Mobile, In Reverse

My daughter, like many young creatives, invents her own workflows for digital photography – shoot on DSLR, edit on mobile.

Reverse Mobile DSLR shot crop

I teach mobile production – that is, creating content on mobile, for mobile. But I’m also a traditional photographer and filmmaker – that is, making things with film!

This week I was struck by how creative people solve problems in very personal ways. I noticed this with my own daughter, who is growing to be quite a talented photographer.

But she does stuff backwards! (At least, from my own training.)

I’ve been teaching her how to use a DSLR to expand her photography beyond her mobile device. She has learned how to take really interesting photos with her iPhone 7, but has been a little intimidated by my old Canon DLSR with a big lens.

That is, until she really got hold of it. Now she’s a maniac! She is shooting a lot.

So what’s the next thing I want to teach her? Well, I’m thinking about putting a copy of Photoshop and Lightroom on another computer at home so she can learn those programs and learn to edit her images, “the right way.” But she doesn’t wait for me to figure out my licensing on AdobeCC and all that…

She invents her own workflow: DSLR to mobile.

This is how it goes:

  • shoot using the DSLR, capturing on an SD card
  • The SD card goes into the Mac Mini
  • The photos import into Photos App

So far, so good. But, instead of needing Photoshop (or Affinity Photo, or…,) she just:

  • emails them to herself at the original size, saves them to her Camera Roll on the iPhone, and
  • edits them in the free Snapseed app.

She is already comfortable with that app, so why mess with something hulking like Photoshop?! And, Snapseed has many more fun features for processing photos than boring old Photoshop.

Butterfly in Motion
A butterfly comes in for a landing on summer flowers – photo by AK

She makes really interesting, really good photos.

The things we old(er) folks can learn from our intuitive younger counterparts!

Do you have a backwards story like this?

A Few Thoughts on “The Limit” – New VR film from Robert Rodriguez

I’m looking for a narrative VR film I can really love and want to watch over and over again. Could it be, “The Limit?”

“The Limit” is Robert Rodriguez’ latest entry into the world of narrative filmmaking using VR technology. Released on November 20, 2018, it’s an action film that takes the audience on a brief journey to find out why some bad guys are chasing “us.” It’s not much more than that. It’s fun, but in the end not very ambitious as storytelling. Rodriguez, joined by his son, Racer on this outing, isn’t known for his thoughtful character dramas, but for action and trying new things. This film reflects those values. It’s a non-stop action sequence, with only a few moments of relief. For action fans, it may be the next thing. Or?

Let’s Talk Story
The story begins with “us” (the viewer) sitting in a bar, and meeting M-13 (Michelle Rodriquez) who is obviously a badass waitress. The filmmakers take little time to set up anything, but we quickly learn that we can’t speak and have some kind of AR “enhancements” that enable us to see bad guys. Other than that, we have no idea why we’re here. If you read the synopsis for the film, you’ll discover that we are “…a rogue agent with a mysterious past…” — whatever.

We are quickly forced to flee said bad guys with M-13. After that, we mostly get shot, help drive her Jeep, and suffer repeated blackouts after bad things happen to us. But, for some reason, we don’t seem to die from anything we suffer, including a gunshot to the stomach and a freefall from an airplane. Guess that all needs some explanation, which M-13 gladly gives in a long static monologue that tries to fill in a few details in an attempt to convince us that this all matters for some reason. Oh, we’re kind of alike. And now she’s got a plan and goal for herself. Finally! But it mostly involves us walking in to a poorly defended warehouse, killing the stupid henchmen, and confronting the Big Bad Guy (played by Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame.) He wants something we’ve got, of course. A kind of slow, pitiful chase ensues. We have another blackout. But then there’s a twist ending. You get the idea. Oh, and the story will continue. Theoretically. If anyone would shell out for more. I’m not convinced they’ve given us anything to hope for. Michelle is badass and they treat her pretty well in terms of not really playing on her sexuality. Points for that.

Ultimately, as with many films in this genre, the story suffers for the sake of the experience. Why does this have to be? I’d call it more of a ‘ride-along’ experience. We (the audience) are immersed in the action but are almost completely passive characters, only taking initiative for a moment toward the end. So, we get to watch M-13, the real Protagonist, go through her journey that our appearance at the beginning seems to spark.

The problem with this, and many stories, is that we have no reason to care. We don’t know who we are, or who she is, other than a little backstory and a twist at the end. The stakes aren’t even that high for most of the film because it seems that we can just get shot, survive a car crash, a freefall from a plane, etc., and it’s no big deal. Guess “we’re” pretty badass, too. But “we” don’t say or think much of anything the whole time.

On the medium and techniques used in “The Limit.”
Just a note for would-be viewers; it’s not full 360 VR, more like 180 in a custom “Surreal Theater” that does fill in the other 180 with a dark cineplex, in case you want to see how cool it is to be alone in a dark cineplex.

It’s not an open world by any stretch. The directors choose and maintain our focus using the camera as in traditional cinema and it’s a completely linear timeline. The main difference here is the increased sense of immersion and some ability to look around a limited frame. I think it works pretty well, and it seems to me to be the best option for story-telling. If you let the audience just wander around, it’s hard to create a narrative flow and pacing. That works for exploring worlds in a game setting, but I don’t think we humans will lose our enjoyment of and desire for stories to be told to us. I’m not alone in thinking about ways to guide a viewer, using other cues (visual & auditory) to direct attention but without locking an audience’s POV one frame. But it’s a big challenge, to be sure. The directors do choose to pull us out of the POV a few times so we can watch ourselves drive away, etc. Also, they cut to insert shots that are from our POV, but are done in traditional cuts rather than “moving” us closer. It works fine.

Our character cannot speak for some reason. We communicate, very little, via some kind of text screen, but I can’t figure out where it may be located, if our body and face are supposed to be normal looking. At the beginning the logic doesn’t work. Maybe it begins to make sense later (spoiler!) when M-13 reveals that she’s also a biconically enhanced person. Can she see our communications in a kind of heads-up AR display?

The main problem with a lack of our ability to communicate is that the film is mostly a monologue by M-13. It gets really tedious when she has a long exposition scene where she puts the pieces together for herself and for us. Was this just lazy on the part of the writers, or an inherent limitation of the medium?

Final observation; my feeling is that running time on an immersive VR action film must be kept short. This film is really about 15 mins of actual narrative and Rodriquez made a good decision to keep it brief. Because the viewer is immersed and can’t control their point of view much, the intense action and motion will certainly cause some queasiness for many viewers. It did for me. I could never watch a feature length film without breaks if it is shot in this style. Maybe with some downtime scenes? I’m sure they took that into consideration, but it’s something for all of us to consider if we’re planning a VR film. On that note, an immersive story without all of the intense action is likely just fine for a longer run time. Then, the challenge is to have a real story. And, does anyone want to watch a ‘talky’ character drama in VR? Perhaps?

Other notes: I watched the 3D version on an Oculus Go headset. The film is delivered as an app from the Occulus story and includes a lot of behind-the-scenes material that I think will be fun to watch. The app download is pretty big, over 3GB,ut it’s not a problem to me. You can watch this sitting in a chair as the film is not a full 360 experience.

Why Use a Director’s Viewfinder? – A Tutorial in VR

Here’s a quick explanation of how I use director’s viewfinders – either physical finders (like the Alan Gordon Mark Vb) or smartphone apps (like the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder)

 

Note: I’m playing with VR/360video a bit more and getting my filmmaker’s brain around ways to use it for different kinds of stories. This isn’t really a story, but I got an urge to do a very quick tutorial in VR.

This hastily shot draft gives me ideas for the future. What do you think, does VR add, or detract from the experience? I’m already making my list of things I’d do differently, or add to the next one.

We’re all still learning here.

[Update: YouTube VR is now available on headsets like Occulus Go. You can watch it there, in Occulus, using this link: https://youtu.be/kayay5yl3nM ]

[Production Notes: I shot this with a very basic Ricoh Theta SC camera. I recorded the audio double-system, using a small smartphone lav mic plugged into a spare iPhone 4S sitting behind me on the chair. I synced the sound in Adobe Premiere CC and edited the clips there, exporting and uploading straight to Vimeo for hosting.]

Professional Video Apps for Android Devices – Do they exist?!

(Updated 17 February 2018)

I’m happy to say that, after a long time of lagging behind the iOS world, Android devices and apps are finally available to enable professional production on this platform.

And, because most people in the world are using an Android device, it makes sense to think about recommendations to help them, especially non-professional media creators, to choose the best tools for their video content.

For serious video content production, you may want to consider a video-specific app. While almost every general camera app allows you to choose still image capture or video capture (maybe even animated GIF and other formats) there are a few dedicated apps that only shoot video. I highly recommend checking these out, even if they add an app to your collection (who can resist just one more app?!)

Why would you choose a video-only app?

One reason is because a good dedicated video app will have controls that are designed for video shooting and you won’t get settings mixed up when switching between modes on a normal camera app. For instance, this can happen when switching between 4:3 aspect ratio high-definition still images and shooting HD video, which is typically 16:9 aspect ratio on your screen. Some apps choke a bit when switching. And, some apps are set to automatically start video recording when you switch to video mode. I can’t figure out why that’s a default feature (sometimes non-defeatable) but it’s a pain when you’re trying to shoot dedicated video. Ultimately, dedicated apps are designed for video shooting, and make the most of their interface and features.

As with still image capture apps, the image quality from these is essentially the same, if you shoot with the same settings (resolution, data rate, picture profile, etc.) The device hardware is really the defining and limiting factor. [BIG NOTE for low-end phone users; some of these apps are not recommended for you. Filmic Pro won’t even install on my Samsung Galaxy J5 (Marshmallow OS). My best advice if you have a low-end device is to go with a standard camera app, like Open Camera, that lets you shoot stills and video. No need for a specialized app.]

Here are three dedicated video capture apps that are the top of charts for me. I’ll review them in my general order of preference, but they’re all very good. Any weaknesses are generally pretty minor.


Filmic Pro ($15 USD)(plus in-app purchases for some specialized features)

Among mobile filmmakers and mobile journalists, Filmic Pro has long been the go-to app. It started life as an iOS-only app but the Android version is fully developed and gives you a full feature set for truly professional video production on a mobile device.

 

Filmic Pro gives you:

  • Full range of manual controls with a very friendly on-screen interface for manual focus and exposure control. Manual controls on all apps will be device dependent. They should work on most higher-end phones. On a lower-end phone, you still have manual control, but some features, like the sliders you see in the above screen capture, won’t be there.
  • Shooting aspect ratios for every popular format, including square format video, and UI rotation for simple vertical video shooting.
  • High resolution (including 4K) and data rates, depending on your device capabilities. Excellent video quality, including smooth motion.
  • Accurate frame rate. Other apps’ frame rates can vary widely, even if set in the app.
  • Format presets if you want to switch quickly between settings. For instance, a 4K setting and a FullHD (1080) video setting without going through many menus.
  • Automatic exposure and focus “pulling” for more professional control.
  • A continuous auto-focus mode that uses most of the screen as a focus area. This is great for gimbal and other handheld shots where you have a lot of motion in the scene.
  • App upgrades available for even more professional features such as picture profiles and LUTs. (Not really needed by mere mortal visual storytellers.)
  • Picture profile settings – these are advanced settings that professional filmmakers use to give them more control in editing their picture. Typically not something non-professionals want to use, as the video captured may not actually look very good until it is “graded” in an editing program.
  • Live audio monitoring, with on-screen meter, is possible with the proper adapters.

Weaknesses:

  • Lots of options that may be confusing to non-professionals.
  • Display can be cluttered if you have lots of features activated, but they are instantly accessible.

Cinema FV-5 Pro (paid version $4.50 USD)

Cinema FV-5 is a companion to Camera FV-5, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere. But it can also be purchased and used separately as a dedicated video capture app. As with Camera FV-5, the Cinema version is full-featured and well-suited to professional mobile production. If you want a dedicated app, I feel it’s the best choice for lower-end devices, even if features are disabled.

Things I especially like include:

  • Simple controls when first opened
  • Nice implementation of manual controls including a slider for focus and exposure on devices that have the Camera2 API.
  • Paid version (Pro) has full resolution and high data rate capabilities, up to your device’s specs.
  • The most common manual control I like to tweak, exposure compensation, is on screen all the time. Nice.
  • On-screen display of current settings.
  • Continuous focus mode is very accurate and useful.
  • Audio monitoring and on-screen meters
  • Professional features like interface customization, a histogram for video levels, etc.
  • Quick switching between features such as a histogram, stabilization on/off, etc.

Weaknesses:

  • No vertical video mode (interface rotation) – see my comments on other apps for my thoughts on why this is useful.
  • Locking and unlocking some functions, like manual exposure, could be simpler – a few too many clicks to release and re-set.

On a low-end device like my Galaxy J5 I found:

  • Some functions don’t seem to work consistently, like manual exposure by touch/hold on the screen. No change anywhere you put the “box.”
  • Of course, the manual controls change to meet the device specs. The capabilities are still there, just some controls get more basic.
  • Other device-dependent features, like 4K video recording, may be missing on low-end devices.

Cinema 4K (paid version $4.50 USD)

Cinema 4K is designed with many professional features for high-end devices. As the name implies, it can shoot up to 4K if your device can handle it. It is set up for more experienced shooters, but I find the controls are very intuitive and responsive.

I’m reviewing this app with a caveat. On my Google Pixel 2 (still pretty state-of-the-art as I write this) I get great general image quality. However, I see a lot of motion artifacts anytime I pan, tilt, or have a lot of motion in the shot. I’ve tried to track it down, and have decided it’s the app. My A/B testing with Filmic Pro on the same device shows ‘jerky’ motion in footage from Cinema 4K versus Filmic Pro footage, with the exact same settings. I’m willing to consider that it could be unique to the Pixel 2, so until I can do more tests with other phones, I’ll just leave it at that.

Cinema 4K gives you:

  • A very nice on-screen interface with common controls and settings clearly accessible.
  • Extensive, but easy-to-use manual controls, device dependent.
  • Very friendly settings menu that covers almost everything on one screen rather than many menus
  • Full range of resolutions and data rates for video files, device dependent.
  • Full screen, clean display when recording, but manual controls appear when you tap the screen. Nice implementation.
  • Picture profile settings – these are advanced settings that professional filmmakers use to give them more control in editing their picture. Typically not something non-professionals want to use, as the video captured may not actually look very good until it is “graded” in an editing program.

Weaknesses:

  • My biggest concern is actually image quality. Images without a lot of motion are great. I see a lot of motion artifacts in Cinema 4K footage when the camera is panning across a scene. I’ve done a lot of A/B testing and can’t fix it. I believe it is related to variable frame/bit rates used by most apps in mobile devices.
  • No vertical video adaptation. This has been a “rule” in the professional filmmaking world, but it’s passé, to me. Let us shoot 4K vertical video!
  • No live audio monitoring, or on screen audio meters.
  • Cinema 4K will install on a lower-end phone, but many features are disabled. I don’t recommend it for low-end devices (see my note above.)

 

 

Handling Antagonists in Social Media: Our Public Voice

It may be self-evident to you, but I have to remind myself that my response to antagonistic comments could be a powerful influence to everyone in my audience, not merely an answer to a hater.

angerIn many places where we seek to love and serve people, there are groups and individuals who oppose us and our message, no matter how much love we pour into our content. One friend of mine says it’s not unusual to get 90% negative comments on his posts that are intended to speak of peace for people in his region.

It may be self-evident to you, but I have to remind myself that my response to antagonistic comments could be a powerful influence to everyone in my audience, not merely an answer to a hater.

Imagine you’re in a public place like a shopping mall or university center. A person spots you from across the room as you are discussing something important with a new friend. They make a beeline toward you, yelling out angry comments and insults before they even reach you. It’s a tense moment. At least one person seems to be spoiling for a fight, right there. How would you respond?

Many of us are naturally inclined to avoid any kind of confrontation, especially a direct one like this. We would try our best to just back away, apologizing, fearful, and praying for others to intervene to cool down the situation. Others of us are very bold, risk-takers, and would step up ready to embrace a challenge (hopefully, with fists un-clenched.)

angry (1)In social media, I have encountered such situations. A number of years ago I was developing a feature film project in Latin America and I was using early Facebook and other social media to raise awareness of the project. A certain gentleman, who lived on the other side of the world, decided that we were evil people, exploiting the indigenous people, etc. (We were making the film at the request, and in partnership with, an indigenous group in the Amazon.) He didn’t know me, but he attacked me, and threatened to rally people in the country to shut us down.

Now, this was Latin America, so things never go according to plan in the best of times, and I had no real concerns that he could have any clout. My partner thought I should just block and ignore him. I thought I’d at least try to engage with him to see if I could convince him that we were OK.

happy copy

It became an interesting conversation for me, though I don’t think my arguments were very convincing for him at first. He did cool down and kind of disappear after a while. But, I did get to know something about him, his own past and personal issues that seemed to drive his anger. So, I felt it was fruitful. He never went further with his threats and actions, and it all basically blew over.

Ironically, a year or so later, he contacted me again. He was raising money for a project to help the indigenous group for which he was an advocate (in East Asia) and actually asked for my advice and help with his own project. It was a crazy turnabout, but I believe it was because I treated him with respect and tried to understand where he was coming from when he was attacking us. I pray for his project.

Of course, it could have gone much worse. Sometimes, and you may not be able to discern this in advance, it is truly fruitless or even dangerous to engage much. However, in this case, I felt it was worth it.

Now, in my story, all of this deeper engagement was through email, so it wasn’t public. However, if it had taken place in “public” on a comment thread on some social media site, I would have to discern the value of the engagement.

peace-talksMy theory is that, in a situation like this, where we try to have a conversation with an antagonistic person, our comments may be more for others in your audience who are “eavesdropping” on your conversation, than they will be for the person with whom you are conversing.  We can’t know if there could be some softening if our gentle speech turns away their anger.

I often get wise advice from people who say it’s not worth the engagement. But, as my original example in the shopping mall, I may also consider that there are many more people with whom I’m communicating. Anyone within “earshot” could also hear my arguments and my tone, and it could be beneficial to them as they assess just who I am.

Am I a good or bad person?

Does what I am saying in answer to common objections sound reasonable?

Do I sound like they could have a safe conversation with me?

This indirect communication could form an important part of someone else’s journey.

What do you think? Have you had this kind of experience on social sites? How should we handle people who oppose us in public? Are there principles or “rules” we should follow?

  • Tom

 

 

 

Image credits:

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4 Reasons Why Homeschoolers Should Study Screenwriting (and get English Comp credit for it.)

If you have a budding homeschool writer or filmmaker, they should be learning to write screenplays. Screenplays represent a unique literary genre that forms the foundation of one of the most influential forms of art and entertainment in our world today, movies and other visual stories.


I’ll begin with two quotes:

“Film is the literature of our age”  AND  “Those who tell the stories shape the culture”

script-tight

The first is by Steven Spielberg. I’ll reveal who said the second one in a moment.

These two quotes remind us how influential and pervasive stories through film have become in our culture. No one can deny the influence of these stories, whether told on a cinema screen or a mobile phone. My 30+ years as a professional filmmaker have convinced me of the importance of raising up a new generation of filmmakers and writers who will take us into the future.

So here are the four main arguments I’ll make to encourage you to consider screenwriting as an important field of study for your creative homeschooled student.

  • Screenplays are a unique literary genre, deserving disciplined study.

  • Screenplays make use of the major elements of all good creative writing.

  • Screenwriting is the foundation of a highly influential cultural expression, movies.

  • Christians can make better movies.

First, as Mr. Spielberg argues, screenplays made into movies are the pervasive form of storytelling in our modern culture. And, they truly are a literary genre unto themselves. They require discipline and study to master their unique form and storytelling conventions. For instance, did you know that screenplays are always written in the present tense? That’s because all we can write is what we see on the screen in front of us. We can’t make full use of inner thoughts of characters. A well-written screenplay reveals their choices through the ways they act when challenged. If you have a budding screenwriter, this is a great creative challenge.

Secondly, screenplays make use of the same storytelling elements found in other literary forms, such as short stories and novels. For instance, we must create interesting and dimensional characters, devise interesting plots with rising conflict, and draw our audience into the story with vivid descriptive language and compelling themes that touch our emotions while entertaining us.

Third, most people don’t understand the immense importance of the screenplay as the foundation of all movies. It has been said that it’s possible to make a bad film from a good script, but it’s impossible to make a great film from a poor script. It’s like the blueprint, foundation, and framing of a movie. Of course, movies–good and bad–exert tremendous influence in our culture.

That leads us to my final point

…making films that are powerful and influential and reflect a Christian worldview. I believe all Truth is God’s Truth, and that all Beauty reflects His Glory. I hope to envision and equip young storytellers to follow God’s call to speak powerfully to culture through many forms of films and videos. Most of us admit that few popular films that are labelled “Christian” exhibit the highest literary and artistic reach we are capable of. There was a time when the Church led the way in the arts. We should aim that high.

Now, to the second quote; “Those who tell the stories shape the culture.” It’s from Aleister Crowley, the famous British occultist in the early 20th century. His vision was to undermine the Christian worldview and values of his culture, and he argued for a takeover of popular storytelling to achieve his end. He saw the potential.

I have had the privilege of teaching many passionate and creative young homeschoolers who are learning to tell powerful stories of their own. I am so encouraged by them, and they give me great hope for the future. They are learning to tell stories that change the world.


For further reading: There are a zillion screenwriting blogs out there, but one I especially like is The Rabbit Room. They have a film section, plus many other forums that, to me, represent some of the best writing and thinking about the arts in the Church today.

Ministry Media Audit

002-laptopPeriodically, and especially when you are beginning to plan a media strategy or campaign, it’s important to understand where you have been and where you are right now.

In the marketing world, this is called a social media audit and competitive analysis. The goal is to examine what you have been doing, historically, to help guide your next steps.

I’m going to tweak the language here to better fit media ministry teams, but there are a lot of resources out there that provide various kinds of social media audit checklists, templates, and advice. I also assume that your past media presence may have not been exclusively in the new/social media space.

As we look at an existing media ministry, large or small, here are some key points we want to study:

  • Current Media Activities and Content
  • Current Media Presence
  • Current Audience
  • Current Performance
  • Our Persona in these channels and in this content
  • “Competitors” – Analysis

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of each section. You’ll want to make lists and gather information on:

  1. Current Media Activities and Content
    • Projects (broadcasts, distribution, and campaigns of various kinds)
    • Content Assets (films, programs, recordings, and other media we own or create)
  1. Current Media Presence
    • “Traditional” media (TV & Radio stations, print distribution, etc.)
    • Social/New media (web sites, blogs, social pages, accounts, etc.)
  1. Current Audience
    • Size (overall, and by channel, above)
    • Description (demographics, personas, and how they compare with your Objectives)
  1. Current Performance
    • Growth (Do you have historical numbers?)
    • Compare with Objectives (If you have existing objectives, do a comparison. If you are creating new Objectives, how does this fit?)
    • What kinds of content have been most effective in reaching your goals for each media channel?
  1. Our Persona in these channels and in this content
    • Ways we present ourselves (Do you have a consistent public ‘face’? Do you feel that our identity is appropriate to your Objectives and ministry Context?)
    • Consistency across your media channels and content
    • Consistency with your Objectives
  1. “Competitors” – Analysis
    • Like-Minded: Are there others in this same ministry space? (Objectives, Content, Success, Strategies, etc.)
    • Others: Are there others, even opposition, who are influencers in your area? (Objectives, Content, Success, Strategies, etc.)
    • What can you learn from others in your ministry space? (Things you might like to imitate? Things that seem to work toward your Objectives? Things you want to avoid?)

If you take the time to dig into these questions in more detail, it will help you see our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and to help guide your Persona, Follow-Up, and Content development.

This content is part of what I teach in the Foundations of Media Strategy course at MissionMediaU. Check it out if you want to learn more.

 

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