Wednesday, April 29, 2009

an award from Humboldt

I'm very happy to have heard from two different sources today that we won Best Animation at Humboldt. Thank you, Damon Packard! Sorry we weren't there to receive it in person.

My recollection is that the former year's awards included film stock. If anyone knows what film stock is, please let me know.

just kidding

Monday, April 27, 2009

IFFBoston wrap up

IFFBoston was like a summer thunderstorm. On a day that was as hot as blazes, it came and went in a hurry. But it was spectacular, memorable, perhaps a tad frightening. And there was a lot of water.

My trip began with a solo drive across the state to scoop up my dad at Logan. It was something like 90 degrees most of the way there. We managed to get lost on the way out of the airport (driving mishap #1) but then did manage to find our hotel near Central Square. I threw the keys to the valet in a hurry so as not to have to fret about driving for a while.

We emerged from the T station at Davis Square face-to-face with the Somerville Theater, crowds of people hovering outside it like flies, festival staffers wearing headsets yelping to stand in this line or that line. It kind of blew me away. What a contrast to Providence! Not only were the film crowds there, but everyone was simply hanging out in the square, loving as I was the long-absent sun and warmth.

We literally had to weave our way through crowds inside to get to the filmmaker's lounge at the theater (awesome), pick up credentials, etc. I almost immediately encountered Brendan Toller, one of the early editors of Tower 37 and an accomplished independent filmmaker in his own right, who was there for his film's screening at 7. If you witnessed our interaction you would have assumed that all the schwag and special treatment and crowds were day-to-day occurrences for us. It was like, "hey - how's it going?" instead of, "holy crap did you see the lines outside and all this free food?" But, you know, when in Rome. We both signed the big poster and moved back upstairs.

Dinner kept me from the festival until later, but my cell phone was abuzz throughout with texts from the descending Tower 37 crew members and friends: Will. Taryn. Kevin. Evan. Jake. Jeremy. Nick. Bassam. I was also catching updates from Daniel out in Newport Beach about the Saturday show (update to come on the left coast, I promise). We hopped in line early and amassed quite a circle of people. As dorky as it might sound, it was great to be in line, outside, just anticipating the screening and talking shop.,

Helga sidebar: Will flashed his iPhone at me in line, happily showing that he was monitoring his renders at Hampshire while waiting. Love it.

The show was packed. Almost a full house, if my memory serves me. Airplane-like, they asked us all to sit down so they could count empty seats and let others in. For a 10pm animation show! We all got our ballots on the way in but I once again didn't cast mine.

I was pleased from start to finish. The entire program was excellent and I am pleased that Tower 37 can keep such great company. The group that hung out later seemed to concur that Undone and Skhizein were both particularly outstanding. The HDCAM tape of our film looked great (thanks, Creative Group) and sounded great, even though it wasn't the full 5.1 mix.

The Q&A session afterward included myself and Hayley Morris, the director of Undone. It took the crowd a few minutes to warm up, but then the questions flowed. We were a fairly interesting contrast up there, me representing a large crew that animated on computers over 4 years; Haley did her film entirely on her own, in-camera, stuck in a little room for 6 months. Wow.

After the show we hunted for a place to hang out, finding Redbones BBQ and lashing together a raft of tables to accommodate our big group. Ending the night over beers and buffalo wings was perfect. There was lots of talk about how to make it to New Orleans in August without spending too much, and of course a continued debate about the films we saw. We finally got kicked out of the place, and I was down for the count by 2 am.

Got lost driving again on the way back to Logan on Sunday, but thanks to Kevin and his phone we still made it on time. The drive back west was again hot, the festival and its craziness already becoming the stuff of legend in my mind. A refreshing storm, to say the least!

another review from Newport

See this blog post by Julian Ayrs about shorts at festivals, along with a Helga plug and some nice words about our film. Excerpted:
Tower is a beautiful well-crafted piece of animation featuring eye-catching images that resonate and touch the audience.

The plot is intriguing, too.

Day in and day out - almost ad nauseam - a lone manager at a water tower monitors the operations clueless to the fact he is slowly destroying an entire ecosystem.

4 stars for this one!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

a great review

Here's a short and sweet review from Amanda Ondretti at Moving Pictures Magazine, who saw the film in Newport Beach.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

running commentary on the big fest week

TD Jeremy is at the first IFFBoston show right now, and I hope will have an update for us all soon.

I caught a positive review of some of the other shorts playing with Tower 37 in the comment stream here on a /Film post, which has me hopeful for an exciting program on Saturday.

Last night's Humboldt screening was attended by at least one friend of the film (thanks, Michelle!) who texted from the show itself and followed up with a great phone message earlier today. The film reminded her of an Ursula K. Le Guin short story titled "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" which I am now very much looking forward to reading. And it sounds like great company to me, even though I'm not familiar with the tale yet.

It also looks like Michelle will be the first participant in the bitfilms-hat-for-festival-program exchange! wooo

Finally, we got a nice local plug from the Boston Herald's Film Junkie site on Tuesday.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

a big week ahead

Welcome to Tower 37's week-long coming out party. Seven days, seven screenings at five different festivals all over the country (see the calendar for specifics). We go from Humboldt tomorrow to Somerville for IFFBoston on Thursday, then a day off before the three-in-one Saturday spanning Newport Beach, Athens Ohio, and Somerville again. Sunday is another Newport screening, and then Tuesday there's a show in Connecticut at the Hollywood East fest.

I will be representing on Saturday in Somerville, and producer Daniel will be covering things in southern California. I think he'll have more parties to go to than I will.

We're excited to hear your feedback. If you're able to see the film at one of these venues, and if you happen to visit this blog, please send us a story. What films screened alongside Tower 37 that you liked? How was Tower 37 received? Be the first to mail me a festival program from Athens, Humboldt, or Hollywood East and I'll send you a black bitfilms winter cap in return, modeled below by Kevin at the SENE fest in Providence.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

the joys and pains of changing frame rate

If you're not planning to print your carefully-constructed movie project to 35mm film, but if you want to work with approximately 24 frames per second, then I recommend working at 23.976 frames per second. It seems that as of this writing, HD digital video standards all seem to privilege 23.976, which means a frame rate change is inevitable if you want to put your 24fps work to tape.

"The Incident at Tower 37" was produced at a native fps of 24. When it came time to stick it on DVD, HDCAM stock, DigiBeta, etc., we needed 23.976 (which I will refer to from now on as 23.98).

23.98 and 24 aren't so far apart. What gives? Why is this such a big deal?

Think of it this way: after your film has played for 100 seconds, you'll either be on frame 2400 or frame 2398 depending on your frame rate. That's a 2 frame difference. After another 100 seconds, you're going to be off by 4 frames. These small deltas matter if you have sync sound. If you don't, then stop reading here and work at whatever framerate you want (though keeping the DV standard rates in mind is probably a good idea).

Okay, so take Tower 37. It has carefully synced sound with cracking glass, foot falls, a gunshot, etc. It runs just under 10 minutes long. For the purposes of this post, let's call it an exact 10 minutes. 600 seconds. At 24 fps, that's 14,400 total frames.

If I just play the 14,400 frames more slowly, at 23.98 instead of 24 fps, the film runs 600 and one half seconds. This means that any sound synced to the end of the film will hit a half second early, which is very noticeable. In other words, I've got 12 "extra" frames beyond the duration of the sound.

Let's also assume that the sound is locked and cannot change. Given my limited mastery of audio tools, this is more than an assumption. It's a given.

So to solve this problem I need to play the original frames more slowly AND somehow toss 12 frames along the way. And do so in such a way that preserves sync as much as possible.

When you retime a QuickTime movie with Compressor, you are given choices in how you should create the new frames. The fastest is simple: just choose the nearest frame. What this means is that Compressor keeps track of what the ideal frame should be, presumably as a fractional number, and then it rounds it in some way when choosing which frame to present. Think of it this way: at 100 seconds, Compressor needs to pick a frame from our original movie to use for frame 2398 of the new 23.98 fps movie. The most logical choice is 2400, since frame 2400 was exactly at 100 seconds in the original movie. So that's an easy choice.

But what about frame 2397? Some simple math shows that frame 2397 would correspond to frame 2398.999 from our original movie. But there was no frame 2398.999 in our original movie, was there? There were just frames 2398 and 2399. I think that all of you would probably choose 2399 as the "closest" to 2398.999. That's what Compressor does, too.

Keep going backwards. At what frame of the new movie will the ideal frame lie 50% between two frames from the original movie?

(go ahead, take some time and try to figure it out)

Basically, I compute that at every 600 frames Compressor is going to have to make a harder choice. So I guess my answer is 1800. Let's see:

frame 1800 of new movie * (1/23.98fps) = 75.0626 seconds into the movie
75.0626 seconds into the old movie * 24 fps = frame 1801.5

Yes - so what should Compressor do now? What's the better choice for frame 1800 of the new movie? Frame 1801 or 1802? No matter how you pick, you can probably see that somewhere between frames 1800, 1801, and 1802 of the new movie we're going to skip a frame of the old movie.

This is good: it keeps the picture in sync with the sound. It is the method by which we periodically drop frames in order to keep the sync throughout.

It is also bad: if the frame dropped just happens to be in the middle of a smooth camera and/or object motion, you will perceive a jump. When I first did this with Tower 37, I noticed about 4 jumps. The other dropped frames happened to occur where the motion was so subtle I didn't catch it.

The other Compressor options don't please me. They end up making new frames by averaging or blending or warping old frames, which is slow to do and/or looks bad. Cripes, I'm looking to lose 12 frames out of 15000, I don't need to do much.

So what did I do?

I dragged two versions of Tower 37 into Final Cut Pro, the version that has every frame but plays at 23.98 fps (and therefore runs long), and the 23.98 fps version that Compressor made which syncs to the sound but drops frames in bad places.

I made the longer version partially transparent and walked through the film, finding (every 600 frames or so - of course) where a frame had been dropped to make the shorter version.

What I did was instead of cutting out a frame at that spot, I'd find the next nearest edit point and drop a frame there. This seems so easy to do I cannot believe it's not a default option in Compressor. People have been detecting scene breaks for a long time now, it should be a fairly simple algorithm to connect the two and I suspect others are already doing this. Please comment if you know of a publication that mentions this approach.

So I spent the better part of an evening walking in 600-frame jumps through the movie, chopping out frames from scene breaks until I had eliminated exactly enough to keep the audio synced. I wrote this while waiting for the final movie to export!

Fun, wasn't it?

a few key phrases to guide curious web searchers here:
conforming 24 fps to 23.98 fps
conforming 24 fps to 23.976 fps
changing frame rate from 24 to 23.98
changing frame rate from 24 to 23.976

codec buster

A technical digression...

Apple's ProRes codec has been doing great on "Tower 37." Once Schuyler told me about it, and once I started working with it, I decided to use it for final editing. So while I do have thousands of TIFFs lying around, it's the ProRes movies that I'm editing together and calling my master copy.

Trying to get the film looking its best for SIGGRAPH, I've returned to clean up old pops, aliasing artifacts, etc. All those changes have been made and no one but I will notice them (but I sleep better). But there's one I can't beat: banding on one particular shot.

The shot is u4_15 (does anyone care?). The bands are on Operator's hands when he grabs Leed. This JPG doesn't really do the situation justice, but believe me, in that gradient of light going from bright white (top of hand) to dark (bottom of hand), we get bands. And they're the kind of bands that, when the shot is moving, look worse rather than better.

This is the only place I can think of where I'm compromising by using ProRes. The alternative is to final with a TIFF codec, but that would be unmanageable in size, wouldn't play back at speed on any computer that I know of, and heck - it's only this shot that troubles me. One moment out of 10 minutes of moments. I hope you all don't even notice.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

a dash of non-fiction animation

Here are two films that hit my inbox recently which I enjoyed and which share a familiar stylistic approach (I am reminded of Creature Comforts). From what I can determine, rather different techniques were used in actual production. Enjoy!

The Lost Tribes of New York City
Product Placement

Thursday, April 9, 2009

triply newsy

I've been holding off on sharing the biggest news of the season, namely, that Tower 37 will be a part of the SIGGRAPH 2009 Computer Animation Festival! I am very much looking forward to hanging out in New Orleans again, and knowing that there will be very high-quality projection in place, I'm fixing the small things that have bothered me ever since I saw the film on the big screen at R&H back in March.

Historical note: My first SIGGRAPH submission attempt was 15 years ago, a short called "Tesselation Software Not Included" which featured my M.S. fire synthesis work. I just put it online 'cause it still makes me laugh.

News item #2: SENE was not quite done with us. Fresh in my inbox was a note saying that we won the Audience Award for Best Animated Film!

Finally: The Hollywood East Film Festival in Connecticut has also decided to fold us into their program. Sadly, it appears that the show has been reduced from an April weekend to a full-day Tuesday. I'm sure there's a story behind that. We will be in familiar company (see the screening list here), including some of our friends from the SENE animation block (see previous post).

Monday, April 6, 2009

SENE wrap up

Apologies to all who hail from Providence, but I found it a very odd town.

A respectable crew turned up for the SENE screening of "Tower 37" on Saturday night including Evan, Bishop, and Kevin who hipped and hopped their way down with me via car, Jeremy via train from Boston, and Jake who drove on his own. We got comfortable in the hotel room before walking to the Cable Car Cinema to get our bearings. Not a human being on the street. It was like someone took this nice city and just asked everyone to stay inside for a few hours.

We hunted for food after finding the theater, and a woman at an enormous (but also empty) bar steered us in the right direction. Thankfully, that direction was away from her own basement-of-a-fraternity-smelling establishment.

A massive Indian meal, complete with celebratory toasts and the requisite telling of humiliating stories, primed us for the 7:00 screening of live action shorts. At SENE the audience got to vote via a creative little square of paper which you would maul in the right place to identify your selections. Anyway, the theater was great (every other row had comfy couches) but the show was a mixed bag. Our crew reached easy consensus behind the two foreign films, Uriasul and Land Gewinnen, with the latter being our favorite of that block.

Tower 37 was in the 9:30 block, along with 8 other shorts that were animated in some fashion. If you count puppets as animated. Throughout the first screening, the projectionist would correct the DVD/projector settings to accommodate the authoring of the various DVDs (so that a 4:3 or 16:9 disk would properly fill the frame). That guy was absent during our show, which we sadly discovered when Tower 37 played. The film was both too quiet and was zoomed too far in, so we only got to see the middle 70% of the frame.

I credit the young and friendly director of "Escapism," which is also showing alongside Tower 37 in Newport Beach later this month, with the most savvy line of the night after I told him of our projection mishap: "Yeah, I was going to say that was some pretty daring staging." It took me at least 5 years of teaching before I could say stuff like that off the cuff! I was impressed with his maturity (and sense of staging - our film looked way too claustrophobic, alas).

The crew had a more lively debate about this batch, one that continued into wee hours of the night and even on the drive home. We all did love "Symphony" for its impeccable craft. I didn't actually cast any vote for Tower 37 because I was morally conflicted. Well, I also had my ballot taken away and cast by Bishop while I was chatting with other filmmakers. But I'll take the moral high ground.

Another slow wander through a still-dead town led us to the after party. Okay, one drunken passenger in a passing car did actually stick his head out of the window and ask us for directions to a strip club. When we said we had no idea, we had our sexuality questioned in a way that could only be considered grade school. With grade school so far in the past for most of us, it was much more funny than intimidating. And with such limited contact with the people of Providence (if they actually do exist, since this guy was clearly from out of town), we took what human contact we could get.

The party was loud, probably because it was on a relatively small mezzanine near the speakers in a fairly skinny bar. We loved that the chandelier right near our table looked like the harp from "Bohemibot," but we suspect that it cost a lot less to produce. The founders brought a mic and a bunch of awards, and while we didn't get the $1000 prize (kudos to "Larry and Roz" for that), we were the happy recipients of the SENE Founders' Award. Here's the cell phone shot I sent to producer Daniel right after receipt (the cool plexi thing was too hard to shoot, I'll see if Evan got some versions of it on his camera):

Note that I've tried to properly punctuate Founders' appropriately in this post, even though I think their apostrophe-free version on the award is much cleaner looking.

The night that remained took place in the hotel room. There were ongoing debates about the best and worst moments of the two screenings we caught, some musical improvisations, Kevin pitching his latest short idea from a perch high atop a bed, and finally sleep. We left town the next morning (still no one outside), and almost had to return, but thankfully Jeremy's people skills allowed him to borrow his way to a train ticket. Hope you find your bank card, sir.

It was a memorable festival and I hope the SENE folks have continued success in the future. I'm sad now that I can't attend all the festivals, but I am excited for our upcoming local screenings at IFFBoston and Hollywood East, I'm glad that Daniel and Andrew can attend Newport Beach. There's another fest on the horizon that's likely to be a similar reunion/party/celebration that will merit its own post soon.