Wednesday, 30 September 2015

From #2wkfilm To AirNinja Movie Method

Talking with co-conspirator Evil C about our next January film production, I was reminded about how AirNinja germinated from the tactics used filming and completing "The Original Soundtrack" over a two week period in 2009.

The project was a success, here's a brief trailer:

One other output from that project was an essay entitled "Giving My Movies Away For Free" (reproduced below) which was first published in 2009 by the Royal Baronial Theatre.

I thought I'd dust it off, and see if any insights still stood today. I've reprinted my essay below, but do check out the others that were part of the same project.

The full length version of "The Original Soundtrack" can be viewed for free on YouTube.

--Begin Essay--

A Short Essay: “Giving my movies away for free”.

We live in interesting times. Avatar reportedly is the most expensive film in history and is the culmination of 10 years work. It’s projected to make $1 billion globally. Cameron is advocating 48fps and stereoscopic acquisition. The film is almost three hours long.

How on earth do you get to make films on such a scale?

Let’s start by paraphrasing a piece of Cameron’s advice to filmmakers yet to have made a movie: “Start by making a film. Complete it. From then on you are negotiating budget for your next one”.

But that quote’s probably two decades old or more. From a by-gone era - it’s from the era of scarcity when not everyone had access to the means of making a decent movie. We now live in an era of abundance where punters will accept anything from shakycam smartphone footage to 4K RED, or anything inbetween. Shooting at 1920 x 1080 (the same resolution the Star Wars prequels were acquired at) only requires a modest investment with the huge advantage that you can also go tapeless.

In the era of abundance you need to be able to stand out from the clutter. Cameron largely does this on reputation (“From the director of Titanic, Terminator, Piranha II”, etc). How can you hope to match that reputation? Do you even need to? Zen Buddhism has a good piece of advice, “begin by beginning”, in other words get out there and do it, make a fool of yourself until you’re comfortable with the process. With the technology abundant (therefore affordable), it doesn’t make sense to hold back if all you want to be doing is running around out there making movies. If you want to raise finance and stay warm and dry, study accountancy, wear a suit, go to meetings and act conservative. 

It wasn’t really until April 2009 that I’d realised how things had progressed with the technology - and how affordable moviemaking had become to outlaws such as myself. Having just signed up to Twitter I was invited to take part in the first #2wkfilm aka two week film challenge - shoot, edit, finish a feature length movie in a two week window before the end of May ’09. Up to that point I’d basically been spinning in neutral since the completion of my mockudrama ‘Crooked Features’ which was shot standard definition on miniDV tape with the Canon XL1 and a Sennheiser K6/ME66.

Seeing #2wkfilm as a way to get the fire started once more I started looking around for a means of acquisition. I already owned a Panasonic Lumix TZ which could record 848 x 480 and a bunch of professional boom mics with a Sound Devices 702T. All I needed was a script. And crew. And actors. And locations. Etc. I only had about two weeks to sort all this out if I was to meet the deadline of the end of May ’09. Oh, in that time I also upgraded my Lumix to a TZ 3 which shoots 720p (1280 x 720).

Well, we did it. The result was ‘The Original Soundtrack’ which screened on home turf alongside the other completed #2wkfilm entries at the Portobello Film Festival. The intent was never to make money from this particular venture. It was to make connections with local moviemakers, test a cheap SDHC card tapeless workflow, and chalk another one up in the IMDb. Secondary objective was to promote the local musicians without whose work the ‘Soundtrack’ part would not have been possible.

In aggregate the two versions of ‘The Original Soundtrack’ (700MB and 2.5GB version) on mininova have been downloaded 5,500 times. Somewhat predictably, DVD sales have been anemic (though to be fair it’s not like I’ve given the product any marketing push whatsoever). It was never meant to make me a profit though (the DVD is sold at cost), but it has added considerably to my wealth of connections and experiences.

In comparison I’ve had short film work on for several years (always the progressive, me) and the most downloaded there is  ‘Adult Contacts’ at 60,000 times. It’s been there so long I can’t remember when I uploaded it. It’s also my directorial debut (well, with real live actors anyway) if you’re interested in my take on “two people talking in a room” from 1995. The final cut is just under seven minutes but funnily enough I remember the original cut was almost 15 minutes long. Yet, now, I can’t remember what I cut out. I do remember cutting between a Video8 deck and a NICAM VHS deck and some crappy Sony LANC protocol which was not frame accurate; being really jealous of my mate who was editing on Media100 NLE. Anyway, I digress.

Part of my “problem” is that I am a part-time moviemaker. Like many outlaw filmmakers I have a day job, a family, and a life. I just don’t have the energy for self-promotion and I don’t have the bravado to go full-time freelance. I like to eat, and so do my kids. Taking part in the first #2wkfilm has enabled me to re-engage locally and led to my enrollment onto the second #2wkfilm. That, however has turned out to be an entirely different kettle of fish.

‘The Fix’ is my second #2wkfilm effort although currently I disqualified it: although we shot the rushes over just five days, the remaining time was not enough to complete the movie to fine cut (though I did get it to a very rough cut and survive a bout of the ‘flu). The big difference here was bringing a production designer on-board and having access to Rennie Pilgrem’s back catalogue as well as a commitment for some scoring. The production locations were also more ambitious, everywhere from an autumn forest to a small studio space at Ealing. I also shot using a Xacti at 720p and recorded sound single-system (poorly but mostly adequately, the horror) with my recently acquired used Neumann RSM-191 M-S mic. Lesson: my next movie really must be shot double-system and that pretty much precludes it from being a #2wkfilm. It’s expected that ‘The Fix’ will be completed by June ’10 (some way off from the #2wkfilm target of October ’09) but that’s the great thing about being an outlaw - no rules, no deadlines, all my own terms.

To conclude, Hollywood finds itself at a juncture, similar to that when the printing press arrived in Europe in the 15th century. The printing press was a revolution for many reasons, and it put many scribes out of work. The advantages of the printing press were obvious to almost everyone and production costs were 700% less than employing scribes. I guess the scribes weren’t too happy about that.

In the 21st century is it a necessity to spend $300 million to tell a story on celluloid? Will outlaws become organised and create a parallel industry leaving Hollywood to wither on it’s own sick vine. Or perhaps efforts like Paramount’s to keep a slate of $100,000 movies will appease the masses and put the outlaws out of a job. One thing’s for sure. No one can predict the future. Everyone can sidestep the little bits of history repeating. Me? I really enjoy home cinema.

--End Essay--

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Imagination and Rejection Letters

A friend of mine recently got his stock rejection letter from a certain very well known b-list British film festival, which addressed him by his surname (weird, rude, amateur hour clerical error?) - as my friend read the text to me over the phone it all sounded eerily familiar - in fact exactly the same as the body of my rejection letter I had received 10 years earlier from the same festival for my flick Crooked Features - which went on to win awards and developed into a stage play.

Think about that.

Ten years of business and the stock rejection letter hasn't changed a bit. It made me realise (again) that festivals are (still) run by change-averse bureaucrats and curators - and that does not infer they have one iota of imagination - imagination to spot your raw talent.

Revolution will not be encouraged from the festival circuit. Jumping the curve is tantamount to being utterly mis-understood by the establishment.

So why continue on the festival treadmill?

Well - you have to keep going too.

A personal example:
Any potential career as an author was cut dead by two handwritten but similar-ish rejections from Interzone over 20 years ago - from that point on, young naive me decided the time and emotional investment wasn't worth the agony and would just stick with ideas, concepts, and screenplays - the barebones of modern storytelling in the age of motion pictures.

'Thank you for submitting your story to Interzone. It
is not for us, I'm afraid. It is neither a good story
nor a bad story but says too little that is new
and needs (to my mind, at least) a resolution.
What was its point? (Why use insects, for example,
rather than human beings?)'
'Thank you for submitting your story to Interzone.
It is not for us, I'm afraid. Some nice ideas
though somewhat crudely strung together. The piece
says too little that is new and ends in the
middle of nowhere. Sorry.'

Friday, 11 September 2015

Golden Ticket to LIVE FilmRaker ChatLab

After the success of FilmRaker's London Pop-Up, the next live conference is happening on the south coast of England in the seaside town of Southsea.

Numbers are limited at the venue so the event sessions will also be broadcast live via periscope. Keep an eye on FilmRaker's twitter feed on the 22nd from 6pm-BST for the live broadcast links.

eBay Sellers: Avoid iPhone iCloud Lock Extortion Scam from Buyers

Yes you may think the sellers are the scammers but I now have first hand experience of buyers using
the same scam to extort sellers!

Read on to find out how you can definitively avoid being extorted. Or if tl;dr scroll down to the end for the bits of proof you'll need and other guidelines.

I apologise in advance for potty-mouth.

Okay, I suppose I should begin at the beginning. As regular readers know I have switched to Android phones for various reasons so put my iPhones up for auction on eBay.

One iPhone sold without friction, just the buyer asking for proof of the extended AppleCare+ which I duly provided. Everything went well, the buyer paid promptly, I gave them positive feedback on eBay. Some days later the buyer gave me positive feedback on eBay. All good. Possibly lulling me into a false sense of eBay feedback nirvana.

Anyway. The other iPhone was a totally different story.

As an aside, the first listing for this other iPhone ended with an international user with zero eBay feedback winning the item. As regular sellers will know this has all the hallmarks of a throw-away eBay account used to inflate the price of your auction out of the market. And surprise, this buyer never paid and never responded to my messages. Naturally I did not ship the iPhone, it just sat boxed and ready to ship, all iCloud unlocked and everything.

You know when your iPhone is iCloud unlocked because Apple send an email to you via your Apple ID details telling you exactly that. Remember this!

Anyway. I re-list the iPhone that didn't sell, but keep the auction within national boundaries to keep it simpler. A few days later the winning bidder pays promptly. Great. All is well and good in eBay land so far.

I explain to the buyer that the warranty status can be confirmed by entering the device serial number at Apple's website. I also suggest they can record it on their Apple support profile once they have it set up with their Apple ID. I also double-check I have removed it from my own support profile (of course I had, ages ago!)

So far so good. Package the iPhone and send it off via Royal Mail Special Delivery, insured up to £600. I am careful to keep proof of posting, natch.

The buyer seems quite excited to receive the iPhone, I am quite happy for them, they've messaged me a couple of times to ask about warranty blah blah blah, nothing out of the ordinary.

The buyer messages me to confirm receipt of the iPhone.

My first mistake: because things seem to be going so well, I give the buyer positive feedback. After all, they seem happy, they've paid, what could possibly go wrong?


Later I get a message from the buyer saying that the iPhone is iCloud activation locked, displaying "This iPhone is currently linked to an Apple ID (e** Sign in with the Apple ID that was used to set up this iPhone."

Oh dear. Did I really forget to deactivate my iCloud account on the iPhone? After all, the buyer says it's reporting a Yahoo email address and I do have a Yahoo account that I use for Flickr. Could I possibly have screwed up so badly and not used the same Apple ID I've been using for over 10 years when I was previous owner of this iPhone?

I smelled something fishy. The pungent aroma of an eBay asshole.

Sure that I had shipped the iPhone iCloud unlocked, I double-checked my iCloud account Find My iPhone and my Apple Support profile - nada. It aint there, so surely it must be unlocked and this person is just being a cock.

In case my Flickr Yahoo ID has somehow become associated with an Apple ID, I use iForgot to
attempt to reset the password - however Apple systems report no record. Phew.

That asshole buyer got smellier.

I googled to see if there was a way to check iCloud activation status - after all, if I could prove the iPhone was currently iCloud unlocked, this eBay asshole could get fucked.

I typed the iPhone serial number in at Apple's Activation Lock check website. Guess what? The iPhone is iCloud Activation Locked. FUUUUUUUUUUUU - how did that even


The buyer offers their mobile number. You know, for a quick chat to smooth things over - all I'd need to do is give over my Apple ID username and password so they can unlock the iPhone. WAIT WHAT.

So not only is the iCloud account the iPhone is locked to not match my actual Apple ID, the buyer assures me a quick old-fashioned chat over the phone will solve everything.

This now stinks to me. It is obvious that the iPhone has been tampered with but I stop short of any accusations. I guess Royal Mail must've done it, right?

The buyer thinks there's no way Royal Mail tampered with the device (and I tend to agree). They are pointing the finger at themselves as far as I'm concerned. (I say 'they' because there are three different names associated with this particular transactions' accounts at their end).

I remain polite.

They accuse me of being an iPhone dealer, a scammer, untrustworthy - the implication being the iPhone is stolen and I am not the previous owner - booga booga. They say I know damned well that an iCloud locked iPhone can be had on eBay for hundreds of pounds less than what the buyer paid hint hint.

They assure me they are a 100% genuine eBayer. And their account does have double the amount of positive feedback than mine.

I'm not budging. I know I sent the iPhone with iCloud deactivated and as I mentioned the account it was locked to their end was not my account. The only explanation is that the iPhone has been tampered with after dispatch. Unfortunately I can't definitively prove this and the asshole knows it.

I check out eBay policy on name-calling accusations. I report the asshole for being an asshole, being sure to mention that he was asking for my Apple ID username and password outside of the eBay messaging system.

The next morning I get a much cooler, polite, message from the buyer. Let's sort this out amicably shall we?

Well as far as I'm concerned there's nothing to sort out, they've locked the iPhone themselves and are trying to guide me into offering a refund. I can prove I am the previous owner of the iPhone and I can prove ownership has transferred to them.

I remain polite. Send proofs of purchase and warranty. They give me a sob story about an interrupted social life and then taking half a day off work to visit an Apple store to get the iPhone unlocked. Diddums.

They tell me the iPhone is now iCloud unlocked (I double check, and it is) and that because it was sold in the iCloud locked state (it wasn't and I have emails from Apple to prove it) and because they had the inconvenience of visiting an Apple store (I only have the assholes word for this, no proof) that I should agree to a partial refund to ensure positive feedback from them. WAIT WHAT.

Now of course there's a small chance this buyer is not an asshole, but demanding a partial refund or else they will give me negative feedback? Well fuck 'em, I'll suck down the negative feedback and I'll further report the asshole to eBay for attempted extortion.

And that dear reader is why I must offer you this advice when using eBay to sell your iPhone: you must keep a record proving that the iPhone is iCloud unlocked whilst in transit to the buyer, that way you will have zero self-doubt. You can do this by sending it Royal Mail Special Delivery (other courier services are available) and keep the proof of posting - this includes the tracking number and the date/time you dropped it off with the Post Office. Now go to Apple's iCloud Activation Lock checker website and enter the iPhone serial number, take a screenshot. Even if some asshole accuses you of doctoring the screenshot, at least you will be sure of yourself and know 100% you are dealing with an asshole buyer.


When selling iPhones on eBay adhere to these guidelines to avoid being extorted by an asshole buyer:

1. Only communicate within the eBay messaging system. This makes typing email addresses a pain and attachments are woefully low resolution but it means if it goes to eBay arbitration the entire thread is there.

2. Keep proof of dispatch and proof of iCloud Activation status whilst the iPhone is in transit to the buyer. Whilst a real total asshole might also accuse you of doctoring the image, you could counter with a statement along the lines of "proof is the burden of the prosecution" (in English law).

3. Don't give the buyer feedback until a couple of weeks later. This means you are on equal footing until the transaction is long forgotten. Any asshole buyer is unlikely to attempt eBay extortion after that length of time.

4. Stay cool, calm, collected, polite. The customer is always right but assholes will be assholes.

5. Don't be afraid to report the buyer to eBay if you have a legitimate reason to do so. I suspect a lot of assholes get away with extortion because more genuine sellers don't complain to eBay about the asshole buyer.

6. Some buyers are assholes because they always want to get a deal. You are not obligated to satisfy their addiction for 'winning'.

This all helps avoid the situation where you ship an iCloud unlocked iPhone to the buyer but the buyer then iCloud locks it themselves and accuses you of shipping stolen goods.

I hope you have found this anecdote informative, if not entertaining.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Switch From iPhone 6 Plus to Sony Xperia Z3+ (iOS to Android)

The airninja switch is complete. As I'm sure you know I am platform agnostic, being primarily interested in the best tools for a given job.

For the last five years I've been an iPhone user, upgrading most years with unlocked devices and running on Three UK PAYG (great unlimited data plans).

Each year I've been waiting for Apple to release an iPhone that is capable of recording stereo sound using its onboard mics when taking video (modern iPhone has three mics). Whilst iPhone mono recordings do sound good, I've always preferred the 'reality' of a stereo sound-stage - and I don't always carry a stereo microphone with me because extra gear is not the way of the airninja.

For various reasons (job redundancy being a huge one) I have been re-evaluating the "things" in my life and when Apple came under the microscope it just didn't hold up. The competition promised to deliver far more value into my life (including the stereo audio video recording).

I bought a refurbished Sony Xperia Z2 for a shade over £200 to see how I'd get on. This phone model is about a year old, records 4K video, has 3GB RAM, expandable storage to 128GB and is made by the company and culture that Steve Jobs himself had great admiration for.
An Apple designer, Shin Nishibori, was asked to create “Sony-like” concepts of phones that carried the name “SONY” and “JONY”. The pictures were created around a year before the iPhone first appeared.

Based on my success with the Z2 (and the release of the Z5) I upgraded to the Z3+ which has an improved camera over the Z2 and a reduced price due to the release of the Z5. They all record stereo audio video and have 4K capability.

I did wonder if Apple's iPhone 6S might offer stereo audio recoding with video, but as far as I know it does not (the iPhone 6 which I owned definitely did not). So, for my airninja purposes, it looks like I made a good choice with the Z3+

Now if you google anything about the Z3+ you'll probably come across reports of how this phone runs hot and overheats. In my experience this is not accurate on the current firmware. Although when taking video it does run warmer than the iPhone ever did. I think it's fair to say that whatever problems may have existed with the Z3+ original firmware has been addressed by Sony in recent updates. HOWEVER a mild annoyance remains with the Z3+ in that the native camera app will report "overheating" and shutdown to cool off. It only does this on looong takes (30 minutes or more continuous) which most normal people rarely do. The workaround is to use an alternative app, such as Google's own camera app (also shoots video).

BTW, I have no compelling reason to ditch OS X or FCPX so I remain an Apple customer.

Competition between vendors is a good thing in general, and who knows I may return to a future iPhone iteration. Yesterday's Apple keynote only confirmed my thoughts on the direction Apple is now taking, and it's not a direction I want to travel when Sony already provides the sufficient destination today.