Panasonic HVX200 News

This has been a big week for the discussion surrounding the HVX200, starting with the release of top secret, behind-the-scenes technical info on the making of the camera by Tosh Bilowski’s camera blog Def Perception. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly a journalistic scoop, since the entire blog is in fact a Panasonic-owned marketing tool, and they now admit that Tosh doesn’t really exist.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting data here if you overlook the PR spin. For starters, we now know the actual size of the CCD array, and it is not good. However, there’s much talk about the special new processing that upscales the image, and it is supposed to be very good. There’s also quite a bit in there about color depth, but they’re very sketchy about which sampling modes apply to which shooting modes. Having seen some 1080i DVCPRO HD footage grabs, I’m not so sure that it’s still 4:2:2 at that rez.

But most of the more colorful discussion regarding this camera relates to the P2 card system, not the image quality. A few days ago Tommy D. posted a brief run-through of his experiences using P2 on the forums (also mirrored here). Most of the issues that he ran into are simply due to using a new workflow, and the difficulties of planning around that. Shooting to P2 was all very well, but dumping the P2 cards to the P2 Store took time, and director then wanted to review footage from earlier in the day, things unraveled a little bit.

Admittedly, many of the problems there resulted from trying to use a Mac to monitor the workflow (P2 supported by FCP 5.0.4 and higher only), since the P2 Viewer is PC only, and the final product was destined to be edited on a PC-based Avid. Adding the extra step in the middle was complicating, but the entire process is awkward and confused by the fact that interviews can’t always wait for a card swap if one or more of your cards is being held up for review by the director.

It’s also nerve-wracking to work with untested cutting-edge tech, transferring your data back and forth when there are no backups. In’s recent interviews, Josh Oakhurst was highly critical of P2’s cost-to-space ratio, a position that he better explained on his own blog. In addition to those concerns he also pointed out that Panasonic has a long history of introducing new formats, none of which still exist. MII was beat by Beta, 6mm tape was beat by 8mm, and so on. Will an upgraded XDCAM format be the future shooting media of choice?

Screenwriting: Three-Act Structure

Ok, the last few posts have been extremely technical, so it’s time to get back to the basics; story structure. When D.W. Griffith invented the feature-length film, it took eight separate reels to hold the entire movie. In order to keep audiences seated while the reels were changed, he and his peers created a cliffhanger moment at the end of each reel, and found that they could best divide the film into two reels for the first act, four for the second, and then two for the third act climax. Even today, three-act features often aim for eight strong climactic moments distributed roughly evenly throughout the film.

In the 1970s, scriptwriter Syd Field was asked to teach a course on scriptwriting in Los Angeles. He began analyzing great scripts to see if there were any recurrent forms and noticed a consistent organization similar to the three-act structure of plays. In 1979 he published his findings in a book, which explained how to use this structure as an organizational tool to build stronger films. It cuts a long script into small, manageable chunks: beginning, middle and end. The most basic organizational concept delegates roughly 30 pages to Act I, 60 pages to Act II, and 30 pages to Act III, as you can see in the following diagram. A good writer will also use acts to manage his plot points, the story arc, and his characters’ growth.

On this graph, the dotted line charts the arc of an anti-hero. Not necessarily a villain, but a protagonist who is simply not heroic. This is called out-of-balance structure, and many films today try to use this to create “realistic” stories of ineffectual characters. The plot meanders along with the protagonist’s circumstances and then in Act III he winds up lower than before. This is depressing and boring. However, the solid line represents a strong character arc. The first act is exposition, not much conflict. Then in Act II the fight begins, and our hero is up and down, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride of success and defeats, until the third act, where he recovers from some crushing blow and rises to victory.

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Blender Redux

About a month ago, I posted about the release of Blender 2.4, and was kind of harsh in my comments. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and explained myself more thoroughly in emails, but I’ve gotten so many similar questions that I’ll just address some of the comments here. For starters, I also said the hair looked “abominable.” Which I stand by; it looks like the individual volumetric hairs that Alias Poweranimator had in the mid 90s. I’ve been asked why I say that, which is a big question, but where it really falls down is the lighting. The usual furball render tests look pretty good, but they always look good, because it’s just a koosh ball under a single light.

Blender’s hair uses 2D strand rendering, which is “correct,” in that that’s how other, more professional packages do it, but it is lacking in features. For example, none of the industry standard curl/kink/droop/clump/taper/frizz styling tools to control those strands that other packages have. And no dynamics, either. I had the opportunity to discuss the issues behind this with Pixar’s Michael Fong a few years ago, and dynamics are key.

But mainly, the lighting is bad. The tangent shading seems to be on the right track, there’s a form of self-shadowing, and longer hairs show anistropic specular highlights, but it just doesn’t jive. I’m not a huge fan of Blender’s rendering engine to begin with, but this doesn’t even match that. I’m guessing it’s been patched on top and there’s very little integration. For example, I tend to doubt this 2D static particle rendering is fully compatible with reflections, refractions, fog, depth of field, volumetric lighting, or radiosity, and according to the forums, people are having trouble attaching it to moving characters.

The best CG hair to date has been written to specifically accommodate both the rendering engine and project it’s meant for. For example, Weta’s Kong fur or Pixar’s Monster fur. Both of these examples are using a proprietary rendering engine (although in Pixar’s case that engine eventually trickles down into Renderman) created and tweaked by the same guys who are creating and tweaking the fur renderer.

Next up would be the third party hair/fur plugins like Shave and a Haircut and Sasquatch. They have the disadvantage of being additions to the rendering process, not strictly integrated, but Joe Alter and Steve Worley are amazingly knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the engines they support, and have managed to work around that, supplying a professional product that is regularly used for commercial feature film work.

Sundance 2006 Wrap-Up

Well, the 2006 Sundance festival is now over, and it marked the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute, and the 10th anniversary of the Sundance Channel. Unfortunately, I’m too busy to do much of a real write-up on Sundance itself, but this year it played 120 features, 84 of which were world premieres, and 48 of which were the work of first time filmmakers (although I’m not sure exactly how this is designated). 102 of the films were presented using digital projection, but only 41 films were actually shot on digital formats. There were also 46 documentaries, and lots of shorts.

From what I’ve read of this year’s coverage, the festival itself hasn’t changed much, apart from a put-on, somewhat forced “edginess” to prove that it hasn’t sold out or become too commercial or Hollywoodized. Which is silly, because the world’s largest and most commercially successful indie festival attracts so many big-name celebrities, high-profile reporters, and fashion parties that it is basically a snowbound, less-restrained, mini-Hollywood all on it’s own.

This year, however, the films seemed to have a slightly different flavor. In the past, post-modern indie films could separate themselves from the mainstream simply by leaving off the happy ending, or by not hiring a professional camera operator. These days, though, plenty of studio films are depressing and shaky. So now, in order to be more obviously non-mainstream, indies need to be vehemently anti-mainstream. Which is why most of them seem to focus on negative, sarcastic, and anti-traditional themes, structures, and styles.

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RED Camera Interview

Talking of cameras, Mike Curtis at HD for Indies managed to get an exclusive interview with Oakley founder Jim Jannard about the RED camera. In it, Mr. Jannard explains why his sunglasses company is actually well-suited do develop a camera, why he personally is pushing the project, and goes into more detail on what we can expect.

Not too much detail, though… pricing and specific technical specs will be released at NAB (Upper South Hall, booth SU1401, to be exact). Nevertheless, there lots of good data about the motivations behind this camera and what it’s meant to do, and it’s also a good read because Mike and Jim bring up a lot of limitations with current HD camera solutions, and (roughly) how the RED camera will attempt to solve them.

More info should be forthcoming soon, because NAB is only a few months away (April 22-27, to be exact), and they expect to have working cameras by the end of the year. And lenses. And whatever else they announce at NAB. Check it out. The article also includes links to other news and resources about the camera.