Oprah to do for documentaries what she did for books

Oprah Winfrey made an appearence at this years Sundance Film Festival and in the process, has announced that the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) is searching for and will begin broadcasting documentaries that the network feels measure up much in quality and story much in  the same way that her very popular book club has done for books.

A trio of documentaries have already been added to the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Documentary Film Club. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s “Becoming Chaz” and Christy Turlington Burns’s “No Woman, No Cry” will air on OWN this May, with Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s “Louder Than a Bomb” having its television premiere later in the year.

This is a very exciting time for documentary film making as the renaissance of documentary films is a direct result of affordable production  and post production tools that are allowing shooters to tell their stories.

As a micro documentary shooter, this gives me – and I’m sure many others – the hope that the craft that we love – that of telling compelling stories, now has a possible venue for display in a way that has never been available until now.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N70c9lI4hSU w=640 h=360 linktext={Watch Now} mode=3]

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Oprah Winfrey Network using DSLR Video for Network Series

The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) has released a teaser for their new series “Master Class” on their website and it shows that full production of the series appears to be done completely on Canon DSLR’s with Redrock Micro support rails, matte boxes, Follow Focus and their new EVF – The full teaser in MP4 format can be downloaded and viewed from the OWN website at http://goo.gl/2sUIm

In QT player, you can clearly see the setups at TC 1:30 and 2:29.

This screen gab clearly shows what’s being used.

The camera at timecode 2:39 also appears to be using the Redrock Micro EVF for the primary camera.

The image quality is outstanding as I originally saw this teaser on cable with a HDTV and went searching for the web version of the teaser.  The image quality more than held up to “broadcast” standards.  I’m curious as to their post production workflow as well.

With all the money she has at her disposal, this is a major announcement to prove DSLR video is really ready for broadcast.

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Using Intermediates In Post Production

Reading comment after comment on various forums of shooters using clips from highly compressed footage such as AVCHD and from DSLR’s is like a broken record.

Yet the mention of using intermediates for editing brings the response of “Why should I do that?  I should be able to just edit the native clips“.

And my response is “your wants versus the realities do not line up“.

The use of intermediates is a well known practice for major Hollywood motion pictures so the question is not if you should be using them, but why aren’t you using them?

I’ve tested the two options known on the PC side of things – Cineform and AVID DNxHD intermediates and I can tell you, using intermediates is a far better and more efficient way in the long run to edit if you want increased performance, real time playback and more accurate color grading capabilities.

I initially started out using Cineform NeoScene, but after extensive testing I just can’t recommend it until they resolve a glaring bug in their capture utility.  Currently HDLink removes the beginning and end of clips thereby removing frames if comparing to original clips. For long form post production work that is a serious issue.  Instead, I’ve gone to using AVID’s DNxHD codec and transcoding my highly compressed native GOP h.264 DSLR clips with MPEG Streamclip to the frame based DNxHD intermediate.   For those unfamiliar with MPEG Streamclip, it’s a free utility that utilizes Quicktime to do what it does.  And it does a fantastic job in the process of encoding to AVID DNxHD (or any other codec Quicktime can access).

According to AVID:  “Native HD camera compression formats are efficient, but simply aren’t engineered to maintain quality during complex post production effects processing. Uncompressed HD delivers superior image quality, but data rates and file sizes can stop a workflow dead in its tracks.  Avid DNxHD (intermediates) delivers both efficiency and quality without compromises.”

There are compelling reasons to use the AVID codec over Cineform – ie; it’s truly cross platform.  Any NLE that can read quicktime .MOV files along with installing the free codec can access and play them back.  Which means ANY Windows or MAC based NLE can be used to edit the clips if it can read Quicktime MOV files.  With Cineform, you pay for their codec and utility and have to jump through their activation hoops – which are known to not work as well as advertised.

Presently, I work in Premiere Pro CS5, and previously in Vegas Pro 10 32 & 64 bit and along with the latest version of Quicktime player – the clips work wonderfully.  I can play back 7 streams of DNxHD 720p 110mbps 10 bit clips on the timeline stacked in Best Full preview playback in real time.  That speaks volumes to me at the quality of the codec.  Bumping up to 1080p strains my Q9400 Quad core with 8GB RAM with a Raid 0, but it does playback well enough to get things done.  I encode to 720p 110mbps 10bit  to give me as much room as possible to grade my clips without degradation to the clips.  It’s the same principle that Cineform uses when transcoding to their AVI based intermediate.

There are those who like Cineform, and I’m sure it’s a good product.  I even had a license for NeoScene for over a year, but after I found the glaring bug that was first denied publically by those involved at Cineform, yet privately, was told by tech support that the bug was reproducable, I felt it was time to find another option.  And the slap in the face?  Cineform Tech Support’s response as a workaround was to edit the native highly compressed files. That sealed their fate in my work.

Hence my using AVID DNxHD intermediates as the foundation for all my post production.

Here’s my procedure to encode to AVID DNxHD from original clips.

You need to have the following installed in this order: Quicktime Player (The latest version), AVID DNxHD codec (Latest) and MPEG Streamclip.

Just as with Cineforms HDLink utility, you can batch encode your clips with MPEG Stream Clip and save them to another folder.

  • Once my original native footage are copied over, I open MPEG Stream Clip, select List and then batch list from the menu at the top.
  • Select Add Files at the bottom, and navigate to the folder with the native DSLR clips.  Add all the files to encode.
  • Then choose “Export To Quicktime” – do not check any of the boxes presented.  Uncheck them if any are checked.
  • At that point you will be asked to select the folder where you want the rendered intermediates to go.  Once you select that folder, a window will open that shows your encode options.  It will probably default to “Apple Motion JPEG A”. Drop that box down and select “AVID DNxHD Codec”.  If it doesn’t show as an option, you need to make sure you have installed the DNxHD codec.  If it shows, slide the Quality Slider all the way to the right (100%).  Select the options button.  You should leave the RGB radio button as the default, Alpha is None, and then comes the place you select the bitrate and color space (8 or 10 bit).
  • My workflow has been to select the 720p 110mb 10 bit 29.97 option when delivering my clips to the web.  I choose that to still give me HD quality footage and to give me a slighly smaller clip in pixel aspect ratio (PAR).  Whatever option you choose, click ok.
  • Next, I select the Frame size (in my case, 1280×720 radio button) in the Frame Size area.  Since my footage is being resized, I select Better Downscaling under Frame Rate.
  • For audio, I select Uncompressed Stereo and 48khz (DSLR cameras usually shoot in 44khz, but I select manually just to match to the project settings I use – I will then sync in post with my Zoom H1 audio recorder as needed which is also recorded at 48khz 16 bit).    With regards to Stereo, some shooters who only use one chnnel when recording audio with their video may want to change that to mono.  It does make things easier once in post not having to try and combine audio channels after the fact (a simple procedure in Vegas Pro btw).
  • Once all that is done, Select the “To Batch” button.  You will then see all your clips added to the batch window to be processed according to your settings.  If you’re sure of your settings, click on the “Go” button and this will start your batch render.

Depending on the number of CPU cores you have, you can actually have more than one clip encode at a time.  It does speed up the process somewhat.

Once the original clips are encoded to DNxHD, I choose to archive the original DSLR files to blu-ray discs once the project is finished along with the project files and all other associated files – this allows for pulling the project to edit again if needed since originals are also in a .MOV file wrapper – just like the DNxHD intermediates.  This will free up hard drive space needed while in the actual editing environment. When transcoding clips from Canon’s 5D, 7D, and T2i, it works wonderfully and renders a little faster due to the clips already being MOV wrapped h264 files.

So you may be asking why go through all this in the first place? – Read AVID’s explanation here for the details.

I have personally endured editing compressed footage and it doesn’t hold up well for the most part in color grading.  It also taxes the CPU extensively – even the latest i7 CPU’s.  Those who have slightly older hardware will benefit greatly from going through this process of getting your footage encoded to a more friendly, less CPU taxing intermediate file format.  In addition, if there’s any collaboration to be done in post, the AVID DNxHD clips can be brought into ANY NLE.  Along with an exported AAF or EDL, you can hand off your project to another editor using a different NLE.

This is how Hollywood edit’s multimillion dollar blockbusters.  You too can use the same techniques to edit your projects with alot less frustration .

I highly recommend using intermediates when in post production.  It just makes sense.

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The Broadcast Spectrum and Post Production

When we as solovj’s, backpack journalists, digital correspondents and/or documentary film makers talk about producing content for broadcast, in the past it was a clearly defined paradigm meant for traditional broadcast venues ie; television.

Today, the broadcast spectrum is much wider – entailing not only television, but also internet content distribution to multiple platforms including portable devices.

Traditional post production environments are locked in a rigid methodology about delivering to broadcast and as such, require alot of hoop jumping to get from point A to point B when delivering to alternative content distribution platforms.

What’s required to stay agile and deliver to multiple distribution platforms is a new way of thinking around post production that isn’t locked in that narrow world view.

With the development of post environments such as SONY Creative Suite and Adobe Creative Suite, the confines of what it means to deliver to the Broadcast Spectrum has shifted.

As opposed to rigid post production environments such as AVID’s Media Composer and Apple’s Final Cut Suite – and even to a certain extend Adobe’s Creative Suite – which still have their workflow methodologies rooted in film post production, the third party applications required to go outside this culture of film production only entails moving from the editing suite to encoding apps in order to get things done. Don’t get me wrong – these suites provide a high level of professional post produciton environments for film – but at a cost of productivity to one man army film production entities like myself.

I may sound like a broken record, but until one has actually edited in SONY Vegas Pro, as well as the rest of the Sony Creative Software applications, you know not what you’re missing. The ability to manage virtually all typical aspects of post production inside of Vegas Pro or the rest of the Master Suite rubs against the very culture of post production – ie; separate applications utilized by separate post production editors for sound, color grading, cutting , etc. There will be those who say projects edited in Vegas Pro don’t meet broadcast specification such as certain technical requirements, but in my research and discussion privately with those who have experience in this area, broadcasters have begun to relax some of those standards somewhat due to the pervasiveness of content that’s now available.

The skills of being a “jack of all trades, master of many” in the 21st century requires a new mindset around the complete project – not just shooting a story. It requires the ability to move into the post production environment almost seamlessly, and assembling that story into a cohesive project – without having to learn separate applications – which can only add to the confusion of the post production process.  Specialization has its place, but the sheer volume of content being produced now requires having more than just the skill of shooting or editing – it now requires both and the ability to tell a story while doing both – and doing it well.

I’m sure there will be those who will vehemently disagree with my perspective on this issue.  I’ve tested just about every post environment to some degree. I have both experienced myself and read from others about the hoop jumping to get from point A to Point B with the other options and I can attest that for the most part that SONY’s Vegas Pro – and the rest of their Master Suite, can accomplish more in a shorter period of time than anything else available at the present time.  Is it a perfect solution?  If it were, everyone would be using it.  Just as there are no perfect cameras, there are no perfect post production applications.  Choose one, and discover for yourself what suits your style.

Could my perspective change on my post production choice? Perhaps.

But I have my doubts it will.

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Taking A Different Path

There are elements of what video journalism is/has become that has never settled well with me.

The infighting that exists within the old school shooters versus the solovj paradigm has gotten to the point of being childish – and I’m the first to admit I contributed to it in the beginning.

Now I’ve come to a fork on the path I’ve been traveling.  One path is the continuance with the solovj paradigm.  The other takes me down what I feel is my true calling – that of a documentary filmmaker.

This new path feels right.  The slowing down of all the deadlines for short stories, the constant hoop jumping that occurs with trying to keep up with the Jones’ with all the crazy constant gear upgrades many in the profession seem to feel they need to do in order to stay competitive.  And at the same time, all the gear in the world doesn’t make you a great story teller – and most fall short in that regard.

Documentary shooters are more conservative with their gear – it suits my disposition perfectly.

In this process, I had to think about this path.  What was it I wanted to do as a visual documenter? It felt like the content I had created as a solovj left me lacking.

Realizing this, I had been taking inventory of what it was I really wanted to do. I realized I wanted to TELL stories, not report them.

My post production mentor recently explained it to me this way:  video journalists find and report a story.  Documentary filmmakers find and tell a story. Video Journalists win Emmy’s, Documentary Filmmakers win Academy Awards.

It wasn’t so much about the awards aspect that struck me.  It was the description of reporting versus telling a story that turned the light on in a moment of epiphany for me.

I realized the path of documentary filmmaking has been my calling all along.  I was a documentary still photographer in my past work, and it’s that telling of stories in depth that is the core of what I am and do as a visual content creator.

All along, I’ve heard more selling on both expensive and not so expensive courses for shooters – most marketed towards the shooters desperation to become video savvy – and yet the crucial elements of solid story telling seem to get cast aside for the sake of quick turnaround on these boot camps - some costing upwards of $2500. The constant upgrade cycle on gear to have the latest and greatest as a crutch has only added fuel to the flames.

The true essence of real change in society has come from in depth story telling – the documentary genre’ as a tool for real change.  It has been said that it can be used as a platform for propaganda - the same can be said for todays news reporting – look at how Fox News reports “Their” conservative version of the news, while at the same time, MSNBC, CNN, etc reports the same topic, but with a more liberal bias.

The bottom line is news media is now corporate news media – profit margins and viewer eyeballs are what’s important – even if it means selling sensationalist news for the sake of the sheeple masses never ending hunger for the pablum they’re willing to be fed by the corporate news media.

So, I’ve chosen to take the road less traveled – that of a documentary filmmaker.  I’ll apply the construct of the solo video journalist paradigm, working as a self contained production entity to meld the two into a new paradigm – that of the microdocumentary filmmaker.  The “Micro” is the less is more production process of compact equipment while at the same time, bring a more thought out process for the creation/production of thought provoking documentary content across multiple distribution channels.

Taking the road less traveled as a documentary film maker will not be easy, but in the end, the rewards will be both financial and personal for me.

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The Micro Documentary Paradigm Shift

Another paradigm shift has begun for me in my pursuit of defining what it is I do as a visual content creator.

A recent discussion I had with my editing mentor brought to light a dramtic shift in defining what video journalism is compared to documentary film making.

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Next Generation Journalist E-Book

Looking at the current state of the industry as a solo video journalist is sobering.

Many started their educational efforts 4 years ago and in the middle of that process, watched as the profession began burning to the ground – in what seemed uncontrollably – to the point of almost depressing for those who aspired to what was once a noble profession.

But all is not lost. For those willing to roll up their sleeves and make the effort to adapt and become agile there is hope.

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