Monday, April 28, 2008

OK, so Sometimes I'm wrong! (Speed Racer revisited)

A month ago I blogged about Warner Brothers generously 'inviting' people to traipse over to Holborn just to see a 5 minute preview from 'Speed Racer' (here). At the time they were saying there would be no full previews, so this was 'a real opportunity'.

I had a whinge about how ridiculous film promotion has become if Warner Bros really expected bloggers and reviewers to travel at their own expense just to see a 5 minute trailer, and this drew a hilarious, irate response about me being 'classless, insecure and mean-spirited' from someone identifying themself as 'Anonymous' who apparently wanted to hit me over the head repeatedly with a hammer. I think we can all guess which film company 'Anonymous' might have worked for!

Well it seems Warners had second thoughts, and decided to hold preview screenings of the film, which opens nationwide on Sunday 9th May, after all.

For some reason ;-) I wasn't invited.

But I went anyway!

And to my surprise I liked it!

The film has its faults - it's half an hour too long with one endless climax after another for one thing (Peter Jackson's Return of the King has got a lot to answer for!)

And the first half hour is confusing as hell, even for adults, with endless sudden switches between the past and the present and what a person is imagining rather than what is actually happening.

But it's a MUCH better movie than I'd expected given all the secrecy around the project, reports of it being 'in trouble' and that ridiculous 'We're only showing people a 5 minute preview' email.

Think Tron updated for 2008 and you've pretty much got the feel of it. Every penny of the $200 million spent on it is up there on screen, and I'd say I don't think I've seen so much endless eye candy in a film for a long, long time.

I mention all this now (some two weeks before the film is due out) just in case anyone was put off going to see it by my original 'Promotional Madness' blog post. This is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen, in the same way that 300 and Transformers were - and ideally at an IMAX cinema which is launching the film day and date with 'ordinary' cinema's.

Advance tickets will likely sell out fast as 'word of mouth' spreads, so if you're tempted I'd say book your seat now. Much of what's on show here is as ground-breaking as the same directors' work on The Matrix was, so I'm ALMOST prepared to forgive The Wachowski Brothers for the dreadful second and third Matrix movies (let's not get too carried away - I said 'almost').

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Playing with Video Titles

It didn't take very long to realise that the first Shiny Discs video podcast was too long for the web, running at half an hour, even if you ignore the rather dull visual style used for some of the longer reviews.

I suspect the length of the first podcast was the reason why I've still been unable to render out a hi-def version of that first podcast without crashing, even after a week of re-trying.

So I'm moving to a more frequent, shorter set of podcasts, and the Shiny Discs web site will be redesigned to accommodate new plans. Watch this space (or rather the ShinyDisc space, if you see what I mean!)

In the meantime I've posted a (not very good) summary of highlighted new releases for next week under the title "Sunday Shipping". The new title sequence for an improved version of this "Sunday Shipping" podcast wasn't ready in time for this week, but as a sneak peak you can see the new titles for a couple of the planned new short shows below. I think they're coming along nicely and there are more to follow now the basic "theme" has been worked out.

Shiny Discs - Thrilling Thursday - Test Title from Ian Smith on Vimeo.

Shiny Discs - Telly Tuesday - Test Title from Ian Smith on Vimeo.

Shiny Discs - Blu Monday - Title Test from Ian Smith on Vimeo.

I must say that overall I'm impressed with the hi-def video hosting from Vimeo, which is faster and better quality than that I'd been experiencing with Viddler. But the 500MB weekly limit (where Viddler has none) and the fact that hi-def can't be streamed from embedded video is a real pain. To see the video as intended the user has to click through from the video embedded in the Shiny Discs web site to go to the Vimeo web site. So if you want to see the sample title sequences above in full 720p glory pretty much intended (aside from the nasty compression that ISPs do once the video has been uploaded) you have to click on the videos to go to the vimeo site direct where the hi-def versions are available.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hi-Def Woes and A Trip to the Theatre

I seem to have spent my last week of freedom (before going back to full-time work), endlessly waiting for my PC to finish rendering video - only to have it invariably fail after 8 or 9 hours at the '99% complete' mark. 'Frustrating' isn't the word!

The net result (no pun intended) is that The Daily.NET Show is now 'on ice' until probably October/November 2008 when I can afford the hardware needed to dramatically improve rendering times so that getting the show out on a daily basis while holding down a full-time job is at all feasible. I seriously underestimated the time needed for video rendering, uploading and subsequent server-side compressing in my original forecasts.

In the meantime the different user group videos are serving as a good way of getting more familiar with the camera and editing software (four videos from the Silverlight UK User Group have been posted here). There are a lot of issues around rendering hi-def video, which is proving to be far more of a 'bleeding edge' issue for most of the software I use (Digital Juice's Juicer 3 product and Sony's Vegas Pro if we're being specific) than I'd expected this far on in the life-cycle of the respective products, quite aside from the hardware issues I've got.

Next up on the user group video coverage front is DDD Ireland in a couple of weeks time. I'm looking forward to it as it will give me an opportunity to concentrate on being 'behind the camera' instead of worrying endless about how 'wooden' I am in front of it!

Online friends have argued that hi-def on the web isn't there yet, and doesn't have that much demand anyway, so why am I going that route (and in particular using one of the 'true' hi-def formats XDCam rather than that used in the very small consumer cameras)? In fact there are several good hi-def shows already out there, albeit produced by folks for whom it's a full-time job, often with several staff to help. I'm convinced that in a couple of years time hi-def will be 'the norm' and the 'bleeding edge' pain is necessary, if only to get a head start on the immense learning curve. There are plenty of spotty youths doing YouTube video's already, and I prefer to try and get something closer to broadcast quality, although having to serve as reviewer, presenter, cameraman, editor and web master all at the same time is making progress slow!

That being said, the first weekly video podcast of The Shiny Discs Show that I've produced is NOT hi-def. The problems (which seem to be down to the fact the 28 minute running time of the 'expanded' first show takes me over the 1GB limit) mean that hi-def just wasn't an option this week. Hopefully next week's show, being shorter, will not prove to be such a problem. You can watch the first show now using the Shiny Discs link above. It's a disappointment with so many problems (truncated ending, too long, features out-of-focus talking head shots etc etc), but it's a start and things can (hopefully!) only improve from hereonin. Given how problematic this first show has been it will be interesting to see how feasible producing a weekly video podcast on top of holding down a full-time job proves to be!

I start a new 6 month contract with Intelligent Environments tomorrow, so I'm looking forward to catching up with folks and finding out what's been happening in the year I've been working elsewhere.

Yesterday I went to see an old 1920's Noel Coward play, The Vortex at the Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue. Felicity Kendall leading a strong cast (including the young girl - Cordelia? - from the TV series Brideshead Revisited, a woman we all recognised from Doctor Who - The Slitheen head honcho? - and a bunch of others). It was a good production, with excellent staging and acting throughout, although the play itself did feel a bit dated. Recommended, especially at the cost available using the Official Half Price Ticket Stand in Leicester Square, which is where we got our tickets. Word of warning: all those stores near the tube station displaying red LED displays saying 'Official Half-Price tickets' are NOT the place to buy tickets - they're rip-off touts, albeit officially licensed. You need the clearly identifiable stone building down from the Odeon in the square itself to avoid getting ripped off.

And in an amusing footnote to the whole 'travel across London to see a 5-minute extract from a film' saga that I blogged about a few weeks ago, next Sunday (thanks to a friend who I won't name as I don't want anybody to get into trouble on my account) I'm going to see Speed Racer. It seems the whole film is being previewed after all. It'll be interesting to see if the film is as bad as it sounded it was going to be, or whether the full screenings now mean that Warners have more confidence in the final results. No doubt I'll be posting a short review next weekend, either way ;-)

And time to mention (as if I didn't have enough distractions already) that you can follow me on Twitter, which suddenly over the last two weeks has taken off big time (I'm getting endless spammers suddenly 'following' me!) Personal/work -related stuff is under the Twitter 'irascian' account, one-line news/reviews about shiny discs are under the Twitter 'shinydiscs' account.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Recent (lack of) Activity

Does anybody like recruitment agencies?

Any thoughts I had that the recession is just an invention of the mainstream media, determined to irresponsibly talk us into a recession that wouldn't otherwise happen, are being somewhat dashed by personal experience in trying to find work at the moment. A market that was ridiculously buoyant last Summer seems to be pretty 'dead in the water' at the moment, and my 'between contracts' sabbatical is lasting far longer than I'd originally intended!

Not that agencies are being in any way honest about the situation. Last week, after posting my CV to Jobserve on the Friday afternoon, I had 27 different agency calls, so excited about my CV that they were 'putting it forward immediately for a job that's right up your street'. Number of agencies that subsequently called me back? One (to advise me that the vacancy they'd insisted on contacting a reference for, BEFORE even putting my CV forward, had 'gone to India').

On the back of my experiences before Christmas when doing the same thing, I'm alternating between getting extremely demotivated about the whole thing, and getting really angry at the way staff at these agencies deal with people. And of course the people on the other side of the fence (the clients) have similar horror stories to tell from their side.

Agency issues aside, I did actually manage to get an interview at the end of last week, which involved travelling up to Watford Junction and having to answer such in-depth technical questions as 'What is the configuration file for an ASP.NET application called?' (which appeared twice in a multi-choice 'test' that comprised 30 questions in total). This involved some time, travel and expense on my part, with a promise that I'd hear back first thing Monday morning, if not late Friday afternoon. Needless to say I'm here, late on Tuesday morning having not heard a word, and I suspect the situation will not have changed by the end of the week.

As it happened, the job was not one that was appropriate or I'd accept anyway. And I should have taken the lack of any telephone pre-interview technical screening as a sign of how the company works, but this lack of any response seems to be 'the recruitment norm'. No wonder the whole recruitment industry has a general reputation of being 'worse even than lawyers and estate agents'.

Just before Christmas, I spent the best part of a day on a coding exercise that one agency insisted all potential candidates had to complete before they could be put forward for any possible vacancies. The exercise was fundamentally flawed in several areas and I had to send in a solution that was accompanied by a whole list of assumptions that I'd made because the specifications were unclear. In response I got an email from their .NET specialist saying how impressed they were with my submission, and would I consider helping them to grade other candidates in future when they launched a formal appraisal service in the new year?

All very nice, but as for the original vacancy that had caused me to contact the agency and deal with their coding exercise submission? Not a word! And in what's a common pattern where agencies are concerned, any attempt to talk to the person who originally contacted you with such enthusiasm is invariably met with complete silence. Email responses to queries go unanswered. Promised "he's busy right now. He'll call you back" promises made when you hassle them as to why you've heard nothing back never materialise, no matter how often you try and follow up. The whole process is extremely demoralising.

When candidates have spent time and money to help agencies who then go on to collect between 15% and 20% of all future income that successful candidates generate, they should get a far better service than they are doing. As it is all the agencies seem to be offering for their not insignificant cut, is a CV forwarding service based on the most crude 'keyword' searches.

I don't know a single contractor who's got a good thing to say about agencies. Or, in fact, a single employer looking for contractors who has a good word to say about them! I wish there were some other solution to the 'matching contractors with clients' problem. Maybe I should just change careers and become a recruitment consultant myself?

Podcast Interview with 'The Social Programmer'

Since I seem to have got into the subject of work (or lack of it!) it's worth mentioning that a few weeks ago I did a podcast interview with The Social Programmer web site. You can hear over an hour of me pontificating on the state of the industry, the Las Vegas conference I attended, and the whole HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray format wars mess in the podcast which can be found here

Weekend Film-Making Course

I spent the weekend on a 'single person' documentary film-making course. I had suspected that many of these advertised film-making courses are just an attempt to make money from naive 'wanna be's who think such courses will magically open doors in Hollywood (rather like those Microsoft certification boot camp ads that imply in 2 weeks they can turn you into a high revenue-earning IT consultant!). And so it proved to be. A lot of the equipment didn't work, was insufficient to meet the stated goals of the course, or had broken/missing bits and pieces. Misinformation was given out right, left and centre, and I don't think I've heard so much bullshit in quite some time. Very disappointing! I learnt more from the excellent (and far cheaper) Shut up and Shoot Documentary Guide book than I learn on this course, despite the instructor's ridiculous claims that he'd saved us all a year's worth of learning!

Film: The Orphanage

On a happier note, last night I went to see The Orphanage, universally praised by critics as an 'intelligent horror movie'. This foreign-language film has received a lot of attention (and a UK Top 10 position) primarily because it's been recommended/produced by Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro. It's in nowhere near the same league as Pan's Labyrinth, but it is a beautifully constructed film that's well worth a trip to your local emporium to see - even if you're the sort of person who hates seeing subtitled movies. It's hard to say any more about the film without spoiling it - just go and see it!