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19th Nervous Breakdown

Nathan Strum

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So, for the 19th year now (not in a row... but that's another story) I've put together the end-of-year shows for the CalArts Character Animation Program. Last year's blog blurb about this can be found here. And if you poke around enough, you'll find blog entries for these going back to 2008 (with a brief mention in 2006). Maybe it's a form of therapy or something. In a weird sort-of way, I kind of wish I'd been blogging about this since the first one I did. A lot of lost memories along the way. Some of that for the better, however.

 

Interesting to wonder... will things like blogs and Facebook and Twitter help the current generation remember things better than us old geezers do? Simply because it's been written down, re-hashed and re-read ad nauseam, albeit in an often truncated, nearly illegible form?

 

Nah.

 

Anyway...

 

To recap - the Open Show (on Saturday, April 27th) was the entire output of the students of the program for the year. 140 films, 5 hours and 15 minutes (which is actually short for an Open Show). I worked about 87 hours in the course of the week putting the show together, including converting the Institute's Main Gallery into an impromptu movie theater for some 320 people.

 

2013_open_show.jpg

 

Our video projector (graciously provided again this year by Canon) was a WUX5000 with Canon's new ultra-long throw zoom lens. This enabled us to put the projector back up on the floor above the main level, and shoot across the entire gallery, about 100 feet, to a new 16:9, 18' x 10' screen rented from (and set up by) American Hi-Definition. And just to complete the trifecta of company shout-outs, our sound system (4 QSC powered speakers + 2 subwoofers + a Yamaha digital mixer) was rented from Location Sound.

 

For playback, we used a Mac Pro running 1920x1080 ProRes 422 (HQ) files through a BlackMagic Intensity Pro card. The Intensity Pro has a nifty, exploitable little option that allows 23.98 fps material to be run at 60i from Final Cut Pro. Last year, we had image tearing problems with the Canon projector while showing 23.98 material. The Canon can display it, but it just doesn't like it. By cross-converting to 60i, everything was silky-smooth with no image tearing. Best looking Open Show ever. (Give us 20 years, and we start to figure these things out.)

 

It was a lot of work and a very long week leading up to Saturday. I got so tired and desperate for food one night (about 2:30 AM), I actually ate at a Denny's. The last time I did that was in 2004, and I got so violently ill from it (if the bacon is gray, just back away) I swore I'd never go back. But this time the food was decent, and I didn't get sick. So bonus points. Mostly though, I picked up food at El Pollo Loco, and usually ate at my desk while working. Maybe a half-dozen times, if I were to be honest. Good food though, especially for "fast food", but they're not open as late as I needed all the time. The latest I went home was about 4:15 AM. Typically, 2 or 3 AM.

 

But the show was a success in the end, and the students had a blast watching it. That's what it's all about. It's an end-of-year release for all of the pent-up frustration, exhaustion and just plain hard work that it takes to make an animated film.

 

So now, at 8:00 PM tonight (four hours away as I'm typing this) is the second show - The Producers' Show. We can't realistically expect everybody to sit through 5 1/4 hours of student films, so our faculty judges all of the films (which also happened on the day of the Open Show, so I had two screenings to run that day), and we end up with the best hour-or-so's worth to screen for alumni, industry members, students, family, and whoever else we can fit into a rented theater.

 

For most of the last 19 years, we were at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theater, at the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences (the Emmys). Last year, we'd moved to a different theater - the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the Oscars). And while that was a bigger theater (1000 seats, of which we filled 850), logistically it just didn't work out for us to go back there. So tonight, we're back to our old haunt, and a "mere" 600 seat capacity. (We've been turning people away for weeks.)

 

While it's nice to be back in familiar territory, this year, however, something new has been added - a DCP (Digital Cinema Package). The TV theater has a new DCI-compliant projector and DCP server, so we can deliver our show for the first time on a DCP. We wanted to do this last year, but just weren't able to do enough research and testing ahead of time to get everything done in house, and sending it out would have been prohibitively expensive, especially given the time constraints we were under. So we've spent the last year sorting this out, doing tests, trial runs, and working closely with a company (QuVis) that makes software for creating DCPs.

 

Now, we still weren't quite able to make the DCP in house yet, but QuVis offered to make it for us, and turn it around in a ridiculously short amount of time. How short? Well, last week was spent having all of our students who were in the Producers' Show get a proper 5.1 sound mix for their films, so I wasn't able to even start editing the show until Friday evening. So I had to assemble it, layback the mixes, export it, convert it to 24 fps (for DCP conversion), re-layback the converted audio, export a new playback file, and watch it all the way through to check it.

 

Then, I had to FTP the file to them over the weekend (a 25-hour file transfer), so they could convert it and FedEx it out on a drive Monday, so I'd get it in time for a test at the theater Tuesday afternoon. That's cutting it a little bit close. Complicating matters was the fact that FedEx actually showed up too early on Tuesday, and couldn't deliver the drive, because nobody was there yet to sign for it. So some consternation and angry phone calls later, the package was re-delivered about 11:00 AM, and we were able to make our test appointment. Fortunately, everything looked great.

 

I actually slept last night. First decent night's sleep in three weeks.

 

The big plus to a DCP is that it's an established standard. You meet that standard, and your DCP will play anywhere that complies to that standard. There are no proprietary monkeyshines going on. The drive carrier is standard. The formatting is standard. Color space, resolution, codecs, frame rates - all standard. I can take our show to any theater with a DCP server (which is most of them now - that's what you're watching at your local megaplex these days instead of film), plug the drive in, and it will just work and always look the same, regardless of the theater. Quite literally, plug-and-play. Our 1-hour show copied from our drive to the internal RAID on the DCP server in about 5 minutes. Once that was done, it just stays there until they need it, then delete it. I don't have to leave any media with the projectionist (although I'm keeping our drive on-site as a back-up... just in case).

 

The picture looks amazing, too. There's no loss of resolution (as there was with our HDCam transfer last year), the JPEG 2000 compression scheme looks effectively lossless, and yet is very efficient. Our show ended up about 1/3 of the size of the original ProRes file. And full multi-channel surround sound is supported as well.

 

DCPs also have a big advantage in assembling shows together. On the server itself, once your DCPs are loaded on it, you create a simple playlist: trailers, shorts, features, any delays you need between them, and even set up cues for lighting and masking. Everything is very flexible. We could even bring down our films as separate DCPs, and assemble the show at the theater. No pre-editing needed.

 

This is really CalArts' first foray into DCPs. How well it goes will all be determined tonight. But it's certainly the future of cinema, and being a film school, it's the direction we need to be headed. A year from now, it will be interesting to look back and see how this process has evolved. Our goal is to be creating our own DCPs in house, and have our own DCI-compliant projector and playback system on campus. At the moment, we don't actually have any way to even watch a DCP. But that should change soon enough as software-based players come into their own.

 

If you want to check out this years' work, our Vimeo channel for this year is here where you can see some of ours students' films. A couple have been selected by Vimeo as Staff Picks. Nice.

 

As a starting point, here are direct links to tonight's Producers' Show films (links will be updated as they appear online):

 

Tom Law (and many others) - Opening Titles

Jacob Streilein - Punctuwool (2013 Walter and Gracie Lantz Animation Prize Winner)

John Kim - The Sugar Bugs (2013 Peers' Pick Award Winner)

Jason Reicher - King Kababa and the Knight

Tom Law - Eyes

Sam Kremers-Nedell - redfishbluefish

Sun Jae Lee - Timber.

Janine Chang - SunBurn

Matthew Yang - You Imagined

Toniko Pantoja - Wolfsong

Hyojin Bae - Puppy Love

Benjamin P. Carow - Night of the Living Bad Brains

Seth Boyden - Momma's Boy

Cameron Hicks - An Old Dream

Zhonghong Ouyang - Leaning

Aron Bothman - Still

Helene Leroux - Floating in my mind

Charley Hodgkins - Seldom Seen Slim

Melanie Atwater - Moon Goddess

Solbi Park - Bon Voyage

Sasha Schotzko-Harris - Portentous

Madeline Sharafian - Omelette

Tom Law - This Actually Happens A Lot

Michael Piazza, Theresa Latzko - The Glitched King

 

Enjoy! (I'll publish this when the show starts, so you can follow along.)

 

Edit: Here's a shot from the theater, just prior to the show starting (click for full-size):

 

2013_producers_show.jpg



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DCP sounds like a great deal for you guys, especially when you can do it (and watch it) in-house and avoid any generation losses.

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There will always be some generation loss, but I sure couldn't detect it last night. All of the flaws of the original source material came through completely intact. ;)

 

We had one issue though, which we'll have to catch next year. A few years ago, before we required sound mixes for all of these films, the audio for the show would be quite uneven. So we hired the theater's sound board guy to sit at the back of the house and ride the levels, and balance out the show. Well... we apparently forgot to tell the theater not to do that any more, so despite everything being mixed to theatrical standards, he kept adjusting the volume during the show, effectively ruining the hard work of our mixer, Ben.

 

Now, of the 540 or so people there, probably only 4 or 5 of us could hear something was amiss. But it was still frustrating, and something else to add to next year's list.

 

That, and the Keynote slides before the show (seen in the picture above) need to be done at 1920x1080.

 

Someday... someday.

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Thanks - it's always a relief to have them over with. Some year, I wonder what it would be like to just go and watch one without any involvement whatsoever.

 

No more film links yet, but here are the official photos taken at the event.

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There will always be some generation loss, but I sure couldn't detect it last night. All of the flaws of the original source material came through completely intact. ;)

Seems to me if your workflow output video to JPEG 2000 as per the DCSS spec that you would avoid any loss.

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That may happen at some point, but at the moment broad support for the codec (or XYZ color space) just isn't there. Plus, our need for DCPs is (currently) too minimal to make that sort of a shift. The whole Film School standardized on ProRes 422 (HQ) a few years ago, since it's a good balance between file size and image quality, and has modest CPU requirements for playback. But I think that will change, as Final Cut Pro fades away into irrelevance.

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That may happen at some point, but at the moment broad support for the codec (or XYZ color space) just isn't there. Plus, our need for DCPs is (currently) too minimal to make that sort of a shift. The whole Film School standardized on ProRes 422 (HQ) a few years ago, since it's a good balance between file size and image quality, and has modest CPU requirements for playback. But I think that will change, as Final Cut Pro fades away into irrelevance.

I'm sure you're right. Assuming you can avoid generation losses during production, then you only take a minor hit on the final conversion. What's more likely is your workflow will become uncompressed as increases in CPU, network and disk space capacity make compression less relevant (just like DCSS uses uncompressed audio). So again the video will only be compressed once. Colorspace conversion will probably still be required unfortunately.

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Uncompressed would be nice, but it's a ways off (although all of our still images prior to compiling into video are, in fact, uncompressed). The problem is, even as computers (mainly drive speeds) get to the point where they can play uncompressed in real time, storage here is a huge issue. We can currently only give students a meager 125 GB each. And at some point, we'll be moving to 4K resolution, which is going to require an entirely different infrastructure than we have.

 

I really hoped HD would be the end of this endless cycle of format changes... but it's just the tip of the iceberg.

 

One thing that will help a lot, I think, is that SSDs will ultimately achieve price per gigabyte parity with hard drives. I'm pretty terrible at predicting technology anymore, but I think within 10 years, we'll see 64 TB SSDs for under $500 each.

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I really hoped HD would be the end of this endless cycle of format changes... but it's just the tip of the iceberg.

At least DCSS locks down the format and compression to a reasonable number of options.

One thing that will help a lot, I think, is that SSDs will ultimately achieve price per gigabyte parity with hard drives. I'm pretty terrible at predicting technology anymore, but I think within 10 years, we'll see 64 TB SSDs for under $500 each.

The Crucial M500 is 960GB for $600 - so you're looking for 2^6 over 120 months, or a doubling every 20 months. That might happen, although I think there will be some physical density challenges.

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