Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ok, it's time to reveal my *other* blog...

Forgive me stopmoes, I've been unfaithful! The reason I haven't been updating here is that I've been working on my other passion - learning to paint. About a year ago I started another blog, which remained private until today, which I've been using as a journal of my artistic development. I'm still pretty insecure about going public with it, it consists largely of my thoughts about various artists and art in general, along with the art I've been doing to try to blow the dust off my neglected skills and try to transition from drawing to painting. I had just got a tablet around november last year, and was fumbling around with it very clumsily. Just because I kept trying though, I did develop some skill with using the stylus and with working in photoshop elements, and now I'm beginning to get used to working in color. A lot of what I have posted there isn't very good at all - much of it is simply exercises to develop my skills and stay in practice, some of it in media I'm unfamiliar with or trying things I hadn't done before.

Ok, enough excuses - the blog is called Artventure, and here's a glimpse of my latest creation in its current state of development:

I'll add the link to my sidebar soon. Hope to hear from some old friends over there! Feel free to leave comments on old posts if you want.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

CronenBergman... Or why movie spectacle and good old fashioned storytelling just don't mix (Newly edited)

What I've come to realize is that usually the movies that are spectacular don't have good stories, and I think it's because all the surface glitz, all the fast motion and staccato cuts and excessive spectacle is visual candy, meant to be addictive and leave you wanting more - and once you get sugar you don't want green beans and steak anymore. When you get the sugar rush going that's all you want anymore, until you get sick and puke it all up, and you're left feeling empty (a very apt description of my experience seeing quite a few modern blockbusters!) So it seems on a basic level the excessive spectacle and the meat and potatoes of storytelling are incompatible. 

Though there was a time in the late 70's and early 80's when some of the New Hollywood filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas and Ridley Scott were still doing good solid storytelling and just starting to develop the modern excesses of spectacle that are pretty much all today's blockbusters consist of - but they were using it sparingly, only to spice up the story - the effects were still in support of the story rather than the other way around. The last director I'm aware of who worked like this in the sci-fi effects genre was James Cameron - not the Cameron of today, but when he did his early films - up through around T2, when he was starting to give in to the call of spectacle and CGI. I still feel like T2 is effects in support of story, though the dynamics were starting to shift already.

From what I understand, Spielberg wanted to do Jaws very differently - he wanted to be able to see the shark all the time, for the camera to be able to follow it underwater while it did loops and crazy stunts, but the mechanical shark didn't look good enough to allow that, so it was only by a twist of fate that we ended up with an actually great movie rather than the spectacular effects extravaganza he wanted to make. Instead he had to fall back on traditional tricks like not showing the monster too much, letting the viewers use their imaginations to fill in the blanks. Apparently he thought that was sub-par, when in actuality it made it a much better and more sophisticated film. I was really shocked and let down to discover that the greatness of that film was something that happened by accident… I had more faith than that in Stevie boy! Sad to see it was completely misplaced.

I've been on a huge Cronenberg kick lately (of all things!) - I just read 2 books, one about his films and one composed of his own words from interviews etc, and decided to watch all of his movies, all as part of my studies of directors and how they work. I was pretty surprised to hear him say that he admires Bergman and  Kurosawa and Godard and the other international directors of the postwar period and that he deliberately makes his movies like they did. Say WHAAAAT??!! At first I couldn't even comprehend what I just read - oh sure, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly are just like The Virgin Spring or Seven Samurai!! Sure they are!

But after reading some more and watching his films starting from his first ones, I realized they actually are alike in many ways - there's no empty spectacle just to make it fast-paced for a modern popcorn crowd, but at the same time he doesn't (usually) do boring Drama movies about relationships or people trying to improve their social standing. I mean, he works in color, but so did Bergman and Kurosawa et al once that became cheap enough. And he does the crazy morphing body horror stuff - but that's the extent of anything spectacular in his work, and it's actually never just for shock effect or cheap horror scares the way Carpenter would use it - it's always to say something that the whole film is about - something philosophical about human nature. It's shocking, sure, but once you get past that (most people never do) and pay attention to what he's really doing, his films are actually built on very interesting philosophical ideas, not just on scares or gross-outs. All of Cronenberg's films turn out to be doing the same thing in different ways - physically externalizing an internal state --- manifesting psychological conditions literally in the flesh - done through body horror special effects in most of his early films, and through performance technique in everything from Dead Ringers on (everything after The Fly if I remember right, which isn't my strong point).

He did a film called Crash, which involved nothing but sex and car crashes, and still he didn't give in to the temptation to go all Hollywood Blockbuster style - the crashes are simple and quick, no explosions, no slow motion shot from 12 different angles, no elaborate setups or ticking countdowns or anything. No tough-guy muscle-head drivers spouting off cheesy one-liners. None of it is for exploitation, it's all to explore the ideas his movies are based on. His actors can really ACT - they're not models who decided to try their hand at being in Sy-Fy Channel style crapfests.

Actually the same is true of David Lynch and Kubrick too  -both of whom Hollywood doesn't know what to do with because their work is about ideas and even though it flirts with the same material Hollywood uses only for cheap thrills it's used thoughtfully and intelligently - something severely lacking in Hollywood since sometime in the mid 80's at least.

And something I realized about all of them - even though they do use great cinematography and are known for it, it's never ostentatious and it always always serves the story rather than the other way around. In fact most of their cinematography is quite simple and straightforward - the reason it tends to look so nice is because they're shooting things that are inherently interesting and they carefully arrange visual elements for greatest storytelling clarity (not visual eye candy effect) and they or their cameramen (both in most cases) have a great eye for composition.

It might seem odd that I mentioned David Lynch in this article. He's different from the rest because his stories are usually pretty surreal and don't follow standard narrative convention. And like Cronenberg, his work shocks people raised on the standard Hollywood formulas and happy endings. But in spite of the sometimes frightening or nightmarish nature of some parts of his films, he's known as the Jimmy Stewart of surrealism. He looks a lot like Mr. Stewart, and in fact he describes his childhood as very Norman Rockwell. It was idyllic and serene, but he was always fascinated by the little red ants that swarmed unseen on the beautiful trees, and the weird patches of dripping slime. So most of his films focus on that dichotomy - a pastoral idyllic world that when examined closer reveals a nightmarish underworld hidden just beneath the surface, which erupts through from time to time. He also likes to examine themes of duality, many of his female characters split into 2 people (I think only one of his male characters does the same, in Lost Highway). This duality of human nature is actually one of the great themes running through the annals of human thought from the heady days of the Greek philosophers onward, with significant stops at Freud and Jung and throughout the great world literature. All of these directors concern themselves with thematic material that is pretty well known to readers of great literature or philosophy or psychology - it's just considered too difficult or challenging for Joe Six Pack and Suzie Homemaker, who would rather be watching American Idol or Real Housewives.

** EDIT:
I just made the connection between Lynch's idyllic pastoral neighborhoods erupting with insect plagues and slime with what happens to his human characters. It's pretty obvious once you've made the connection, but it's the same thing applied to landscape rather than person. In Lost Highway for instance the man and his wife both start off as happy, successful well-adjusted yuppie types until suddenly a mysterious video tape shows up one night that begins a series of transformations essentially ripping away that outer illusion to reveal the seething murderous shadow personae of them both lurking inside unsuspected. The same happens to Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive - through most of the movie we see her shiny happy Hollywood Hopeful dream self, smiling brightly and all innocent, finding instant success and friendship on arriving, but little by little her Shadow self bursts through, which had always been there but unseen, unsuspected. It's the parts of ourselves we hide away because we don't want to own them, and when they do show their ugly faces we don't recognize them as ourselves. That's why he actually changes their names and has them played by different actors sometimes. 

Ironic now that I posted the 2 names of the Naomi Watts character - her shiny happy character is even named for trees! 

It's also the kind of thematic material I've discussed a few other times on this blog - most prominently in my articles about Gene Wolfe, a writer often relegated to the science fiction and fantasy shelves, but who says the type of work he does actually concerns itself with the biggest human issues - things that can't be touched by the very limited scope of the social realist novel, a genre that only arrived on the scene relatively recently and that according to him won't last very long. The great work of the world's most ambitious thinkers - Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe etc, does not limit itself to the workaday lives and ambitions of ordinary folk. It's true that in their most limiting genre forms science fiction and fantasy are extremely weak, but if a writer or filmmaker really wants to broaden his scope to include the full range of human experience and thought, then he needs to reach out to the outer limits, beyond the pale of everyday experience - and then you find yourself in uncategorizable territory, dealing with stuff that gets you classified as science fiction and/or fantasy, though really it may be closer in nature to myth.  And that's one thing all the filmmakers I listed above definitely have in common. Well, many of them at least used-to concern themselves with this level of experience, but have since switched over to glitzy shiny empty spectacle, which brings in much better opening weekend box office. What is it this is called? Oh yeah, that's right - selling out! 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Vortex42 Indiegogo campaign - let's support modern stopmotion creature effects (and Paul!)

Echo campaign on Indiegogo

Ok, I know the last post I made here was another Indiegogo campaign for another stopmotion film project (which unfortunately didn't make it's funding) - and no, I don't plan to do this all the time. I Normally don't get really excited about these campaigns now that everybody and their nephew are making them, but this one is something really special.

I consider Paul McConnochie a friend, though we've only ever communicated online. He's a Scottsman (with a really cool accent!) now living in Denmark where he's just bought a small farm and converted it into a sweet fully functional stopmotion studio called Vortex42. Along with Ron Cole (who he collaborates with) Paul is another force contributing to getting modern high-tech stopmotion effects to be seen as a viable alternative to CGI in creature films. In the clip above you can see a too-brief example of it - a handheld shot with a stopmotion character inserted into it in much the same way Ray Harryhausen used to insert his stopmo creatures into live action films - though of course Paul is working with digital video rather than on film. The alien character in the clip though is quite different from the creature he plans to sculpt (with clay bought thanks to funds already collected on this campaign - you can see him starting the sculpt in another of his excellent videos).

I'm no expert on these crowd-funding campaigns - but this is far and away the best one I've seen. Paul is a great guy and really knowns how to put his point across (as soft-spoken as he is) and get across his professionalism and enthusiasm for what he's doing. This isn't the usual type of crowd funded campaign either - usually people pledge to give money only if a certain goal is reached, and if that goal isn't reached than the campaign is cancelled and nobody ends up paying anything. That's the way the last campaign I posted about was done, and they failed to reach their goal. But Paul has opted to not set a firm goal - so when you contribute he immediately gets the money and can put it to work right away toward his project.

Well, I guess I've said enough - just watch the video and let Paul speak for himself - he does a better job of it than I can. I've already sent a contribution (and I never contribute to these things!) - hopefully a few more people contribute as well after discovering Paul and his amazing project through my blog.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Forbidden Room crowd funding project on Indiegogo

This is the teaser for a project out of Lisbon, Portugal. The movie, called The Forbidden Room, is based on the Bluebeard story.

Those Happy Days is the stopmotion film group created by Emanuel Nevado and Ricardo Almeida. This looks like an amazing film, and I want to see it get made!! Click to see their Indiegogo page and see if it looks like something you'd like to help support.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lens wrap-up - why modify when you can cropify?

Clear plastic tub-o-lenses

Lens Rankings:

  1. I love my CCTV lenses - the little black plastic ones you see grouped together in the pic at the top. They always have TV in the name. Made by companies like Fujinon, Elbex, Pentax, Cosmicar and many more in the 90's on up. I consider these probably the best kind of lens to use for what I'm doing - at least of the lenses I've tried. These lenses have given me no trouble at all (aside from the fact that the really wide ones require cropping in post).
  2. Next comes my Nikon SLR lens. I like that one just as much I think.  Beyond that my lenses begin to become a bit problematic.
  3. The 2 (silver plastic on the far right) Carl Zeiss Contax G lenses are nearly as trouble-free as the black ones - and they're excellent quality glass - but focusing is a bit difficult (the only problem with them, and only a small one if you have the good adapters - more info below). 
  4. Then the old hefty machined metal lenses (on the far left) made for 16mm movie cameras are too heavy and have poor optical coatings - causing lens flare and color fringing problems, and since they're old many of them can have problems like tight focusing or oil on the iris blades etc. 

Looking back I can't believe how much time and effort (and money) I've put into acquiring lenses for my G1. Several long posts dedicated to nothing else - lots of money spent on modifications (that really were unnecessary - keep reading). In the beginning I knew basically nothing - every step of the way was a learning experience, and now I've got a good deal of knowledge racked up and it seems like a great time to stop and get down my thoughts and findings before my sieve-like memory betrays me. It might be helpful to someone else wanting to use a Micro Four Thirds camera for stopmotion. So without further ado, my thoughts and findings:

I find I'm not using the metal-barrelled cine camera lenses - the ones made for 16mm movie cameras. I love the look of them - the solid heft of machined and polished steel - the engraved markings. Exotic and beautiful - relics from a time when things were made differently. But they're heavy on the camera, making it more difficult to hang it under the Manfrotto arm and swing it around over the set, plus they don't have the more advanced optical coatings that later lenses do, which reduce or eliminate lens flare and chromatic aberration. They do give a more 70's type look (well, 70's and all decades previous) that I thought I would like, since I love 70's movies with all their flaws. But I find I'm using mostly the TV lenses (which are made for closed-circuit TV and security camera use) like the Fujinon-TV 12.5mm and 25mm and the Elbex-TV 8mm. Another lens I use is the Micro-Nikkor-P 55mm. Followed by the Carl Zeiss Contax G series lenses - 35mm and 45mm - which are excellent, but a bit difficult to focus, even though I now have better adapters that make it much easier and more precise than the older adapters. The adapters I bought originally* (see note below in green) used a tiny knurled thumbwheel for focus. It's location - jammed right up against the body of the camera and too close to the base - meant that I had to try to wedge my thumb in between the bottom of the lens and the tripod platform, or else try to use my thumbnail to turn the wheel, and when I did get the wheel to turn it didn't always engage with the lens' focusing mechanism - a very hit and miss procedure and extremely frustrating (I definitely wouldn't use these adapters for focus pulls).

But the ones I bought from Hong Kong on eBay have a large focus ring all the way around the circumference of the lens base - no slippage and no frustration. Well, slightly frustrating at times just because it's a thin ring and it's still jammed up right against the body of the camera, but that's much better than the older adapters - trust me! Though to be honest if I was going to pull focus on a shot I'd lean toward one of my other lenses that have a focus ring right on the lens barrel itself rather than on the adapter.

* Important note - the Amazon page actually shows the picture of the newer and better adapter and the price is ridiculous at $60.00 - but when you order, what you actually receive is the older adapter with the little frustrating knurled thumbwheel for focus. DO NOT order this item from Amazon - instead order from Holga Camera - it's much less expensive and you'll get the newer/better adapter that uses a full focusing ring. 

Contax G lens to Micro Four Thirds adapters - the good and the bad

Here are 2 YouTube videos I hunted up just to demonstrate how both the older style adapters with the thumbwheels and the newer ones with full focusing rings work. First up - old thumbwheel style (BAAAD Adapter!):

And the newer style (Gooood Adapter!):

Crop Circles

I mentioned above that the modifications I got (to the Fujinon-TV 12.5mm f 1.4) were unnecessary - let me explain why. It's simple - because vignetting and soft focus - the problems the modifications are designed to solve - only affect the outermost edges of the image and can easily just be cropped out, as I demonstrated in the Lightroom demo. If I can crop this drastically:

what you get directly from the camera

.. and after cropping and a little color adjustment - it's still slightly larger than HD! 

.. And still get HD sized images, then there's no need for full lens coverage. I mean it is a nice thing to have - it makes framing your shots simple - what you see is exactly what you get. But cropping isn't difficult at all. This is an issue that only affects the wide lenses - the wider you go the less coverage you get on the m43 sensor. So for those wide lenses, feel free to buy an unmodified Fujinon-TV 12.5mm and 25mm - and just crop away the edges. Same for the Elbex-TV 8.5mm or similar ultrawide lenses, even if they're made for a 1/2" format camera (as opposed to the 1" format, which is approximately the same size as the m43 sensor).

There's also no need to get a zoom lens, as I briefly mentioned in my last lens post. Just as cropping makes expensive lens modifications unnecessary, digital zooming makes a zoom lens unnecessary. It looks exactly the same whether it's done by twisting the barrel of a zoom lens or in software during post processing.

Keep in mind, I'm using my camera strictly for stopmotion animation, so I have certain advantages over anyone using theirs to capture live action video. Namely, I shoot still pictures that are much larger than any video image (they're more than twice the size of 1080p) so I can crop pretty far and still pull HD images with absolutely no loss of quality. I imagine for zooming in live action video you'd want to use an actual zoom lens that gives full coverage because you wouldn't be able to crop much in post without degrading image quality, since you're starting with images only captured at HD resolution. In fact if you're shooting live video you'd also want your wide angle lenses to have full coverage for the same reason - you won't be able to crop without losing resolution. So forgive me for saying it but - nanny nanny boo boo!! This is one area where stop motion animators have a distinct advantage over live action videographers. Hah! Take that!!

In an upcoming post I'll do for my micro 4/3s camera what I did in this one for lenses - I'll look back and sum up the key points - the strengths and weaknesses in using them for stopmotion.

Last minute Addendum:

Oops! 2 more freebies!! - and a little more home-studio lens surgery (total success this time)
2 old Pentax-TV lenses I've had sitting around for years - now back in service again! 

Here are 2 more freebie lenses - these are also ones I was using with my Hitachi analog broadcast camera about 8 years ago (like the Rainbow zoom lens I mentioned a couple of posts back). Had to search a lot harder for these, but they finally turned up, in absolutely new condition because I kept them wrapped in bubble wrap and packed in their boxes. One is a 12mm f1.2, the other a 6mm f1.2. The 6mm - the larger of the two above, required a little surgery before it would fit snugly into a c-mount adapter and focus properly - the base of it was a little too big around to fit into the socket in the adapter. This is often true for the really wide lenses - in fact my Elbex 8mm lens had been machined a bit in order to fit better. I googled for machining c-mount lens and quickly found this article where somebody shows exactly how he did it with a lens that looks very similar to mine. As soon as I saw exactly what he had done - namely just cut a 45º bevel into the outer edge of the lens base and a matching bevel into the inner edge of the adapter - I was able to do the same. Of course, he used a machining lathe, and I used a belt sander and a dremel, but the results are the same - after a good deal of grinding and checking it suddenly fit right into place and focused perfectly! It does give a smallish image circle in a black rectangle, but it's big enough that I can pull an HD image from it.

A couple of pics demonstrating how I did it:
Dremeling a bevel into the adapter

Beveling the edge of the lens base using a belt sander

This is not the actual lens or adapter I used - there's no way I'm taking them apart for pictures because they fit very snugly now (means there won't be any slop - so yay!) and I'm not gonna keep messing with it. I just wanted to show what dremel tip I used and how I held it. When I really did the deed I held the dremel in my right hand and held the adapter down tightly with my left and slowly rotated the ring itself, holding the dremel as still as I could - trying to be a machine. I also held the lens in both hands (note safety gloves from the hardware store - as you can see they've saved me from a few cuts and scrapes). I held the lens in both hands, again holding my hands as immobile as possible, like a machine, and slowly rotated the lens against the sandpaper belt.

The lens you see above is actually the Elbex 8mm, which had been modified like this by someone else, and as you can see they rounded off the base. I went for more of a straight 45º bevel, and the same on the inner edge of the adapter. Oh, and I also had front and rear lens caps on the lens the entire time of course!

Note - just discovered you can make the image circle for a given lens slightly larger by opening up your iris. Apparently the more light  you let in the bigger it gets. Need to be careful though - most lenses don't do well wide open and you need to keep an eye on depth of field - though with the really wide lenses (the ones that do the image circle thing) you naturally have great depth of field to begin with, so it should be manageable.