Monday, May 5, 2014

Amateur video with Pro ambitions

5D Mark III with Ninja Blade (shot with an iPhone)
Almost 30 years ago I became quite interested in electronics equipment for consumers for shooting home video. My kids had the right age, and the idea that I could 'create' short video clips, and them being able, years later, to watch themselves on TV, provided the necessary motivation to spend a shedload of dough and effort on this feat. It was around 1986-87 when I realised that home video had already been on the market for a few years under the VHS recording standard and using rather bulky 'shoulder supported' equipment. I joined the crowd about around the launch by Sony of their own proprietary 8mm capturing system (was it really called that way?), whereby traditional recording technologies were replaced by CCD capture elements that promised far better quality. Anyways, the following ten years I shot a lot of family footage and even edited and created few descent clips with titles and background music and all that, based on analog tape recorder workflows. Although my gear was bulky and quite expensive, its quality was barely 'fine' (very low resolutions, hardly reaching 300+ horizontal lines at best), not to mention the fact that during analog workflows each additional copy of source footage had its quality degraded to the point it couldn't even fool a newborn in its cradle... Sheer unacceptable. Also, the lack of timecode and genloc capable equipment at consumer prices, absolutely necessary to synchronise two source signals in order to create simple 'resolve' transitions, meant that only plain cuts were possible. As for those cuts, frame accuracy was a dream for the future. We were happy enough with sec accurate cuts... Editing was a handcraft then. You had to know the sec you had to hit the stop and record button. My Gosh, I spent hundreds of hours in frustration.

Nevertheless, even so, the clips came out relatively reasonable (much we knew then) to watch on our TV sets of the time. Happy to watch ourselves on TV was a real motivator to keep us going! Something only the privileged could afford, TV anchors, actors, and artists; reality TV had not been invented yet those days. Those amateur clips look very much like a bad joke compared to what even amateurs of the worst kind can achieve nowadays with little money to spend on equipment. Come to think of it, it's simply beyond imagination the delta achieved in home video quality that we have seen in the last 30 years indeed. This was all made possible of course with the advent of inexpensive computer equipment, digital video processing with affordable capturing hardware and editing software and last but not least, the recent appearance of those big ass HDTV sets, which, in less than ten years, have led to the mercy of junkyards anything related to CRT built TV sets.

Indeed, today's 'amateurs' are challenged with a much more luxurious feat of producing video in Full HD (some are even modestly trying the new 4K standard), using relatively inexpensive cameras with possibilities that would only feel like wet dreams to pioneering amateurs like myself, if we were told then what was to come! The 'age of analog' as one could term the 80ies and the 90ies, was one where no digital captures and edits existed (certainly not in the consumer world), everything was recorded on lousy and rather expensive tapes, when quality suffered at least 40% into a first gen copy and 60-70% into the second gen (with the 3rd gen only good for junkyard viewing), when Photoshop and Premiere were slowly and modestly revolutionising the early digital editing space, and when the commercial TV channels worked with Broadcast TV standards that barely provided, if I remember well, any more than 576 lines of horizontal picture resolution, only possible to achieve by using millions worth of studio equipment. It was the video Dark Ages then, it is the Age of video and digital media Enlightenment right now (called Multimedia in the nineties, remember?). Don't ask me what it will be in another ten years, I can't think of anything reasonable to speculate about a future even that close. That's quite true if only one looked at the progress we simply witnessed in the last 4 years, even in the aftermath of our recent financial tsunami.

What we are seeing in today's professional video and movie industry (for ads, SF TV series and feature movies in particular) is the excessive use of a 3D rendered 'reality', making us believe that we are in fact 'seeing' and 'hearing' everyday objects, landscapes, animals, plants and humans, whose only actual 'real existence' are stacks of megabytes in binary storage, interpreted by computer apps and lightening fast hardware. All made by software developers for us to enjoy with our real senses and eventually made to believe they are as 'real' as anything else around us. The new 'reality', call it virtual, fake, augmented, whatever you like, is there to be. It is the intellectual product manufactured by quite an ingenious 3D developer community, who turned their ideas and dreams into factual user-interface outputs that hit our visual and hearing senses as if they existed indeed. In this sense, 'The Matrix' was quite a visionary achievement about our world of the future, one has to admit for sure.

If you come to think of it, any given 'amateur' today, with not so terribly deep pockets, but with the right motivation and skills, can simply undertake a low budget video production hands down, which, with the exception of additional 3D rendered reality and effects, can challenge any professional studio otherwise, and that in terms of visual quality of his/her production. Everything is out there to go buy, at least if you know what you're doing, and in case you don't, simply google it. It's not only accessible to the happy few studio professionals, but also to gifted amateurs of all sorts. Full HD and even 4K capable cameras, studio lighting, sliders and gliders, cranes and dollies, professional digital capturing devices, super computers, peta level storage cloud servers, whatever. It's all there to grab, produce, shoot and edit your marvel and put it out there for potentially the whole mankind to watch... Like we saw in that hilarious Korean singer in a video clip that's gone viral not too long ago. YouTube and Vimeo are loaded with self-made productions in the thousands, not to dare say even millions. I don't mean useless smartphone snap amateur video of humans making fool of themselves trying to get their five minutes of fame, but reasonably serious video, with some good footage and maybe a modest plot to go along. A documentary perhaps? You name the stuff you need and with eBay, together with hoards of digital online suppliers simply got what you need and will sell to you for money, delivered to your doorstep 'courtesy' of UPS, DHL, DPD, TNT, and the likes.

A few such specialized items for video capture, normally used by Pro video shooters, are manufactured and sold by ATOMOS. I came across them during a recent Photography Professionals Industry Fair in Brussels. I had no idea what they were talking about and the whole fuss around it. Until I got closer, that is... Their products are simply professional digital recorders that capture directly onto high capacity disks (preferably SSD) the video signals of a large variety of video camera equipment, Professional and Prosumer, including many DSLRs. They do this via HDMI or via common for Professional equipment so-called HD-SDI connectors. The ATOMOS recorders are basically compressing the captured signals quite loosely or even store them uncompressed. Today's Terabytes are much cheaper than the Gigabytes 15 years ago, so who cares? They typically use Apple's ProRes or Avid's DNxHD codecs, and by so doing they can preserve the maximum possible quality in the video signal, becoming literally the RAW equivalent of video, or, let's say real close.

Having recently decided to freshen up and update my video skills after many idle years, and maybe end up shooting some descent video footage again, now that I got plenty of retirement time, I purchased the ATOMOS Ninja Blade recorder to attach to my 5D Mark III, which is considered to be one of, if not, the best DSLR camera for mobile professional footage capture, admitted even by the industry experts. I have also completed an online course on FCPX fundamentals (a great package FCPX it is, if only you knew how-to use it) and even added Apple's Compressor to my editing kit for my export encodings. I am typically obsessed about image sharpness and resolution, colour quality, and smooth video movement, so I had to try for myself what is practically available in the 'gifted' amateur space to achieve the best possible results. Initially, I struggled a lot to get this stuff working at all, but I've eventually been able to get a result real close to what I hoped for. You can watch a test here for yourselves (it's just a test of my so many). Select its highest HD quality available and preferably watch it full screen on your Mac, or even better on a HDTV set, if it's capable of Youtube playback. Mind you though. YT needs to recompress uploaded footage too, and the quality damage they caused in this test clip is in the range of 25-30 %, I'd argue... So, don't get too excited, my original clip that came out of Compressor configured for the Apple TV device is way better than what you'll watch here! 

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