevant either.

Critics should abandon using obnoxious superlatives and pompous language 'normal' readers happen to come across once in a lifetime, and mostly needing a dictionary to decipher. We don't need that level of intellectual arrogance thrown at our face. We need to understand the article in plain English, not requiring a PhD in literature to grasp its meaning...

Furthermore, we, the audience, know from the start that we are destined to be manipulated by each and every filmmaker, anyways! We may decide to watch the film regardless. We actually want to be manipulated, most of the time. Rather subtly though. The subtler the better! We hate the faking being too transparent, especially in actors' performances, failing to convince about the character roles they play. Therefore, what we are interested in reading a critic’s review is his/her ideas about the skill (or lack) of the movie's filmmakers in their approach and tools used to tell their story. And how effective this all has been. Was the story understandable? Was it any good? Regardless whether we agree or not with the filmakers, that is... Shall we experience a personal change at all, or not? Shall we learn anything we didn't know before? Did we... yes indeed, did we become 'better' persons in any conceivable way after watching the movie? A movie critic who can touch upon subjects of the "movie language" used and create an accurate picture in our mind about how well or not the filmmakers achieved their goal is, IMHO, a critic worth his job-title.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

To UHD or not to UHD? That is the question...

One of the most frustrating experiences of today in UHD and xK video, whereby x equals 2.5, 4, 5, 6 and 8 (as far as I know) is that there is no content available yet. Not even as a joke. Even if you find some obscure UHD content online, it's not a given that it will play on your brand new UHD TV, if you happen to have bought one. Too early for this. The best proof of this argument is the footage they demo in TV shops to show-off their goodies. All purpose made to play in mysterious ways on the TV set in question. It's the same problem we had with HDTV sets years ago. Even to this day, most, if not all, of the commercial TV programming is broadcasted in 720p. Anything beyond that is likely the result of a lame upscaling... Only Bluray disks and computer video files provisioned via externally attached hard disks or SSDs (via USB) can be used to show-off the entire FHD resolutions!

There's been a myriad articles about why eventually we are all going to the next wave of TV experience, the so-called UHD (Ultra High Definition) being everything above the infamous FHD (aka 1080p). Here's one of the best I read. Just to feel what this is about, consider this. The so called 4K (not the 4K Cinematic... this is even larger) is 3840 pixels across by 2160 pixels vertical. This is exactly four times larger than your regular 1080p FHD TV you are so proud of... It's like you'd stacked four FHD TV monitors in a matrix of 2 by 2! However, the physical size of the UHD monitor itself isn't very much different than what we are used to now with our normal TVs... 40 inches diagonal and up sort of thing. In other words, your regular FHD TV has about 2 million pixels spread over the entire surface of a, say, 42 inch monitor (92.5 cm horizontal by 52.5 cm vertical, that is). However, the equivalent 4K UHD TV of the same diagonal 42 inches will squeeze four times as many pixels over the same surface! It's like you split one of your old pixels to make four new ones!

You may still wonder what all this means in practice. Let me give you an example that I worked out recently. I bought me two pieces of equipment first. A brand new Lumix GH4 camera that can record internally and also output 4K signals at its micro HDMI interface (4.2.2 compressed at 10 bit color subsampling per RGB channel), and a Philips 42PUS7809/12 UHD TV of 42 inches diagonal size. My previous set was a Samsung FHD, which was OK but it's native resolution was simply the good ol' 2 megapixels of the FHD resolution. No way possible to demo the GH4 4K goodies on it. To show anything at a native FHD monitor you first have to down convert the HDMI signal into 1080p, which actually defeats the purpose, right?

Long story short, after some online chatting with a Philips Helpline kid I managed to display a full fledged 4K GH4 Live signal (!!!) via one of the Philips HDMI inputs. The GH4 was looking at my 27" iMac and it's extended second Apple display, at their native resolution of 2560x1440 pixels each. I am saying this because the iMac too isn't able to drive the Philips monitor at 4K either. All it can do is mirror itself and just display 2560 horizontal pixels by 1440 vertical max. In itself this is also UHD, but not the native 4K Philips boasted and I needed to experience. As long as I didn't have a source of genuine 4K to feed the Philips HDMI ports I couldn't possibly see and feel what it was like to own a UHD TV and enjoy genuine UHD content on it. Of course, my iMac was a way to experience resolutions above FHD on the new TV for the first time, even if it was less than the full Monty... I had managed to create a few clips in 4K that I shot with the GH4 and edited in FCP. When I opened them with Quicktime 1:1 on the iMac they extended beyond the visible limits of the monitor. Wow! So, playing them in full screen via mirroring on the Philips TV screen, as I explained earlier, couldn't get to more than the 2560x1440 the Mac could manage. It was 2.5K, not 4K! Apparently only the latest Retina Macbooks, and of course the Mac Pro can manage monitors up to 4K, several of them presumably for the Mac Pro and its stunning 7 something Teraflops! So, unless I upgrade my Mac Hardware there ain't gonna be a way to drive the Philips from my Mac into its native 4K. Tough shit, pardon my French. Maybe a good excuse to own eventually the black marvel...

Anyways, the moment the GH4 was capable of displaying its live view on the Philips monitor I almost fainted. It was the moment I realised what a resolution of 3840 pixels across with 2160 pixels vertical really MEANS!!! This is far too much for aged dudes like myself. This 4K resolution is far too big to be true. Unless you see it with your bare eyes and goggles you won't be able to tell. Words are not enough.

Nevertheless, to taste a thin slice of my experience, take a good look at the shots hereunder (click for larger view).

This first shot above shows the Philips monitor in all its glory, and all 42 inches of it. In front, the Lumix GH4 shooting the other side of the room, connected to the Philips HDMI 3 input (you can see the black cable). In other words, the Philips monitor shows what the GH4 sees. That's mainly two Apple monitors, one is the iMac itself and the second another external Apple display, 27" as well. On the latter, I have opened a PDF document from Philips itself, showing in a table the codecs, frame rates, AV containers, and resolutions supported in all their TVs. Needless to say, nothing above 1080p. Makes you wonder... why sell UHD TVs if you don't even support playback of video files at that resolution... let alone that the Bluray consortium is still struggling with Standards to reach agreement on the support of UHD resolutions on optical disks... no remedy short term from there either. Anyways...

Next point... I referred to the PDF on display on the second monitor for a reason... right? That's because the following shot hereunder shows the actual goodies UHD TVs have to offer. I thus took an extreme closeup shot of the Philips monitor of a few rows of the aforementioned PDF table to show-off the level of detail that is possible thru native UHD. The size of the type in terms of Philips monitor pixels is between 6 and 7 tall (count them if you don't believe me). If you wondered what the 6-30 numbers mean, it's simply the frame rates... irrelevant for the purpose of this discussion. Take a look on the table now... (click for larger view).

Does this make any sense to you? I won't go any further. A picture is worth a thousand words... Literally.