Thursday, February 28, 2013

VFX - Shoot or Animate?

Like a lot of low budget movie makers, i don't have a massive dent in my production budgets caused by VFX artists. VFX (or CGI) artists are responsible for a lot of the explosions, backgrounds, foregrounds, characters and even lens effects we see in modern blockbusters. (in Avatar, they did pretty much everything...)  I was quite shocked to see the recently released footage of the Avengers movie showing how much of the film was CGI, rather than real locations.

Visual Effects (VFX) are a huge part of Hollywood in 2013. There's rarely a big blockbuster movie that comes out these days that doesn't feature a huge amount of VFX work. It used to be that VFX or CGI was reserved for shots that could not be done any other way and this was the only solution, but now, it is often the first choice of directors to use green screen and VFX technology to bring you the fantasy world of 'the movies'.

I'm not adversed to CGI shots...i love sci-fi and i'm not knocking shots where there really is no other way to achieve what you need... but these days it's got ridiculous. When i pay to see a movie, i want to see something real. A fantasy world created in the mind of a creative writer, but put on to the screen using light and shade, locations and performers...not computer generated images. I don't have a problem with CGI per se... i just think there is a time and place for it. Sci-Fi... un-achievable shots like London in the 19th Century or LA in the 23rd Century...not New York in 2013.

Have we become lazy? Or is it budget lead? Because if it is budget lead, things have got out of whack because the FX houses are protesting that there is not enough money in production budgets to keep afloat. (How does this happen? Surely they know what they will make from a project before they sign up for it?)

Either way, it's time we got back to shooting real people in front of real locations using real light... not computer simulations. I don't want to be part of the generation that killed off movie making using cameras and replaced them with computers. Let's get back to making films... no more simulations.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Essential FCPX Plug-Ins

Since really getting to grips with FCPX, i've built up a stock of plug-ins that i use all the time. Essential plug-ins that enable me to work fast and get on with the edit with minimal amount of fuss.

First up is 'Dashwood Widescreen'...a freebie from

This simply allows me to add a letterbox to my footage to get a 2.35:1 frame. It has an offset control, different aspect ratios and a border size adjustment. I use this a lot.

Next is 'Magic Bullet Looks 2' from Red Giant.

Magic Bullet Looks 2 is an excellent package for grading, adding lens flares, gradients and all kinds of other effects that make post production easier. It comes with lots and lots of preset 'Looks' to get you started. I love being able to save my favourite settings and then be able to slightly adjust them to match each clip in a scene... If one shot is slightly more exposed than another - use the exposure setting to match them up...  Something in shot that shouldn't be? Gradients allow you to drop the exposure of just one area of your shot to mask it out... really useful. The only downside to Magic Bullet Looks 2 is the amount of competition it has now - everyone is making Preset Grading Plug-Ins...and most of the other useful additions like lens flares and gradients are available elsewhere now too. Also... it's still a bit of beast to render. It's one of the few plug-ins in FCPX that can't play properly in realtime until it's rendered...and that's just annoying.

Next in line..'NEAT Video Noise Reduction'

The Neat Video Noise Reduction Plug-In is totally essential. Any footage shot in low light or with an overly hight ISO setting an have some nasty noise in it...and Neat is the only plug-in I've used that can deal with it properly. GoPro footage needs it to look right if you shot in anything other than broad daylight. It's easy to use and although slightly taxing on the processor and memory, it's worth it for the job it does.

Finally... ProLumetric from Pixel Film Studios

ProLumetric is a collection of effects that let you add lightrays to your footage. It uses bright light in your footage as a means to generate very realistic looking lightrays which you then have complete control of.  You can choose the colour, the angle, the length, mask out where you don't want them to go... add haze, dust... it's all there. The source material needs to be good, but the results can be stunning.

Before anyone else points it out... yes i know there is a plug-in called 'Lightrays' from fcpeffects...i have that too...but they are different. I use 'Lightrays' too, but it works in a slightly different way.

I had an email earlier about the 'Pixel Film Studios vs MotionVFX' thing that's been going on. Like i explained in the previous post - It appears to be dealt with and i'm like everyone else - i don't really know what happened. MotionVFX make some stunning plug-ins (I have some of them which i will cover soon) and if Pixel Film Studios want to make similar products (within the law) and sell them cheaper, that's good for all of us. Unless i hear otherwise, i've no reason to not cover PFS products.

Next time... i'm going to be looking at some of the many 'Looks' packages... there's lots out there - but which are worth looking at?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Using FCPX...another update.

It's been a month of FCPX editing for me... I've been working on a trailer, a music video and a motion graphics project. I've got to the point now where having to go back to FCP7, which i used for years is a scary prospect. I don't go back to FCP7 often, but for the trailer i'm working on, i have to grab the clips i need from a project cut in FCP7. It just reminds me what a pain in the arse FCP7 was...i can't believe i stuck with it for as long as i did.

FCPX had a hard start in life. Lots of people (me included) gave it a harsh welcome when it didn't work how we wanted it to. We couldn't make our way of editing fit with the new way Apple wanted us to work. We resisted. On top of the unfamiliarity of it all, FCPX used to crash...a lot. I tried it several times, and some of those times i was getting on well...but then it would crash and lose my work. I can't put up with that.

But... it doesn't do that anymore. I've been working on it solidly for months and it's very very stable.  Everything i used to be able to do in FCP7, i can now do in FCPX...only quicker. The plug-in support is phenomenal. There's so many great plug-ins available and so many of them are very reasonable in price. I enjoy working on FCPX... it's very creative. It's easy to try things out and then go back and try another way. The lack of 'tracks' is so liberating... as is the way you don't have to stop to render all the time.

Here's something for the crowd that aren't convinced... maybe you moved from FCP7 to Premiere Pro or Avid: It takes a while...but one day, it just clicks. You suddenly realise how fast you're working and how little the interface is getting in your way. Looking at Avid or Premiere Pro now is like looking into the things used to be done. Apple got it right with FCPX... it took some time to iron out the kinks... but they got there. I'm genuinely excited to see where FCPX goes now... it's a new product still and it's getting better and better with every update. The support for this software is huge... TV productions and features are slowly but surely making the move and it's rare now to find an editor who has given this a fair test that doesn't like it.  The only editors i know that still don't like it haven't actually got into it enough yet... it took me a few projects before it all clicked, but it was worth it.

The Pixel Film Studios vs Motion VFX debate...
This week a row broke out between two of the companies that make and sell FCPX plug-ins... Motion VFX released 'MDusts' - a collection of dust footage handily supplied as a plug-in for FCPX. Then, a few days later, Pixel Film Studios released 'ProDust'...a collection of dust footage also handily supplied as a plug-in for FCPX - only cheaper. The row broke out because the dust footage in 'ProDust' was the same raw footage that Motion VFX shot themselves for the 'MDusts' plug-in... in other words - theft. Ouch. But... Pixel Film Studios denied it... .then eventually said that a 'rogue employee' had done it without their knowledge and they had in fact shot their own dust footage which was now being re-released in the 'ProDust' plug-in.

Who knows what really happened here...? To a certain extent..who cares? Some people have said that there are few of us who have never used a dodgy mp3 or movie before, so what's the difference? The difference is repackaging someone's hard work (and intellectual property) and then re-selling it. Anyway... They've agreed to let the matter go... I've got products from both of them and seeing as no one can really say what happened, i'm not going to stop blogging on either of them.. Life's too short. Let's just hope it stops..

Thursday, February 7, 2013

PROCUTX From Pixel Film Studios

This is pretty exciting news for FCPX editors like myself. Pixel Film Studios have just released PROCUTX, an iPad App that controls Final Cut Pro X. It looks fantastic. I currently use a Shuttle Pro which is great, but i think this will make a really useful addition to the edit suite.

PROCUTX for Final Cut Pro X is an iOS iPad application that allows editors to control Final Cut Pro X on their MAC through an iPad.

Built from the ground up to meet the needs of today’s creative editors, PROCUTX breaks free from the menus and tabs to streamline editor tasks. This application gives users control over all the FCPX editing tools in one clean interface, eliminating the need for clicking and searching through the Final Cut Pro X menus. From import to export, PROCUTX can control every step of the FCPX editing process.

Features Include:

• Precision Timeline Scrubbing
• Quick Retiming
• Auto-Correct Color
• Color Grading
• Compound Clip Editing
• Import, Export, and Rendering shortcuts
• Quick Keywording
• Fast access to Tools
• System Volume Control
• Timeline Zooming
• Audio Enhancements
• Record Voiceovers

Get it here...only $24.99 at the moment...rising to $40 soon...

EDIT>>  There's loads of chatter online about this app at the moment. Lots of people are saying that without some kind of 'real' buttons to feel, this product isn't worth using. In my opinion, that's such a crazy argument... I have my iPad mounted in front of my monitor and i can see it fine without looking away from my monitor...a momentary glance to hit the right button is way quicker than multiple mouse clicks any day of the week. I have a hardware controller and i will keep that... but let's give this new and exciting product a chance. And as for the people complaining about the price? Seriously? You can't invest $25 in your edit system? Madness...

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Building a bigger, heavy-duty camera slider/dolly

The finished slider working on set and easily carrying my full camera rig.

Like a lot of you, i bought a 1m camera slider a couple of years ago.  My films suddenly had sideways motion in them! Great.... but, using such a small slider gave me a few problems. I had to dismount my camera from it's rig because the slider couldn't take the weight of my full camera rig. This meant losing time on set..  The 1m slider also seemed really small for a lot of work. Unless there's stuff right in the foreground or you're close to the ground, it's hard to see the dolly movement having much affect on the shot. I decided i needed something bigger.

Why not get or build a full-sized 'doorway' dolly you might ask... Well, i've got one of those and it's great for feature film sets...nothing does a 20m tracking shot like a proper dolly.. But, you need a van to transport it around and you need someone to push it.... not ideal for small shoots like music videos and to be honest, a lot of feature work requires quick set ups on indie shoots, and the full sized dolly ain't quick to get rigged.

My original idea was to build a 2m slider with a permanent track like a slider, but with a removable dolly that runs on skateboard wheels. The track should be solid enough that i can mount it on a pair of tripods for use at waist or even head height. I also wanted it to be tough.. it had to take the abuse that doing lots of set-ups in a day can dish out to equipment.

My first step was to make the dolly itself. I bought 8 old skool skate wheels from eBay. They had to be old as modern ones often have recessed bearings and i need to mount the wheels almost flush to the dolly. Older wheels are also usually made of softer rubber than today's skate wheels. I got 8 wheels for about a tenner. Result. Then i bought some aluminium box section and some wood. I cut the box section and drilled holes for the bolts which were going to hold the main wheels... then i drilled the piece of wood which was to become the bottom of the dolly to hold the other 4 wheels in a 2 + 2 offset arrangement. After messing around with various designs based on what i'd seen online, i decided against the 45 degree angle wheel mounting like a lot of DIY dollys use... it just seemed a bit unstable and made the dolly sit to high on the track.

Version 1 of the dolly..(upside down here) Ally centre and wood top & bottom.

Slightly rough build quality for the 'test' version.

After a bit of testing on the knocked-up version of the track, it became clear than the bolts holding on the main wheels where not working too well with the aluminium.... it also had a nasty 'hollow' sound as it moved. But... it worked really well. I decided to replace the side sections with wood and start again.

See the wheels on the underside...they keep the dolly on the track.

Very simple construction inside...

Testing with the Cullman Titan Fluid Head attached with 3 big bolts. 

More testing. The rails are 1.8m heavy duty chrome curtain poles.
 Once the dolly was working well, i made the track more permanent. It's just two 1.8m heavy duty curtain rails. These are ideal is they are strong, light and come with end sections which hold the poles in place. I lined the insides of the pole holders with rubber to make the join more solid. Then it was just a case of joining the two sections together with a simple piece of wood.... finally i added rubber feet to all three floor pads. The end sections can also be mounted on tripods.

Finally, it just need a paint job. Luckily for me, this whole thing fits in my car so i can get around to shoots without renting a van.

On the first two shoots i used it on, it was perfect... i'm so happy with it...and it cost about £80 all in!

The end result....