Thursday, September 30, 2010

FOSS peeps, we need to build artists a bridge

Boosh! That's the free software community I know and love!

A giant thank you to our zillion new backers, and a giant thank you to OMG! Ubuntu! for the great article that led our zillion new backers here. And Akshat, thank you for your rockin' efforts to get this project covered on the right tech sites.

I'll admit that I cried when I saw the OMG! Ubuntu! article because it showed me that this project is resonating loud and clear with the free software community, which means the Novacut team is on exactly the track we should be. Free software peeps know what the future looks like for creative works that you ship around as bits on the Internet because free software peeps have been living in that future for years.

Unfortunately, our close creative allies who enrich our lives with TV and movies are all stuck in the dreary past (save for a few notable exceptions). This is partly because they just left their mainframe era (they just got cheap cameras), an essential first step on their journey into the future. This is also partly because the entertainment industry sold them a lie: "If you give it away, you won't make any money".

As free software peeps we can certainly sympathize because we went through that stage at one point too, constantly worried about that "but how will I make money?" question. Of course, from our comfortable vantage point in el futuro, we know how that all shakes out. What's the difference between proprietary software developers and free software developers? Everyone knows the answer to that: free software developers make more money, are in higher demand, get more interesting jobs, and have expansive creative freedom.

The outstanding response from you free software peeps has made me realize that the Novacut team focused too much on selling our Kickstarter project to artists. We can't just tell artists, "Trust us, the future is awesome." Artists are justifiably skeptical. No, we need to build artists a bridge into the future so they can go experience it themselves. It will just take a few visionary artists (looking at you, Bernard) coming back with tales of a future that is shiny, magical, and full of money, and artists will be stampeding across the bridge to see for themselves.

So my free software peeps, we have the opportunity, and I would say responsibility, to build artists this bridge into the future. We know that the success of free software is much more than just licenses, it's also a set of pragmatic tools that have enabled us to write software faster, better, cheaper. It took the free software community decades to develop these tools, to perfect the workflow. And we can now bring our current state of the art to the world of video, the most important story telling medium of the age.

And I think we should do it in a big way, as a heartfelt gesture from creative people who write software to creative people who tell stories with video. Let's get this on Slashdot, on Wired. Let's shoot this Novacut project through the roof!

Pee my pants excited,

Press Roundup

Just a quick roundup of talk about Novacut on the web:

A big thank you to everyone who has helped get the word out!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why are HDSLR cameras so disruptive?

I'm going to make a bold statement: HDSLR cameras are going to quickly and decisively reshape the entertainment industry, and when the dust settles, artists are going to be at the helm.

And now I'm going to back that bold statement up, so read on...

The Red One was hailed for bringing cinema quality video down to 1/10th the price it was previously.  And the Canon 5D Mark II is 1/10th the price of the Red One.  But the Red One wasn't an evolutionary step on the way to the 5D Mark II.  They were essentially developed simultaneously, and darn near released simultaneously. So really, in a single product generation the 5D Mark II brought cinema quality video down to 1/100th the the price.

Think about that a bit.  One day you need a quarter million dollar camera to shoot a movie.  Then you wake up the next day and can shoot the same movie with a $2500 camera, and your audience wont be able to tell the difference.  I personally can't think of another technological change that in a single generation has even come close to a disruptive price drop like this (if you can think of something, please let me know in the comments).

So how did this happen?  Are Canon's engineers just that much smarter, developing technology just that much faster?  Nope.  Funny thing is, Canon wasn't even trying to develop a video camera.  They were just working on the next iteration of their entry-level full-frame DSLR, certainly a big improvement over the original 5D, but nothing unexpected.  And then video capability was tacked on at the last minute without much fanfare.  It was such a tiny change to add video that Canon probably accomplished it with nothing more than a firmware update.  But this tiny change had a giant impact because it connected video with the economies of scale that had long existed in DSLR photography (and in film SLR photography before that).

A tiny technological change, but a giant change in economies of scale.  That's the kicker.  And for the entertainment industry, HDSLR cameras are even more disruptive than this hundredfold cost reduction would lead you to believe: on day one there was already a huge existing user-base intimately familiar with these video cameras of the future.  There are hundreds of thousands of DSLR photographers (whether professional or amateur) who are truly masters of photography, who have long used these cameras and lenses, and it's a small step for them to bring their skills to video.  In other words, there's already a highly skilled workforce, ready to go.  And that means things are going to happen really, really fast.

So DSLR photographers, meet your new side job (or career): making TV and movies.  Of course there is some work to do.  TV and movie making involves so many different skills that we need to bring together... writers, directors, actors, photographers, audio engineers, not to mention friendly free-software nerds like yours truly.

And as long as we're at it, we might as well borrow some great ideas from the open-source world: distributed teams and the tools needed to make them productive.  This is the future, isn't it?  It's the future that our Novacut distributed video editor will make possible.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How about that Skein hash?

Okay, nerdy post.

The Novacut video editor will "save" the edits as JSON using a simple graph-based description.  As it will be a distributed video editor, it's very important that the video and audio source files (produced by your HDSLR camera and digital audio recorder) be referenced in a globally unique way.

The solution is easy: reference these media files by their content hash.  The question is, what hash?  After some research and testing, I'm leaning toward Skein, specifically skein-512 with a 240-bit digest.  But I would love some feedback on this.  I would especially love some feedback from my former freeIPA teammates at Red Hat because, well, you people are security rock stars.  And opinionated.  Yes, Simo, I'm looking at you!  So Rob, Pavel, Martin, John, Dmitri, Simo, Stephen, what do you think?  My own rationale goes something this:
  • The hash needs an extremely long useful life: the video edit description is designed specifically for remixing, so these hashes will become the keepers of a (hopefully) large body of read/write culture
  • At the same time, the hash should have a reasonably small digest size so it's URL friendly, easy to use in many contexts
  • Ideally the hash would have a digest size that is a multiple of 40-bits so it can be cleanly base32 encoded (I'm avoiding base64 so I can use the hash to name files, even on case-insensitive file systems)
  • sha1 (40 * 4 = 160bits) is already considered pretty broken, so that doesn't sound future proof to me
  • skein-512 is fast, has a conservative design with a large 512-bit internal state, and can produce any digest size desired (so we just pick our favorite multiple of 40-bits)
  • A 240-bit digest means happy birthday in 2**120, which is darn close to the fuzzy feeling I get when anything security-related requires 2**128 operations to brute-force
  • When we base32-encode a 240-bit digest, we get a 48-character string, which is still short enough to be fairly URL friendly
What do people think about Skein?  What do people think about the 240-bit digest size?  Should I play it safe and use a 280-bit digest?  Should I chose a shorter, even more URL friendly 200-bit digest?  Or did I nail it with 240-bits?

The only worry I have about Skein is that the rotational constants might be changed again, which would be quite disruptive.  Not impossible to deal with (the editing format should really have a graceful way to migrate to a different hash anyway), but the timing would suck.


I saw on Bruce Schneier's blog that a constant will be changed in Threefish, the block-cipher used by Skein:

Even with the attack, Threefish has a good security margin. Also, the attack doesn't affect Skein. But changing one constant in the algorithm's key schedule makes the attack impossible. NIST has said they're allowing second-round tweaks, so we're going to make the change. It won't affect any performance numbers or obviate any other cryptanalytic results -- but the best attack would be 33 out of 72 rounds.

As this change will change the value of Skein hashes, I'll wait to use Skein in dmedia till after the change. Hopefully it will be completed soon. In the meantime, I'll use a base32-encoded sha1 hash in dmedia. Depending on how many adventurous beta-testers we have, I may not provide a sha1 to skein migration path.

Also, thanks for your input, Simo!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

See you (through the lens) at UDS-N

The Novacut team will be at the Ubuntu Developer Summit!  We'll be there to hang out, meet great people, do a bunch of community building, and of course discuss a few technical issues that are of particular importance to us.

Being some serious camera geeks, we tend to travel with our HDSLR gear.  Which got us thinking that UDS is a great opportunity to shoot a bunch of video that can be remixed by the community for marketing purposes.

So we'll be shooting lots of super-pretty HD video at UDS.  We'll release all our raw footage under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.  With this footage we will ourselves make a short montage/documentary about the summit.  But we really hope that other artists will remix this footage into some kick-ass commercials, documentaries, and other stuff too cool for us to imagine.

So if there are any other audio/video buffs going to UDS-N who would like to be part of the process, please get in touch with us.  Or if you have ideas for what we should video, would like to be interviewed, or just want to say hello.  You can contact us on, Twitter, Facebook, or plain ol' email:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Writing a story after you shoot?

Kevin Shah, a co-founder of Sabi Pictures, wrote an interesting article for Thescriptlab. In this article, Shah talks about a new way of telling a story with film, which he has labeled "Naturalistic Cinema". Essentially, this story-telling technique is rooted in directed improvisation. A writer/director team decide on a basic plot-line and then develop rough pieces of dialogue. Once the basic story schema is in place, actors (with guidance from the director) are allowed to run with the material, infusing it with a conversational rhythm that's natural to them.

After shooting wraps, the story structure is developed through the editing process. Character development, dramatic tension, and the conclusion - in other words - are primarily shaped during post-production. The writer(s), director, and editor(s) work together in the post process story-telling. And so editing, an art that tends to be a one-person operation, organically becomes a collaborative effort. Although I was excited by this new twist in cinematic story-telling and post-production, I couldn't help but think that this approach would be an editing nightmare. It would be a nightmare because new versions of an edit (at least with Apple and Adobe editing software) destroy previous versions - because the history of editing changes are not fully saved.

Thinking about how difficult it would be to keep track of various story versions post process, I was struck by how perfect Novacut's video editor would be for "Naturalistic Cinema". Based on a BZR (open-source version control) principle, the Novacut video editor is designed to branch and merge edits so that editing history is not lost. So a creative team could easily see different edited versions side by side. But more importantly, artists wouldn't have to worry about starting back at square one after getting a wild hair and botching an edit. Imagine being able to work from any point within any edited version at the click of a mouse! Who knows, with editing made this easy, "Naturalistic Cinema" just might become a standard story-telling method in the future.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rodney Charters at DigitalFest!

May I begin with saying Rodney Charters is a nice guy! He talked with people about camera specs for about thirty minutes after his DigitalFest appearance; the new Canon 60D seems to be Rodney's fast growing side-kick because of its lightness and flip viewing screen. I also liked that he was totally frank about Hollywood insanity. For instance, Fox allowed Kiefer Sutherland to decide whether or not 24 should go digital, instead of giving Charters the power to decide what he was going to shoot with. Really Fox? Kiefer's opinion is more important than the Director of Photography's?

Although Charters continued working with film (after Kiefer decided that digital color grading distorted his face), he used the Canon 5D Mark II to shoot action scenes (especially car chasing action). He showed us several photos of 5Ds enclosed in exoskeletons that were designed to firmly mount to cars. Wowzer! TV networks have some serious cash to throw around, hiring companies to build special HDSLR camera cages for stunt cars. Really, by the time a network has bought all of the specialty gear to shoot HDSLRs during an action scene, and sprung for a 5D Mark II body modification so that it can accommodate a cinema lens, no money has been saved in using a HDSLR camera. But come to think of it - networks have a tendency of spending on one end what they saved on another.

The perfect example of networks spending what they save came up when Charters started talking about shooting locations. He said that many scenes in 24's later seasons were shot against a green screen, and then a cityscape was superimposed post-production. Filming permits in New York, I guess, are more expensive than flying stills photographers to New York to photograph its skyline, and then plastering these stills over an action scene in post. Between the airline tickets for the photography crew, hotel and food expenses, per diems and special effects costs, it's hard to believe that the show saved much going the green screen route. But if the network really did save this way, my indie spirit says screw New York! Find a city or town that will let you film for pennies on the dollar.

One thing's for sure - the savings is undeniable when comparing digital video to film processing. A thousand feet of film (i.e. one reel) costs $1,000 for the film, plus another $1,000 for processing.  Charters said that on 24 they would shoot roughly 20 reels of film per day - $40,000 a day in film and processing!  This number is the reason why Charters shot with HDSLR cameras on the set of Indian Gangster, a television concept created by writer/director Snehal Patel. Patel was looking for ways to stream-line costs so Charters suggested that the pilot be shot exclusively with HDSLRs. The pilot is definitely eye-candy, thrilling Patel so much that he has become an HDSLR convert who now teaches film-makers how to use these cameras skillfully.

Although a good deal of Charters talk focused on production costs in relation to HDSLRs, he also spoke at length about the challenges of focus pulling on HDSLR cameras and the HDSLR camera's inability to shoot raw. He would like to see Canon design lenses that auto-focus. Right now, Charters is using a focus remote that costs around $30,000, but he would love see the life of a focus puller made easier with automatically responsive glass. Additionally, he would like to see the dynamic range of a Canon 5D Mark II RAW still photograph, dynamic range that's comparable to that of film, made available to those using the HDSLR's video capability. At this point, there just isn't much wiggle room in color correcting video clips. Oh happy days when a colorist doesn't have to sweat!

Well, that pretty much covers the highlights of Charters appearance at Pictureline. We learned a lot about how the established industry works, and hope that this blog post has given you a clear glimpse into our experience at DigitalFest.

Listen to Indy Film Wisconsin podcast this Tuesday

Well, seems like the Novacut project has a pretty enthusiastic new supporter by the name of Wayne Clingman. This Tuesday Wayne will be interviewing me (and perhaps Tara and Jeff too) on his Indy Film Wisconsin podcast.

After listening to a few of his podcasts today, Tara and I have already concluded that Wayne is totally awesome... exactly the sort of pragmatic, let's get things done kind of person we want in the Novacut community.

With a title like "Jason Gerard DeRose the man that Hollywood hates", you don't want to miss Wayne's next podcast. This hour long show will be live at Noon Central/11AM Mountain time, or you can stream it at your leisure anytime after that.

Just click here to see the show time in your timezone.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Redrock Micro bringing Arca-Swiss mount

Tara and I were at the DigitalFest trade show yesterday, which was fun and quite educational. By far our favorite part was talking to Brenda and Rachel, the two "Revolutionists" (yes, that's what their cards say) from Redrock Micro. These two ladies were just awesome.

It was the first time Tara and I had any hands-on with Redrock Micro products. We tried a few Shoulder Mounted Rigs, which were very comfortable, although a bit large for our tastes. We also tried the Captain Stubling Handheld Rig, we which we liked because you don't loose the ability to be very expressive with camera movements. And we both thought the microFollowFocus is pretty amazing, gives one very precise focus control.

Tara and I are die-hard Really Right Stuff fans, so I asked if Redrock Micro had anything with an Arca-Swiss mount. Immediately one of our Revolutionists whipped out what looked like a squatty Redrock Micro DSLR Baseplate with a Really Right Stuff Lever Release Clamp on top. They said that this product wasn't yet available and couldn't give us a time-frame for when it would be released, but Tara and I left very happy knowing that HDSLR video users will have access to the far superior Arca-Swiss mount.

Apparently Tara and I were so excited that we didn't think to take a picture of this mysterious Arca-Swiss baseplate, so I apologize for that. But we aren't fibbing, we saw it with our own eyes!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why Ping when you can Diaspora

As anyone who reads this blog knows, our current focus is developing the Novacut distributed video editor. But this is just the first step in a long-term vision. If our dream comes true and the world is flooded with a zillion new independent TV shows... well, people are going to need a player through which to watch them all.

My close friends and I are voracious TV watchers and we all have quite similar tastes. For almost all the shows I watch, I originally started watching them because they were recommended to me by one of my friends. Only a small percentage I discovered myself, usually through blind trial and error. But whenever I find something really good, I quickly recommend it to the whole crew.

So for us, entertainment is very social, but it's very intimate at the same time. It's not Facebook social, it's Diaspora social.

As Apple recently released iTunes 10 with their Ping social network, and as Diaspora just did their public code drop, it's a perfect time to share the Novacut perspective on what happens when a media-player meets a social-network just after last call (and after a lot of drinks).

Like I said, for my friends and I entertainment is social yet intimate. So we do want social features in our player, but by default we want to share TV suggestions with only those we intend. And so the first thing that comes to my mind is, heck, why not use Diaspora?

I haven't looked over the Diaspora code, so I don't know if its architecture would work for delivering TV recommendations through the Novacut player. But if Diaspora is appropriate, we'll use it. If not, perhaps we can extend Diaspora to make it work, or just roll our own. Bottom line is, we completely agree with Diaspora that you shouldn't have to give up your privacy just to use the Internet socially.

Anyway, congratulations to the Diaspora team on making their public code release. It's a great project and we fully support their goals. I mean, they use the word "distributed" almost as much as we do, so we must be on the same team!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

DigitalFest 2010 or Bust!

This Thursday Jason and I will be at DigitalFest getting HDSLR tips from cutting edge DP Rodney Charters! Charters is teaching a digital camera workshop at Pictureline, the Salt Lake City equivalent of B&H. We're so excited for this chance to see how one of the best works with HDSLR technology - how he manages focus pulling and cooked, not raw data.

We're equally excited about meeting other HDSLR enthusiasts, so this blog post is a meet-up invitation to DigitalFest participants. After Charter's workshop, Jason and I would love to get together with people interested in making TV/film for a drink and/or a bite to eat! So if you would like to learn more about the distributed video editor we're developing, give us input on features you would like to see, or just talk shop, please join us.

We'll make an announcement about the exact meeting spot after Rodney wows us with his brilliance.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fan funded Film/Video

$3.7M to 600 projects in Kickstarter's first 15 months?

Can fan-funded Film/Video succeed outside networks and studios?
The numbers say, Absolutely!

And what's crazy is Kickstarter hasn't even been around long enough to lose that new car smell.

About a month ago I analyzed all the Film/Video projects successfully funded since the first day of Kickstarter. Kind of a tedious amount of clicking around the website, but well worth it. From April 27,2009 to August 10, 2010 - the first 15.5 months - Kickstarter's backers funded just Film/Video projects to the tune of

609 Successful projects ~ 40 per month
$3.74 Million ~ $242,000 per month

    Kickstarter has made it possible for backers around the world to pledge small or large amounts to support creative projects they want to see produced. Such opportunities for fans and artists did not exist a year and a half ago, which supports our belief that we can also quickly develop a strong community of fan-backed artists. Watching one Kickstarter project after another take flight, we know that fans don't need to be told how much to give in order to keep someone's favorite brain-child alive. We now know, thanks to Kickstarter, that fans gladly step-up when they're excited about what an artist is doing. And we know that artists create mind-blowing work when the have the freedom to do what they love.

    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    Felicia Day is an Inspiration

    Felicia Day has a whole lota moxie, creating a Web TV series when there were no models of success to follow. Yeah, her visionary move to the Internet (in an effort to create work for herself) inspires me to believe that Novacut artists really have a chance at making a living for themselves. Like Day has said in many interviews, a market niche within the context of the Internet can mean a million or more fans. Just think - if a million fans donated just a dollar a year to your show, you'd have a million dollar budget (the budget of most decently supported independent films) for the next season. And when you've developed a community of fans (an Internet niche), you don't have to worry about creating TV and movies that have the kind of "broad" appeal (i.e. a test audience o.k.) that makes the majority of network and studio productions flat. You simply have to follow your inner muse and make entertainment that's interesting to you.

    Thursday, September 9, 2010

    I'm a Philip Bloom Fan!

    I'm a big fan of Philip Bloom. He's one of just a few DPs willing to go out on a creative limb and use an HDSLR camera with Canon L lenses. Instead of modifying all of his HDSLR camera bodies for film camera glass (like so many DPs who shoot with HDSLRs do), Bloom works with the focus pulling challenges of L lenses because they produce beautiful video. The HDSLR's strengths (e.g. light-weight body, the Canon 5D Mark II's large sensor, etc.) outweigh its weaknesses. And so he primarily chooses to work with HDSLR technology as is.

    Bloom's choice to shoot with unmodified cameras was enough to convince me that he's the bomb wrapped in bacon. But when I heard that he's now licensing his Vimeo video shorts through Creative Commons, I went from a Bloom fan to die-hard Bloom fan. For his openness to other artists building on his work has proven to me that he's an artist who's interested in fostering a supportive creative community. He's an artist who recognizes that culture builds on itself, and that people often create when they're inspired by the work of others. So thank you Philip Bloom and Vimeo for recognizing the nature of creativity, and giving artists the tools necessary to realize their vision!

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    Novacut Challenging "Business as Usual"

    About a week ago, I stumbled across an interesting interview that Rodney Charters did with CNMS TV. In this interview, he talks about how archiving is done in the TV/movie industry. But more importantly, he candidly describes how the archiving process has placed the post-production business in a choke hold that's preventing it from exclusively using digital technology.

    So what's the problem? Why are TV and movies still being stored in film form?

    According to Charters, there are three big reasons why the big switch still hasn't happened:
    1. Post-houses are deeply invested in an infrastructure that digitally formats film negatives, and archives with LTO drives (a system known for its ridiculously small storage capacity).
    2. There's no current digital storage system (e.g. optical discs or digital tapes) that can reliably store a piece of entertainment for the long-term, or a digital play back system standard (the film projector is the only standard to date).
    3. Post-houses spend around $13,000 for film to be digitally archived, whereas archiving with a film can is as inexpensive as $400.

    Together, these three big reasons for the continuation of film archiving are also the foundation for conservative decision-making in the entertainment industry. They foster conservatism because they make it difficult for artists to fully embrace digital technology in its many incarnations. Take directors of photography for instance. Those who want to see their work preserved for posterity think twice about shooting with HDSLRs... technology that makes much more sense than film cameras (especially in the action genre) because of its svelte, light-weight contours. To be fair, Rodney Charters and other DPs of his ilk are abandoning the sole use of the film cameras for a more tech savvy, flexible approach to shooting that includes HDSLRs.

    Post-houses are just as stuck as most DPs in the "business as usual" quicksand. And like a sleeping giant stuck in the mud, they haven't recognized that they're stuck. Instead, post-production companies see their continued investment in stupid editing and archiving methods as a way to keep competitors at bay - a way to make post-production processes so expensive that only established industry players can afford to work in the market. What entrenched post-houses fail to see is that a cloud-enabled, distributed work flow has the potential to break their monopoly over the current industry. They are blind to the possibility of post-processing being democratized by the internet, which is why Novacut has the potential to win. We see that a cloud-enabled editor could interrupt "business as usual" by giving anyone with the desire to edit the technological freedom to do so. More to the point, we see that the greatest advantage to an inclusive business model is the constant influx of real talent, and the open dialogue it encourages between artists. "Business as usual," in our eyes, inevitably leads to stagnation.

    If a distributed post-production workflow sounds like the greatest thing slice sliced bread, that's because it will be.  You can help us make these tools a reality by supporting the Novacut project!

    Sunday, September 5, 2010

    Thank you, Ian Clatworthy

    A strange thing about the Internet and the free software community is that a person who you've never met can have a profound impact on your life.  Ian Clatworthy, a person I've never met, inspired a startup and changed my life.  Sadly, I'll never be able to thank Ian in person as he recently died from cancer.

    May 7th was my last day at Red Hat.  My freeIPA teammates are awesome and Red Hat is a truly amazing company, but for family reasons, I simply couldn't juggle Red Hat and my personal life, so I had to move on.  So I would live on my savings for a while and then eventually find another job, perhaps contract work, just something with a much lower time commitment.

    Whenever I'm between jobs, I always catch a case of startup fever, usually around the time I need to start looking for a new job.  I've been fortunate enough to land some amazing jobs I've truly enjoyed, but lets be honest: a startup would be way more fun.  So around July, startup fever set in, and I started thinking along these lines:

    My friends and I all love TV. We watch a lot of it. Well, we watch the things we really love many times over (because there just isn't that much that meets our standards).  And we only watch TV on iTunes or on the web because we can't stand commercials, can't stand a network dictating our TV watching schedule.  We also love Joss Whedon and were all royally pissed off that Fox yet again canceled a promising Joss Whedon show.  Plus my wife shoots with a 5D Mark II and we've talked endlessly about ways in which HDSLR cameras can help artists like Joss Whedon make money making the TV they want to make, without those pesky networks interfering.

    And then one night in July I was re-reading Ian's Community-Agile Software Guidance essay and suddenly it all clicked: I could help artists by writing software that brings the agile, distributed workflow to video production.  There was even a clear business model (something my startup ideas tended to lack).

    So thank you, Ian, you played a key role in inspired my friends and I to start Novact.  I never meet you in person, but I will also never forget you.

    Saturday, September 4, 2010

    Drumroll... Novacut chooses Ubuntu

    As Ubuntu 10.10 Beta was released two days ago, it's a nice time to announce that Ubuntu will be the official platform for the Novacut video editor.

    Why Ubuntu instead of Windows or OSX?  Many reasons, but here are the highlights:
    • Risk reduction - if needed, we can fix a bug or add a missing feature anywhere in the operating system. We're not going to put artists at the mercy of a proprietary OS.
    • Open-source runs the Internet - we're focusing first on pragmatic features other video editors lack: distributed workflow, distributed storage, distributed rendering.  By using open-source web technologies, we pretty much get drop-in solutions to these hard problems.
    • File systems - compared to modern Linux file systems like ext4 and Btrfs, the Windows NTFS and Mac HFS+ file systems are very weak sauce.
    • Software RAID - Linux software RAID is simply astounding.  There's a little something called "raid10 f2" that will make you wonder why you ever thought you needed a hardware RAID card.
    • Cheap hardware - we want to reduce costs for artists wherever possible, so we clearly aren't going to pick an OS that ties artists to over-priced hardware made by a single company.  To be fair, Apple's laptops are reasonably priced considering their build quality. However, the only Apple computer suitable for professional digital video (the Mac Pro) is profoundly over-priced, yet offers no particular advantage over cheaper commodity workstations.
    • Free - as long as we're reducing costs for artists, might as well have a free operating system to go along with their free video editor.  Especially when the free operating system is technically superior for the task at hand.

    So why have an "official" platform at all when we can just support several?  HDSLR cameras have opened so much opportunity so quickly that to some extent the problem now is people don't know where to start. So with the help of the community, Novacut is going to make the opinionated decisions needed to quickly develop a proven end-to-end recipe for financially successful independent TV.  We want artists to win!

    If the editor runs on Ubuntu, obviously it will run on any other GNU/Linux distribution, which is great, and we hope to see the editor packaged in many distributions.  But Novacut isn't going to officially support them, nor will we recommend artists use anything other than Ubuntu.  By using only Ubuntu, it drastically simplifies the education problem we face.  And currently Ubuntu has roughly ten-times as many users as the next most popular GNU/Linux distribution... that's a lot of existing users who can help artists get productive quickly.

    We know this will be a contentious decision in the GNU/Linux community, but please understand that this is a pragmatic decision made purely to help more artists succeed.  HDSLR cameras have opened the door for artists to take control of their destinies, to take entertainment back from the entertainment industry.  But we shouldn't give the entertainment industry time to formulate a counter-attack.  We need to move quickly and focus on decisive battles... right now which distribution to use just isn't one of them.

    As far as running the editor on Windows or OSX, the editor and its dependencies should all be fairly portable.  The community is welcome to do a port, but for the foreseeable future Novacut won't be investing in Windows or OSX.

    Join the conversation

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    Friday, September 3, 2010

    Canon EXPO but no HDSLR

    The whole team is a bit disappointed the Canon EXPO came and went without an HDSLR announcement.  The XF100 and XF105 HD camcorders are somewhat interesting, but we personally feel the camcorder form factor is a dead end road.

    But, hey, no better time than now to talk about what we would like to see in a video-focused HDSLR:
    • EF mount - absolutely, positively must use EF mount.  We want to leverage the economies of scale and large existing user base of EF lenses (particularly the L lenses).  We don't want fixed lens cameras, we don't want funky video-specific mounts for which few lenses are made (hello, Canon XL), we don't want cinema mounts for which lenses are rare and carry an extremely high premium (hello, PL).
    • SLR form-factor (even if mirror-less) - we like the handling of SLRs, feel the user interface is much more refined than a camcorder-like body.
    • Low-res, full-scan sensor with crazy high-ISO - we would love a 1920x1080 APS-H sensor, maybe 2560x1440 full frame.  Video output must fully sample the sensor (to fix moirĂ© pattern).  And the higher the ISO the better.  The flexibility to shoot in very low light can do so much to lower production costs, increase artistic freedom.
    • 16:9 sensor if it lowers cost - in theory a 16:9 sensor should cost less as there is less sensor surface area.  A squatty sensor as wide as APS-H but with a 16:9 aspect ratio could be just what the doctor ordered.
    • No H.264 - please, please, please use a royalty-free codec like Dirac, or at the very least a codec without an MPEG-LA-style "screw the artist" clause.
    • Raw video - but only if you don't screw the artists.  Preferably royalty-free.
    • No exFAT - please don't get suckered into Microsoft's game here (you haven't yet, please keep it that way).  A patented file system has no place in consumer electronics, yet alone in a professional HDSLR.  As Rodney Charters points out, the biggest obstacle to digital adoption is the data storage problem.  And do you know who is really good at data storage?  The open-source peeps, because our software runs the Internet.  Open-source is going to bring a viable, distributed digital workflow to your cameras.  So don't encumber the ability of open-source software to read the files from your cameras in the first place.
    • Fully documented remote control protocol - we want to be able to completely control the camera remotely over WiFi/Ethernet (would settle for USB).  Must have a simple, documented protocol.  Hell, we'll even design a protocol for you if you let us.  Regardless, a simple RESTful API over HTTP would be a good place to start.  You could also toss a web-based UI on for good measure, but the API is far more important than the UI.
    • Open your firmware - might as well ask for everything we want!  Canon, your hardware already fits our needs extremely well.  Most of our pain points can be fixed with firmware, so let us help you fix it.  With all the open-source community has freely done to make your cameras more attractive, it's very unfortunate that you thank us by wasting your engineering efforts on ways to lock us out.
    I know, a bit demanding, but we've got work to do! Here's hoping for some exciting HDSLR announcements from Photokina!

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    What artists need to know about H.264 - you get screwed

    Don't get me wrong, Vincent Laforet does stunning work and is a bold pioneer in the HDSLR frontier.  This guy is truly one of my heroes.  Tara and I have watched Nocturne a zillion times, yet every time we're still completely mesmerized by it.  Really, really great stuff.

    But Vincent's recent post about MPEG-LA making H.264 "permanently royalty-free" suggests to me that when it comes to this H.264 licensing mess, he just doesn't get it.  Please note that I certainly don't blame Laforet for this.  MPEG-LA has deliberately made the issue extremely confusing.  Most people don't get it.  Plus, Laforet is an artist, and in my perfect world, artists shouldn't have to worry about this kind of lawyer crap anyway.  They should be too busy making art, which Laforet is.

    Unfortunately, the H.264 issue is not as Laforet suggests "muchado about nothing."  Artists, you really need to understand this, so read on.

    How MPEG-LA screws artists

    The H.264 licensing terms are written as a sort of magic trick, a sleight-of-hand that allows MPEG-LA to screw artists without them noticing.  This magic trick works in part because intangible stuff like "software" or "patents on math" make a person's brain momentarily go soft (mine included).

    So to protect ourselves from the magic trick, we need to use an analogy.  We just replace "video codec" with a physical tool used to build things, something like "hammer".  So artists, this is exactly how the H.264 licensing terms work:
    BASH-EM owns patents for a new, improved hammer.  Various hammer manufacturers license these patents, and BASH-EM collects a royalty from the manufacturers for each hammer sold.  BASH-EM also collects a royalty from professional carpenters for each house sold whenever the house was built (in part) using patented BASH-EM hammers, unless the house is given away for free (possibly with an ad painted on the outside), in which case no royalty is collected from the carpenters.
    Seems like BASH-EM is screwing professional carpenters pretty hard, doesn't it?  Yep, and MPEG-LA is screwing artists just as hard.

    H.264 is a tool.  The MPEG-LA collects royalties (per unit delivered to consumers) from manufacturers who implement the tool (in software or hardware).  When you buy, say, a 5D Mark II, part of the cost is a royalty payment to MPEG-LA for the right to use their patented math in the camera's H.264 encoder/decoder.  Now I don't like this because as a software engineer I know that software patents don't increase the rate of software innovation, they actually hinder it.  But this type of royalty payment is standard when it comes to licensing patenting technology.

    However, MPEG-LA amazingly also collects royalties (per unit delivered to consumers) on your creative work whenever H.264 is used at any step of the content creation or delivery process.  To be clear, this is not typical patent licensing.  This is the special "screw the artists" clause that as far as I know is unique to MPEG-LA.

    Say you create a great short film and a million of your loyal fans buy it (direct Internet download)... MPEG-LA will collect a million royalty payments from you.  And keep in mind that MPEG-LA already collected at least two royalty payments from you (for your HDSLR and your editing software), plus collected a royalty payment from each of your fans (for their video players).  But those payments don't happen as often, so that's why MPEG-LA loves the extra screw-the-artists royalties: if the same million fans buy your next short film, MPEG-LA gets another million royalty payments (whereas with typical patent licensing they wouldn't).

    H.264 didn't create your short film anymore than, say, your 5D Mark II did.  Yes, they were among the many tools you utilized, but you did the work.  You certainly aren't sending royalties to Canon.  So why should you be sending royalties to MPEG-LA?

    This really sucks for artists because simply by using an HDSLR camera that encodes to H.264 video, you're roped into the MPEG-LA scam, even if you ultimately deliver your art to your fans using a suitable royalty-free video codec.

    I encourage artists to read the H.264 license summary, although I warn you, it's super painful.  And remember, it's written as a sleight-of-hand.  They want you to walk away thinking "oh, they don't screw me when I ship fewer that 100k units, and they'll only screw me at most $3.5 million a year, so I guess that's a pretty good deal."  Details aside, they still screw you.

    Fixing the problem

    So how do we fix this?  First, artists must insist that Canon (and the rest) not use H.264 in their future cameras.  I'm assuming Canon didn't knowingly screw artists by using H.264.  After all, companies can fall victim to the MPEG-LA sleight-of-hand just as easily as anyone else.  But Canon needs to do the right thing on future cameras.

    There is a royalty-free codec called Dirac that should be quite competitive with H.264 for the sort of real-time encoding done in these cameras.  The applicable Dirac profiles have already been standardized as SMPTE VC-2, and Dirac is already used in some studio equipment (by the BBC in particular).

    There is obviously also a need for a royalty-free RAW video codec.

    One more thing

    Say Canon listens and in the near future we can get HDSLR cameras that use a royalty-free video codec (or at least one without a "screw the artist" clause).  Problem solved, right?

    Well, no.  What if certain popular consumer devices (upon which your fans enjoy your art) can only play H.264 video because the manufacturer of said devices thinks there should only be H.264 video?  Damn, artists are now roped into the MPEG-LA scam again.

    Like I said, I'm assuming Canon is innocent till proven guilty, that they didn't knowingly screw artists by using H.264.  But Apple is knowingly screwing artists because Apple is one of the patent holders in the MPEG-LA patent pool.  When MPEG-LA makes money screwing artists, Apple makes money screwing artists.

    I know that many artists (including Laforet) have a lot of loyalty to a certain "magical" guy in a black turtleneck... probably because at one time this guy did take pretty good care of artists, did open some real opportunities for them.  But artists, that "magical" guy in the black turtleneck has since moved on, and so should you.

    You could fill the void with some new magical people who are working hard to create expansive new opportunities for artists to make money making the art they want to make.

    Join the conversation

    What do you think? Please join the conversation in the comments below, or on Facebook, Twitter, or

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    Canon 5D Mark II Carries America's Favorite TV Show

    Greg Yaitanes, the Director of Photography for the Fox series "House," shot the entire season six finale with Canon 5D Mark II cameras. Taking this creative leap of faith, he proved that HDSLR cameras can perform far beyond videoing a family vacation at the beach - that they have the technical chops to carry one of America's most popular TV shows.

    But why would a well-known DP, who works with the best equipment money can buy, decide to shoot a whole TV episode with HDSLRs? Yaitanes's reason can be summed up in just a few words: low-light capability; light, compact camera bodies; and shallow depth of field.

    The season six finale was mostly shot on a set designed to look like a building had collapsed, so Hugh Laurie acted in a cramped hole for much of the episode's filming. Because this set just didn't have the space for large film cameras and lighting equipment, Yaitanes decided to give the 5D Mark II (a relatively small camera known for its low-light capability) a chance to strut its stuff. Shooting with the 5D Mark II, Yaitenes worked around the set, instead of making the set move around him and a bulky film camera. Canon glass was also used during the filming of this episode, sculpting Laurie's battered face out of the crushed concrete around him with the chisel of shallow depth of field. Overall, the shallow depth of field gives the episode a feeling of intimacy, mainly because this visual story-telling device lets the audience see Hugh Laurie's emotional reactions up-close and personal.

    Watching the "House" season six finale, and then reading several interviews Yaitanes gave about his experience with the 5D Mark II, I am convinced that HDSLRs can make interesting TV. The trick to using this technology for TV is accepting what it can't do, and using what it can do to the fullest. Like Yaitanes said in an interview he did with Philip Bloom (a movie director who has used Canon 5Ds and 1Ds to make movies), "You can try to fight these things away (i.e. banding and motion blur) and wish they weren’t there, but then you’re just comparing that aesthetic to something else." In other words, the cinematic flaws inherent to HDSLRs (when seen as an aesthetic unique to HDSLR technology) can become a part of the story-telling process. If looked at in this way, the momentary motion blur that's part and parcel to shooting with Canon glass can become a character within the story, just as the graininess of 35mm film is in the film noir genre.