Monday, May 26, 2008

Video editing - knowing when to give up!

I seem to have spent most evenings and weekends of the last few months sat at a computer, waiting. Waiting for the computer to do something that should take seconds but, inexplicably, starts taking hours.

For the last few weekends and a few Bank Holidays too I seem to have survived on just a few hours sleep, trying to get a slickly designed and produced video podcast ready for the web. Only to find I run out of time, have to throw away all the hard work done over the previous week (because each week the material becomes out of date), hit the 'reset' button and go through the whole wretched process again a week later.

Signs that things were not going to be as straightforward as promised by the hardware and software manufacturers who'd sold me high priced equipment surfaced pretty early on, with basic camera usage.

Sony's PMW-EX1 camera is an amazing camera for the (not inconsiderable) price of over UKP4000. The high def picture quality and level of control available is amazing. But the build quality is worse than that of a very cheap Christmas Cracker toy. Sony just love deliberately building in obsolescence - and as I look at a broken PC, several broken DAT players, a broken portable CD player and a broken digital video recorder, it seems to me that this is deliberate policy on ALL their products.

The PMW-EX1 is a hi-def camera that has numerous fiddly controls designed for fingers the size of matchsticks, with much needed lettering that flakes off within weeks of being used. It features an on-camera microphone holder which snaps off just by having a piece of camera bag material brush against the attached microphone.

The video forums are full of early owners disappointed at the frankly shit quality of what Sony have done in several areas, when the camera is so beautifully well designed in others.

What I find really bizarre is that whenever somebody rushes in to complain about any of the problems a horde of Rottweiler-like fan boys rush in to say 'What do you expect for the price? The picture quality is great. Who cares about the ergonomics or the build quality?'. I don't know why these 'fan boy' owners don't just walk around wearing 'Please rip me off. I'll never complain because that would mean admitting I made a mistake in my purchase' t-shirts. The reason we get such shoddy products is that people just seem happy to accept third-rate products that don't deliver on the promises made in the sales material.

My second 'learning curve' came with buying some animated backgrounds from Digital Juice. I should state upfront that I like Digital Juice a lot. They make great products, at ridiculously affordable prices, and have a customer service department second to none. But they also have this annoying practice of changing their prices on an almost daily basis. However, I guess that's a subject for another day. My frustrations with their product started with finding approximately half the DVD volumes I purchased from them - which should just load within seconds - would sit cranking away, locking up my whole computer for over 8 hours at a time, before finally giving up without installing the required video collateral!

Endless experiments and to- and fro-ing eventually pointed to my DVD drive being the problem, despite it having had no problems with numerous Microsoft software installation discs from MSDN. This is the 'fitted drive' that came with a top-of-the-range laptop that cost just under UKP4000! Digital Juice suggested getting new drivers but there are none available. What is available, if you do an internet search, is a lot of owners of the same drive complaining about lack of decent drivers and the way the drive keeps 'disappearing' from Vista on reboot. Unfortunately, this being a 'fitted' Dell PC, there is no simple alternative to replace it with.

I had thought I might be able to use an external Blu-Ray drive to load the discs instead - another expensive piece of equipment. But no, that drive too fails to read discs that other drives have no problem with! Shouldn't this shit just work? Are DVD formats a standard specification or not? Why am I wasting hour upon hour just trying to get basic functionality I foolishly assume I've paid for to work?

The next problem is that despite having 4GB RAM on my PC, video editing is too slow to be practical. Available disk space is part of the problem, so last week I bought a 2TB external RAID drive from Western Digital. If you're tempted, as I was, by their My Book Premium Edition II range that proudly boasts it's suitable for hi-def video, please do an internet search to find out how many angry owners all trying (and failing) to get their money back on this product there are!

Problems were obvious from the get-go. The drivers didn't auto-install as the flimsy one sheet instructions supplied with the drive had said they would. Not a biggie - I installed them manually. The drive then became visible in Windows Explorer and I could use the 2TB drive (actually two 1TB drives RAIDED together) to read/write to. But the supplied RAID manager, necessary to switch between RAID 0 and RAID 1 configurations, just keeps saying "no device found" despite the fact the drive is happily there, visible AND usable. A quick search via Google revealed no solution - just a LOT of unhappy customers complaining about what an awful product it was, and how customer support was non-existent. Some owners are still trying to get Western Digital to fix their problems more than a year after purchase!

Last night, after working crazy hours for two days on filming, DVD reviewing, script editing and collating assets I started to try and put the final touches together for a video podcast I wanted to launch last night (with another show to follow this morning). Using the Western Digital drive to hold assets introduced an interesting performance issue. Hit any key in the video editor and the PC would lock up for 10 minutes with the Western Digital drive flashing to say it was doing something, but I've no idea what. Want to split a piece of video to insert something? Wait 10 minutes. Want to back up a frame to line up a transition? Wait 10 minutes. After 6 hours I realised that my four minute video would require a week of working 18 hour days to get ready with this hardware. Hardware sold as 'suitable for use with hi-def video' I hasten to add.

I've had enough! Video podcasting plans are on hold until I can afford the 8 or 9 grand that seems necessary to purchase a turnkey solution suitable for video editing. A turnkey solution that has proper backup and support and NOT the sort I've had from Sony, Western Digital and Dell over the last few months! The time I can afford that sort of money to get something that will actually do what it says on the tin seems some long way off, but in the meantime if you've found a good packaged hardware solution, ideally one that's PC-based since I've spent a fortune in time and money in learning Sony's Vegas Pro package, please let me know.

In the meantime, I'm just going to look forward to a few free evenings, some decent sleep, and casual weekends for a change! The world of video editing makes the world of flakey Microsoft beta software and continual patches seem professional by comparison!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I'd better not give up the day job!

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Single Camera Documentary Film Making Course I went on for a bit of fun, and wrote how I felt the whole thing was a poorly given rip-off. I think there's a lot of these sorts of rip-offs aimed at 'wannabe' film-makers and producers, often aimed at gullible newbies who think it might give them some sort of magic pass into the film-making industry.

After that experience I'm kind of relieved to be able to give a much more positive account (or, given the name of the company behind the course, I should say Pozitiv account) of the one day TV Presenter's Course that I went on as a way to 'celebrate' my 51st birthday on Tuesday.

No, I don't have any aspirations to go and work as a TV presenter (which is just as well, as I'm rubbish at it), but I did want to try and improve my 'on camera' apparances for my weekly video podcast over at

I should say upfront that the course isn't cheap, but then quality rarely is, and the glowing references from a ton of reliable sources (like The BBC and The Guardian) together with a long list of former clients whose names I recognised 'from the telly' meant I thought this was probably the best course to go for. The fact that the next available course coincided with my birthday and had one space available (out of just six available places per course) acted as a beacon that said 'You're destined to do this'.

And I'm really glad I did, even though, as I'd initially suspected, the course didn't transform me into the great presenter I'd like to think is hidden inside me. The main thing is it was a LOT of fun, and I was really impressed with the attention to detail from the company behind it, which extended to delivering me a birthday cake with candles on half way through the afternoon viewing session :)

My experience all through the pre-booking and final course assessment with this company was never less than professional and customer-focussed. Which is a pretty rare thing these days, in my experience. Frankly it's a relief to be able to post something good about a company, after all my experiences of late!

The schedule for the course was really scary, particularly when you realise that most of us attending had no prior experience of being in front of a camera or in a TV studio. The company send out an information pack a week or two ahead of time and you have to choose (or write and send in) an autocue script for one exercise, and make sure you have learnt another piece ready for a 'live broadcast' exercise on the day of the course itself.

What impressed me about the course was that I felt it was very 'real world', where another company would probably have made the exercises much easier and more 'mickey mouse', if only to make the students feel good about themselves. They warned us ahead of time that there might be some 'surprises' (ie spanners in the works!) instead of just simple exercises we'd been initially prepped for, and so it proved to be, which I think is much more typical of what happens in the real world.

For example the first exercise - apparently the one most students have trouble with - was a rather scary 'talk about yourself to camera' piece which you had two cracks at, with tuition between the two attempts after some initial training about what to do, and the various floor manager signals you would get. The 'surprise' on this exercise was that you didn't know how long you were going to have to talk for until just before the recording started.

Next up was a scripted autocue piece against green screen, with the idea again being to have two takes. What really impressed me here, given that this was the piece most relevant to what I was looking to do in video podcasting, was that the instructor took the time to give me advice and then do as many takes as were needed. I think I ended up with something like six takes when all was done, with new advice between each, and although it meant we started running a bit late (and the other students were propably really annoyed with me) it was typical of the personal attention I think we all got at different points throughout the day. A lazy instructor would have just left things as they were after the second take.

The course instructors had pre-prepped things to the extent that whatever subject a student chose they had a choice of three different 'green screen replacement' backdrops for each of us to choose from that were all specifically relevant to the subject we'd chosen. For most of the people on the course these exercises were going to be part of a 'show reel' they used to try and get work, and it was good to see them trying to personalise things very specifically to the student's choice.

Next up was the 'outside broadcast', conveniently filmed on the green outside The Houses of Parliament, just opposit the studios where the course is held (and also used by the BBC and ITV). Here we each had to deliver a prepared script, but without autocue (although clipboards were allowed). The other students all said they were most looking forward to this, but I was dreading it the most because I'm hopeless at learning stuff by rote. I find that appearing 'natural' whilst struggling to remember whole sentences with key facts is incredibly difficult! I ended up needing four takes to get it just about right, but the funny thing was that it turned out everyone else had problems too, and the initial confidence of the other students soon evaporated as some of the 'live broadcasts' descended into four letter word expletives or people just freezing up as they experience the sort of 'brain fart' I am all too familiar with.

Again, the director and crew gave nearly all of us three or four takes rather than the promised two to get us to continually improve and learn new techniques for coping. The 'surprise' on this exercise was that we had to deliver the broadcast not standing still, but while walking with a very wide-angle camera seemingly just inches from our faces. Apparently I was chasing the cameraman rather than just walking naturally allowing him to follow me! Even worse, my idea of walking in a straight line while delivering a piece to camera from memory is to apparently zig-zag all over the place, which can be particularly 'challenging' for the cameraman given the number of other professional crews gathered in that very small park who tend to be there interviewing MPs pretty much all day long!

The final exercise of the day - the big one - was two takes of a 'magazine' programme, with each take recorded back to back almost immediately after each other. This exercise had all kinds of distractions: multiple camera's, autocue scripts we'd not really seen before, constant director instructions through an earpiece, and an unscripted but rigorously timed interview. The fear in the air was palpable!

The first take was to involve just a 90 second guest interview slotted into the middle of the programme, the second take was with a different guest for that section, but with the interview expanded out to 3 minutes.

I was constantly surprised at how people could contradict your assumptions about what they'd be like when in front of a camera. Carl, an ex-radio DJ from Manchester station Galaxy FM, who I chose to interview for my magazine section, had looked really terrified just before his first take of the magazine program (he was first on, and I was his first guest) but as the opening music cued it was like a switch went on and he transformed himself brilliantly.

Another chap, who was a real extrovert and 'character' when with the group, was someone we all thought would be great 'on camera', but when the camera started rolling he became rather dull and static (just like me).

The only disasterous take of the day (on previous courses some people have apparently frozen completely or ended up in tears as the pressure has built up) was my first take of the magazine programme! In the morning the autocue had been close enough for me to read without having to wear glasses (which I usually avoid for anything other than driving). As we started recording the magazine section I realised (too late) that the camera was further away and all I could see of my autocue script were some very fuzzy words which I often mistook, somewhat hilariously, for completely different words! It was an incoherent rambling mess, and the whole thing was not improved by the fact I thought I'd heard the director give me a '10 second - wrap it up' warning when he hadn't, so that I finished up having to fill 10 seconds of dead time before the end credits. Nobody - but nobody! - is ever going to get to see that footage I can tell you!

Fortunately a hastily grabbed pair of glasses (thanks Jo!) meant my second attempt wasn't quite so bad. You can see for yourself how it turned out in the video below. It was only when watching the DVD/VHS tape that the organisers give you at the end of the course, that I realised I had got the guest's surname wrong in my introduction! Oh, the horror! Admittedly, it's not very good, but I include the segment here so you can get more of a feel for what the exercises on the course were like (and watch me squirm!)

By the way, if you think the studio looks familiar that's because it's the one used for The Frost Report and, like most TV studios, looks so much better on camera than it does 'in the flesh' where the couch seemed really grubby and worn! Apparently Sarah Jessica Parker had sat where I was sitting just the day before - a fact which seemed to excite some of my fellow students!

All-in-all, I thought the course was excellent and made for a really fun, if totally exhausting, day. Although I'm clearly never going to be very good at this sort of stuff, I thought I was given some excellent advice and tips throughout the day - I just didn't seem able to personally deliver on too many of them.

Anyway, if you have any aspiration in this direction yourself, or just want a fun day doing something completely different, I highly recommend this course (apparently a big favourite with Big Brother contestants when they leave the house!). You can check out all the details at

The course certainly made for a birthday I'm going to remember more than most - and all in a good way :)!

Monday, May 12, 2008


There's an old saying 'You can choose your friends, but not your family'. I think it needs updating for the noughties, especially for those of us living in London. It should read 'You can choose your friends, but not your neighbours'.

For the third time in the ten plus years I've lived here my upstairs neighbour decided to start running his bath and then promptly forgot, ignoring even the heavy pounding on the door I was giving to alert him to the fact that yet again the moron was trashing my bathroom.

Lights in the bathroom have been fading in and out despite being turned off at the central switch for most of Sunday afternoon and evening, and there was no electricity in the lounge, bedroom or hallway, although the study survived intact. About 7 years ago the flat was completely rewired. I'm beginning to think the work carried out was less than stellar, and the relation of the labelled fuses on the wiring box bears no relation to what actually happens when I get flooded out!

The electricity is now thankfully back on (except for the bathroom), and at least the warm weather means the bathroom should soon dry out. I own my property but my neighbours are tenants so I guess they just don't care about repeatedly flooding me out. The local estate office will no doubt reimburse me for the costs of sorting the mess out (ie the electrician who's looked at the results). But they never reimburse you for the hassle, inconvenience and, more importantly, the day's lost pay in trying to get the mess sorted out.

Alas, I'd like to say that this third 'wash out' will mean the afore-mentioned tenant will be evicted, but given that the tenant below me has happily survived tens, if not hundreds, of warnings about deafening noise all through the night (he has a habit of leaving his DVD player on full-blast menu-repeat all through the night - I know each and every note to the '24' menu system off by heart, having spent so many Saturday night/Sunday mornings hearing it) this looks unlikely.

Oh well. The bathroom was overdue for a refurb anyway I guess and at least it didn't happen while I was away! And compared to the suffering in China (a 7.5 earthquake apparently) this is all pretty small beer. Damned annoying all the same.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The BBC Just Don't Get Hi-Def!

It seems somewhat ironic that within just days of making the big announcement about the upcoming free High Definition TV service from the BBC and ITV, I should find two pieces of evidence indicating that the BBC are either totally incompetent or just plain clueless when it comes to being realistic about the importance of content for High Definition (HD) video.

Online internet sites offer upload/download of 720p high def video already, and the number of these video hosting sites is growing, seemingly almost daily. But in the meantime the BBC seem determined to just ignore the demand for HD and create barriers to entry.

The newly launched (and rather excellent) Reel Show TV features the main High Definition guy at the BBC reviewing the new Sony PMW-EX1 camera (it's in part 3 or 4 of the first edition if you want to check out the video). The man from the Beeb talks about how impressed he is with the new Sony camera, but somehow neglects to point out the most important things about it, leaving the seemingly more knowledgeable interviewer to step in and do it for him. Nevertheless the BBC rep says the camera gets an 11 out of 10 on their scale of evaluation (based on using a 'benchmark' Sony Z1 camera) and then goes on to say that the output from this '11 out of 10' camera is not allowable for their High Definition service! WTF?!! This is a camera that received a ringing endorsement from the Hollywood film professionals who make up the membership of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) who professed themselves blown away at a cinema screening of a film made using the camera. But it's not good enough for the BBC's artefact-ridden, heavily compressed HD service!

The reason, apparently, is that the camera only outputs HD at 35Mb/sec where the BBC have arbitrarily decided they won't accept anything less than 50Mb/sec. The man from the Beeb declares that this is to keep standards high, whilst admitting that the picture quality, even at the 'lowly' 35Mb/sec is outstanding and that he couldn't see any differences in picture quality. Sometimes I think the world really has gone mad with the idiotic bureaucrats having completely taken over the asylum.

Further evidence that the BBC is letting incompetents make the key decisions on HD comes from an interview with prize chump Russel T Davies (aka 'Billy Bunter'). Davies explains that Doctor Who isn't being made in high definition because the increase in budget required to shoot in HD is not worth it. WTF?!! Even the internet's moving to High Definition, and yet the BBC's so-called 'prime' BAFTA award-winning drama series - the one that generates an absolute fortune through merchandising and sales abroad - has decided it's not worth bothering with. This is the same sort of monstrously stupid short-term thinking that caused the BBC back in the late 80's to trash so many of the old Doctor Who video source material, not realising that they'd just thrown away a small fortune in future VHS and DVD sales.

Regular readers will know that I think Russel T Davies makes a lousy 'head writer' for Doctor Who. I'm enjoying the current series far more than any previous one, and that can only be explained by the fact that it's because Davies has not written any of the last 4 or 5 episodes. But to have the 'head writer' now making use of technology decisions that will affect future transmissions, worldwide sales and sell-on Blu-Ray opportunities is utterly ridiculous.

His words MIGHT have some sort of value to them if the appallingly bad Torchwood hadn't switched to high definition right from its first episode. This series doesn't get anything like the viewing figures Who does (despite the non-stop ads), primarily because it not only has unbelievably juvenile writing, but also the worst acting I've seen on a prime time series in a long, long time. It makes Hollyoaks look like an oscar winner! And yet it has the 'budget' for HD, where Doctor Who doesn't!!!! The first series of Torchwood is being released for the THIRD time (talk about flogging a really dead horse!) next month, this time on high definition Blu-Ray disc. Fans of Doctor Who who prefer high definition viewing are wasting their time hoping for something similar. The series isn't shot in high definition and therefore won't appear in high definition.

While we're on the subject of HD, and because even I'm getting sick of my own ranting about the fools, dolts and nincompoops that seem to control nearly every aspect of our lives, it seems best to try and end on a happier note by mentioning the wonderful folks at Digital Juice. These guys show what a company can achieve when it employs people who are genuinely passionate (and not just people who keep telling you how passionate they are - Microsoft take note!) and care about quality. Their customer service is fantastic, their web site contains some of the best 'free training' on video that I've seen, their products are market leaders, and even the packaging shouts 'quality' at you. They've just relaunched their magazine (available as a free PDF download) and, of course, most of their products are produced ready for instant high definition. While the BBC seem happy to pay obscene amounts of money for spinning '6 o'clock news' graphics these guys produce the same sort of stuff for very affordable prices, with strictly limited copies so that you don't run the risk of the whole world and his wife using the same material. I just wish more companies operated the way they do.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

May the Fourth Be With You!

There's nothing like a good pun to open a new blog post.

And yeah, I know that the title is nothing like a good pun!

I seem to have spent most of the Bank Holiday break wrestling with Sony Vegas Pro to edit video together, but am finally starting to feel that I'm controlling it, rather than having it control me!

The first 'proper' weekly video podcast is uploading as I type (with two hours to go before it finished and then starts compressing - sigh!) but at least this one's in 720p hi-def and although still too long, half the time of the early 'preview' show which clocked in at just under half an hour.

I'm happier than I was with the preview with the way the visual side is going - especially the Top 10 rundown, but my presentation (narration and 'on camera' performance) still sucks big time.

I'm going on a TV Presenter's Course for my birthday a week on Tuesday, so hoping that the folks there can give some hints and tips on how be less 'wooden'. The company running the course trained Natasha Kaplinski and seemingly almost everyone who works in television today, and it's conveniently run just down the road from me, opposite The Houses of Parliament, so fingers crossed! I must say the course looks pretty intense and we've been given home-work (script writing) to prepare before the course. It turns out the six attendees are all going to have to do an informal piece to camera (with no idea how long to talk for, under the control of someone barking instructions down an ear-piece), an autocue piece, an outside interview, and a couple of magazine-styled interviews - all on top of any training we're given. It's quite a long day but should be fun!

Fortunately, I haven't spent all my time at the computer, although it sometimes feels that way. On Friday night I 'escaped' and went to see the Iron Man movie, having renewed my annual subscription to the Clapham Picture House, receiving three 'free' tickets as a result.

I wasn't disappointed in the film, although the final act suffers from the usual Hollywood nonsense, and comes across as a carbon-copy replay of something from the Transformers movie. As I've mentioned in my Shiny Discs show, if you go make sure don't rush to leave the cinema when the (seriously overlong) credits start rolling there's a nice extra scene which features a Hollywood A-list actor giving clues as to what's coming soon from Marvel right at the end. You'll be filled with Fury if you miss it and want to 'Avenge' yourself on those that didn't warn you what you might miss!