Director of narrative, commercial, and virtual reality

Film Portfolio

Project Greenlight finalist | Short about sex, death, existence, time

Lily in the Grinder

Shabbat Dinner

Comedy short about coming out | Featured in 55+ festivals

Search is Back

Featured on TechCrunch | 7k users per day

Global event handing out nametags on first Sat in June

Nametag Day

Uber Forecast

Tracking Uber's surge pricing to guess what the weather might be

Archive for October, 2009

Wikipedia Tuesdays: XOR and RAID 5!

There's no bugs in this implementation!

No bugs in this implementation!

Perhaps I will send interesting Wikipedia links every Tuesday. Perhaps not. Explore and dig in, and find information you did not know before. Read on – it looks technical but it’s actually quite simple and intuitive, and these things are a part of your everyday life, so could be very useful to know down the line.

A RAID drive is a set of multiple drives in an enclosure operating together in a few different ways. Some standard ones: RAID 1, which mirrors both drives, providing extra security. A lost drive can be replaced and automatically be rebuilt. RAID 0, which “stripes” data, putting successive chunks of information in the same place on both drives; this way, drive heads 1 and 2 are reading consecutive bits of data at the same time, so the net speed is about twice as fast.

But here’s where it gets interesting (if you’re still following): To provide the benefits of speed AND backup in case of drive failure, you’d need four drives, right? – one to mirror the first drive and one to mirror the second. Nope, you can do it in three. RAID 5 provides for a third drive which stores the difference between the first two drives using the XOR function. In any location on the drive, if the bits are the same it stores a 0 and if they are different it stores a 1. This way, the RAID array can quickly replace a lost drive.

It used to be that only powerful computers could maintain the overhead necessary for these things, but now RAID controllers take care of the bookkeeping and they are quite mainstream. Filmmakers use them to store HD video, servers use them to store content. Now you can see them in standard consumer hard drives like the one I just got.

There’s so much more ingenuity built into computers than reaches the surface!

Flying over Highway 1

Oh boy do I love stop motion plane videos. This one was taken as I flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but with my iPhone still camera. The guy next to me thought it was pretty funny as I kept repeatedly hitting the “picture” button for about ten minutes – the upside of this is a HD-rez video. I think the city at the end is Santa Barbara.

Always keep on makin movies…

Thanks to Citizen Space for the computer time to edit this! No thanks to iMovie, which is a ridiculously cumbersome product.

DdTv: Pushing Boundaries, part two

Watch DdTv!

Watch DdTv!

In part one of this series, I discussed the inception of DdTv (watch it here!) and our conceptualization of the broad aims and structure of the show. With those thoughts out of the way and only days to go, we began to work on the technical nitty gritty. Putting up a show with speed and grace was going to take major coordination. (This post is rather technical so I include links that explain everything. Skip over it if you’re not interested in the details. I’d very much appreciate hearing what is helpful to you of this information.)

Communication

Our greatest barrier, even in this most technological venture, was the human element. With five, then six, people actively working on the show and each having creative input and a stake in the outcome, our greatest challenge was to cull input and come to consensus as quickly as possible. The first two episodes, which were completed while Emily and Mark were still in New York, were the easiest. We would discuss in general what we wanted the episode to be and I would work in the same room as everyone else; conversations and review sessions happened spontaneously as they were needed. When they left for Thailand our first solution was email; they would send an email with every day’s upload and a general description of what was most important.

Email was a decent solution that allowed us to convey a lot of information and respond whenever convenient. Issues arose, though, whenever there was disagreement or conversation to be had. It’s is an extremely ineffective way to achieve consensus; in fact, one of the most ineffective ways I can think of. It’s a solitary medium written entirely in ones own head to convey ones own opinion; it can take an entire day to discover that everyone in an email thread agrees with you. In our case, one person made a suggestion followed by another person’s opposite suggestion, immediately creating a new issue to debate and solve; it was at times like watching paint dry. In addition, email was messy. In a conversation thread of 100 emails, it was difficult to see quickly what changes were required and what still needed to be done. (It’s my hope that Google Wave will solve these problems.)

Our next solution was to use two Google docs, essentially a wiki: one to log all the footage and another to outline the episodes. Our hope was to roughly chart the next four upcoming episodes, filling in the structure with more and more detail as our concept of the episode evolved. This way, even before a rough cut, we would know what the episode was about and its structure. Footage that had to be shot and unperformed changes were highlighted, and every person typed in their own color. The hope was that it would become a discussion forum as well as a document.

We stuck with email for short-term communication and used docs for outlining, and they proved a more useful way to hold this information. The change allowed us to think ahead and be on the same page, but we were still left with some essential limitations. It was difficult to completely convey what we wanted: one of us would ask for more of a certain feel to the episode and it was difficult to ask clarifying questions and be sure we all understood this request the same way. New cuts of the episodes took more time than such clarification would have.

This brings me to an essential lesson: no matter what your budget, no matter what your time differences, there is no substitute for face to face communication. Instead of removing this requirement, digital technology has made meetings easier. We now have a schedule of video meetings, and are considering technologies like MeBeam and Oovoo. It’s far easier to send an email than plan a conference with many schedules and across time zones, but conference chats force us to think collectively on the same timeline, enabling us to work on multiple episodes at once and think collaboratively.

Workflow

After communication, ironing down a cogent workflow was our second priority. Mark and Emily shot their video using the $150 Flip Mino camera. The point and shoot simplicity (there are literally about five buttons) made it simple to record while on the go, and the price could not be beat. The Flip’s image quality was incredible for such a small and cheap camera, its files were small for transfer online, and the audio was quite passable; I am now a real supporter of this camera.

Uploading and converting the footage was the most time-intensive process. At first we used an FTP server to put up the footage, but we have switched to Dropbox, an excellent and cheap service. It is a lifesaver that places  a folder on everyone’s computer that stays synchronized. Mark and Emily can upload whenever they want, and whenever our computers are on they work to download the files; this means that when we want to look at them to edit, they’re sitting right there.

We learned quickly that the footage had to be renamed. The flip puts out videos numbered sequentially, and we would organize them in folders by upload date, with the result that we would have multiple VID00001’s, which we accomplished using the freeware Name Mangler. In a video project, every file should have a different file name, regardless of whether they are neatly sorted in folders. Remembering that fact will save you hours of pain! We then used Compressor droplets to convert the footage from MPEG-4 into DV, a format that Final Cut Pro can edit (you can put them in your dock and drag files to them to convert!) It took about a half hour for each nightly upload and created some seriously huge files (about six times the size of the originals!)

I edited the footage and uploaded it to FTP or our donated internal Google Video (Apple Compressor has a pretty nifty feature that allows you to export footage directly to an FTP) in files that could be easily viewed on Emily and Mark’s iPhones. I created version numbers and copied over a new version of the sequence in Final Cut Pro. In other words, I uploaded 03_Soliya_1.0, 03_Soliya_1.1, 03_Soliya_1.2, etc. In my editor I had these same versions, so I could always revert back to an older edit (how many times have you heard “let’s just go back to the way it was two cuts ago?”) After Mark and Emily saw it, we discussed as a group.

With this workflow in place, it was easy to add another editor — and we did! The fabulous Raquel Lizardi has already edited two episodes and is working on her third. All we had to do was was to keep our files the same on all the computers, which was easy with Dropbox. As long as the source files had the same names, we could easily share Final Cut Pro documents, only needing to reconnect them to our version of the footage.

Next Steps

Our workflow is running smoothly and we know what we’re doing, so expect to see more compelling DdTv. In my opinion, the best is yet to come. We will follow the Dd team as they set up their Handheld Human Rights and Project Einstein pilot projects in Bangladesh, testing the first truly secure and open source mobile platform connecting students in those areas to ones in the United States. Our upcoming episodes will feature more links to outside content so you can better engage in what’s happening on camera. Continue to follow us to get a better view on Digital Democracy’s fantastic projects!

I’ve discovered a lot of techniques in relating to this new filmmaking world, and I know that one day very soon many of the challenges to which we have cobbled together solutions will come pre-solved. A cheap service where anyone can put up high quality video footage and it can be edited like a wiki, with awesome workflow stuff, is on its way very soon. But there’s no reason to let the perfect become the enemy of the possible; high quality and cheap distributed video production is here!

Products mentioned in this post: Google docs, Flip Mino, Dropbox, Name Mangler. Compressor, Google Video, MeBeam and Oovoo. Oh yeah, and Google Wave.

Vacation vid #1

On my trip to Greece, Bulgaria, and Italy, I brought my small digital camera, which also functions as a full-resolution video camera. I try to keep shooting and editing video, even if it’s just something fun. For now, here’s the first video. I’ve got some beautiful panoramas made from up to ten images, which I will upload soon. Enjoy!

American Student Government Association Intro video

Freelance work leads me to the most interesting places. I got a call recently from Butch Oxendine of the ASGA, which just a few years ago gave my student government documentary a favorable review in their monthly publication. I created the five-minute introduction to their annual convention in Washington, DC. Not only does it pay the bills, but it’s fun meeting new people and interacting with different organizations. I also got to recruit my friend Adam Robbins for the voiceover. Video coming soon – hit some YouTube hiccups.

Other recent freelance gigs include work with Meerkat Media on Pushback Network’s annual leadership summit, assistant editing on Isaac Solotaroff’s Wham! Bam! Islam!, and transcription for Rory Kennedy’s Moxie Firecracker Films and Stefan Forbes’ Interpositive Media. I’ve been afforded a rich diversity of work and I hope that continues to be the case!

DdTv: Pushing boundaries, part one

Blip TV syndicates our episodes on multiple platforms

Blip TV syndicates our episodes on multiple platforms

Episode six of Digital Democracy Television, a show I helped to create and have edited four episodes of, has just been broadcast over the cyberwaves. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really ought to take a look at the first few episodes and see what we have created. We really know of no other show that is doing what we are: following the development and work of a nonprofit as it happens, not through liveblogging but on a fully produced internet TV show. This process has allowed us to connect directly to our supporters and engage them more fully than before in our mission.

I’m as proud of the process behind the show as I am of the product itself. It’s particularly apropos that a nonprofit whose goal is to democratize restrictive areas near Burma through open technology is also taking a new and high-tech approach to video advocacy. In trying to create a show that rivals professional big-budget media, we encountered challenges we did not expect and learned how to use free technologies to solve them. I’d like to share our process and the things we have learned in this entry.

Mae Sot, ThailandMy story with Digital Democracy began when I came to work for them as an intern. Mark Belinsky and Emily Jacobi, the co-directors, had hours of footage they had taken in 2007 while doing the research that led to the organization’s creation. In countless interviews and scenes from refugee camps, the videos told the stories of activists working along the Burma border in the name of openness and freedom. They had made a short documentary, Under The Sun: Life on the Thai-Burma Border, that had been shown at a number of film festivals, and I proceeded to edit more of the interviews into three-minute video clips. As we sat together working on the videos, we realized the real power of these voices to tell their own story to our friends in America far more powerfully than we could.

DdTv was born in our minds, and over the next month we formulated a strategy for Mark and Emily’s trip back to Burma’s borders. Our discussions began at a theoretical level: our ultimate goals, the tone of the episodes, the structure, and the timing. We decided on a 3-6 minute episode length, with a cold open, an out-of-context clip to pique interest that would later be explained in the episode, then our title card, then the story. We knew our core audience well: supporters of the organization who believed in our struggle and were well-informed about the issues related. Still, we did not want to alienate any other audience, and began the series with the assumption that a viewer who knew nothing must be able to understand our story with a little Googling.

I had a good sense of Emily and Mark’s vision for the series, as well as the thoughts of Liz Hodes and Gabe Hopkins (the other co-founders), so I took this time to communicate advice to them about shooting. The technical: give a few seconds before and after clips, shoot lots of scene-setting footage. But also the narrative: even as you travel, think of the story arc for the episode as you are shooting. Above all, I told them that each episode must be defined by a singular goal and obstacle. Whether they were related to the core takeaway of the episode or not, a goal and obstacle were what subconsciously kept a reader interested.

Soliya: Will it rain?

Soliya: Will it rain?

(My favorite example of this structure is in Episode 3, Soliya. Emily and Mark go to meet with a nonprofit, and the whole time hope they will escape the rain. Goal: interview Soliya. Obstacle: it might rain. It’s a very, very weak obstacle that is not connected with the goal or the episode, AND YET it makes a viewer more interested in what they are seeing.) I was important for us to remember that even if our audience wanted the information we were providing, they weren’t going to keep watching unless we kept it interesting.

NEXT in Part 2, I discuss the obstacles we faced in collaborating and editing an episode across the globe!

All in a picture: In memory of a puppy

I work on 19th Street and 9th Avenue in Chelsea. At about noon today, one of us looked out the window and noticed that a small white puppy was stuck on a seventh-story ledge outside of the window. The window was open a crack and the puppy had apparently crawled out of it (though how it fit through the small opening is anyone’s guess) and then had been unable, or unwilling, to back itself into the narrow slit. A few of us were watching the puppy, and I took this photo from our window. Looking down at the ledges below us, it was clear that there was barely any space to sit on them. None of us could bear to look for more than a few seconds. If the puppy fell and we saw it, that image would be burned into our memory forever. What on earth could we do? It began to drizzle, and the sidewalk started to get wet.

On the street there was an overhang, so the puppy was above plywood 15 feet in the air rather than sidewalk. We called the NYPD and the fire department and they said they were on their way. When they arrived, they responded to one of my officemate’s frustration with cool indifference. From what I hear, they canceled the call fire department, and lied to say that the fire department was on their way. I stopped to talk to the police on my way to lunch, asking them to get a mattress, trampoline, something. They asked me to leave to avoid causing a scene, and I went on my way.

I returned from lunch and craned my neck upward, seeing no sign of a puppy. The window appeared closed, which told me that somebody had found a way inside and brought the dog back in. I walked into our building and was greeted by the few-month old puppy who lives at our security desk – “you stay off of window sills,” I tell him, right before the receptionist told me that the dog had fallen. My coworker saw it happen, and she is still reeling.

I’m in shock and disbelief of the life on this poor dog, and I keep thinking of its owner coming back to find it missing. Any dog owner would have preferred their door be broken in than their puppy fall to its death, but that was not the way of the NYPD. In fact, I blame the NYPD for its death.

I share this for the reminder it gave me, of the destruction and sadness in this world that is beyond our control. It reminds me of a time I saw a hummingbird trapped in a tall room, which apparently happened often; they will fly back and forth until their heart stops, and the only thing left to do is watch. This photo tells so much of the story.

:(

:(

Special FX will flow like water

EDIT: For even better proof, check out the trailer for this film that Michael Ashton created for $300. He’s a special effects guy, so he has the experience. If you were going to add on the location fees of the place he borrowed, the money he would have charged someone else, the cost of his computer and camera, etc. then it’s not quite as ridiculous. But that’s some low-budget beauty!


…water before the great droughts of this century, that is.

In a recent post I discussed the implications of lower costs of filmmaking on studio models. We had a discussion in the comments about the types of high-budget films studios will be able to make. If the last few years of technological progress haven’t convinced you that even the best visual effects technology is quickly becoming possible for anyone, just look at what the geniuses at PhotoSketch have developed:

Image and news item courtesy of Gawker

You draw the sketch on the left and it creates the image on the right. Image and news item courtesy of Gawker

Get more information on the process from the Gawker article:

According to authors, their software can take any rough sketch, with the shape of each element labeled with its name, find images corresponding to each drawn element, judge which are a better match to the shapes, and then seamlessly merge it all into one single image.

PhotoSketch’s blending algorithm analyzes each of these images, compares them with each other, and decides which are better for the blending process. It automatically traces and places them into a single photograph, matching the scene, and adding shadows. Of course, the results are less than perfect, but they are good enough.

Mark my words, you will be able to create Benjamin Button on a home computer. 3D HD cameras will cost several thousand dollars. Prepare for the changes because they are coming!

Inspirational words from my boss!

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Read the speech on the Tribeca website.

Ted Hope is one of the cofounders of This is That, where I now intern. He is a passionate advocate for free and open filmmaking, and what I find most inspiring is the way he puts these ideals into practice. Our office is a community, with many smaller offices we rent out to other production companies. We share ideas and thoughts, and everyone is welcome. It’s the exact opposite of cold and money-driven.

An example of this attitude: one of the higher-ups in the company called her assistant last week from Italy to wish her a happy Rosh Hashana. That kind of humanity is missing in so much of this world, and its lack is especially tragic in an industry that calls itself art.

I just read Ted’s acceptance speech for the trailblazer award at the Woodstock Film Festival – truly inspiring. Take a look at the speech in its entirety on the Tribeca website.

  • We won’t unlock the full potential for narrative unless we break the wall between art and commerce—the project and its marketing—and as artists engage not just in content and production, but also in discovery, promotion, and appreciation.
  • We won’t have artists who can afford to create and engage unless we compensate them fully and shed this notion that content should be free but we should pay huge fortunes for the hardware that stores them.
  • We won’t have a way to access and offer truly independent work if we don’t have a free and open Internet—true net neutrality.
  • We won’t be able to find the unique and personal work, if we don’t all take on the responsibility of curating for our family and friends.
  • We won’t have an exhibition industry if we don’t make a point of getting out of homes and sitting together in the dark to enjoy movies on the big screen.
  • We won’t have that exhibition industry if we don’t just simply stop showing movies but instead return to putting on a real show.
  • We won’t have anyone but the rich making movies in this country if we don’t have affordable education and health care.

I wish that everyone had a blog

Let me qualify that: I wish that everyone had a blog and put interesting things in it.

I’ve got about 100 subscriptions in my Google Reader. Some of them, like an automated Craigslist jobsearch, I never read, but I always refresh for the “Friends” group of blogs. Recent active ones include Rebecca’s adventures as a new teacher in Arizona, Maha’s always excellent political commentary, and Max’s spot-on discussions of national events. But that’s not all. There’s Thesy’s experiences being an actress in Hollywood, Mark’s exploration of international justice and tech, and a few more. But what’s missing is your voice.

We do live in a narcissistic “me” generation, a world where we often talk at our screens rather than to each other. But this phenomenon is not inherent in our technology, it is just an unfortunate result of it. The reality is that, in this post-college world of ours, everyone’s sphere of acquaintences is severely constrained. We have lost much of the synergistic community of thinkers, doers, and artists who once roamed together on campus. Blogging and the internet lets us recapture some of that.

But back to my qualifier: think critically about what is interesting. I try to do it and sometimes fail, but this blog is an endeavor to never say what I had for breakfast–or lunch, even. You inhabit a unique corner of the world. What may seem mundane to you — your job, your industry, your personal life, your observations — is probably very interesting to some. You know things others do not, find funny YouTube videos others do not, and think thoughts others do not. I do not know any boring people.

So don’t listen to the voice in your head saying it’s a stupid thought and you aren’t interesting enough. Let out the texture of your life to your friends – at the very least, you’ll have me as an audience.