Blackmagic Expands ProRes Support, DJI Has a New MoVI Competitor, and More

From formats to flight plans, here's a round-up of this week's news for cinematographers.
 
Blackmagic Expands ProRes Support in BMCC, Pocket, and 4K Cameras
Blackmagic's latest firmware upgrade, v1.8.2, extends the company's support for Apple ProRes formats. Previously, users had the choice of recording CinemaDNG raw or compressed ProRes 422 HQ. The new firmware release adds a slate of lower-bandwidth codecs, including ProRes 422, ProRes 422 LT, and ProRes 422 Proxy. Your mileage may vary, but ProRes 422 LT is generally thought of as a pretty respectable codec for undemanding imagery. Many shooters will draw the line at 422 Proxy, which is generally considered an offline editing format and unsuitable for use in a final deliverable — but in a pinch, you can now fit nearly four hours of talking-head footage on a single 64 GB SD card if you're willing to go that low. (Just don't try to push the image in post.) Blackmagic users are discussing the new options at the company's Cinematography Forum. Read more: forum.blackmagicdesign.com
 
In other Blackmagic news, the company is running a half-price sale on its Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, bringing the price down to a ridiculous $495 through August 31. If you've been considering it, now's the time to pull the trigger, especially if you happen to be sitting on a collection of MFT glass.Think how much footage you can accumulate with the new, lower-bandwidth recording options — why leave home without a camera in your pocket?
 
DJI Introduces Competitor for the MoVI M5
Cinematography drone specialist DJI introduced the DJI Ronin, a three-axis stabilized handheld gimbal. The Ronin has a payload of up to 16 pounds, meaning it can hold cameras ranging in size up to the Red Epic. Like the MoVI, the Ronin has a single-operator mode called Smoothtrack that aims to translate the operator's movements into smooth motion, but the rig is likely at its best in dual-operator mode, where a second person remotely controls the precise camera angle via an included transmitter with pan, tilt and roll controls. The rig's settings can be changed on-the-fly via Bluetooth using an iPhone app. Hitting the market at a street price under $3,000, the Ronin is getting an aggressive push as a direct competitor to MoVI M5 from Freefly Systems. Read more: www.dji.com/product/ronin
 
Don't Ditch That Drone
Speaking of DJI and its drones, Eric Reagan at Photography Bay has a good post looking at the potential for DJI Phantom "flyaways" — basically, a sudden loss of control that could lead to loss, damage, or (in the worst case) human injury — and offering a few tips for helping to ensure a successful flight. Read more: How to Prevent Flyaways with DJI Phantom Quadcopters.
 
 
MoVI Gets Ready to Ship Optional MoVI Controller
The latest firmware upgrade for the MoVI family of stabilizers has been upgraded to support the forthcoming MoVI Controller, first shown at NAB 2014. It offers access to pan, tilt, and roll, displays real-time telemetry from the MoVI, and allows adjustments to key MoVI parameters. In the future, it's slated to include focus, iris and zoom control via a dedicated three-channel MoVI FIZ system. Paired with a single IDX battery, it can power an LCD monitor and wireless system. The MoVI Controller is expected to start shipping next week, and AbelCine has more details at its CineTechnica blog. Read more: Freefly Systems' Firmware v3.08 Adds Support for New MoVI Controller.
 
Cinemartin Launches FLEC Universal Base Plate
Cinemartin is bringing its first physical product to market — a 15mm universal baseplate. It's designed for use with small and medium cameras and sports a tool-less design that lets users adjust positions using nuts and screws rather than Allen wrenches. It's available as a €99 one-piece baseplate or in a €229 kit that includes an additional top-cover piece allowing more adjustability. Read more: www.cinemartin.com/universal-baseplate/
 
Bonus Video: Watch This Octopus Start to Dismantle an Underwater Camera Housing
 

The Golden Pixie Awards

I know a lot of you are up to date on all the new 3D tools, but some of you are not. There are so many tools these days that it can be overwhelming. For example, when I first started covering the VFX Industry in its infancy, I covered all the available software. Mostly at first 3D Studio, a powerful but awkward DOS program, and eventually LightWave, a cumbersome multi-app package that had a killer render engine. The serious 3D packages only ran on expensive computers in those days.

But back then I was a columnist at Animation Magazine and covered them all, from Alias Wavefront and Softimage to 3D Studio and even Caligari trueSpace! Back in the day, I used to give out a limited number of “Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards.” They were cherished, and the Golden Pixie Logo was printed on many software and hardware boxes then. I wish I had a picture.

When I left Animation Magazine, I stopped awarding them, but I think it's time to start recognizing this kind of excellence again. I use the award to bring a little bit of the spotlight to excellent products and devices that may be less well known, or are just so spectacular or industry-leading that they need to be included.

This year, I'm looking closely at the following: the open-source Blender, The Foundry Modo, Marmoset Toolbag 2, the Quixel Suite, Pixologic ZBrush, E-on Vue and Plant Factory, Allegorithmic Substance Painter, Headus UVLayout Professional, xNormal and CrazyBump. I also decided to take a quick look at Daz 3D Daz Studio. Along with Blender, it's free and represents a lot of value. I also have to look at Adobe's Creative Cloud suite and possibly The Foundry's Mari. For the new test bed computer, I'm looking at Nvidia's Quadro 5000, which has a significant performance boost over the previous Quadro 5000, especially where hardware rendering is involved.

I wish I had time for more, but I also co-chair Mundos Digitales in Spain, which is coming up fast as I write this. [It happened last weekend, while this blog entry was in the Studio posting queue. - Ed.] So I keep pretty busy.

I'm Already Quixel-Titillated
Anyway. I'm not ready to give any awards yet as I'm still examining. But I'm falling rapidly in love with the Quixel Suite of texture tools, NDO, DDO, 3DO and MEGASCANS. As I understand it, this remarkable suite of tools was developed for the game industry and plays very nicely with Marmoset Toolbag 2 and the Unity game engine.

The thing is, these tools that are actually a set of very sophisticated photoshop plug-ins work with Megascan materials — IMHO, the best on the planet. Even in my non-professional hands, I can get amazing results. DDO is a smart texture tool. It analyzes your mesh and adapts the texture to match it. It can handle many layers, putting real wear and tear in exactly the right places. 3DO is a real-time PBR engine for Photoshop that produces real-time results that are hard to believe. I'm getting so used to it that waiting to see results in other applications drives me nuts.

I'm just learning this new terminology. Apparently the game industry render world uses different terms than the film world. I suggest you learn them. For example, the color map is called an albedo map. But not always. Go figure. But don't take my word for it. According to Wikipedia, albedo has to do with reflection coefficients. So color me a novice here. Also, there are roughness maps that are different from specular maps. You guys know all this, but this is the first time I've started looking into game tools. This blog is just a teaser for what is to come.

Here is one of my first attempts to do a serious photoreal hard-surface texture. The sci-fi helmet I've been experimenting on was created in ZBrush by Michael Pavlovich. I think the before and after tell the story of Quixel. I only used a single smart texture on this, but now I'm working on isolating and separately texturing various components. Look at the surface detail. (Click the image to enlarge.)

At the moment, I'm dealing with the latest Microsoft Windows 7 update, which causes my computer to not boot. I restore it and when I shut off at night, Microsoft again updates and next morning … won't boot. Have to restore again. I don't use Windows 8 on the test bed computer because I think it's unreliable and wonky. I know because I put it on my personal computer and regret it.

Have fun this summer.

-P-

EBU to TV Industry: Next-Gen Broadcast Standards Need More than Just 4K Resolution

The European Broadcasting Union has criticized the consumer electronics industry, arguing that the push to increase TV resolution may come at the expense of equally significant advancements in color, dynamic range and audio. In a policy statement issued last week, the group said focusing on 4K resolution as the sole defining characteristic of next-generation television hardware may undermine the success of new broadcast services.

Instead, the EBU Technical Committee argued for the inclusion of higher frame rates, increased image contrast, better color and more immersive audio in future broadcast standards. And the group even went one step further, suggesting the development of an "enhanced 1080p" broadcast format that would include certain UHDTV parameters such as high frame rates, extended dynamic range, and wider color gamuts, without embracing 4K resolution.

The organization didn't exactly sound an alarm in its statement, but it did note in a single bullet point that broadband services including YouTube, Netflix and Amazon seem to be ready to deliver some of these extended parameters for picture quality that the broadcast industry is, as yet, unprepared to address. For example, Dolby Vision (we've written a little more about that here) is expressly designed to dramatically increase the dynamic range of encoded video images, but there are no guidelines yet on how that kind of technology might be integrated with next-generation broadcasts.

The statement also acknowledges the headlong rate of technological announcement, noting that 8K "Super Hi-Vision" is expected to go online in Japan just in time for the 2020 Olympics and wondering about that system's impact on the rest of the world.

Does the EBU have a point? Sure. Even at 1080p, there's plenty of room for improvement over standard HDTV broadcasts, especially when compression artifacts in challenging shots (strobe lights, rainfall, confetti) threaten to reduce the entire screen to a checkerboard of macroblocks. And high dynamic range imagery really can be breathtaking, giving TV more of that looking-out-the-window quality.

But even though it would be a shame for the industry to advance to 4K broadcasts that emphasize more pixels rather than better pixels, you have to wonder how much time it will really take for the broadcast industry to sort out all of these different picture enhancements. (Enough time for some enterprising TV-maker to leapfrog the standard and start selling 8K TVs? Maybe.)

We're honoring the EBU's explicit request that the document not be quoted in part, but you can download the whole thing as a PDF from the EBU website.

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10 TV Tidbits: 24: Live Another Day

The biggest surprise on 24 this year may just be that the show's really good. Yes, the Jack Bauer Power Hour really did run out of steam by the time it left the air in 2010. And, yes, there's plenty about 24: Live Another Day that feels overly familiar — there's a U.S. president who's not quite sure whether to trust Jack, there's a weasel on the president's staff who wants to betray Jack, and there's a woman who still seems to love him despite what he did to her back in season 8 —  but when the show is on target, it fires on all cylinders. Last week's episode reached an explosive climax at Wembley Stadium, leading many fans to wonder: did 24 really go there? Well, we'll try not to spoil anything in case you're not caught up. You should be safe reading this recap of what we know about production and post on the show, which shot this year in London, based on information released today by 24 post facility Encore as well as various sources around the web.
 
This time, 24 turns to the ARRI Alexa. The biggest difference between the original series and this reboot is probably that 24 was always captured on 35mm film, but 24: Live Another Day is shot on the Alexa. According to post facility Encore, footage is mailny recorded in Log-C ProRes 422 (HQ). The Alexa footage is occasionally intercut with pick-up shots from GoPro and other B-camera units shooting AVCHD.
 
— Encore Press Release
 
The new DP has been here all along. Cinematographer Jeffrey Mygatt, who takes over this year from longtime series DP Rodney Charters, ASC (lately busy with Dallas), has worked on 24 since its pilot, and he served as the show's cinematographer for several episodes in the series' fourth and sixth seasons. According to IMDb, his other credits include stints on Prison Break, Terra Nova, Touch, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
 
Jeffrey Mygatt's IMDb page
 
 
Budget watch: film stock. According to Charters, quoted in Noah Kadner's book Red: The Ultimate Guide to Using the Revolutionary Camera, the original 24 spent $4 million per season on Kodak film stock. Because Live Another Day is just 12 episodes, compared to the 24 episodes that made up a season of 24, the move to digital may eliminate a $2 million budget item.
 
— Rodney Charters, quoted in Red: The Ultimate Guide to Using the Revolutionary Camera [PDF excerpt; scroll down to page 30]
 
Budget watch: tax incentives. By moving to London, 24 takes advantage of a new U.K. tax incentive introduced in 2013 that allows television productions spending more than £1m per hour to pick up a 20 percent tax rebate. "It's harder to fake London" than previous 24 settings like Washington, D.C., and New York City executive producer Howard Gordon said in an interview with Quartz. "Between that, tax breaks, and the fun of it, we said, 'Let's do it.'"
 
— Howard Gordon, quoted by Quartz
 
Budget watch: the tech who wasn't there. The production studio has a no-DIT policy for TV programming, according to an interview with Mygatt at HD Video Pro. Instead, the DIT's tasks are offloaded onto the DP, who is expected to communicate all of his color choices clearly from set by providing stills that reflect the intended look.
 
— Jeffrey Mygatt, quoted by HD Video Pro
 
Request denied: VFX. Encore Hollywood's VFX department apparently asked that the camera be locked-off when shooting action scenes to make it easier to place CG elements. Responded Mygatt, "No amount of after-the-fact shaking and zooming on the plate is going to match the credibility of what we do in the moment, so you're going to have to find a way to get your effects to work with the way we shoot. We can put in cardboard stand-ins and extra tracking markers to help you place your element … but we can't compromise the style."
 
— Jeffrey Mygatt, quoted by HD Video Pro
 
 
Encore London handled the dailies. The show had four deliverable formats: Avid DNxHD 36 for editorial in London, a DVD disc image (.ISO) for production, QuickTime files for DP Jeffrey Mygatt to review on his iPad, and MP4 files distributed via the Dax platform. The DNxHD files were also sent to Encore Hollywood via Aspera Point to Point, which transfers files at up to 300 Mbps, and source material is archived to LTO-5 tapes that were shipped to Encore Hollywood.
 
— Encore Press Release
 
Encore Hollywood handled the online. The show is conformed on an Avid Symphony at Encore Hollywood. Encore Senior Editor Heydar Adel matches the cuts to the high-resolution source footage, integrates VFX shots, and adds fixes and secondary effects like muzzle flashes using Adobe After Effects.
 
— Encore Press Release
 
Color is complicated. Color-grading takes place on a Linux workstation running Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve. The show's split-screen sequences make the task a little more complex, since those scenes feature multiple edits on screen at the same time, meaning the different panels need individual, cut-by-cut attention within the overall frame. Encore Senior Colorist Kevin Kirwan takes about 12 to 13 hours to complete an episode before it's sent back to the Symphony suite, where Adel adds final titles and graphic elements, including the show's iconic countdown clock.
 
— Encore Press Release
 
We're running out of time! If you liked the watches worn by some of the show's characters, you'll be able to buy one just like them in July, thanks to a deal struck between the producers and the U.S. Agency Watch Company. It's either a shrewd piece of marketing or the latest example of product placement run amuck, depending on your point of view. At any rate, the CTU1 24Watch sells for a cool $249.
 
— U.S. Agency Watch Company owner Mike Gee, quoted by The Hollywood Reporter

Top Seven Takeaways from Apple’s WWDC Keynote

What's been cooking in Cupertino? Today was the big keynote address at Apple's World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC), in which Apple CEO Tim Cook rolled out the company's latest and greatest for an audience of software developers — as well as Mac lovers and haters worldwide who tuned in to the live video stream. Apple didn't introduce any new hardware, nor did the company address Final Cut Pro X, concentrating instead on the new features in the forthcoming OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, including a slew of news aimed squarely at programmers. But any improvement to Apple's core products is a boon to the creative pros who gravitate toward iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and Mac Pros in their daily lives. There was a lot of news today for developers, but here's a quick summary of the high points of today's nearly two-hour-long presentation.
 
Apple is learning to be less of a control freak.
Apple announced a new level of extensibility to applications in iOS, which are normally isolated in sandboxes. Now, applications will be allowed to reach out of their own sandboxes interact with other apps' extensions. Apple showed one extension that allows Bing Translation to do inline translations on web pages loaded in Safari, but the big news for iOS users is that potentially speedier third-party keyboards, like the popular Swype keyboard for Android, will finally be allowed to replace the vanilla Apple-provided keyboard system-wide. That's a major (and very welcome) concession from a company that has historically maintained a stranglehold on user experience. 
 
 
Programming for OS X and iOS may have just gotten a lot easier.
Apple announced Swift, a new language for developing OS X and iOS applications that replaces Objective-C. At the WWDC keynote, Apple's Chris Lattner demoed a highly interactive development environment in Xcode called a Swift playground that allows programmers to see exactly what they're doing — what different variables represent, or which images are being loaded — as they type in each line of code. Swift code can work alongside C and Objective-C code in the same application, and is completely native to the Cocoa and Cocoa touch development frameworks for OS X and iOS. Judging from the crowd reaction, Swift, which jettisons much of the baggage associated with the venerable C, was the biggest and most welcome surprise of the keynote. If your job description requires you to develop apps for Apple devices, you'll want the just-released eBook The Swift Programming Language, available for free download through iTunes.
 
Annotated sharing is hitting the mainstream.
New annotation features in Mail will allow Mac users to grab photos and magnify portions of them, add notes, and/or draw arrows to highlight different regions of interest. The feature is obviously aimed at casual sharing of group photos, vacation snapshots and the like, but filmmakers may find it to be a very handy way to precisely add quick notes to screen shots, giving additional guidance to collaborators in editing, color, or VFX. In addition, Mail will also have a feature built in that allows users to share large files (up to 5 GB) via email using iCloud, rather than overtaxed email servers, to actually move the data around. That's not a game-changer, but it could be a useful shortcut between Mac users.
 
The iPhone's camera is getting more useful. 
Apple is opening its camera API to allow direct manipulation of white balance, exposure, and focus in third-party camera apps. Meanwhile, the built-in Photos app will now offer users much more granular information about parameters like brightness, contrast, and exposure. There's no indication that the camera's video features have been similarly enhanced — although iOS 8 will include a time-lapse mode. The iPhone camera isn't exactly pro quality, but it's certainly not bad, and all of this will only make it a better tool for snapshots.
 
 
Mac and iOS users keep themselves up to date. 
Apple CEO Tim Cook razzed Google over OS stagnation in the Android user base, claiming that 89 percent of iOS users have upgraded to the new iOS 7, versus just 9 percent of Android users who are on KitKat. In addition, he said that Apple's free OS X Mavericks upgrade has been installed by more than half of the overall Mac user base. That gives developers more incentive to work the latest features of both operating systems into their apps.
 
Apple's iCloud Drive catches up with Google Drive. And Microsoft OneDrive. And Dropbox …
You get the picture. Apple upgraded its iCloud service for OS X Yosemite by adding a folder called iCloud Drive that syncs with servers on Apple's end, allowing access on iPhone, iPad and even Windows PCs. It'll be yet another handy place for Mac users to store important information that they need to access from multiple locations, but hardly a game-changer.
 
 
Your phone is becoming less important as a phone.
An upgrade to iMessage means you don't need to pick up your phone to read and respond to text messages, even if they are being sent from non-Apple devices. Instead, they will be displayed on-screen in the iMessage app for OS X. According to Apple, you won't even have to pick up your phone to make a call. Your phone service can be integrated with OS X so that you can use your MacBook Pro as a speakerphone. That's pretty slick, assuming (big assumption) it all works as advertised.
 
OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 are available now to registered developers, and will enter general release in the fall. If you want to be a beta tester, Apple is taking sign-ups on the web, saying the first million registrants will be invited to test-drive Yosemite — albeit without some of its most-anticipated features in place — this summer. (You probably don't want to try that on a machine you use for production.)
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