Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An iPad for the pro’s

I couldn’t consider myself an Apple afficonado 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 update2.3 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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Coupling between Edelkrone's SliderPlus+Action Module and the Syrp Genie for motion control

Although I'm writing this as a memo for future reference, in case I forget the precise mechanics I describe, anyone with similar interests is also welcome to read.

I recently bought a number of items from Edelkrone, that I consider one of the best if not the best supplier of cinematography peripheral products for pro's and sophisticated enthusiasts like myself. For this article in particular, I am referring to Edelkrone's SliderPlus Small slider, their Action Module and their FlexTilt head. In the picture above, the slider is easily seen; the action module fixed on one slider end (here shown on the left) and the camera is mount on top of Edelkrone's FlexTilt head, which in turn is mount on top of Syrp's Genie. The entire rig is mount on a video Manfrotto tripod.

What Edelkrone's slider does is broadly known to any serious video enthusiast. It's based on a clever mechanical concept that enables the camera a total travel distance larger than the length of the slider itself. Visit their homepage to see how. Their Action module is a compact mechanism that easily mounts on one end of the slider and automates the transport of the slider belt and subsequently the camera bridge to achieve smooth video slides, or timelapses with slides. Finally the Flextilt head is an interesting tripod mount for cameras that allows a lot of flexibility. I am ecstatic about all three of these products.

Edelkrone also has another product that resembles the Action Module and attaches on the opposite end of the slider. It is called the Target module. What this achieves is, when you enter the distance in the module between the camera and the object that the camera is focused upon, then, when the camera slides along the rails (courtesy of the Action Module), it is also made to rotate as well (Courtesy of the Target module) in order to maintain the focused object in the centre of the Viewfinder (VF). In other words, the camera follows the object while it moves on the slider. Shots achieved this way give the impression that the camera moves smoothly around the object in question. Excellent and very cinematic camera movement for product ads but also in plain vanilla cinematography. As an example, almost all close-ups and medium shots, especially those with dialogs, in the White Collar TV series are shot like this. Rarely the camera remains static during shoots. They also use loads of timelapses to add a powerful dynamic to the entire show.

I was considering purchasing Edelkrone's Target module as well, when I fell upon Syrp's Genie. This is again a very interesting concept. It's a sturdy box with two types of base to be mount upon. One aims at supporting any given manual sliders and the other is used for panning. Depending on which base you mount the Genie on, it will either rotate (for pans) or transport itself along the rails of a slider (for slides). Indeed it seemed quite an interesting piece of equipment and I therefore decided to procure that instead of Edelkrone's solution. I had a gut feel that with Genie I could still achieve what Edelkrone's Target module offered and a lot more. And indeed it does.

This article is about using the Action module and Genie combined to achieve the same result as when Edelkrone's Action and Target modules are used in unison. Edelkrone made sure that the only parameter needed to sync the two modules (and maintain the focused object in the middle of the VF) was the distance between the camera and the target object. The rest they have calculated and embedded in their firmware algorithms. In other words, if you go Edelkrone all the way it's very little you need to prepare to achieve great results all the time.

However, you can achieve the same results with a little extra manual tweaking and this is what I describe hereafter.

fig 1 : top view of the set up

The figure above shows my setup, whereby the object, which the camera VF is focused upon, is found at a distance L from the middle position of the camera slider travel. At position A the camera is turned at an angle a/2 with respect to the vertical direction in order to place the focused object in the middle of the VF. As the camera mechanism progressively moves from A to B, Genie (with the camera on top) rotates counterclockwise (CCW) for a total angular travel of angle a, in order to continuously maintain the focused object in the centre of the VF. Also, the total travel time of the camera system from A to B should be the same with the total angular travel (rotation) from the camera's initial angular position, moving CCW to its end position. Of course, if one plans a move from B to A, then Genie needs to rotate itself in the clockwise (CW) direction by the same angle 'a' always.

So the process to achieve this in the setup above is as follows:

1. I first made the decision to use 10 secs as the total sliding travel time (and Genie rotation). Genie accepts this duration as a parameter, but in Edelkrone I had to apply trial and error to define the right speed for the travel distance. For 345 mm distance from A to B, I had to select 32 as the camera velocity and 10 as the maximum acceleration (meaning, no easing-in and -out at the start and end of the linear travel). Indeed, with these parameters the camera on the SliderPlus travels the 345 mm distance in acceptably ten seconds.

2. The camera, mount on the FlexTilt Head remains fixed in terms of angular displacement with respect to the Genie body. It is Genie that automatically rotates about its vertical axis. Other (height or tilt) adjustments are done via the FlexTilt Head. While adjusting the setup and focus on the target, it is perhaps easier to check results on the camera monitor at the back of the body instead of thru the VF.

3. Next, one needs to set the rotating angle parameter in the Genie settings. Measuring the distance L and applying the simple formula shown in the figure provides a first good approximation of the rotation angle that needs to be set as a Genie parameter. Also, don't forget to set (Genie's Advanced Settings) the Easing-in and -out to OFF. To make sure the angle works, you trigger Genie to rotate to its end position and in parallel you may move manually or automatically the slider to position B. You then check the camera to verify that the object has still remained in its initial VF relative position. If not, depending where it ends up to, you may have to increase the angular Genie parameter or decrease it. If the object is left of the original focus position it means that the angular parameter is set low and needs to increase a little. If the object ends to the right, the angle was too large and needs to decrease. Act accordingly and check again until you achieve perfect alignment.

4. After the angle is entered in the parameter, and the Action Module was programmed in the Wizard mode to travel from A to B in ten seconds, the system may be set in motion. First you prepare the video shot parameters on the camera and hit the Record button next. Right after that, press the Start/OK buttons simultaneously on both, the SliderPlus and the Genie. Both devices start automatic motion, with the SliderPlus sliding from A to B and the Genie rotating the camera in CCW direction. In ten secs the travel is over, and one may set the Recording function back to standby.

This is certainly much more of a burden compared to Edelkrone's Target module. On the other hand, if you happen to own other sliders, as I do, you are actually adding value to those, even more so if motorised sliding was not previously an option. Unfortunately, Edelkrone's Action Module only fits (for obvious reasons) Edelkrone sliders. 

On the other hand, once you calculated the angles for a few practical values of L, you can memorise what goes with what, and don't have to go thru the calculation and trial and error burden each time. For instance, I know that for a distance of 85cm the angle is about 20 degrees. If I made sure my target object is at 85 cm, I could always use the Genie preset that I have already stored for these particular parameters, and Bob's your uncle. If I don't like the VF scenes at the distances I preset, I can always use different lenses or zooms to adjust.

A common problem on similar devices, like Genie and Slider+, is the associated noise their motors produce. But as most people shoot B-rolls based on similar setups and use external audio equipment for better sound control, the noise will get suppressed in post and in so doing, it is less of a problem.