Posted by: digitalpelican | May 13, 2009

RSS Feed Test

I’ve just added the subscription feeds to this blog.  The XML, RSS, and orange button with white radio waves.  This blog entry is to test that they are working.

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | May 11, 2009

Program Management – Two Approaches

In planning for the new emergency preparedness project I mentioned in the last post; I’ve come up with two production paths. The intension is to meet the needs of the participants of the group. First goal for everyone was to gain confidence in their production skills by participating in shoots. They didn’t want to be given an assignment, handed a camera, and turned loose. They were asking for someone to give them some guidance during the shoot. The second goal was to learn about developing a project from the ground up from research to production to editing to distribution.

I’m suggesting two production approaches, a short form and a longer form. The short form is an implementation of the original ideal for the project, one-minute pieces on how to prepare for a disaster. This can be as simple as a paragraph of text for narration and a shot list. The piece that would go out on the access cable will be about one minute long. Depending on the topic, there could be a somewhat longer version for streaming or downloading on the web. The longer form is intended to be about 15 minutes long (more or less). Programs in this group will require more time in development, performing research, interviewing experts, structuring the show’s content, finding locations, writing narration, locating props, finding people willing to be on screen. I’ll use these projects to go through the pre-production, production, and post-production world of video.

That’s the plan. I should know if it will work in about two weeks.

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | May 10, 2009

Another Studio Shoot

Director blocking out action with talent

Director blocking out action with talent

Another day, another studio shoot at the local access community TV station.  A different group with different strengths and challenges.  I had little to do during the setup phase of today’s shoot except as physical labor.  Once the props were in place, I could sit and watch the chaos around me.

The volunteer experience is still new to me and I’m finding it’s taking a lot for me to just go with it.  Confusion has been the major experience in the four studio shoots I’ve participated in so far.  It is the repeating theme, no matter who is in charge.  Watching the “experienced” volunteer setup lighting today was a puzzling experience.  Although ultimately most of the lights on the overhead pipe grid were aimed somewhat differently than they had been when we walked into the studio, the criteria for successful lighting of  talent and set was to turn on every light mounted to the grid.  Result: lots of diffused light bouncing around the studio.  Upon questioning, the lighting director admitted he has stock in the local power utility company.

Once we were finally rolling tape, my function was to operate camera two.  This consisted of tromboning in and out from a two-shot of the speaker and his guest musician, to a head and shoulders shot of the musician listening to the speaker.  Not the most demanding task, but I accomplished my duties with pride.

As I was thinking about the last two studio shoots I participated in, I’ve decided I was lucky years ago when I was working in video production.  Most of my experience was with location shoots, often outdoors, sometimes in a boat, sometimes in a helicopter.  I complained at the time about having to lug heavy equipment around and there was nobody to help me.  The crew for those shoots consisted of just me.  I had to figure out how to make it work and I got the grief if others didn’t think it worked.  But I only had to worry about what I was going to do.  Ah, the good old days.

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | May 9, 2009

Project Management and Mentoring

Two new opportunities, project management and mentoring.  This week I’ve been given the chance to develop and produce content for the local community access channel and, through the production of the shows, mentor individuals who wish to learn about the video production process.  All of this in a volunteer environment.  Interesting.

The nature of the shows, emergency/disaster/earthquake preparedness is pretty familiar territory for me.  Contacting members of the emergency services community to gain their cooperation is, based on past experience, time consuming and occasionally frustrating, but no big deal.  To be sure, there is no lack of topics to address or ways to approach them.  Strangely, in my experience that’s usually not the problem, it is narrowing down the choices to options that are “doable,” that is, something you can actually execute with the time and resources available.  This is where the project management becomes in.

From my past experience working with inexperienced groups or individuals at the planning stage of a video project, the biggest problem is calming the them down from the, “yeah, but we could do …” (insert new, unrelated, wild tangent concept here).  This is the next step in the process after someone says, “Hey, we could put on a show.  Sure, we could use dad’s barn.”  You know the rest.

The old saying, “it’s like herding cats” comes to mind.  Perhaps is this just the nature of the brainstorming process, finding the point in the process when open-ended exploration needs to end and focused development of those ideas on the table needs to begin.  For the leader of the group, convincing everyone that point has been reached can be tough.  I find myself trying to pull back members of the group who are continuing to sore off on their fight of imagination in the world they have constructed.  In this case, I’ve been lucky so far.  There are only three members of the group.  I’ve come up with a plan I think will work to produce content and provide the mentoring experience.  Next week is our second meeting, we’ll see if it works.

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | May 3, 2009

Book Review: The Technology of Audio and Video Streaming

Ever want to know more about the nuts and bolts of how digital video works, how the magic of web video happens?  Ok, it’s not on the top of most people’s list, but I have a geeky side and I’ve given up trying to deny it.  Occasionally I put on my propeller beanie and pretend I understand technology.  Enter “The Technology of Audio and Video Streaming” (Kindle version) by David Austerberry (Second edition, 2005, ISBN: 9780240805801).

Reading Technology of Audio and Video Streaming, I found myself wishing there was a companion “Dummy” version in some of the more technical areas.  I got the impression Austerberry’s approach would be a perfect as the starting place for the server guy in the IT department who has just been given the job of supporting the new streaming media servers.  There is considerable attention paid to Internet transportation protocols specific for streaming media applications and the associated file types.  Which is fine, if that’s your thing.  I wished Austerberry had given more context to help the camera and microphone people understand how the protocols work and why they are out there.

At the same time, I enjoyed the data dump the book gives on what is going on under the hood to make digital media work.  As far as this book is concerned, video and audio is just another data type.  I came away with a sense of appreciation for all those very bright people who figured out the math and engineering to make it all work.  I also have a better understanding of why we need high compression formats to make the pictures on our TVs and monitors work.  Actually, I’m sort of in awe it works as well as it does.  Consider:

A standard video frame is 720 x 483 pixels and is sampled at 13.5 MHz at 8-bit (R=8 + G=8 + B=8) depth at 30 frames per second for a total stream of 248 Mbits/second of data without any synchronization or control information.  Add the synch and control data, and we’re talking about 270 Mbits/s for what is know as “601” quality.  That’s a lot of ones and zeros that have to arrive in the right order at the right time.  Remember the late 1990’s when people still had 56K dial-up modems?  That means to have video play on a dial-up connection, the video data had to be reduced by a factor of about 4,000!  And we were complaining about postage stamp size video windows in our browsers

Ever hear of 4:2:2 video?  This comes from the number of times the analog video signal is sampled and has been adapted from earlier composite digital video systems.  The analog signal was sampled four times the rate of the sub-carrier rate (4 x 3.375 = 13.5 MHz).  Today, this approach as been adopted for digital video.  So, the “4” in 4:2:2 means the luminance (dark-light) information was sampled four times, and the two “2s” means the color components of the signal were only sampled two times.  With this emphasis on the luminance information, the compression approach is similar to that used to create JPEG files.  Evidentially, we humans get a lot of our visual information from the dark-light or grayscale aspect of the visual world and not so much from the color information.  We can lose a lot of that color information without any problem.  There is also a considerable data rate benefit to this approach of only using sampled information from the original analog signal.  4:2:2 is a 2/3 reduction over the original analog signal size and 4:1:1 (used by some formats) is a reduction of ½ the original.

Next, the heavy lifting of compression, temporal compression.  It’s used in formats such as MPEG-1, 2, and 4.  This is a real simplification of the idea of temporal compression, but it only updates the information in a frame that has changed since the last frame.  That’s basically what’s going on.  Rather than update each frame with completely new information (i.e., the complete data needed for an entire video frame), they mostly just update that part that changed.  This is the basics of how video is compressed for use on cable channels, DVDs, and satellites.  Austerberry moves on to talk about some useful hints and tips to improve your video for compression for web delivery.

It seems noise in the video signal is a major file size inflator.  The compression application (i.e., “codec” for coder-decoder) doesn’t know what part of the video is information and what part is noise.  Reducing the noise in the video signal, as well as the audio signal, is an important step in getting video ready for the web.  Audio for web videos is like AM radio, the intelligibility is improved if the dynamic range is compressed, in this case, this means the average loudness of the signal is held relatively constant.

Two more file size reduction steps: de-interlace the video (if it was shot as an interlaced format) and crop the frame size down to the safe action area.  The reason for this last step is that web video is seen as full-frame video unlike the stuff we broadcast or distribute via cable to our homes.

A few more video for the web tips or How to Shoot for the Small Screen:

  • Move in close
  • Keep the frame simple and uncluttered
  • The less motion, the better
  • Keep the camera still – use a tripod
  • Let the subject move around in a still frame
  • If you have to move the camera, use a dolly or steadycam-like device for smooth movement
  • Avoid panning or tilting shots

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | April 28, 2009

Lynda.com – Review

What a great site!  I first experienced training from Lynda.com in the late 90’s when I bought her book on web design and Dreamweaver.  Back then she used the line: HOT for seemingly all her books.  HOT stood for Hands On Training, nice touch.  The content was relevant, the course exercises interesting and well designed, and the illustrations were great.  That was before software training moved to screen capture/video tutorials.  Books included a CD with exercise files.  Enter today’s world with DSL and streaming video.

Surf over to Lynda.com and you’ll find an extensive library of streaming tutorials/classes available for different levels of consumption and cost.  I explored the library of tittles and found each course has some free sample lessons to get an idea of the content and style of the instructor.  I recommend exploring these before getting out the plastic.  The samples I watched looked good, so I went for the cheapest approach, paying $25 for unlimited viewing (no downloading) for one month.

After logging on and going through the payment process, I started with Final Cut Pro 6 – Essential Editing.  This title, and at least two more are taught by Larry Jordan, a training empire on to himself.  I believe the course was 7.5 hours in total.  I could watch a lesson, rewind to any part, go forward to another lesson, and come back as many times as I wanted.  It was great.  Jordan does a good job of walking you through the steps of the FCP application, the demonstrations are detailed and well structured, and he has a interesting way (humor) of keeping the student involved with the course.  During my month I viewed the following titles:

  • Final Cut Pro 6 – Essential Editing
  • Final Cut Pro 6 – Essential Effects
  • Switching from Windows to Mac OSX
  • Digital Video Principles
  • QuickTime Compression Principles
  • Podcasts

Basically, I consumed as much as I could for my $25.  All the titles were well done, some were more recent than others.  I did wonder sometimes about how up to date the information was.  Some of the topics I viewed, such as Digital Video Principles is changing slowly enough to have a reasonable shelf life.  The course on switching from Windows to Mac OSX will be fine until Mac updates their OS.  Stuff to do with the web is a different matter.  Some of the URLs presented in the Podcast title are no longer valid, although most still are.

Bottom line: Content and presentation I found to be consistently good, with some titles a bit better.  Currency of content depends on the subject matter and how quickly that field changes.  Anything to do with the web is going to be tough to catch and keep up with.  I’d recommend this site, and the $25/month deal to someone wanting a quick hit of quality information they can consume when they desire and at their own rate.  The other cost options (I believe they are $250 and $350) will allow you to download more information and have it available on your home machine.  For some, that may be important enough to justify the cost.

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | April 26, 2009

Digital Video for Dummies, fourth edition

The For Dummies… series of books invoke a mixed response in many people.  Some are relieved to find an information source that comes without expectations of prior knowledge placed on the reader.  The assumptions are that the reader does not have a background in the field.  On the other hand, some are offended that by the act of purchase, they are self-identifying themselves as a “dummy.”  Such are the struggles of book jacket design and marking strategy.

Digital Videos for Dummies, fourth edition, was a mixture of useful technical explanations, silly humor, and irrelevant detailed descriptions on applications I’ll never touch.  On the good side, I liked the way the author started with details of system requirements for both Mac and Windows PCs to do video editing.  The memory, CPU, Firewire, and other details and photos were appreciated.  His descriptions of video formats, standards, codecs, and aspect ratios of computers versus computers were all just, what I was looking for as a basic introduction to the field.

Every so often, an interesting or useful detail would drop out of otherwise simplistic or silly text.  For example, he mentions video compared to computer RGB color space.  I had heard somewhere that the computer RGB color space was wider than video, that’s why you need to review your program on a TV to make color/saturation/contrast decisions.  In this book, he adds a useful explanation to why this happens in a very simple detail: Video operates between about values of 20 to 230 in terms of RGB’s 0-255 color space.  OK, now I’ve got it.  In another area, equipment purchase recommendations, he was appropriately vague describing desirable characteristics rather than specific model reviews.  A good approach given a market area with so many choices and product lines that can change at the drop of an executive’s whim.

Technique descriptions (e.g., lighting, sound recording, camera work, etc.) were all pretty much simplistic, which was to be expected.  Still, there was the odd useful detail here and there that kept me interested.

My conclusion: I would recommend this book for someone with no or limited background in digital video as a place to start their education.  The weakest area of the book, as far as I was concerned, was detailed descriptions of specific computer applications for editing. Although not without links or references for more information, I wish the author had provided more along these lines.

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | April 24, 2009

Learning the Light, Again

One light, umbrella, fill card

One light, umbrella, fill card

Current approaches to field lighting, as seen in several video podcasts, seem to apply the “fry them” school of scene lighting.  Apparently the prime concern is pouring enough light on the subject to guard against under exposure and resulting noise in the video.

To me, that approach to protecting the quality of the recording never seemed to work that well.  Whether you’re working with professional talent or just plane folks, making the subject hot and asking them to look into glaring lights doesn’t sound like a good idea.  Making someone miserable, I find, doesn’t produce their best performance.

This setup – one Omni light, umbrella, and a white card bouncing fill light into the shadows.  Simple, quick, effective, at least to my eyes.

Is this ideal? No, professional lighting typically involves more fixtures to create a well illuminated, three dimensional look that separates the subject from the background.  At the same time, this is a very serviceable approach to a quick setup.Throwing light

__DP

Posted by: digitalpelican | April 24, 2009

A New Project

Hello:

In this blog, I plan to describe my experiences as I learn about digital video technologies.  This learning process may take place through classes, books (paper and online), research (e.g., online courses, manufacturer’s elearning sites), and/or participation in community access TV channel productions.  This interest developed within the last three or four months as I began auditing a digital video class at my local junior college.  Since then, I’ve been doing my own research on digital video (DV) technology and how it is being used on the web.  I’ve also joined the local cable access channel and have attended several equipment classes.  For information about me see the “About Digital Pelican” tab above.

__DP

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