Sunday, March 6, 2016

The tricks our memory plays on us.

Two weeks ago to the day, I found myself in the company of friends, in Athens Greece. We have all been students of the same ΕΜΠ class (National Technical University, or Μετσόβιον Πολυτεχνείον) with graduation year 1976, 40 years ago. The get together took place in a posh bistro, south west of the Filopappou hill. The Filopappou is opposite the Acropolis rock.

A few months ago I was approached by Yianni, one of us, asking whether I’d join a planned 40 year reunion sometime in 2016. He and another one of us, Niko, volunteered to do all the necessary. I said "yes" in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Would be my unique opportunity to do right this time.

In the past 25 years, I never managed to meet anyone from my class since graduation day. I almost grabbed my diploma at the end of June 1976, and off I flew to the place that was to become my new home. There has been one single exception to this however. During one of my trips to Athens ten years ago, Nikos, one of my closest pals during school, paid me a memorable dinner near my hotel, at the then famous Athens Hilton fish restaurant. We spoke about the usual, health, career, family, our kids, and, it goes without saying, we smalltalked about those we commonly knew from the past. I was starving for news. Sort of thing like, «What is X doing these days?», or, «Did you hear about such and such?». After all these years it seemed like we had never separated. Nikos was a good kid and graduated top of our class. Humble, extremely intelligent and a hard worker. It was a fun evening and I was ecstatic about meeting each other, even after so many years of separation. Unfortunately Nikos passed not long ago, before he could turn 60. R.I.P. pal. See you soon.

When I came to this country, I literally switched off my past, emotionally and factually. At least, I thought so. Much I knew then. It was so bad that I hardly spoke my native Greek anymore. For months and years to come. Only during infrequent and brief phone conversations with family members I spoke and thought in Greek. I don’t know why I've done this to the extreme. Thinking back, I do feel shockingly ashamed about my arrogance. It’s almost against the laws of nature to cutoff one’s roots like this. Of course, one can’t turn back the clock and undo the wrong! Like convicts serving time for the crimes they committed, I’ll have to live with it for the rest of my days.

Closing down to the event, I tried my utmost best to remember names and faces, but I repeatedly failed miserably. Yanni offered me some consolation during our occasional email exchanges, saying I was not alone in this. But still, something in my mind couldn’t find peace. I accepted the fact that I would have hard time recognizing faces, as time does continuously change people’s looks, and 40 years is a very long time. Like Yanni put it, with the amount of facial hair we all carried back then, it would be an impossible task to recognize anyone after 40 long years. I was OK with that. The one thing I couldn’t logically grasp though was that I had somehow forgotten most of their names. To the point I saw a list with names and realized that I didn't recognize many among them, far too many indeed... Didn't ring a bell, at all! Of the 35 student class I could hardly remember 5-6 names. Of whom, two had unfortunately passed. How could this be humanly possible? Cold sweat ran over me as I took the taxi to the venue. How foolish would I look?

Almost everybody who was invited came, including our three emeritus professors and their still professionally active administrative assistant, Katia. We all seemed somehow to have the same problem. Recognizing faces. As they eventually saw me in their mind's eye as I used to be, most told me I’d taken up weight, which is fine, but some seemed to have not been able to recognize me at all. Staring at me like it was their first time. And that situation was apparently mutual. Neither the face nor their name was I able to consciously recall too. Many still knew me though. One among them, Sofronis, told me a hilarious story about an incident that happened between the two of us back then and he made me ROFLMAO! Of course, I couldn’t remember a single bit of that event, cross my heart. I must admit, after all is said and done, there are still a couple left that I have great difficulty reconciling their current looks with how they looked back then and also with their names. One or two sound like I have never come across 'em in my entire life before. Never ever. It is terribly unfair to them, I understand. How could I possibly forget so much? Alzheimer’s symptoms that I am not yet aware of?

During the course of the event, Yanni showed us a video he prepared about our life back then. The enterprise proved fabulously emotional as it's been equally humorous. Seeing each other after so many years, flabbergasted about “the way we were”!

And then it started happening to me. Gradually, watching Yanni's video, looking at pictures of the past, connecting people’s names with their faces, gradually but steadily kept blowing away the fog. I leaned over and half hugged Yanni, mumbling something like “great job, brother!”. Couldn’t keep my tears. My neurons kept waking up in the millions from their 40 year long winter sleep, dusting the accumulated fat off their synapses (as a figure of speech), and like an old engine that has just been lubricated, my latent memory started bringing back the vistas I had long forgotten. In lightening speed pictures were formed in my brain and I ‘saw’ them fellow students like they used to be. Names and faces became one again. I couldn’t help smiling by facing the heavy tricks the deplorable time had played on some of them, but I am sure many felt the same way by looking at me. I could say by their facial expressions when their eyes crossed mine.

The recollection process did not complete that evening alone. The weeks that followed I have worked hard to reconcile names and renewed visual impressions from the reunion event. You see, I promised them to shoot pictures during the evening and make a slideshow about the venue later. Therefore, I wanted to know for sure “who's who” eliminating any shadow of doubt right before I started putting the slides together.

A few weeks later, I apparently seem to have recovered most of my “lost” memory. Maybe I am still having some difficulty with one or two. But growing from hardly remembering 5 to 6 fellow students before the event to remembering faces, names and anecdotes of more than 30 today has been quite a triumph. Agree?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An iPad for pro’s

I couldn’t consider myself an Apple aficionado if I ignored the launch of the iPad Pro and looked the other way. And of course I didn’t. I went out to buy one white and gold right on the day of its local introduction. Just the wifi version, but with full GB capacity (128), not the Mickey Mouse bits (64) of the introductory model. Of course there was neither the smart keyboard and cover available, nor the Apple pencil. I would have to be a little more patient for those, although I found a similar convenient solution for the keyboard part by adding a BT Apple external keyboard that I found lying idle somewhere in my loft. As for holding it standing upright, I used an old Griffin stand that I purchased long ago, from the times of the very first iPads that came out.
Coupling the wireless keyboard was a breeze, even simpler than with any desktop Mac or Macbook. The only thing I haven’t found how yet is changing the keyboard layout, if needed to. So, for now, until someone shows me a better way, I quickly disable the BT on the iPad, open the keyboard on any app that uses it, change the language and layout using the earthglobe softkey, and then turn BT ‘on’ again. I am sure there is a more elegant way to do this, but, what the heck, it worked for me.
For the rest, the iPad feels like any desktop or a Macbook, only difference, you get the feeling that you are working faster as you can interact not with a mouse but with your fingers on its screen, or the Apple Pencil (stylus) when it becomes available. Fingers work fine so far, no complaints whatsoever. Right now, I am waiting for their smart keyboard that also serves as a protecting cover, before I replace my AirMac (1st gen 11 inch) with this one for good. Its screen of 12.9 inch is way bigger and far more attractive in terms of color depth and resolution that the 11 inch of my Air. I guess both configurations would be equivalent in terms of weight, but the Air is also a bit smaller in size. On the other side, the iPad is full of fun apps that I am used to, and in the past made me bring along a mini iPad each time I had to carry the AirMac with me. I guess this new iPad will somehow cannibalize the traditional Macbook sales, unless they find a different use for it (the Macbook, I mean), which doesn’t seem too likely anyways. Are they possibly going the Microsoft way with the latter’s Surface hybrids? Who can say? One thing seems plausible though. In the future, we will keep a big ass desktop workstation at home and a tablet of some sort for our needs when on the road. Suits me right!

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Watch

The Apple Watch, or iWatch as it was initially baptised by the speculating Press has been in the mouth of fans, reporters and gadget enthusiasts long before it appeared in real as a saleable product. I believe this dates back to the days His Jobness was still alive and kicking. Eventually the watch saw the light under the name Apple Watch, and after being gradually launched into the world markets, it must have sold several million pieces by now, as we speak. Apple won't provide actual volumes shipped, but I saw articles projecting anything between 10 and 50 million pieces to be sold in the first year. A press article last July speculated a billion dollar revenue had already been achieved from sales back then, but this figure was indirectly deduced from known incremental sales of a set of products among which the watch was one. Well, Apple is Apple, and any product it will create will typically sell in the (tens of) millions no matter what, even if it turned out to be a flop. So, for a company with $230B most recent known annual revenue, selling 10 million watches in a first year is not much of a guarantee of future triumphs. So I thought, surprisingly becoming a sceptic for the first time ever about an Apple designed product since the inception of the very company. Indeed.

Contrary to my traditional geek fan (fan as in fanatic) approach vis-à-vis any product designed by Apple, I have not been much of a Watch enthusiast from the very moment it was leaked to the press. I don't know why, but something felt like this thing was never going to cut it for consumers. Not because of lack of design, functionality, robustness or innovation. For sure, all these were going to be Apple-like, that is the best anyone could ever conceive and manufacture. It was the watch's purposefulness I was and still am sceptic about.

By now, we all know that the iPhone and all so-called smartphones are not only about calling people on a phone anymore. Actually, from the start, from the launch of the GSM technology wave, cellphones have been offered with enhanced functionality that went far beyond than merely talking remotely to people. They sought from early on to replace the so-called PDAs of the times, the Personal Digital Assistants. That extra functionality defined the very competitive advantage among the dominant cellphone suppliers back then. Nevertheless cellphones still remain tools for old fashioned telephone communication between human beings, but far beyond than calling grandma and grandpa, they have become a much sought after Swiss knife in a contemporary consumer's daily life. They provide all sorts of information to our finger tips that no generation before ours have ever experienced. The wealth and reach of the information provided has never been equaled by any electronics device ever before. The new mobile phone, the smartphone (actually any phone that mimics and impersonates the iPhone, introduced by Jobs in January 2007) became a disruptive game-changer in the telecom industry for ever. It did to the traditional cellphones what digital photography did to the film.

Is Apple's new wearable, the Apple Watch, going to enjoy the same re-write of the watch history and seriously disrupt and change the industry, as did the iPhone to the traditional cellphone markets? It might somehow, by I have no idea how far reaching this will be in changing our watch wearing habits, culture and beliefs. Does anyone deep in one's heart believe that it is going to push to the corner of irrelevance names like Omega, Rolex, Breitling, Tag Heuer, IWC, Hublot and Panerai? Hmmm... I sincerely doubt this. Here's why.

I always believed that the new generation, the millennials for instance, and those who'll follow, don't/won't wear watches much. Their mom and dad will have probably bought them a smartphone before their wrist developed a size suitable to fit a descent watch's band. If they want to tell the time, a quick look at their smartphone will inform them all they will ever wanna know. As for mature people like myself, who still remember the times of analog landline telephone devices, a watch has never been for just telling the time. It has been a piece of precious jewellery instead, for many of us still hanging around. It's been a statement of persona. Especially to men, who don't typically carry much precious metal jewellery to fit their body parts other than a (wedding) ring and a watch. Well, some might still wear a subtle earring on one lobe. Timepieces, as the Swiss call their world famous brand watches that have been handcrafted with pride for hundreds of years in relatively small workshops many of which still operate in traditional villages high up the Jura mountains, are meant to keep time and make a persona statement. Impeccably, with insane accuracy, almost perpetually. Electronics cannot and will never fit this Timepiece concept.

You must pay a small fortune for such a watch, entirely mechanical, handcrafted by real people, a genuine Timepiece made in Switzerland indeed. I appreciate this approach because it has an element of "the human factor" in it. The knowledge that a real person with outstanding crafting skills has worked the mechanics and put together the miniature components of infinitesimal tolerances to build a celebrity brand watch, this feeling indeed makes you profoundly appreciate the value of such a piece in ways that you will never ever do for a product of contemporary electronics, mass manufactured in China, with its heart and soul run by software, no matter how compelling its functionality can be. Is it then because such Timepieces unfold pages of the past, when craftsmen were still human, and their crafts were universally valued, that we are still prepared to spend even tens of thousands of dollars on such timepieces? Swatch, very much Swiss watchmakers themselves, early on realised they could never be able to challenge the known brands in durability, craftsmanship, and price, and therefore jumped to capture the other market end, offering dead cheap watches of some design that could be worn as prêt-à-porter and be changed like... underwear. In fact Swatch invited consumers to buy not only one watch, but several, and keep collecting them while the company massively supplied new models and designs in unstoppable fashion. And 30 years later they still do this, like the life of the company depended on this. Which it probably does.

Despite my initial scepticism, during moments of severe boredom and for lack of other compelling gadgets to buy, I eventually went out to purchase... an Apple Watch afterall,  however, the cheapest model of all. I bought a 42 mm model (and still need my reading glasses to be able to read the screen messages properly), 469 euro's in all, incl. VAT! Among other, I wanted to find out for myself about whether it was going to become another iPhone or a flop Newton PDA instead.

After a week of using it, I found that it deserves some credit after all, and you could own one among your other watches for sure, it's OK looking and all, but it needs an iPhone in the neighbourhood for full functionality, and it will definitely never be anything like a known brand Swiss Timepiece. Despite it's attractive design and functionality. It is also, even for an Apple product, quite expensive. I mean the basic and cheapest model, let alone the insanely priced in the tens of thousands dollars Watch Edition pieces. What were they thinking when they launched those? You could buy a small car instead. Even spoiled Arab peninsula princes won't promptly jump to own any of those, I think. From what I heard, these folks are universally loyal to the most expensive IWC's money can buy. I wonder how many Edition pieces Apple is going to eventually sell. Even those dressed with an Hermes band. A cute combination maybe, but at what a price indeed.

Do I still use mine? Well, yes, for the time being. I will revisit this post in six months and update you. Most likely I will have fallen back to one of my low-end Swiss Timepieces by then, I reckon. Let's wait and see.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

How I color correct my Vlog shots

With this blogpost I am sure I am not adding any original views to the community of videographers out there, especially the pro's among them, but I'm simply sharing my own experience with GH4 shooting Vlog footage.

I am using FCP as my NLE of preference. In every new set of shots, that I usually shoot in one session, I am trying to fix a representative shot first, and then create a preset based on those fixes that I subsequently apply to the remaining shots. This approach usually provides me with satisfactory results; nevertheless, I tend to go over all the remaining shots once more, observe their look-'n-feel that the preset generated, and review their waveforms, and, if necessary, I do some further fine-tuning. I believe this is exactly what most of you out there are doing as well

As the first shot is concerned, I work in non-aggressive iterative steps. The pictures attached hereunder show the sequence of my approach. Since the release of the Vlog-L profile on the GH4, I shoot in that style with +2 stops overexposure. As you can witness in the first screen-capture hereunder, this GH4 profile generates a highly washed out image that has the advantage that its luma waveform is spread between 25% and 75%. 

I first push the shadows to make the luma wave touch the zero line. Subsequently, to my personal taste, I push midtones down as well. Next, I push highlights to touch the 100% line at the top of the luma diagram. Doing this pulls the shadows and midtones higher as well. Therefore, during a second iteration cycle, I am repeating the process by fine-tuning the three exposure components to ensure the final waveform covers the best part of the entire spectrum from 0 to 100% and the resulting image shows the proper tonality and contrast, and above all it is pleasing to the eye. Of course, I don't just do that mechanically only based on waveform shapes, otherwise even computers could learn to do that automatically. At each stage I observe the output frame to get convinced that the result is aesthetically pleasing. 

Eventually, if the white balance of the clip happened to not be to my liking I do correct that in the Color tab of the Color Board, and that after fixing luminosity and contrast in the Exposure tab. In the example below, as can be seen in the RGB parade waveform, the color balance looks acceptable, and didn't need adaptation. Only the Saturation I pushed globally a little bit for reasons of personal taste. 

A sphere look-'n-feel (colorisation) I finally apply using one of many available 'looks' plugin and if necessary some fine-tuning of its parameters, again to my personal taste. In the example shown here, I used mLut by MotionVFX and applied their "metal suit" preset. I could have used anything else for that matter. The result is shown in the last picture in this series.

This has been a simple cycle, quick and dirty, suitable to us, gifted amateurs, who can't afford doing expert colorisation and log corrections with Pro gear like Da Vinci Resolve, regardless whether it's been made available for free by its owners BlackMagic.

Shot in its original state. On the left the Luma and RGB Parade waveforms, on the right the color board for tuning and fine tuning. 
First step pushing down the shadows to touch the zero line.

Doing the same with the midtones to my liking.

Pushing up the highlights, that pulls shadows and midtones higher as well.

Push shadows down again to touch zero.

Same for midtones to my liking.

As highlights moved down too, push them back up again.

As exposure got fixed, do color corrections next. In my case only the global saturation was pushed. The RGB parade shows all three RGB waveforms in balance; no corrections added.

Eventually, a purchased plugin look applied. In this case it was the metal suit look of MotionVFX's mLUT plugin.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

To err is human, or how Panasonic screwed up the (Vlog) firmware update 2.3 for the Lumix GH4.

From the moment Panasonic's Lumix DMC- GH4 was announced,  first prosumer camera ever to shoot 4K video, it became a legend. More than a year later quite a few good products from competitors emerged to challenge the GH4 with similar and better specs. For instance, Sony managed to pack its sLog2 cinematic profile used by pros in its latest bridge camera, also shooting 4K and offering at the same time up to 1000 fps slow mo! Phenomenal experience! They've been able to achieve such high slow-mo rates by attaching a storage layer back-to-back to the sensor, shortening data travel paths from sensor pixels to storage, achieving extremely short frame storage turnaround; they thus managed to reach spectacular fps rates at HD resolution, unseen for a camera at this price range... Anyways, enough said about Sony... we are discussing the GH4 here. But lets have a good laugh first...

In its initial implementation the GH4 offered various user photo styles of which the so called Cinelike-D was the closest possible to standard log profiles used by the pro's, but not entirely. Beginning of this year they eventually demoed and promised to come up with a firmware update to implement a genuine log profile, the vLog-L that would allegedly offer cinematic quality. A little later they released the 2.2 firmware update that unfortunately, the goodness it offered aside (like the possibility to shoot anamorphic video), it provided no log profile yet. Eventually this option was made available a few days ago (September 2015) on their most recent firmware update release 2.3, but with a caveat. The firmware itself was indeed freely available, but to unlock the vLog-L feature you had to follow a short procedure a part of which was to pay them 99 US dollars! The GH4 fan crowd cursed promptly the Panasonic folks for their greedy attitude. While other suppliers offered log functionality for free, Panasonic chose to earn some easy dough in the process.

By googling around I got to download their GH4_V23.bin update file, not from their support page mind you, but from a mirror site, somewhere out there... In fact Panasonic's download page mentioned something like their servers were under maintenance! You see, 
I made up my mind to install the 2.3 firmware on my GH4 body after all, but I wasn't sure I wanted to pay them 99 bucks to unlock the V-Log. 

Anyways, the firmware update went smooth, and I was soon the happy owner of a GH4 on version 2.3. I even generated the serial number file that I had to send them, that after paying the infamous 99 bucks, they'd have to ship to me a personalised key-file to activate my particular camera. Only then could I in theory select the V-Log setting on the Photo Style option of my camera menu.

As I was strolling around in the GH4 user group on Facebook, my eye caught a posting of someone claiming there was a hack that could render the VLog-L profile accessible without having to pay the 99 bucks. Curious as I am, I followed the links and found out how insane, pardon my French, generous I meant, Panasonic really is. This is how it worked.

If you operate the camera from a smartphone using Panasonic's Image app, besides the remote record function you can also remotely select a shedload camera settings directly on the app. Here's where things went wrong for Panasonic, folks. It appears that when you select the Photo Style settings on the smartphone app, you will also "see" and be able to successfully select the VLog-L option !!! Without a camera activation necessary. Also, once you do set VLog as the Photo Style of choice, it remains permanent on the camera, even if you power it down. In other words, you don't have to operate the camera remotely with your smartphone anymore to achieve a cinematic VLog look. Once selected, it stays selected. 

Pay attention... the "hack" is only valid for the 2.3 version of the firmware and the current version of their iMage app (1.9.5). I reckon they'll be correcting their gaffe in future firmware and app updates, so be careful. If you don't wanna risk accidental loss of this workaround (that's what it is, it's not a "hack" actually), configure your smartphone not to automatically update its apps; you can thus enjoy Vlog on your GH4 for ever, until you decide to get rid of the camera altogether. Naturally, if you change the Photo Style to something else on the camera's own Menu, then you'll have to repeat the remote procedure again to re-establish VLog. Unless you save the style into the Cust setting by pressing the DISP button on the camera, and recall the custom setting each time you want to re-establish Vlog.

The pictures below show captures of the remote app screens about how to select the VLog setting on the smartphone app. In this case this was an iPhone 6 on V 9.1. Click for larger view.

From left to right, Connect smartphone to camera and tap Remote operation, select Q.Menu next, then Photo Style and subsequently select V-Log L. Then save the setting on the camera in Cust.

Finally, here's a shot showing the VLog L look-'n-feel on a test footage and how it was improved to something else on Final Cut Pro via colour correction and subsequent expansion of its luma histogram.

UPDATE: Jeez, they've been lightning fast in pushing a new update (2.4) this time to correct the issue. They really need the 99 bucks, poor sods. I also believe they did their best to make vanish the GH4_V23.bin file from the entire net. You definitely can't find it anymore on their sites, but I believe various mirror sites like Softpedia that initially carried the item (this is where my own download came from) are also disappearing one by one. Some were probably shut down because of the excessive traffic they recently generated. I just checked Softpedia again, and if you select the manual download it still does it... not for long I suppose, as the automatic download re-routes the link to a Panasonic textual statement in... Japanese.

UPDATE 2: A sample short edit of my own test footage in slow-mo 96fps and VLog-L shot on my GH4 and corrected in FCP.