Why ALMANAC #2 is super-crazy-late

Thanks, everyone, for your wonderful reaction to the first episode of my new podcast, “Almanac“!

It’s intended to be (and will be) a weekly-ish show. So why has it been a month already and now Show #0002?

While Almanac isn’t going to be an “Andy spouts off about what’s on his mind at the moment” show (well, not primarily, anyway), I feel like the next show has to focus on my reactions to the election. Because, truth be told, I’ve been thinking about little else. Continue reading “Why ALMANAC #2 is super-crazy-late”

Release the “Clowns”

I never thought I’d get to see “The Day The Clown Cried,” which will probably stand as Jerry Lewis’ second or third most famous movie despite the fact that it’s never been released. I also never thought I’d get to see a commentary or documentary that treated the movie with as much dignity and respect as David Schneider does here.

He raises a point that has always merited discussion: is it even fair to have an opinion about a movie that’s never been seen, was never even completed, and which the director has worked hard to keep completely under wraps? No, of course it isn’t. It’s just way to hard not to. “Jerry Lewis did a movie set inside a concentration camp” is a phrase that spurs as much impassioned imagination as the orange light inside the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”

And then, of course, there’s Jerry’s recent comments about the film, during a public Q&A a couple of years ago:

Someone asked Jerry if the movie would ever be released.

“It’s very easy to sit in front of an audience and expound on your feelings,” he said, referring to the Q&A. “It’s another thing to have to deal with those feelings. And in terms of that film, I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all and never let anybody see it. It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful. But I slipped up. I didn’t quite get it. And I didn’t have enough sense to find out why I’m doing it, and maybe there there would be an answer. Uh-uh. It’ll never be seen.

“Sorry. I’ll tell you how it ends…

I’ve read that the production ran into financing issues, in addition to legal trouble when the creator of the work upon which the screenplay was based insisted that their rights to the story had lapsed. If that’s true, then my next obvious question is “Would the Jerry of 1972 have finished and released this movie, if he could have?”

I can’t speculate. I’ll say that he seems sincere in this Q&A. He’s forty years older, probably a lot wiser, and maybe he’s giving advice to the younger version of himself that the 46 year old Jerry Lewis might not have taken.

I can easily imagine “The Day The Clown Cried” being similar to that super angry email that you wrote but never sent because you didn’t trust the privacy of a public WiFi connection, and then you forgot about it until you rediscovered it a couple of years later. You can remember everything about that email, and even now, you think you were perfectly right to be this angry with this person…but you’re relieved and grateful that fate prevented this thing from getting out.

Jerry’s by no means one of my favorite filmmakers, though I respect his obvious love of the artform. Still, I always thought it was unfair to judge a movie that he never “finished.” Drivesavers recently told the story of the herculean efforts they undertook to recover “lost” writings of Gene Roddenberry. 200 floppies full of files, which he had written with an early CP/M-based computer whose OS and apps had been custom-made for him. The recovery wasn’t just a technical problem or a forensic problem…the challenge was practically an archaeological one.

His estate now has all of the recovered text. It’s hard to imagine that Gene left behind a complete, fully written and revised manuscript or screenplay for everything. Even any outlines would be, at best, the frameworks for a future work and not the work itself. I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people would love to read these things, but should we? The drafts of a work-in-progress have a certain “sanctity of the confessional” about them. I’ve written some stuff where I tried to stretch myself and explore The Gentle Cruelty of the Human Condition and it was just maudlin trash. Fair enough; I gave it a try and had enough objectivity about my work to see that it wasn’t worth developing further. It’d be wearying to spend the next forty years of my life being judged, partly, by this thing that I myself decided wasn’t any good.

You’ve probably heard that Jerry has donated “The Day The Clown Cried” to the Library of Congress, along with a trove of other personal papers (with the proviso that it wouldn’t be made available to the public in any form for ten years). That seems to be in line with the sentiments he expressed during that Q&A. He’s deliberately chosen to place that footage within the historical context of his life’s story, and not as part of his creative canon. It’s there for the benefit of film historians, not movie audiences.

Either way…I can’t not see this movie. I never thought I’d live long enough to see Star Wars: Episode VII or “The Day The Clown Cried.” I’ve managed to avoid drunk drivers and poisoned chalices long enough to see the first and now I’m quite hopeful about the second.

Light Work

Studio self-portrait, me wearing headphones and a Colorado U cap.

Okay, not bad at all! I’m pretty happy with that.

Oh, not my physical appearance. My apologies for thrusting this odd blob of pixels into your face…sometimes I forget that I’ve literally had decades to make my peace with the sight of this.

No, I’m referring to the lighting. A new piece of lighting equipment arrived for my podcasting studio today and I’ve just spent an hour or so setting it up and trying to get everything dialed in right. Lights have been moved, tilted, intensities have been adjusted, et cetera. The end-result isn’t a tectonic improvement in my home studio’s video quality. But it’s an improvement! This pleases me.

Oy. There was a time when I never needed to do video. Life is pretty sweet for the audio podcaster with delusions of adequacy. Everyone should want decent audio and many can even afford to have terrific audio. Either way, it’s easy to achieve: buy a really good mic (Blue Yeti if you’re on a budget, Heil PR 40 if you’ve got some scratch). Just plug it in and make sure the end of the mic is pointing at the noisehole you’re using to express your thoughts, and you’re done: you’ve got audio that is nearly as good as compressed audio can possibly be.

Over the past five or six years I’ve come to appreciate how much harder it is to get good video. Tricking people into thinking that I’m running a high-class operation is an ongoing challenge on my kind of budget. Even with limitless funds, you can make such a pig’s ear of placing and adjusting all of your expensive lights that all you’ve achieved is the lateral move from crappy ambient lighting to crappy artificial lighting.

Fortunately, lighting gear that isn’t hardened for constant packdowns and setups is fairly affordable and I have plenty of time to experiment. I don’t have to get it all right straight away and after a few years of annual or semi-annual adjustments, the improvements start to add up.

Today’s arrival was a boom stand for one of my two lower-powered lights. My current setup, as it now stands:

  • A big 10K halogen-bulb softbox, about 30″ squared, on a low floor stand, blasting into my face slightly off to one side. This one has variable output, so I can dial it up or down for the right effect. The halogen bulb throws a nice, warm light. This the main light source.
  • A cheaper compact-fluorescent softbox, about 24″ squared, now on a boom stand, positioned right over my head and pointing straight down. Folks expect light to come from the top, so this one keeps the picture from looking too weird. There’s now light on the top of my head and the tops of my shoulders, which helps to add a little dimension.
  • Thick curtains blocking out all natural light. The improvement that these curtains made is hysterically funny to me because the whole reason why I set up my studio here in my office in the first place was because it has huge windows and gets terrific natural lighting. It turned out that having loads of light isn’t as important as being able to completely control whatever light you have. With these curtains closed, I’m my video isn’t getting blown out by direct, cloudless sunlight, and the studio doesn’t gradually get darker and darker over the course of a two-hour show that starts at mid-afternoon.

And actually, that’s it. It doesn’t sound complicated, now that I look at it. Frankly, I’d feel less silly about my five years of work if there were at least two more bullet points on this list. So:

  • I’ve got my USB webcam mounted on CRANE-CAM 3000 THE FUTURE OF VIDEO PODCASTING MARK II, which is a slightly permanent-ized version of a jury-rigged contraption I put together last year. Mounting the camera on the end of the swing arm of a broken architect lamp allows it “float” over my desk and allows me to place it in the best position. I didn’t have that kind of freedom when it was perched on my monitor or screwed into a tripod.
  • Incidentally, the correct term is indeed “jury-rigged” and not “jerry-rigged”. Well, blow me down: it refers to a hasty style of rigging sails. I’ve been saying it wrong for years.
  • And one more bullet point for good measure.

That’s better. A casual glance of this page makes this look much more technical than it actually is.

I’m relieved to learn that having expensive (aka “the right”) lighting isn’t nearly as important as correctly placing and manipulating whatever it is you have. I think I spent about $120 for that pair of CFC lights and stands, then another $160 for the big halogen softbox a couple of years later, and finally this boom stand cost all of sixty bucks. Quite a manageable list of expenses over four or five years.

I think I’m pretty close to the “smacks of adequacy/well, bless Andy’s heart…he’s clearly trying” effect I’m looking for. I might set up my spare CFC softbox to soften the shadows on the other side of my face. Slightly. The shadows add depth, and if there’s one thing that’s consistently lacking in my contribution to any podcast…

I’d also like to give the backdrop its own lighting. The one overall lesson I’ve taken away from my own experiments and from having been on a bunch of broadcast TV sets is “control everything.” On a network news show even the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s been lit has indeed been lit, which ironically is why everything looks so natural. The human eye has a much wider dynamic capture range than any camera. Making video look “real” therefore requires a narrower range of light values. “Shadows” must be “something lit at a lower intensity.”

Apart from the boom? Well, I decided to switch to a simple backdrop. Previously, the background of my video was the table of assorted ephemera that lives in that corner of my office, plus a spare screen so that I could demonstrate an app or show off a photo via a mirrored display. I was content with this. Then, H. John Benjamin made fun of my setup. I figured that the man must have a point…he’s TV’s “Archer,” after all.

In all seriousness? Yeah. The “wall of random crap” backdrop has been a staple of video productions since the dawn of television, from the first time a set decorator for a DuMont network program filled a goldfish bowl with baby shoes and placed it in the cubby up and to the left of the host.

Other shows and hosts can pull that look off. Alas, I can’t. It’s like a studied four-day growth of beard hair. It looks dashing on Matthew McConaughey but makes me look like someone who’s still trying to find a Walgreens that doesn’t keep its packages of razor blades locked down inside an alarmed cabinet.

I feel so strongly about this “neutral backdrop” direction that I bought an actual photo backdrop plus the rigging. I haven’t gotten around to setting that up, as I need to clear space for it, and if I’m going to clear that space, I might as well pull that whole half of the office apart and give it a good clean, and if I’m going to spend a few hours cleaning the office, I might as well just stay here on the sofa and binge-watch “The Bob Newhart Show,” because that seems to be much, much easier.

Meanwhile, it’s got me thinking that maybe I ought to just buy some canvas and some paints and make something more interesting. It’ll be no loss if I don’t use the white backdrop. It’ll come in handy if Apple ever produces a “talking head” video that can be made fun of, somehow. I suppose I ought to hold out hope; we’ve got to come up a winner some day, right?

The very last item on my to-do list would be to upgrade from my $70 USB Logitech webcam and go back to using a proper camera with a proper lens. My one disappointment with this Logitech webcam is its super-wide-angle lens either distorts your face (and God already distorted my face far more than I’d like). In an ideal world, I’d use a camera with a more powerful lens, mounted five or more feet away. But that means buying a “real” camera with HDMI out, and buying a box that convert HDMI to a form that my Mac and Skype can work with.

That’d run me well over a thousand bucks, I think. It’s way more than I need to spend on what a subtle improvement that only I would really appreciate. Everything I’ve done so far has been possible because of the availability of quite decent bargain-grade hardware, where the greatest outlay is actually the time you invest in experimentation. Which is exactly the right idea in an operation like mine.

If I spent thousands of dollars on professional video gear I’d be no better than those dopes who spend $720 on a custom 9-iron because they they’re under the delusion that it’ll improve their game. It’s easy to trick yourself and lose sight of what the game actually requires of you. 25,000 people bought tickets to hear The Beatles perform in San Francisco and it wasn’t because Candlestick Park had a terrific sound system. I’m pleased that my little home studio can generate video and audio that’s pleasant for viewers and listeners, but even $100,000 in new equipment would produce a fraction of the benefit of simply getting a full eight hours of sleep on the night before the show and spending part of the morning patching the gaps in my understanding of the day’s topics.

Thank you for reading this far. Here are more test frames, in which I engage in progressively dopey behavior:

 

Nope. Dammit. Nope. I dunno if it's...I mean, Just...nope.
Nope. Dammit. Nope. I dunno if it’s…I mean, Just…nope.

 

Me, rubbing my face with both hands
The “Madonna debut album cover” pose, aka “Maybe if I just keep staring at this I’ll work out if this is okay or if I need to tweak things a little more.”

 

Me, wrestling with three vintage slate notebooks
What if I need to hold something up to show the camera? Will the lighting still work well?
And why on earth do I have so many old computers piled up around the office?

 

Mr. 10,000 (Tweets)

The Andy Ihnatko 10,000th Tweet Live Video Spectacular from Andy Ihnatko on Vimeo.

After three years, 10,000 Tweets, and being followed by more than 35,000 people, I still don’t have a good answer to the question “But what’s the point of Twitter?” I’ve come up with two responses that work.

Apparently, Twitter is either a boat or a sliver of soap, depending on who’s asking me and who’s listening.

If my audience sincerely and earnestly wants to understand Twitter, I tell them “It’s like a boat. Anybody can use a Twitter account just for fun. A much smaller percentage are leading the kind of lives in which it’s actually useful. And a tiny, tiny fraction are making money with the thing.” If it’s a conversational kind of request, I say “Think of that sliver of soap left in the dish. That’s a single Tweet. All by itself, it’s worthless. Squeeze lots of them together, and you’ll eventually have something with weight and substance.”

But I guess Twitter is like my iPhone 4. Sometimes the best endorsement you can make — and the only endorsement that really matters — is the simple fact that you use the hell out of this thing, and that your week would be very, very different without it.

I got a taste of that over the past few days. For the past couple of weeks, I’d been aware that I was nearing my 10,000th Tweet. I knew I wanted to do something a little bit special for #10,000. Eventually I got to #9998, which meant that I had just enough shots left to announce what I was going to do and then to do it…which also meant that I couldn’t Tweet anything at all until I figured out what those things were going to be.

Behold, The Answer: I did my 10,000th Tweet on Ustream. Click away, but I should warn you that there’s an Anthony Newley impression coming.

“What should my 10,000th Tweet be?” I wondered. I came up with a halfway decent “140-character novel.” Naw. I thought about just being sincere and sweet and thanking the folks who’ve supported my work in various ways. Mmm…naah. When the right idea came, I instantly recognized that there could be no more appropriate way to crystallize my previous 9,999 Tweets.

But yes, these Big Plans meant that I had to stop Twittering for a few days, to preserve the #10,000 slot. Going without Twitter for 72 hours served to remind me about the things I most enjoy about the service.

I missed the ongoing communication with the people who read my columns and listen to my podcasts. There’s an immediacy and a conversational tone to the Twitter timeline that doesn’t exist in any other medium. I like responding to questions and I also like hearing good and bad reactions. Either way, comments are usually to the point, and valuable.

I missed those little moments of time with my friends. If I could afford to send each of my friends one of those baskets of fresh fruit cut into flowery shapes a few times a week, I could. Commenting on a particularly cool of interesting tweet of theirs is close enough, though it really does next to nothing to combat the spread of scurvy and The Ghost Disease among the geek populace.

Not Tweeting has been a little like watching milk go bad in my fridge. Little things pop into my head and maybe they’re of no use to anybody, but they’re fun little strings of words. Twitter is the only place where I can post them, really, and if I try to “save them up” for a later date, they go completely stale after sitting in my head for so long. “I was acting on impulse” isn’t a great explanation for why you did something stupid, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than having to admit that yes, you thought about it for two or three days and it still seemed like a solid idea. This admission is often the precursor to a fiancee maintaining her composure just long enough to twist the engagement ring from her finger and fling it at you with enough force that you’re going to want to apply a little Bactine to the wound.

I don’t feel like I’ve done all I can for something I’ve just written and published until I’ve Tweeted a link. And here we get to the Business end of Twitter. I was looking through my Flickr feed the other day, specifically looking for “orphan” photos that haven’t been organized into any existing photoset before. It’s not hard to figure out why some of these have received just four or five hundred views over the course of a year and another one got 2,000 in just a week: I Tweeted a link to one of them.

I create and publish things for many different reasons and they vary from item to item but yes, somewhere in the back of my mind “I’d like people to see this” is always on the list. I can come up with what I think is an interesting idea, research and write it well, edit it carefully, and publish it. But I’ve got this list of 35,000 people who at some point clicked a button to indicate that they’re somewhat interested in the stuff I post. Until I’ve posted a link to Twitter, I feel like the job is only partially-complete. If it fails to catch on, it fails to catch on…but just like sending a kid off to school with a good, hot breakfast in his or her belly, I feel as though I gave this piece every reasonable advantage.

And Twitter just keeps getting more and more important. Yesterday, I downloaded the sort of app that gets all of my Nerd Parts tingling. Within the first ten minutes of using Flipboard and linking it to my Twitter account, it seemed as though writing a review of it became the most important thing that I would ever do. Phrases like “From now on, instead of vaguely talking about the future of magazines and newspapers, we should just point to Flipboard and then break into discussion groups” and “This free app will justify at least $150 of the money you spend for your iPad” came straight to mind.

(When I feel this exuberant about something…yeah, I quickly realize that I need to calm down and see how I feel after a few more days.)

Screenshot of iPad app Flipboard, showing a collection of articles from various sources.
Flipboard: it really feels like the way I'll be getting 80% of my news from now on.

Still! What a brilliant idea. I follow about 250 people on Twitter. This is, exclusively, a list of people and institutions whose opinions matter to me (actual friends, and writers or publications who regularly write things that I want to read). Their Tweets are of interest to me. These people also often Tweet links to articles and other content that they think is valuable.

Flipboard strip-mines your Twitter follows for content and links, and assembles it all into a beautiful digital magazine of fresh content. I’d say it’s almost “suspiciously” beautiful. Like the Mechanical Turk, it’s hard to imagine that this on-the-fly design and layout is the result of an automaton working without human intervention.

It’s not a Twitter client, really. But yes, you can reply to Tweets and Star the original posts and whatnot.

The app was just released a day ago, so details are still a little sketchy. In addition to linking to Twitter and Facebook, there are “curated” channels whose sources are managed by the Flipboard team…and other social-media sources are coming soon. I almost wore out some of the glass on my iPad tapping and searching for a way to add my Flickr feeds to FlipBoard; a “National Geographic”-style viewer for all of my friends’ photos is going to be a killer feature.

When I first tried Twitter (let’s see: “March 22, 2007” — oh, my…were we ever that young?) I dismissed it as just a useless micro-trend. Then my friends started to join, and it became entertaining. Then, it somehow became important. I truly value the Twitter infrastructure. I’ve never been interested in playing the Numbers Game; having a certain number of Followers doesn’t motivate me. It’s the connections represented by the 282 people whom I follow and the 35,589 people who follow me that I rely upon. It’s not something that can be engineered. It has to be grown over time.

I had an awareness of the value of the unique shape of this thing called “my peculiar use of Twitter” before Flipboard was released. Flipboard is just the first app that makes that value so tangible.

Well, then. The next milestone, I think, will be 50,000 Twitter followers. I have at least a couple of years to think about how I’m going to mark that occasion. I hope to do something big but even so: expect a cash bar.

Free (good) movie! “Jedi Junkies”

Jedi Junkies for Web.jpg

Watch it while you can: DailyMotion has a 72-minute documentary about Star Wars fandom available for streaming until the 27th. I think that means if you’re watching it at 11:59:59 PM on Wednesday and the segment about the woman who belly dances in a Slave Leia costume is just starting…you’re really going to wish you’d started the movie about five or ten minutes earlier in the evening.

I’ve seen it all the way through. It’s a spiffy flick. It’s very much in the same vein as “Trekkies” — another terrific doc about fandom. “Trekkies” is a better movie; it’s not quite so loving about its subject, and it’s not as “inside.” But if I’d paid to rent “Jedi Junkies” on iTunes, I’d feel as though I’d gotten my $5 worth. Which is awesome, because it’s available for rent for just $2.99.

Those of you who aren’t in that kind of tax bracket are urged to watch the movie on DailyMotion while it’s still up there. The viewing link is on the movie’s official site.

Today’s Toy: Flip Mino HD 2009

Today, Flip released what might be termed a “Red Carpet-Ready” edition of the Flip Mino HD. Viz:

Flip-Mino-HD-2009

Highlights: a larger, sharper screen, built-in HDMI-out, and double the memory for a total of 2 hours of recording time. Also, a brushed-metal case that gives the thing the heft and feel of a murder weapon.

(For a small dog. It just feels a little heavier than the plastic-cased version, which is still available.)

The video components appear to be the same as the old one: 720p HD with no optical zoom. Flip sent me one while I was away in New York City and I found some time yesterday to shoot some sample videos to confirm it:

I’m prepping a review of the Mino HD (and Ultra) alongside the Kodak Zi8 and A Third Camera that I’m supposed to be getting soon. Stay tuned.

iPod Nano Fifth Gen…Quick Demo Video

Fifth-Gen iPod Nano..taken to The Outer Limits!!! from Andy Ihnatko on Vimeo.

iPod Nano…taken to the Outer Limits!!!

Specifically, my regular comic book shop, located on Moody Street in Waltham. Apple’s latest iPod Nano arrived today and though I haven’t exactly put it up on the test bench yet, I thought I’d take it out for a quick spin and check out the video features.

A complete review will appear in the Sun-Times tomorrow, But some initial notes:

  • This is a “fun camera.” Set your expectations accordingly.
  • The camera lens is close to the edge of the Nano and it’s veryeasy to block it with your finger.
  • A snap-judgment: the camera is hopeless in dim lighting. I shot some very basic video in my office. The lighting was very bad, sure (late-afternoon on a rainy day, two medium-sized windows, no artificial lights). There wasn’t enough light to read by, but it was nothing that a standard Flip camera couldn’t handle; the flip would have cranked up the gain on the image sensor and produced grainy, but perfectly viewable, video. The iPod Nano’s video was mostly impossible to make out.
  • You need to manage your storage carefully. I unpacked the Nano, hooked it up to my MacBook, and did the same sync I do with just about any music player: I filled it up to within a whisker of its capacity. Imagine my shock when I discovered that I could only record about two minutes of video. Then imagine my embarrassment when I realized that I really shouldn’t have been shocked. Note to self: leave a gig or two free if I intend to shoot lots of video with this thing. Videos seem to take up about fifteen megs per minute.
  • The audio quality is pretty impressive, considering this little pinhole the mic has to listen through. Raise your voice, though, and there’ll be some ugly clipping.

But this is all quite preliminary. More to come next week.


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Captain Video

I’ve been busy with iMovie ’09 over the past week, sloughing through all of the clips in my old iMovie library, shooting new footage, and all in all trying to come up with opinions on the new app and assemble some samples.

First up was a tour of my Friendly Neighborhood Comics Retailer, The Outer Limits in Waltham, MA:


Two lessons came from this one: Good God, am I a fan of the new interface. Bellies were ached and tempers were tantrumed last year when the old iMovie UI was tossed out and the app was freed of the legacy of professional editors. Fine. But I could never have thrown together this video so quickly and with so little drama in the old iMovie.

I didn’t even intend to do it. I was on my MacBook in the living room, and I Screen Shared into my office iMac simply to check on the status of an ongoing process. Along the way I checked to see what sort of footage I could work with when I really sat down to edit something. I found the Outer Limits “dailies,” started dragging things into the Project panel and (gorblimey!) fifteen or twenty minutes later, I’d completed my rough cut.

The fact that one of iMovie’s new animated themes is “comic book” sort of sealed my choice. I determined to let iMovie make all of the creative choices, even though it’s possible to flip a switch and override some of the theme’s decisions.

(Aside: I do sort of regret certain bits of the voice over. Yup, I use the word “nerds” a lot at the beginning, and I’m clearly having fun with the fact that I seemed to include a lot of footage of babes. But I’d hoped folks would appreciate that I myself am firmly and proudly in the Nerd group. I was making up the narration as I went and as always happens with such things, subsequent takes never go nearly as well as the first.)

Next, I wanted to aggressively check out one of iMovie’s signature features: image stabilization. So I headed off to the beach with my Flip Mino HD on the end of a stick, and shot myself and the environs:

I was particularly keen to see if there were circumstances where the stabilization would produce a shot other than the one I intended. For instance, if I panned the camera across the scene, would it struggle to keep the camera from “moving”? If someone walked in and out of the frame, would it try to keep everything centered on him?

What would happen if the scene contained constant movement…like a closeup of water rolling in and out, or a tracking shot of the ground as I walked?

iMovie came through like a pro. I’m really quite impressed. You can choose to apply any degree of stabilization, from weak to fairly aggressive. I had the slider all the way to 11. Even so, it didn’t look in any way unnatural. All of a sudden, it looked as though I had the camera on a tripod and hadn’t drunk four Cokes that morning.

To make the point, I burned two copies of the video, with and without stabilization, and did a side-by-side comparison in Final Cut:


An app like iMovie ’09 is a real equalizer. One of the major weaknesses of a cheap HD cam like the Flip is its lack of built-in stabilization. Doing a “walk and talk” video with it is practically impossible. But hell, now iMovie can largely compensate for hardware limitations.

It’s certainly no replacement for a “real” HD camera, mind you. Look at the Outer Limits video again. That one was shot with my Panasonic HDC-SD1. The video is better in every possible way, from color fidelity to exposure choices to focusing to zoom to…well, every possible way. And as you saw in the comparison video, the stabilization costs you in image quality; iMovie has to magnify a subsample of the video frame to work its magic.

But if you’re on a fixed budget, iMovie makes it easier to buy a $200 camera with confidence!

It also underscores a point I was making when I compared the Mino with the Kodak Zi6. Many (many many MANY) people greatly preferred the Kodak’s brighter images and punchier colors. I respected their intelligence…so much so that instead of calling them idiots wearing a moron costume, I gave them the benefit of the doubt and concluded that they must have been drunk at the time or something.

The point: yes, the Mino is way more conservative in the categories of exposure and color. But it makes safe choices. When I dumped the video into iMovie and noticed that the colors could have been a bit warmer, and the image could use a little more contrast, I nudged a couple of sliders and presto: I had the shots I wanted.

Whereas! If I had shot it with the Kodak and thought “Man! That’s way too bright. And the colors are freakishly weird!”…well, I wouldn’t have been able to do much about it. I could lower the brightness level, but the blown-out areas would still have lacked detail. I could decrease the saturation, but it would have flattened the color range.

The damage is done before you leave the beach, or EPCOT, or your cousin Moog’s President’s Day barbecue. You should always vote for quality video. Unless quality video doesn’t matter to you, in which case just gather people around a fire and describe what you saw, in classic storyteller tradition, instead of messing with technology.

(Summary: I am right right RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT!!!!! SHUT UP SHUT UP!!!!!!)

First Flight: Final Cut Express (Part 3)

The aforementioned render looked good! My little demo contains side-by-side video, synced perfectly.

Already I’ve done one thing that’s impossible in iMovie: combine two video clips in the same frame. I can slap a “talking head” video box over an otherwise bland tourist panorama, or when I’m doing a drive-and-talk I can slide in a subtle little corner thing showing you what I’m talking about…on and on.

Good, good. Let’s go for Two Impossible Things before suppertime: multiple text items, placed in an arbitrary fashion. I want to identify the cameras responsible for each side of the screen.

Another example of something that’s pretty much dead-simple, but first I had to look something up. No obvious “add titles” tool or button or thingamawhassit anywhere in Final Cut’s UI.

Ah. Okay, once again it’s a tool that I can’t figure out until I go away and Google or check the manual, but once I have the answer, it makes sense. Text tools are in an “Effects” tab inside your project window. The project window contains video files, sound files, other sources of content…it sort of figures that as something that generates content, it’d be in there.

(A little button with a text icon in it. Visible. Anywhere. Y’know, Apple, that would have made sense, too…)

Okey-doke. Easy as get-out. Move the playhead to the spot where the title should appear, click the “Text” item, which you’ll obviously find in the “Text” folder inside the “Video Generators” folder inside the “Effects” tab. Drag it into the preview viewer, just as you would a video clip that you’re preparing for insertion.

Click on the viewer’s “Video” tab and you see that the tool has automatically placed the text where you told it to. I used the plain “Text” generator, which assumes you just want to splat it in the middle of the frame. Simple business to just drag it to the lower-center of the “Kodak Zi6” half of the screen.

Repeat for the Mino. Huh? The text has disappeared.

Ah, simple: looking in the timeline reveals that the “Flip Mino” layer is behind the video layer when it ought to be out in front. Drag, fixed.

Hmm. The “preview” I see here looks…ragged. Is it just giving me a quick render for position? It’ll look fine in the end product, right?

Need to render this out. I read comic books, return, and find that it all looks good.

Now I’ll export this as a Quicktime.

Once again I spot a holdover confusion from iMovie. I can export the movie as a Quicktime. Or I can export it, “Using Quicktime.” Two separate menu items, same apparent function. This needs to be made more clear.

The standard QT exporter is more familiar to me, so that’s what I go with (“Using Quicktime”). I select 720p settings, click the right buttons and…

Blimey! This will be ready in minutes? I know it’s just a 90 second clip, but “burninig” a ten-minute 720p project with these same H.264 settings in iMovie was almost an overnight endeavor.

Annnd we’re done. Open it in Quicktime Player annnnd…it’s crap:

It’s taken the original 16:9 aspect ratio, letterboxed it to 4:3, then converted THAT to 16:9 HD aspect ratio by squashing it.

Fut the wuck?

Oh, and it’s downsampled it from 720p to standard-definition, too.

Le Sigh.

Now I have a brand-new worry. I didn’t see an opportunity to tell Final Cut “Look, Skeezix: I’m doing HIGH-DEF editing. AYTCH-DEE.” I thought it had gotten the message when I started importing HD clips. Must I now worry that all of my content has been converted to this crummy state? Must I begin ALLLLLL over again?

Okay, I’m just going to export this into “YouTube”-ish dynamics (3:2, standard definition).

Good. In the sense that “I intended to do this and easily got Final Cut Express to do what I wanted it to do.”

But now I can’t go back to my “real” editing project until I figure out why this is in standard def, and successfully export an HD clip in 16:9 aspect ratio. Damn and blast.

I’ve just looked in the “Properties” window for this sequence and yes, Final Cut seems to think it should be 720×480. Why? I know I never made that choice. And now that I see that it’s wrong, I don’t see any spot in which I can say “1280×720, bonehead! Get it RIGHT!”

I seem to have found it, inside “Easy Setup.” Yeah, right…”easy”:

Okay, I’m willing to score this one as an Apple failure. I’m apt to use this app to edit all kinds of things. Is Apple seriously thinking that I’ll have to edit EVERYTHING at maximum 1080p definition — even the crappy little VHS videos I’m transferring in — just to retain the ability to edit ANYTHING in HD?

Is Apple seriously saying that the crummy consumer-grade iMovie ’08 is smart enough to think “Oh, he’s importing HD video…I should edit it as HD, then. Or at minimum, ASK” but Final Cut Express is just a cod-slapping moron?

Rrgh. This bit is needlessly complicated.

Now I don’t know if I can even use any of the stuff I’ve already put together in the “real” project. I’m looking through the UI and the manual, but I can’t find any place to say “See this existing project? With all of the HD clips? AYTCH-F***ING-DEE. RIGHT F***ING NOW.”

Dammit.

Okay. Dinner. I really need a break from this. What an idiotic thing to be dealing with.

First Flight: Final Cut (Part 3)

Lunch has been eaten, 32 minutes of the Ricky Gervais HBO standup special has been watched. Let’s see how the render went.

Cool. I’m really impressed. I thought “I want the ‘driving in the car’ me to miraculously start talking as soon as the ‘voice over’ me stops” and by golly, that’s exactly what happens in the video. Even though I recorded those two elements completely separately.

I do want to the v/o to add an additional comment as soon as Car Guy resumes his silence. I’ll try the voice-over tool this time.

Cool…that was simple. It counted me down and everything, and when I clicked Stop, I could do some fine-tuning to make sure it came in precisely where I wanted it.

It didn’t precisely match the audio levels of the v/o I recorded in Quicktime Pro, though. Made a half-hearted attempt to adjust the new v/o manually but then simply tabbed back into QT, recorded those few seconds, and then dragged it into the timeline. Couldn’t have been simpler.

(I can see myself using the voice-over tool a LOT. I know you can add voice to clips in iMovie but it seems a lot more organic in FCE.)

I did have to re-render before I could see how the new audio integrated into the clip. But there’s an option for just rendering anything that needs it, so it was quick and painless. Like my recent tooth extraction, except Final Cut didn’t hand me a prescription for Vicodin afterwards.

I realize that I’m sort of doing this the wrong way. You’re supposed to throw together a rough cut and then start adding audio and transitions and text and whatnot. That way, you don’t even need to do a render until you’re nearly done.

But now that the intro is over, I need to start the actual edits. I’m a little bit stuck, but it’s for a good reason: I’ve seen enough of these tools to know that I can now create damned-near anything I want and I don’t know which choices will make for the best video.

Like, how best to do the “comparison” shots? In iMovie, I simply replayed the same shots over and over again, one after the other. In Final Cut Express, it’s no trouble to do a split-screen.

I don’t know if that’s the best choice. I think I ought to start with just a rough assembly of the “single camera” sequence of shots. Then I can replicate it from the Zi6 clips. At that point, I’m free to proceed however I want.

Or maybe it’d be better to create a new project just to screw around with things. It seems like it’d be simple to do a split-screen effect. I create a new proj…

Hmm. Why is it creating a new tab in my project window? If I have a wedding video business but I’m short on cash so I agree to edit a porno, is THAT table going to be sitting alongside the other projects?

I’ll worry about that later.

I decide to use the car door slam as my slate, to sync up the video between the two cameras. Easy as pie to set the start points of both videos. Drag the first vid into the timeline, drag in the second and tell FC “please overlay this”…easy.

So what I want to do is crop out the center 50% of the frame from the Mino, shove it over to the left, and fill the right side with the center 50% of the video from the Kodak. There’s a crop tool. It doesn’t seem to work.

Oh. I need to be in “wireframe” mode. When I saw it in the View menu I imagined that it only came into play when you’re importing…well, 3D models or something. But by cracky, now the video frame has handles, good ‘n’ proper.

Much further twiddling happens before I have one of those “Oh, it’s actually quite simple; the problem is that I’m an idiot.”

You can crop the frame by dragging the corners, or you can click into the “Motion” tab, go to the “Crop” parameter, and type in the number manually. You can move a frame around the screen the same way: mouse it, or just type in a number.

I had a hard number in mind for the crop (please take 25% off of either side) but didn’t know how to translate “please move the center of the frame so that it’s at the exact left (or right) edge” into a number. I overthought it.

Simple: just type a number for the cropping, and then slide the centerpoint manually.

This is a good example of the sort of thing I confront each and every time I test a new piece of tech. I’m perfectly OK with the realization that I’m just a damned idiot. Okay, correction: the reminder that I’m an idiot. It’s frustrating when you can’t make something work but when you find the answer and realize that it really did make some sort of sense all along, your initial frustration shouldn’t be held against the app.

I really do give these things plenty of opportunities to prove that I’ve got some sort of a bent chromosome or something. When I finally say “This thing is a piece of crap,” or “Whoever designed this didn’t know what the hell he was doing,” my arrogance is very hard-won.

I still don’t know what the numbers mean for “center.” If I type in “0” is that an explicit or a relative number? Would “-25” mean “to a point 25% to the left, relative to center” or would that mean “25 pixels away from Cartesian zero”?

At any rate: I won’t see the results until I render. Though the preview looks promising.

Smoke if you got ’em. “About 7 minutes left…” for the render.

First Flight: Final Cut Express (Part 2)

Damn. In iMovie, I can just tap the spacebar and see what the final video will look like. In Final Cut, I have to “render” the edit first…though I can scrub through it in the final video window.

Okay, well, if I’m going to sit through a render, I might as well make it worth it. I want the intro voiceover to go over the first bit of the first clip. I drag the audio file into the viewer and release it into the “Insert” hopper that pops up…it’s one of the several options available.

Awesome. Final Cut Express is already saving me time and more importantly letting me make the video I want to make instead of knucking under to iMovie’s limitations. The existing clip scoots over to the right in the timeline so that it doesn’t begin until the audio ends. The spot where I start talking in the clip comes after several minutes of ambient car noise. So now, it should be easy to merely extend the video clip backwards so that the video starts with the voice-over, and I start talking inside the car almost as soon as the v/o ends.

Hooo-kay, I know in the video that the tool I want is one of the three or four in the tool pallete next to the timeline. It uses what I assume to be classic film-cutting terminology…each tool icon depicts a Moviola-style pair of film reels in various postures.

I guess wrong on my first try so I go back to the tutorial video series. Ah! Okay, I want the “Ripple” tool. In the video, it’s described and shown as the thing you use to extend a clip so that it starts or ends in a different place.

Mmmm…no. It seems like I’m on the right track, but no. As it is right now, the 90-second voice over plays, with no accompanying video. Then the video kicks over to me inside the car, and I immediately start talking. I want to grab the left side of that clip and stretch it all the way back to the start of the voice-over so that the video begins 90 seconds sooner, but I still don’t start talking until the v/o is done.

What happens instead is that I still have no video until the end of the voice over…but now the video starts 90 seconds later. Damn and blast.

What the heck is wrong? Is FC stamping its feet because the video I want to extend is the first video clip in the whole thing?

I give up on logic and just randomly try the other editing tools. Ah! Okay. The fact that there was absolutely no video to the left made me think “extend the clip to the left,” ie, use the Ripple tool. In fact, I needed to use the “Roll” tool, which extends a clip by stealing time from the clip next door.

I was thinking “There is no video there to the left.” Final cut was thinking “There is indeed video to the left. It is a video of no video.”

Very Zen.

But it makes some sort of sense. My bad.

Now let’s render this clip and see what I did. I hope the audio is synced. Push the button, Frank…

“Estimate time: About 15 minutes…”

(Sigh.) Okay, breakfast.

More Mino/Zi6 Video on its way…

It was a gorgeous sunny day so I went and shot some more Mino HD/Kodak Zi6 side-by-side demos. I wanted to know if the overcast weather had thrown the Kodak last week. If it’s been “coached” to treat everything like there’s plenty of light and lots of highlights and shadows, maybe it had simply gotten bamboozled.

I haven’t cut the video together yet (Final Cut Express just arrived yesterday; this is Project One for the app). For now, I can tell you that my conclusions still stand. You can see for yourself and make your own conclusions soon enough.

Showcase showdown! Flip Mino HD versus Kodak Zi6

I’m actually planning a rather ambitious comparison of cheap HD cameras in the next week or so. But there’s certainly been an enthusiastic — bordering on, well, “annoying” — amount of interest in a direct comparison between the Mino HD and its natural commercial enemy: the Kodak Zi6.

And no wonder. They’re both the same sort of beastie: pockatable 720p HD cameras in an iPod-ish form factor, selling for about the same money.

(Yes, the Zi6 is about fifty bucks cheaper, but remember: that’s without any memory. Toss in a 4 gig card and you’re more or less square a bit closer to the Mino in price.)

With the holidays coming up, and the chance that Todd from Process Control will make as big an ass of himself at the breakroom holiday party as he did last year, lots of people want to know which of these Discreet Little Cameras to buy. Well, my uniform is proud to serve.

I took both cameras out for a jaunt or two and shot a bunch of clips in a variety of environments. Watch. Draw your own conclusions. And then read on and see if you’re so absolutely brilliant that your conclusions are identical to mine.

Click on the “fullscreen” button to watch it at 1280×720 resolution…just keep in mind that this is nowhere near as good as the original video files.


Flip Mino HD vs. Kodak Zi6 from Andy Ihnatko on Vimeo.

Okay. Based solely on this footage…it’s a clear win for the Mino. I think it’s obvious even in the Vimeo (which has been processed twice already). But here in iMovie, where I can see the original footage straight from the camera…t’s absolutely no contest. The Mino video is more agile, the colors are more accurate, and the lighting is more balanced. The Zi6 routinely produces over-saturated colors and doesn’t appear to have enough bandwidth to record a full range of colors and tones. And low-light shooting is a bit of a mess.

Three full-sized frame grabs illustrate my point. These were taken straight from the original MP4 files. Click the thumbnail for the full 720p frame.

Pulling Out Into Traffic

Mino HD: Note the gray tones in the sky and the cream color of the sign. There's lots of shadow detail inside the car, too.
Mino HD: Note the gray tones in the sky and the cream color of the sign. There's plenty of shadow detail inside the car, too.
Kodak Zi6. The sky <i>and</i> the sign are white all of a sudden. And inside the car, shadows have turned to mud.
Kodak Zi6. The sky and the sign are white, all of a sudden. And inside the car, shadows have turned to mud.

Outdoors, On A Tripod

Mino HD. Nice shot. It's maybe a <i>bit</i> flat but the lighting is very natural and the colors are spot-on.
Mino HD. Nice shot. Maybe it should be a tad brighter. But the lighting is natural and the colors are spot-on.
My shirt is purple, my skin is <i>way</i> too rosy, given my lifestyle. And again: where are the subtle details in the shadows?
My shirt is purple, my skin is a little weird (even for me). I think the Zi6's designers told it "Humans like punchy contrast and saturated colors. Err accordingly."

Inside Panera Bread

Mino HD. Nice, bright image with (again) natural colors...not an easy trick, as we're inside a Panera Bread.
Mino HD. Nice, bright image with (again) natural colors...not an easy trick, as we're inside a Panera Bread with its muted soup-oriented lighting.
Zi6. Boy, what a crummy at-bat. The wall should be avocado, not lime green. Any shadows have turned into grey mud. And it shows that dim lighting is the Zi6's Waterloo. Its only solution in a situation like this is to extend the shutter speed and cut the frame rate in half. This clip was recorded at 15 frames per second instead of the Mino's 30.
Zi6. Boy, what a crummy at-bat. The wall should be avocado, not lime green. Any shadows have turned into grey mud. My sunglasses are no longer transparent, nor did the Zi6 capture any reflections off the lenses. And it shows that dim lighting is the Zi6's Waterloo. Its only solution in a situation like this is to extend the shutter speed and cut the frame rate in half. This clip was recorded at 15 frames per second instead of the Mino's 30, creating choppy, blurry footage.

Rainy Street Corner

Mino HD. Hmm. The sky is a <i>bit</i> purple. But otherwise...a nice shot.
Mino HD. Hmm. The sky is a bit purple. But otherwise...a nice shot. Check out the brick building on the corner. You can see the bricks on the outside and the details of the warm shop inside.
Zi6. This still frame doesn't look too bad. It did a better job with the night sky. But again we see muddy shadow details...and the actual video is shot at 15 frames per second instead of 30...very noticeable as the cars drive by.
Zi6. This individual frame doesn't look too bad. The Zi6 certainly captured the sky more naturally than the Mino did. But as usual, shadow details have turned to mud...and the dim light has forced the Zi6 to shoot this at 15 frames per second. Quite noticeable when cars drive past.

Okay, so this is a total slam-dunk for the Mino HD, right? It’s time for the Zi6 to slink off to the corner bar to drink itself into a state of apoplexy alongside the Zune and the Sony eBook Reader and every other bit of technology that’s been roundly spanked and made irrelevant by a superior competitor?

Naw, not at all.

Based on two days’ worth of side-by-side shooting, I’m convinced that the Mino HD’s videos are far more natural and pleasant. But I wish that Mino HD videos sounded as good as the Kodak’s. I don’t know if the Zi6’s designers did something as simple as choosing a high gain level for the microphone. Whatever the reason, the “outside Panera” clip handily demonstrates the Kodak’s superiority in this category.

The Zi6 also has the intriguing advantage of being able to go on forever. Which is something that the Mino emphatically cannot do.

The Mino is sealed up as tightly as an iPhone. Its memory and battery are locked inside and can’t be swapped. You record one hour’s worth of video and then the Mino HD becomes nothing more than a conversation piece.

But the Zi6 takes standard SDHC memory cards. To hell with the Mino’s built-in 4 gigs! Buy yourself a 16 gig card and record hours and hours of footage. And because it runs on 2 AA’s, it’ll can run forever. The Zi6 comes with a pair of rechargeables and natcherly, if you ever get caught short, you can just run to the store for some Energizers.

That’s not an inconsiderable advantage.

The Zi6 and the Mino are both “lifestyle” cameras. So I suppose the choice comes down to the sort of lifestyle that you intend to lead.

If image quality is a big item on your wish list, it’s the Mino. If your style of shooting is casual and unplanned — you want to have something handy to shoot baby’s first steps, keep something in your back pocket or your desk drawer in case the opportunity to direct and produce the next “Don’t Taze Me, Bro!” should unexpectedly present itself — it’s the Mino. If you’ll be shooting lots of stuff in low-light situations…the Mino. Already own a “real” camcorder, and want a second one for more casual shooting and the ability to shoot an event from two angles? Mino.

(Oh, I didn’t mention that the Mino is exactly the same size as the original Mino. The Zi6 is small enough to fit inside any pocket, but the Mino is so small that you’ll have to pat yourself down to figure out what pocket it’s even in.)

But if you’re going to shoot “events,” then you’ll want the Zi6. Although you’ll yearn for the higher quality of the Mino, the fact remains that (God help us all) most family weddings go on for more than an hour. And you have better things to do on vacation than keep running back to your hotel room or cabin to free up space on your camcorder. You can shoot a whole week’s worth of travelly hijinx on the Zi6.

As for the ease of editing your footage…it’s a draw. Both of these cameras record plain MP4 movie files. They imported into iMovie as easily as any other MP4 file.

Weird thing about the Flip, though: iMovie recognizes it as a camera and it immediately loads up thumbnails of all of your clips, ready for import…but the import will fail. Huh. But if you import the clips via the “File” menu — treat the Mino as though it were just a USB storage device — iMovie will copy the files into your library without a hitch. No transcoding necessary…it’s just a straight file copy.

Of course, neither of these are “real” camcorders. Spending a couple of days shooting with them made me miss the zoom lens, image-stabilization, and manual features of even a cheap standard-def camera. I guess the “lifestyle” implied by the Zi6 and the Mino involves walking straight up to people instead of recording them from a safe distance, and maintaining a steady posture as you do so.

If this is the case, then clearly I lead an alternative lifestyle.

Today Santa Brought: NEW Flip Mino *HD*!!!

There’s a reason why I’ve held off on my big review of Kodak’s “lifestyle”-grade pocket HD camcorder…and my Cone of Press Secrecy lifted today.

Yes, Flip was working on a high-definition version of the Flip Mino. Mine arrived just about an hour ago; it’s charging up as I write this so obviously…no sample video yet. Plus, there’s the pesky problem of “this week’s column” to finish.

But to answer your firstest questions:

  • It records in 720p (1280×720 at 16:9 widescreen ratio).
  • It has 4 gigs of storage, which promises to hold an hour of HD video.
  • It looks identical to the old Mino…just marginally wider and thicker.
  • Like the old Mino, there’s no card slot and the battery is sealed in.
  • $229, or just $50 more than the standard-def Mino (which remains in the lineup).

Oh, and iMovie recognizes it immedately and imports HD content directly…when I plugged it in to charge, iMovie activated and showed me thumbnails of a few samples that were already on the device.

More comments, video, and of course a full review — comparing the Flip HD, Kodak Zi6, the Aiptek Action HD (aka “The Walmart Camera”) against my Panasonic HDC-SD1 (aka the “real” HD camcorder) will follow.

Until then…There Will Be Blood. Er…photos. The HD edition is on the right…to the left is the standard-rez Mino.

[Updated: Yes, the Flip HD is immediately recognized by iMovie. Yes, it presents you with an import panel of thumbnails. But! None of them can be imported. Instead, you need to use the desktop app to import videos from the Flip. Let’s hope that it works with Perian. Stay tuned.]

[And the HD model is exactly the same size as the original Mino. Sorry folks…blame the optical illusion of that light-colored band around the original model.]