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That whole white background thing

It's not even a background, really. It's pretty explicitly the absence of a background. Even lighting, no shadows, almost adrift. Not in a bad way. Stephen Smith did a great job of covering this in the May-June issue of Creative COW Magazine, including why it's best to use chroma keys to acheive the look.

The most frequent place you're seeing it these days is the "I'm a Mac" ads. If you cast your mind back a little further, you might recall the same look in the Apple "switch" campaign. As an Oscar-maniac, I hope you saw the short film with this look celebrating the nominees for the 2006 Academy Awards (that is, the ones awarded in early 2007), one of the highlights of what I thought was the best Oscarcast in years.

All of these examples are from the same guy. The guy who invented the look: Errol Morris.

Almost the guy who invented the look, that is.

While the white screen look was common in still photography, it hadn't been used in any meaningful way before Morris used it for the first time in a short film for the 2002 Oscars.

You may have heard his name before, by the way. He won an Academy Award for the documentary The Fog of War, and has been nominated for others of his films, which include The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, Gates of Heaven, and Fast Cheap & Out of Control

Roger Ebert has said, "After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven't found another filmmaker who intrigues me more...Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini."

Mr. Morris is not shy. This quote is on the front page of his website.

I've always been struck that he's also unapologetic for enjoying making commercials, including the Mac Switch and "I'm a Mac" campaigns. You can find dozens and dozens of his commercials at his website. Be sure to check the links in the right margin -- yet dozens more.

These full-frame commercials are what got him the gig making the short film for the 2002 Oscar Award, where he used the white background style for the first time. The short film that opened the show that year instead of the traditional musical number is a whole bunch of folks, famous and not, talking about movies they love.

Now that you've had a chance to watch it, read the whole tale of how it happened in this AMAAAAAZING New Yorker story.

Just in case you're thinking that reading this might be a waste of your time, here's an excerpt from the article.

The interviews were stacked up, one per half hour, and by mid-morning the schedule was a shambles. Walter Cronkite was [on camera.] Donald Trump was waiting, with mounting impatience, in the wings. Mikhail Gorbachev and entourage were trudging up the stairs. And Iggy Pop was in the greenroom.

You read correctly. Iggy Pop was scheduled to go on after Mikhail Gorbachev, who it turns out is a big Russell Crowe fan. "And anything with Julia Roberts." You think I'm kidding?

BTW, I also put the "schedule was a shambles" quote in there because every one of us in production can relate to that nightmare.

So here's where he talks about that "white background" style for the Oscar film.

I interviewed over a hundred people on a white background....Of course, I'm not the first person to film someone on a white background. It's been done by a whole number of photographers, August Sander, Avedon, etc. I have no patent, no trademark, on shooting someone on a white background. Of course, when you try to do something that's free of artifice, somehow that becomes artificial as well.

(Although I can't find it online, here's an article in the Hollywood reporter talking about it, again, very much worth your time to read.) 

The white background isn't the reason that that Oscar short, as well as the Switch and I'm a Mac ads, among others that he's done, so compelling. It's the way that people look so directly and comfortably into the camera. To acheive that, he's created a device he affectionately calls The Interrortron. It's like a teleprompter, but instead of text, it superimposes his face in front of the lens.

Soon after the Mac Switch campaign, he applied the same white background style to a series of political ads for that also played on his own site. They were a variation on the switch campaign if you will: dozens of people who voted for Bush in 2000, but were voting for Kerry in 2004. Darn near none of them was happy about it either, but they felt compelled by their consciences to switch anyway.

When we first discussed shooting [them], my producers and I would have endless discussions about the way to shoot these political ads, what the appropriate way of doing it might be. Should the lighting be absolutely flat? Should the background be white?...But I like the idea that there's something very straightforward about the ads....

So no matter how you feel about either of those candidates, take a look at political advertising at its best. (Sez me.) And again, lots of related links in the right margin.

After watching the spots, you might think you've got his politics pegged, and maybe you do, but it's more complicated than that. He bumped into Karl Rove in a Hilton breakfast room in Waco. I introduced myself. I said, "I'm Errol Morris. I made this film The Fog of War." Karl Rove said, "That's one of my favorite films. I give that as a present to my friends." So it's certainly not that he's incapable of accurately representing what people say across the range of political experience.

That's really the power of The Fog of War, and an example of how startling it is to look someone in the eye, really look. McNamara most famously served as Secretary of Defense during the peak years of the Vietnam War, but before that, as a strategic adviser in World War II. Here are four of Fog of War's strongest minutes.

This is also a staggering example of the power of editing. The power of accelerating edits juxtaposing the killing of 50-90% of the people in 67 Japanese cities with their American equivalents. Following that with a fade to black, and a fade-up into contemporary Japanese people. And one of the strongest L-cuts, perhaps ever, after admitting that General Curtis LeMay, who ordered the dropping of the atom bombs, "and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals." McNamara stops speaking and literally doesn't blink for 22 seconds, and as the camera slowly zooms in, audio from another part of the interview plays underneath. Varying rhythm, varying focus, and creative rearranging of sources in a way that underscores truth rather than crass manipulation: this is what documentary editing is about.

As deeply visceral a reaction it provokes while watching it, Morris has little confidence that much will happen as a result of his work.

I think we're rudderless bumblers, regardless of what we might imagine. You can think of my films as cautionary tales, but you might even think of them as despairing tales, because at least in a cautionary tale, you have this idea that by listening to the story you can assure a better outcome. Whereas I'm not at all convinced that's the case. In fact, if anything, I'm convinced that it's the opposite.

That's from an interview in a magazine called, appropriately enough, Stop Smiling. Still, there's a reason he keeps going.

My interest is primarily in what people are saying, and in not detracting or distracting from what they're saying, because that's at the center of what I'm doing.

That perspective, applied across all the work he does, and his strong visual style, are a few reasons among many why I agree with our man Roger that Morris is among the most important filmmakers -- and commercial-makers -- of our time.

And you thought this was going to be an article about keying.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Sep 13, 2007 at 3:27:46 amComments (1) movies, documentaries

DRM: Updates from Apple, EMI, Microsoft and more

I'll be honest, I thought Steve Jobs was blowing smoke when he encouraged the end of DRM. I still think the timing around the unfair business practices investigations in the EU is way, way too convenient to be a coincidence. It really did have all the hallmarks of a diversion and little more. So I'll give him all the credit in the world for actually making it happen.

You've heard the news by now of course, but I have to tell you, reading the transcript from the press conference with Steve and the guy from EMI is a gas.

Some highlights that I haven't seen mentioned widely yet:

  • The DRM-free tunes will be at twice the data rate.
  • Your current EMI downloads from the iTMS can be upgraded to higher-quality, DRM-free for the difference in price. (This is a no-brainer purchase, IMO.)
  • EMI is making their DRM-free music available to any music store to sell. And why not? They want the money, and more stores offers the potential of more money.

Anyway, you definitely want to check it out.

In the meantime, Microsoft followed this up with their own story about working on DRM-free music themselves. I still kinda like Microsoft. But this is just sad.

OTOH, the article I cite above is riddled with errors, starting with four of the first five words. It calls Apple a "digital music pioneer." What?!? Apple came late to the game, and aren't even close to the first to offer DRM-free music. They've also offered among the lowest bandwidth music for a long time, so stop with the pioneer chatter. There are other errors, too. You could make looking for them a drinking if you don't have enough of those already.

Now here's the thing. None of this is even close to the "death knell" for DRM, which will surely be around even longer than cockroaches.

It's also easy to forget that there's a large-ish industry that makes money selling DRM technologies, and they're not about to give up their livelihoods without a fight. And since their customers are almost all much, much bigger than EMI, well, the cockroach thing.

DRM Watch sounds like it would be keeping their eye on DRM mongers. Nope, it's keeping an eye on DRM foes. You'll want to take a shower after reading this, but you should read it anyway.

The headline says the story's about Microsoft jumping on the DRM bandwagon, but it's actually an overwrought screed. Here's one of several money quotes: "As far as EMI is concerned, the deal was shortsighted, risky, and possibly irresponsible to the company's shareholders."

Here's another: "A more effective arrangement would have been with a major multinational retailer, like Amazon or Target, that has no current digital music strategy."

Actually, not quite true. I know for a fact that Amazon has a digital music strategy...or the beginnings of one. One of the coolest recuitment pitches I ever got was from Amazon, who asked me to head up their digital music strategy and create their online music store. We had several phone conversations where they put the full court press on me. Ridiculous money and benefits, in a good way. It was pretty overwhelming. But I think when they got my resume, they realized they were looking for another Tim Wilson.

Last one: "Apple...stands to benefit most from any additional unauthorized copying resulting from the lack of DRM." Maybe, but only to the extent that they sell the most music players. As Steve J. points out, the vast majority of iTunes owners have never purchased a thing from iTMS. Their iPods are filled with the legal, DRM-free rips of their own disks. I think he's absolutely right.

No, here's the last one: "we believe that the number of consumers who would truly benefit from "interoperability" is small." Riiiiiiight.

Choose what you drink carefully when you read this, because you'll surely be shooting it through your nose with laughter.


Okay, after raining on DRM Watch's parade, the article makes some interesting observations.

One is that EMI is getting a cash advance of $5 million from Apple. He says that, combined with the new sales of online tracks, we're talking about 3% of EMI's annual digital sales of $290 Million from digital revenue (really? that sounds high to me), and a tiny fraction of the company's overall revenue of about $3.4 Billion. He's not at all clear if this is simply music revenue or includes publishing, etc. -- but that's to be expected. His goal isn't clarity as much as it is to protect his own DRM business.

That said, this squares with my own impression of the impact of online music store downloads relative to hard-copy sales -- in the low single-digit percentage range.

He also has some interesting speculation that the real intent of EMI's move was to drive up the price of Warner's attempt to acquire them. I'm not buying it, but it's still interesting.

Anyway, I have to agree with him that DRM is far from dead.




Posted by: Tim Wilson on Sep 13, 2007 at 2:21:53 am apple, microsoft, business, itunes, drm

Of leopards, rumors and getting it right

So on March 23 we hear that Leopard's coming in October rather than spring, to wait for Vista compatibility. Later that day, Apple's official response is that we don't respond to rumors. The same day, someone says that Apple says Leopard'll come out on time. Three weeks later Appple announces that Leopard is coming out in October, but the reason is iPhone, not Boot Camp. So there you go. Wait. Did somebody say they're delaying Leopard to wait for Vista compatibility?!?!

Taipei-based DigiTimes was first on the scene. On March 23, they cited "industry sources" who claimed that the reason why Leopard is slipping is "not due to software design problems with Leopard but instead is attributed to Apple's plan to have its new OS support Windows Vista through an integrated version of Boot Camp."

So ZDNet asked Apple straight out for a comment that day, and got the very straight-out reply "We don't comment on rumors and we've made no announcements about Leopard availability more specific than Spring 2007."

Alas, nobody asked the obvious question: Delay Leopard for Vista on Boot Camp? Are you kidding? "We're keeping Leopard off the streets until we can support Vista" is a story that not even Jose Chung would buy.

(Please tell me you know who Jose Chung is. If not, follow that link, then check this one, too.)

Just when it seemed all was lost, up stepped our boy Michael Gartenberg from JupiterResearch Analyst Weblogs, with just the sanity we needed. He kept sniffing around the story, and firmly reports on the very same day, March 23: Just spoke with Apple who confirmed the reports are wrong and Leopard is still scheduled to ship in this spring as they previously announced. The rumor mill is wrong again.

Oops. Way to get it right, dude. The rumor mill is wrong, but so's your source.

Okay, back to actual news.

Anyway, once Apple announced the delay themselves on April 12, I like how very plainly they say that Leopard is running late, and they say plainly why: to ship iPhone on time, "we had to borrow some key software engineering and QA resources from our Mac OS X team."

Actually, I love it. Crystal clear. No excuses, just an explanation of the way it is, and the steps they're taking to get it all done.

While Leopard's features will be complete by [the Worldwide Developer's Conference in early June], we cannot deliver the quality release that we and our customers expect from us. We now plan to show our developers a near final version of Leopard at the conference, give them a beta copy to take home so they can do their final testing, and ship Leopard in October.

Getting it right takes as long as it takes. Love it. I've had to help craft similar statements, and they're much harder to get right than they look. Apple gets, as always, maximum style points.

The trade-off also sounds about right to me. They'll have iPhone out on time, and a tardy OS won't delay the sale of a single OCTOMAC (hey, that's right! Apple has new CPUs out!!) C'mon, it's not like we're talking about a release as disruptive as Vista....or even System 7 and OS X. Wink

For the record, I liked both of those releases...but don't try to tell me they weren't disruptive. Leopard'll be a walk in the park.

But my guess is that Apple will make more money from the first six months of iPhone sales than they might ever make from selling boxes of Leopard. The more I think about it, iPhone's sales in the first month will probably beat Leopard's total sales. I'm sure it'll sell plenty, but not iPhone plenty.

So my next guess is that this wasn't even a very long conversation around the ol' whiteboard...if it even got that far. No brainer.

PS. The address for you cats to send the iPhone? Right there on my business card. They'll sign for the delivery at the front desk. Thanks.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Sep 13, 2007 at 2:15:42 am mac os, apple, iphone, web

Thrilled for Thelma's third! Oh yeah, and Marty's first.

As glad as I was to see Mr. Scorcese finally earn a well-deserved Oscar for directing, I was even gladder to see Thelma Schoonmaker earn her third one for Best Achievement in Editing, for her work on The Departed.

She also won in 1981 for Raging Bull and 2005 for The Aviator. She was nominated for Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, and in 1971, Woodstock. (I remember that Scorcese was an editor on that as well, credited as Marty Scorcese. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I remember that, in addition to Asst. Director, he was listed as Thelma’s assistant. IMDb doesn't mention it. Any of you kids able to confirm or correct me?)

Thelma and Marty have worked together exclusively since that time. They even worked together on Michael Jackson’s Bad video! Of course it’s ridiculous that Marty has had to wait this long for an Oscar.

(BTW, among the five other directors to have multiple nominations and never win are Robert Altman with 5 nominations – his Oscar was an honorary one -- and Alfred Hitchcock with 6.)

I was just as surprised by some of his pictures that weren’t even nominated, like Mean Streets, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Yeah, the TV series was kind of dopey, but Ellen Burstyn won a Best Actress Oscar for her work in it. It’s the real deal, and still maybe my favorite of his pictures.

Jaw-droppingly astounding was that he wasn’t even nominated for Taxi Driver. ‘Nuff said.

One of the things I’ve wondered is if the nod for The Departed – a mid-ranking Scorcese at best – wasn’t also to make up for slights like Taxi Driver.

Now here’s the heretical part: I can’t say I disagree with any of the choices during years that he lost. I got this from Entertainment Weekly. (Sorry, can’t find this online,)

  • Lost with Raging Bull to Robert Redford, Ordinary People.
  • Lost with Last Temptation of Christ to Barry Levinson, Rain Man.
  • Lost with with Goodfellas to Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves.
  • Lost with Gangs of New York to Roman Polanski, The Pianist
  • Lost with The Aviator to Clint Eastwood with Million Dollar Baby.

I would have voted the same way for all of these. Some are even immediately reflexive. I’ll take Rain Man, Dances, and The Pianist in a walk, and while I wouldn't have voted for it, I thought MDB was a better picture than The Aviator. Most people point to Raging Bull/Ordinary People as the biggest misjudgment, but I’m not buying it.

Here’s the other thing: Thelma deserved to win for the movies that Mary lost for. The Aviator should have been better than it was, but the editing kept it moving more than the story did. Even though I give the 1980 nod to Ordinary People, Raging Bull is a directing and acting masterpiece…but even more of a masterpiece for its editing. So I’m truly delighted for Marty. And perhaps because I’m an editor and understand that part of the process better, I’m thrilled for Thelma.


Posted by: Tim Wilson on Sep 13, 2007 at 2:07:27 amComments (1) editing, movies, entertainment

Yet another reason to love Wikipedia

So Nora and I were listening to Rubber Soul the other day, and during the piano solo in the middle of "In My Life," she wondered who played it. She guessed George Martin. I have Wikipedia as one of the search engines in the upper right of my browser, so I typed in "In My Life," and voila, it went right to an entire entry on that song!

I figured it would take me, at best to the Rubber Soul best. My assumption was that I'd have to refine my search a bit. As Samuel Jackson said in The Long Kiss Goodnight, "Assumption makes an ass out of you and Umption." (A line written by Shane Black, who's written some great ones.

The story on the piano solo? There was a whole section of the article devoted to it! Still unsure what to do with the middle section, John left it empty. He settled on the idea of a piano solo, and asked George Martin to play it "like Bach." (Ahhhh, Nora's right again!) George wrote something he couldn't play fast enough, so he played it half-speed, and recorded it at double-speed! There was no way to get either of those precisely right, of course. The difference gave the piano a tone tending toward the harpsichord-esque, yet still unmistakably sounding like a piano.


It's a really complete entry, with other sections devoted to musical analysis ("It is a chromatically altered plagal cadence"...but you knew that), the composition process, chart position, and much more.

It's also got a complete set of links. I followed the one for "Fifth Beatle," wherein George Martin states firmly that the title should only be applied to Brian Epstein...if it's applied at all. He's not convinced there was any such thing...although I think it should be applied to GM regardless of his (genuine, I think) humility.

I was impressed! It reminded me that I go to Wikipedia repeatedly most days, so I took the opportunity to make it my default search engine.

In a way, it's not a website, and certainly not a search engine. It's more a community for a group of obsessives, self-organized by their interests. As a knowledge base, it's self-correcting. Sound familiar?

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Sep 13, 2007 at 1:55:04 am creative cow, music, websites

PayPal has a rocket? Really? A ROCKET?!?

Okay, unlike last time, I'm right on top of this one. PayPal founder Elon Musk founded the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation in 2002, "developing a family of launch vehicles which will ultimately reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access by a factor of ten." Gotta give the man credit for having a much, much better looking rocket than Jeff Bezos.

PayPal has a rocket?!?!

More credit (appropriately enough) where credit is due.

First, can't say he exaggerates: Of the 3/20 launch of Falcon 1, he says, "The launch was not perfect, but certainly very good." (This is actually from the SpaceX blog. Blogs rule.)

Actually, PayPal's performance kicks Amazon's ass. Bezos doesn't give details about his January launch, but observers speculate it got maybe 500, 1000 FEET tops. I emphasize feet because Musk's rocket got 200 MILES in the air.

Falcon flew far beyond the "edge" of space, typically thought of as around 60 miles. Our altitude was approximately 200 miles, which is just 50 miles below the International Space Station.

How are they doing it? Like The COW itself, Space X is doing big things with a small team:

Our company is based on the philosophy that simplicity, low-cost, and reliability can go hand in hand. By eliminating the traditional layers of management, internally, and sub-contractors, externally, we reduce our costs while speeding decision making and delivery.

Unlike Amazon's rocket, PayPal isn't for sightseers. This one is all about the work. Starting with one for the Defense Department, they plan a heap o' satellite launches later this year, and get this: they've already won a NASA contract for delivering and returning goods for the International Space Station!!

They've clearly moved beyond the stage of interesting hobby. As the our boy Elon writes in his blog:

I'd like to thank DARPA and the Air Force for buying the two test flights and helping us work through a number of challenges over the past year.

Is it okay if I'm getting a little freaked out by all this rocket stuff?

A final, truly tangential postscript: SpaceX is based in El Segundo, CA. I can never hear that name without hearing Q-Tip's unmistakable voice in A Tribe Called Quest's second single, "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo."

You can read the whole story at Wikipedia (yes, really). You've also got, got, got to

, but I'm warning you: you're going to get the song stuck in your head. You don't have to watch the whole thing: the beginning will be enough to hook you: the loping chorus over a sample bed of The Chambers Brothers' "Funky," and of course, the dwarf in the sombrero.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Sep 13, 2007 at 1:45:47 am technology, websites

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