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And then that happened...

Nathan Strum


Been piecing away at this one for a few weeks now...



May 5th, 2011...


Remember this entry? It featured the first appearance of the HD can-of-worms which we were just about to open up at work.


Four years ago.


Well, in honor of us finally achieving high-defness at work, I decided to finish it up in color.




Ooooooo... icon_shades.gif




I painted over the original sketch in Painter, and it just looked better with the sketch left intact, rather than a clean background. Not sure why. Maybe I'm just too used to seeing the original sketch in all its messy goodness.


Nothing ruins a perfectly good sketch like going back in and trying to make it look "finished". icon_razz.gif




So yes, we finally went full HD this year. 23.98 fps, 1920 x 1080p. All of the students in the Character Animation program had to produce their films in that format this year. We used Apple's ProRes 422 (HQ) codec, since it maintains broadcast quality*, but at manageable file sizes and bit rates. The reason for 23.98** is that it goes more places without conversion than 24 does. DVD, Blu-ray, broadcast TV, SD NTSC, all take 23.98 with minimal fuss. Plus in the extremely unlikely event anyone needs to go to film, it's a very easy matter to convert it to 24 (or if going to PAL, to 25).


Seems to me I mentioned that we were making the leap to HD before. Ah yes... here we go.


Now, despite some server-related headaches (especially in the first semester, where the word "plagued" comes to mind) the whole transition went pretty smoothly. Much more than I expected. In fact, out of 145 films turned in, only about 10 were in the wrong format, and those were fixed by the students pretty quickly. Some years we've had 25 - 30 wrong, and they tended to be more wrong than the relatively minor issues from this year.


I think some of that improvement came from the awareness there had been a major format change, so the students knew they had to pay more attention. Some of the improvement also came from the format itself, since with our old standard-def production path, we were using 29.97 fps as the target (which involved 3:2 pulldowns and other icky stuff), and the codec we were using (DV-NTSC) used non-square pixels. Try explaining those concepts to a student sometime. I think the biggest piece of the puzzle though is that our technical faculty did an excellent job of getting the information out to the students, helped out by the fact that we were able to hire on a full-time position for the first time in years, so the students always had someone on-hand to go to with production questions. Still, until all the films got turned in, I had no idea how it was actually going to work out. Prepare for the worst, hope for not-quite-so-much-the-worst and all that.


Oh right... did I mention I was going through our Open Show crunch again? Yeah, that just happened.


I'll recap.


Student films were due Monday, April 25th. (Edit: Hard to believe it's a month ago now.)


As usual, I came in for a few hours over the weekend before, then I was at work about 18 hours on Monday. The films were due at 4 PM that day, but our Program's Director decided to extend the deadline a couple of hours (which pretty-much happens every year). So there's this mad rush where all of these films just come piling in at once. It then takes me until 2 or 3 AM to sort through everything, check all the films, then e-mail the students who have problems they need to fix. The next few days are spent dealing with fixed films and stragglers who missed the deadline, assembling the show, and mixing the audio. A lot of my time is spent just with file management and keeping everything sorted out. Every year I worry that somehow, I'm going to miss including someone's film. So far, as best as I can recall, that only happened once, and it was so long ago, I don't even remember when it was. But the whole thing is like juggling cats. Angry cats. Angry cats that are wet, and don't want to be juggled.


Once the films are all finally correct and sequenced in Final Cut Pro, then I go through and spend a day or two "mixing" the audio for the whole show. Now I say "mixing" with quotes because it's not really mixing as such, but more like really roughly adjusting the audio levels so as to not cause the audience any undue pain or ear bleeding. In the last couple of years, I spent way too much time fixing audio problems within films. Boosting weak dialog, rolling off sound effects that were too loud, etc. But I decided this year not to do that because a) it takes way too long and b) it really doesn't let the students hear why they need to pay more attention to their sound in the first place. So I went back to what we used to do, which was just balancing the levels from film to film, so the whole show played at a reasonably consistent volume. This still takes some time though, since the show was 5 hours and 21 minutes long. That's just one pass through it, so to go back and forth through the whole show and mix the whole thing took about 12 - 15 hours. Fortunately though, because we've really made a major effort over the last few years to improve our curriculum in regards to sound design, the overall sound of the films was better this year than it's been in a very long time.†


Now, that may seem like a long show, but that's actually pretty short for us. In recent years, we've had shows with about the same number of films that were 7 1/2 hours long. This year, for whatever reason, there were just a lot of short films. And frankly, I think that was a good thing. Maybe students are realizing that completing a more manageable project is better than turning in an incomplete "epic".


The show was finished up Thursday (the 28th), at which point I sat down and watched the whole thing, beginning to end. Usually I have to do this anyway, as the show was output to tape. But this year - no tape. Still, I felt it important to make sure the whole show played properly, and at a consistent volume. I have a really nice production HD monitor on my editing station at work, and the films just looked amazing. The difference in detail, clarity, and image quality was startling. I rendered out the final show into three large chunks (as opposed to 145 little chunks), and I went home to get two hours of sleep.


Friday was spent getting in the rental equipment for the sound system and prepping the playback systems. In one room ("The Palace"), we would be running the films for the faculty (so they could judge them for our Producers' Show - a smaller selection of films shown to the animation industry), starting Saturday around 9:30 AM. Then starting at 2 PM Saturday, we'd start the Open Show in the Institute's Main Gallery for the students and public. So I have to have two systems in different locations, running the same material, but offset by a few hours. The Palace also had to be set up with tables, power strips and extension cords for the 35 or so faculty (and their laptops) who would be watching the films and then scoring them using an online form. (While online scoring requires more setup, we no longer have to tabulate the results by hand which used to take hours.) This setup took a lot longer than expected, so I didn't even get around to starting on the playback systems until around 10:30 PM, Friday. Fortunately, there is already an HD projector and sound system in The Palace, so I only needed to make the playback system play nice with it. Then I had to retrieve the projector for the Main Gallery, then calibrate and test it with its playback system so there wouldn't be any surprises on Saturday. We ran the shows straight from Mac Pros through HD interfaces (one from Matrox, the other from AJA), and into the projectors with either HDMI or component connections. But since I'd never used those interfaces with those projectors before, coupled with my already sleep-deprived state, it took me until 4 AM Saturday morning to get both playback systems working properly. Then I had to be back at work by 9 AM. Three whole hours of sleep. But at least the judging setup was all done before I went home. (Somewhere in there, and I'm not sure when, I also had to make the judging forms for the faculty screening, and the printed programs for the Open Show. That might have been Thursday. It's all a bit of a blur, now.)


Saturday, we had to transform the Main Gallery into an impromptu movie theater. We used the same set-up as last year: four 15" JBL Eon speakers plus two 18" powered subwoofers for the sound system (rented from Location Sound, and kindly set up by a couple of my fellow techs who were nice enough to come in on their day off), a 20-foot-wide screen (rented from and set up by American Hi-Definition), and 300+ chairs. This all had to be done before the show started at 2 PM. (Fortunately, in addition to the techs who came in, we had a lot of help from our T.A.s and other students.) That just left the projector. Since I had stayed up the night before calibrating and testing it, I just basically had to point it at the screen, plug it in, and focus it.




Now, you might notice that the worms in the cartoon above aren't actually high-def. If they were, that image would be 1920 x 1080.


There's a reason for that.


I got about halfway through painting it, before I realized I was working with a low-resolution scan. Such are the side-effects of sleep deprivation. I decided to just leave it, since for a blog entry, it wouldn't really matter.


But it's somewhat apropos that it isn't in high-def.


You see... the Open Show wasn't actually in high-definition either.


Oh, the films were all in HD. The show was edited in HD. The playback files were all HD. The computers were outputting HD. The faculty got to watch and judge the films in HD.


But the Open Show itself wasn't projected in HD. Not in the Main Gallery.


It was projected at a meager 1024 x 576. About 1/2 of HD.


Why? Well, without getting into politics, let's just say that the cost of renting a true HD projector for the Open Show was deemed as "too expensive" so we had to use what we had on hand. From my standpoint, I thought that the expense would have been well worth it. After all, this is the only show where all of the students get their work shown in front of an audience. But hey... not my call. I made my case the best I could.


Still, the picture was a lot better than in previous years. Except for the glitching.


You see, the projector didn't like HD. In fact, the only signal we could feed it from the interface that it would even display was 1280 x 720i at 59.94 fps. So the image was already being scaled down once, and then the projector scaled it down to its native resolution - 1024 x 768. But it had to letterbox it, since we were feeding it 16:9 video, and the projector was 4:3. Apparently, it was all a little bit more than the projector could handle, because anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes apart, there'd be a horizontal glitch across the bottom of the image - just like noise on a video tape.


Two steps forward, three steps back.


Despite that, the show went really well. We had to have a break in the middle from 6:30 - 10 PM due to another event taking place in an adjoining space, but because the show was shorter overall, we still wrapped up around 11:30 PM. Much earlier than previous years.‡ Except for sneaking out to grab a quick lunch, I had to stick around for the entire show (in case of any technical problems) and during the break as well, since when the judging was over (around 7 PM), I had to sit down with the Program's Director to tally all the results for the Producers' Show. I eventually left around 2:30 AM, because I had to stay and break down the equipment and put it away. Then after another three hours of sleep, I had to be back by 7 AM Sunday to meet with the screen rental company for pickup. I finally got home just after 9 AM Sunday, and could finally collapse and start catching up on some sleep.





May 14th, 2011...


Between then and May 12th, I had to get things ready for the Producers' Show. This is a lot shorter of a show (this year, only 67 minutes), and much easier in most regards to putting it together. For me, anyway. Not so much for our sound faculty - Ben - who did 5.1 surround mixes for all 23 of the films. This is his second year of doing this, and the difference it makes is like night and day. But with sound. My week is mostly spent getting the program put together. Students design it and create artwork for it, but all of the typesetting, final layout and prepress work is done by me (and, of course, it has to go through several rounds of approvals). Then I have to work with the printer to make sure it gets done on time (this year, it was delivered at 2 PM on the day of the show... we need to work on that for next year), while coordinating with the theater and the outside companies we'd be working with on the day of the show. Once the sound mixes were done, I then had to cut the show together and render out the final playback files, test everything, and make any necessary tweaks. After a couple of last-minute fixes, I finished the final output files about Noon on the day of the show, and then packed up everything to take to the theater.


This year - with the move to HD and the extra work being done for the sound mixes - we did get to put some money into the Producers' Show screening. After all, this screening is for industry big-shots (who also pay to sponsor the thing), in addition to our students. The show takes place at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Theater in North Hollywood. In previous years, we played back standard-definition Betacam SP tapes, which only used two-track audio. You could get Dolby 2.0 (Lt Rt) surround off it, but at best that was only sort-of surround, and the theater had no HD video playback capabilities. So we hired American Hi-Definition to bring in a Christie Roadster 18K HD projector (about $90,000 worth), and Dolby (yes, that Dolby) to set up the surround system there to support true 5.1 surround.


Now, while we'd had American Hi-Definition set up screens for our Open Shows before, we'd never worked with them for the Producers' Show, nor had we worked with Dolby there. So I had no idea what to expect, how long setup would take, what sort of problems we might encounter, or how any of it might work with the Mac Pro and AJA Io HD we were bringing for playback. Our show was scheduled for 8 PM on May 12th, and we were going to meet up at the theater at 4 PM that day. I was seriously worried we wouldn't have enough time, since I'd never done any of this before, and we had to start seating people at 7:30 PM. The fact that I left for the theater later than I wanted to and showed up exactly at 4 PM (and not 15 minutes early, like I'd wanted to) only added to my anxiety. In fact, I remained stressed-out until shortly after 4 PM when they started setting up in the projection booth, and it became clear that our show was in excellent hands. Within maybe 30 minutes, everything was basically set up and ready to go. 30 minutes. 35, tops. My stress over this had been building up for weeks, if not months, and the last couple of days had been nearly unbearable at times. And within minutes - gone. The word "professionalism" only scratches the surface with these guys. They were well-practiced, efficient, calm, knowledgable, self-assured, and absolutely, thoroughly professional. It was a real joy to watch them work, and immediately put all of my fears to rest (plus, the sheer geek-factor of the gear they were using was pretty awesome, too). The fact that they all knew each other (it's a small world after all...), and had all worked at that theater before helped, since everyone already knew what everyone had to do. I basically just had to set up our computer system, plug it in, and the picture and sound were perfect. No muss, no fuss. I especially can't speak highly enough about the projector. The picture quality was astonishing. Razor sharp, crystal clear, super bright, saturated, and perfect color.


In the 17 years I've been doing this (that's about enough...) this was the first time I've ever been completely satisfied with the presentation of the show. There's always been something in past years I haven't liked, but this year it was flawless.


Now, that's not to say I still wasn't nervous during the show. We'd brought two pre-configured Mac Pros (one as a back-up), plus a third copy of the show on an extra hard drive, just in case. Once the show started, I never left the projection booth until the last frame of the show was off the screen. Admittedly, it made the show a lot less enjoyable (projection booths are noisy places with lousy views of the screen), but I never would have been able to relax if I'd been down on the floor.


Next year though, I'll have a better idea of what's going to happen, and I think I'll be in a lot better frame of mind for it. I'm also hoping we can get a MacBook Pro with a Thunderbolt hard drive for playback, since those Mac Pros are heavy. icon_rolleyes.gif


The screening by all accounts was hugely successful. Or so I'm told. Because we had no safe place to lock up the Macs, I had to load them into my car immediately after the screening ended, and drive them back to CalArts. I couldn't stick around for the reception afterwards. I would've liked to have heard what people thought of the presentation, but I'll just have to go off of second-hand accounts.


But everyone seemed suitably impressed. With any luck, maybe they were impressed enough so that next year, we can rent a proper projector for the Open Show as well. Fingers crossed.


With that, here are the films from this year's Producers' Show (not all are online yet, but I'll update links as they become available):


Opening Titles - Jeff Liu (and many others)

little boat - Nelson Boles

Marooned 3 - Tom Law

Paraphernalia - Sabrina Cotugno

Sharkdog - Eric Anderson

My Grandfather's Ship - Trevor Jones

Shell Out - Sunmee Dong

Origin - Jessica Poon

Shape - Eusong Lee

The Trackpad Jam - Jeff Liu

Brave - Jasmin Lai

Berdoo - Miranda Tacchia

GrandMugged - Jacob Streilein

We'll be fine, probably. - Sam Kremers-Nedell

Hummingbirds & Holograms - Jeff Liu

Vampire Gastelbrau - Hannah Ayoubi

Give Me Space - Brian Carter

Bottom Feeder Blues - Colin Howard

Blueberry - Glenn Williamson

The Funny Thing About Lois - Amelia Lorenz

Lemur - Takehiro Nishikawa

500 Days of Winter - Natalie Wetzig

Eyrie - David Wolter


And while the following films didn't make the Producers' Show, they're some of my favorites from this year:


Ima Loose Cannon - Tom Law

a.breeze.from.mt.Parnassus - Vitaliy Strokous

Unlocked - Tahnee Gehm



May 26th, 2011...


Since then, besides recovering (it takes me weeks to get back on a normal schedule, and I'm still not there), I've been mostly working on getting the DVDs of the show authored and duplicated (including the labels, inserts and cases), and getting projects lined up for the summer. At some point, I'll be making Blu-ray discs of the shows. But that can wait for a little while. I've got some other projects to deal with, first.


And some time-off to take.



*Actually, most "broadcast" HD is so badly compressed by the time it gets to your TV that everything we're doing ends up looking far superior.

**Yes, I know. It's actually 23.976, but most production software rounds it off to 23.98.

†1994, to be exact. That was the last year where every 2nd through 4th year student was required to have a sound mix. After that, we went digital, so everyone could do their own sound. This is good and bad. Good in that students have far more control and flexibility in regards to their soundtracks. Bad, in that many of them wait until the very last second to do their sound, and tend to just hastily slap their sound together without giving it the attention it really needs.

‡When we used to have the Open Show in the cafeteria several years ago, we couldn't even start the show until after dark, because it had windows on all sides. That meant sometimes the films would run past 4 AM, and then we'd have to take everything down and clean it up.


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Thanks. As long as I've worked there, every year I'm still surprised by something. Some new story idea, or creative visual approach, or technical innovation, or something. Of course, there's the typical stuff that reappears year after year, but that tends to be in the minority.

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Just watched Paraphernalia, and it's astoundingly good. :o I may be just a layperson, but it's hard to believe that was a student film production.

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Yep. The level some of these students are working at is pretty astonishing. She had a film in last year's Producers' Show as well.


This year she was over in France as part of an exchange program, and still managed to get her film done and submitted on time.

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Good stuff! Watched all but Blueberry as it wouldn't play - Vimeo gave a Oops! Something Broke. screen.


I noticed some of them weren't uploaded in HD (I watched them all full-screen at 1920x1080).

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The students upload them, so it's going to be somewhat inconsistent. We don't own the rights to their films, so we can't upload them to commercial sites ourselves. At some point though, they'll probably be on our school's website.

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It's too bad that you didn't have a better projection system for the Open Show. Hopefully the cost to rent a decent projection system will come down or you can get someone to sponsor it. I wonder if feeding the projector via it's VGA input (assuming it had one) would have worked better. Do all of the scaling & frame rate conversion on the Mac side.


I'm trying to think if there's a way to help the students set their volume levels correctly. Something like a set of samples for various levels which they can use to tweak their films. i.e. normal dialog, max volume, recommended minimum. And maybe some way to semi-automatically tweak the volume of the film so it meets that profile.

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We teach them guidelines to use for audio levels. But their audio tends to be done in such a last-second rush, not enough of them pay attention to it. If we required sound mixes for everyone, that would solve the problem, but that's just not practical for that many students. (We do require it for the Producers' Show films, however.)


As for the projector, yeah... well, it's not always whether the money is there or not, but rather if they want to spend it on a particular thing or not.

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