Tuesday, 29 December 2015

☴ Watchlist: HFR & ASMR

I've noticed an emerging trend amongst progressive filmmakers. Firstly they treat online as their primary global distribution platform (natch) but secondly I am seeing more and more content produced with HFR and ASMR.

HFR has largely been rejected by cinema going audiences, but I believe long-term it will become de-facto standard and 24fps will be regarded by my grandchildren as I regard the quirky looking 18fps footage of a hundred years ago incorrectly played back at 24fps.

Everyone can be a filmmaker using a single device.
It's ironic that as a young filmmaker stuck with 50Hz PAL video, I hated that horrible 'soap opera' look of 50i. I strived for that 'film look' just as some modern filmmakers strive for that 'VHS look'. Madness! I yearned for D1 720x576 but when it was finally affordable it was basically obsolete. I wish I'd discovered Laver's law in my twenties then it may have all made a lot more sense to me.

I remember reading, I forget where - other than in print in the early 90s - that when developing Star Tours the boffins got great reactions from audiences when subjected to HFR (60fps was trialled IIRC) - not interlaced like TV, but progressive, actual frames, like film. It wasn't to be though, probably due to reasons of expense and available bandwidth in existing technology. Wish I could remember what the article was and where I read it!

Reading that, it stuck with me to this day. So HFR came as no surprise to me. I believe more motion data is just as important as UHD and beyond. Kids growing up on console gaming just see a blur when they go to the cinema. In fact, so do I (and I don't even own a console).

Cinema may stick with 24fps (for that extra stop in low-light during acquisition), but it's doubtful if IMAX will. I firmly believe IMAX will supplant contemporary cinema as the 'narrative event experience' because home cinema is more comfortable (and a whole lot cheaper) than going out to the cinema. Audiences are split about 3D at the cinema but frankly that's a big fat red herring that gets rolled out every couple of decades. If you want 3D go see a stage play, they are awesome nowadays.

There's an argument that the dating scene will sustain modern cinema. I call bullshit on that, as Netflix & Chill has been marketed so successfully to the younger generation who have grown up with choice and abundance.

EXT. Star Tours.
No way home cinema will stick with 24fps, it will cater to the console kids who grew up gaming at 60fps and will demand their own normal when voting with their wallets (well, assuming the concept of a wallet survives ...)

HFR, especially at 60fps, solves a lot of problems for the progressive filmmaker.

ASMR hasn't made it into cinemas, mainly because 'true' ASMR required the listener to be wearing headphones. It's unlikely that traditional production technique will ever cater to ASMR. However, again, I believe my grandchildren may be more au fait with it than the general public of today. Whilst it may never be mainstream, I believe its benefits will ripple out just as Hi-Fi has done over the last 40 years or so.

There's no doubt that ASMR is pseudoscience, however I have definitely experienced emotional and 'tingly' responses to sound and ASMR is a good an explanation as any.

Essentially ASMR boils down to two things, of which in my experience only one needs to be present (but both is better).

POV often neglects audio completely.
Firstly, perhaps most importantly, ASMR is positional stereo. This usually means recorded binaurally POV. Not practical for most narratives (great for first-person-shooters that the kids play on their consoles - are you detecting a theme yet?). However, I believe a good stereo sound stage reproduction will suffice (more practical for production of traditional narrative).

Secondly, frequency response. Not necessarily flat, but it needs to be 'clean' rather than 'muddy'. This is because the ear cannot discern the direction of bass frequencies but higher frequencies can be highly positional. Higher frequencies tend to lend more air, and thus feed into those ASMR tingles.

It's totally possible for ASMR to be mono, but it is far more effective in stereo. Stereo allows the ear to pick out positional details due to time differences in the sound wave hitting each ear.

This is why it annoys me that Apple's iPhone cannot record stereo with its three (count 'em!) onboard mics. In every other way, the onboard audio always amazes me except for this glaring omission. Sure, external mics are available (and very decent M/S mics they are too - see video embedded below) but sometimes the onboard mics are all you have - typical during the frugalwave. Onboard stereo mics on an iPhone would no doubt be thought about and positioned correctly in relation to the camera lens (or the corrective/adaptive DSP would be spot on).

So Apple has 800 engineers working on the iPhone's camera that they buy from Sony - so what about the audio-visual?

UPDATE: Yes, I should have mentioned the digital bits that represent latitude and all that good 4:4:4 stuff but I think something akin to Moore's "law" in CCD / CMOS / NEXT TLA will see better and better low-light performance over time - it's going to happen anyway.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Sound Really Is 50% Of Your Movie

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God – it’s the big bang that started it all, not the big picture!

The sound wave, not the light wave.

Sooner or later you’ll hear someone say how important sound is – but rather than wave them on and uttering “we’ll fix it in post”, have you stopped to consider what it is that sound actually brings to your movie?

Here’s a quick test. Watch your favourite movie with the sound turned off.

Does it still engage you fully? Honestly? Would you sit so long through the end- credits (or opening title crawl) if it weren’t for the choice of music?

Does that really constitute 50% of the movie? Well, on a purely “count the senses” – vision and hearing – yes, yes it does. Arguably sound can improve the visual, and even make people see things that aren’t there.

Good sound can really help prop up a substandard visual but bad sound is, well, just bad sound. Our eyes provide vision as a dominant sense, our ears provide sound almost as a secondary sense – a sense waiting to alert us to events rather than continuously inform us in the foreground. Vision gives us actual information – “that bloke is closing a door” – sound gives us implication – “I heard the door shut, it must be shut”.

Seeing is believing; hearing is implication. Implication can exercise far more of the imagination than actual seeing (afraid of the dark? things that go bump in the night?) – yet so much sound today is used with direct correlation to the visual, giving little room for imagination amongst the (im)perfectly rendered CGI.

Imagination is possibly the most visual weapon in your arsenal as a moviemaker – and that can be driven by sound moreso than picture.

It’s not all about imagination though. Most directors agree that a performance recorded on-set will be better than any looping session (looping, or ADR, is the re-recording of dialogue in controlled studio booth conditions), although often certain environmental conditions will mean that the production sound recorded on-set or on-location is not useable.

Sound is also positional in a way that vision is not – the cinema screen is immersive, yet sound allows you to hear things off-screen (given at minimum a stereo soundstage to work with). Even with the latest 3D visual technology, you still need glasses and everything is still contained within that rectangle. Sound is reproduction of actual physical waves in the air, broken free and authentic in ways that photons are not (and, of course, vice versa – arguably – headphones are entirely optional!).

We could get into stereo miking techniques here, but I suspect that’s best saved for another post. Suffice to say I’ve been a convert to stereo recording for several years, yes, even for production audio. It gives so much more depth and spatial precision versus the cost of full sound design – cost usually being a major factor in the indie moviemaker’s world (whether that cost be in time spent or money spent).

“Real” sounds obviously work best at “real” locations and not those recorded in the fakery of the staple studio system. In the late sixties, “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” promised to liberate the moviemaker from the shackles of over-engineering. Then Star Wars happened and moviemaking was never quite the same again.

What do you think? Is sound under utilised in modern movies? Can indies get one up on contemporary Hollywood by tapping into imagination drawn from intelligent sound rather than absolute CGI that uses sound as a crutch only?

Since originally writing this article in 2012 for OTTfilm (now defunct), it's interesting to see the rise of popular ASMR related content on YouTube vs the cinemas push for 3D glasses and a general overall industry push to 4K imaging, IMAX, and resolutions beyond.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

☴ Review of X Saves The World - (How Generation X Got The Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking) - by Jeff Gordinier

This book, published in 2008, has an obvious axe to grind with the demographics known as boomers and millennials (aka Generation Y) which is evidenced by the subtitle alone. However don't be fooled by the author's sharp tongue and self-entitled sense or irony. Falling into the Generation X demo myself there's a lot I related to, and this book really is a call to action to put the culture back into pop culture.

The basic premise is that being sandwiched between the boomers (currently 'in control') and the millennials (will be in control in future) that X is the 'lost' generation, akin to Prince Charles - his situation is likely to see the throne bypass him and go straight to his children. The book hypothesises that the boomers, living longer, continue to have great influence on the media and knowingly or otherwise are curating monocultural mass media (American Idol was singled out a lot). The net result being a docile millennial generation who would rather download a pop song in protest than take to the streets in peaceful marches.

To conclude the book suggests that in order to stop the world sucking, X-ers must "dare". In a way, that is something I took onboard a long time ago - consciously step outside of your comfort zone, speak your mind (or broadcast it), action over inaction - do something to change something even if you may look foolish.
Don't you forget about me.

Personally I did find the book an entertaining read for the most part, although being from the UK it does make me wince that, yes, the book does not acknowledge much of a world outside of the USA (even though the author recounts stories of global travel) - it may even be a thinly disguised advert for the author's involvement in the 'Poetry Bus' which has a chapter dedicated to it. Perhaps that's just the post-modern irony again. I also know from other research I've done that the kind of 'problem' discussed in the book is not new: for example the Romans had the exact same concerns 2000 years ago. So from that perspective the book takes a very narrow view - well, to appeal to the X demographic I suppose!

Quotes from the book:

"Somebody seems to have forgotten to put together the cover stories about Generation X turning forty."

"Douglas Coupland himself had announced the expiration of the generation [X] all the way back in 1995"

"The media refers to anyone aged thirteen to thirty-nine as X-ers. Which is only further proof that marketers and journalists never understood that X is a term that defines not a chronological age but a way of looking at the world." - Douglas Coupland, 1995

"Nothing is more powerful than ice cream."

"The author and editor Thomas Frank has written extensively about the 'commodification of dissent'."

"Sometimes the best way to make people care about money is to give them some."

"The dot-com boom reached out a gloved hand and said: Luke, I am your father."

"Vast numbers of Generation X-ers learned all their moral lessons from a single source: the 1971 film version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory."

"Like any good virus, Gen X also produces mutations." - Douglas Coupland, 2002

"This is something I learned from India: When you build something that is beautiful, the community maintains it. People will have pride in where they're living. If you give someone crap, they're going to treat it like crap." - Architecture for Humanity (Kate Stohr or Cameron Sinclair - attribution unclear).

Monday, 21 December 2015

Pompeywood We Have a Problem

This critique (screenshot above) from multiple international award winning filmmaker Riyadh Haque (who is oft resident in Pompey aka Portsmouth UK) had me slightly concerned that he may be advocating class discrimination within the historically naval city.

I read 'filmmaking class' as members of the filmmaking class, a group of people who would hypothetically set standards by their own decree - essentially an elitist exclusive clique - a monoculture of Hollywood wannabes.

Well, turns out I was incorrect (shocking, I know!)

Twitter misunderstandings, miscommunications aside, the crux of Haque being hacked off with Pompeywood output is class within the context of 'high quality, integrity, status, or style'.

Shit just got serious.
Agreeing the definition in context.

I guess he is being professionally sensitive in not revealing the trailer he was watching, to save us from also being sad about it.

It's also unclear what his benchmark for 'high quality' is, what he considers to have 'integrity', the specific 'status' being described or indeed the 'style' improvements needed.

The current problem, as I see it, is that class in this clarified context is not at all specific - it does not define the problem.

Sure, admission of a problem is the first step - but without a definition purposeful unpresumptuous action isn't particularly possible.

As I write this we are organising a face-to-face meeting at a Pompey venue to discuss further. I want to understand why Haque is so disappointed with Portsmouth's filmmaking class, and perhaps we can thrash out a plan to do something about it.