Monday, March 31, 2014

Finally :)

I've written elsewhere here, I think, the fact that I've never named a cat or a dog... not and had it stick. Someone else has always named them. The five cats I've adopted since moving to North York were all named by other people. I don't believe in changing a pet's name, especially if they've had it a while.

I do volunteer driving for Toronto Cat Rescue. Last week I had to pick up an unnamed cat from the city's north shelter and take him to a mid-town vet, one of the ones that does charity work for Toronto Animal Services and Toronto Cat Rescue. As I was driving away with him on Sheppard Avenue, talking to him to keep him calm, I was behind a van with a licence plate that started with "ARWN". Inspired, I stuck a timely "Y" in the middle, scribbled "ARWYN" down on his papers, and started saying it to him as we drove across town.

Just a few minutes ago, I got this email from TCR.

Hi all:

Can anyone pick up a cat named Arwyn at Rosedale Moore Park Vet clinic at Mt Pleasant/St Clair and take him to a foster home at St Clair W & Bathurst? 

The foster is available all day tomorrow and the clinic hours are 9am - 6:30pm.
A carrier is needed and medical records need to go with him.

Arwyn was rescued from TAS and would love to get settled into a home environment!
Isn't that awesome? :)

Gary Numan and... my phone

Gary Numan was in Toronto last week and I went to see him live for the second time, again with Kaid (who, again, purchased the tickets). It was at the Phoenix Concert Theatre down on Sherbourne Street. I'm not sure how many people crowded in... 500? 1000? The place was packed. Kaid and I got there 45 minutes before the doors opened (7:30) so there was only one row of people between us and the stage.

Last time, we had VIP tickets and I actually got to meet Gary Numan briefly, shake his hand, offer the sincere fan flattery he's heard a million times, and get my copy of Exhibition autographed. I didn't have anything like that this time but there was no need to gild the lily. I've met Gary Numan and talked with him, once. No need to press my luck. :)

Things kicked off with the band Roman Remains at 8:30. They were fronted by a pretty young blonde with a terrific voice and vocal range. The songs were varied and engaging and I personally felt their set could have gone a little longer.

The next act was Big Black Delta. The thing I principally remember of this two-man effort was that the drummer really played his ass off. The other guy, who I think is solo and technically constitutes "the band", worked a board to provide his pre-cooked accompaniment. His vocals seemed to consist largely of moaning "oooo, ooo, ooo ooo" into the mic and punctuating that with lyrics that were occasionally understandable. While I enjoyed the first few numbers, they quickly took on the air of finding your own footprints in the woods, the same tree by the brook, the same stump you tripped over before. Do I even need to say I thought his set went on too long? I didn't hate the act; far from it. I just thought he was taking advantage, you know?

And then out came Gary Numan and the four musicians backing him. Wow. There were lights, but that's all they needed. They didn't need gimmicks and props to put on a show. They were the show. They came out and they played songs I've known nearly all my life. Songs I've known since university. Songs I've known for just a few years. And songs I've never heard before. And when he indicated he wanted the audience to join in on Are Friends Electric?, a thousand fans were right there. People in their 20s. People in their 50s. That was magic. :)

Now I swear, towards the end of the show, there came a moment when he caught my eye, smiled in recognition, and pointed to me. I thought I had it on video but I don't. Now maybe I'm just kidding myself, but the man was only about a dozen feet away, and I'm going to go to my grave thinking this man saw a friendly face he remembered from before in the crowd, and took a moment to let me know. :)

They played for 90 minutes. I was on my feet for over six hours end to end, but while they were up there, it honestly ameliorated the discomfort. That's how I knew for sure I was onboard. But oooh, the walk back. Because I'm cheap, I parked up in Rosedale, about a mile from the concert hall. No big deal going down. But coming back, after standing for six hours, wow... that was some fun walk, let me tell you. I got to the car at quarter to one, home a bit after one in the morning. I was convinced I'd be hard pressed to get out of bed the next day. But no, to my surprise I was just fine. Go figure.

Anyway... the phone. Last winter my carrier convinced me to trade up, so being a Samsung fan I went with the S4. At the concert, I had my two 3D Fuji cameras, the W1 and the W3. I manned the latter and Kaid the former. I got a lot of video; he took a lot of photos. Y'know, and they're 3D. But I decided to put some of the features of the S4 through their paces. One thing it can do is shoot slow motion video, at 1/2, 1/4, and 1/8 speed. Now the resolution is at best 800 x 450... but that's better than the resolution of the same feature on my S100, a dedicated camera: at best, 640 x 480; at worst, 320 x 240.

I showed the full-motion, 1920 x 1080 HD video to P-Doug on Saturday, on the phone itself, and he was surprised by the quality of it and remarked on it. It was one of those things where you don't really notice how good the quality of something is till someone else notices it, but when he did, I started noticing, too. For a camera smaller than postage stamp, with no moving parts, in the back of a phone half the thickness of my index finger, it did some fantastic work. It was dealing with light levels that literally went from twilight to sunburst in the blink of an eye and it kept up with it all. As far as the sound goes, it's mono, but it's not blown out. It's loud and muffled, but it was standing there beside the speaker, too. It actually sounds very much like I remember hearing it. I was disappointed with the audio response of my cameras at the last Numan concert. While I'm not overjoyed with what I got this time, I at least think it stands on its own.

I recorded one song pretty much end to end; one of the newer songs called The Fall. It's one I particularly enjoy. The full video was shot 1920 x 1080. I decided to do my own video in Premiere using what I got from the S4. Since the slow motion video is 800 x 450, I decided that would be my "working" resolution. What that means is I had all kinds of room to do tricks with the full HD video. I could zoom in and out with out pixelation, from 100% all the way down to about 45% (where the image becomes smaller than the field). So I could do things in post I didn't do live, like track musicians as they move. Anyway, I cut it all together. It's no hell, but when you stop and think it was all accomplished by holding up a cell phone (and then assembling it all at home), I think the results are kind of impressive. Imagine telling somebody in 1960, or even 1990, that this would be possible in their lifetime.

Here's the video. :)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Ballad of Danny and Esmerelda

When I started goofing around with State, I started by coming up with gags based on the animal aspects of the Choo Choos characters just to have something to work with. One of the first ones played off the fact that a couple of the characters were naked. I explained it by having the female character... I forget what they called her; I eventually called her Esmerelda... wandering around that way because she was in heat, and the guy, who they called Eddie but I called Danny in my vids, not being willing or able to exercise his better judgement and not take advantage of the situation. That impression that Esmerelda's not in control and is being taken advantage of is belied by the presence of mind she shows in the last line. :)

This one actually started a whole thread of videos that kind of move through their getting to know each other, actually discover they like each other quite a bit, and then discover that the idea of them getting married isn't quite as pleasing to Esmerelda's dad, who turns out to be Danny's boss. But that all comes later. For now...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

xtranormal STATE test animation - Gettysburg Address

This was one of my efforts using State, and probably the one that's gotten the most hits on my YouTube channel (5300 over 5 years or so... sigh...). Probably one of the least creative in terms of what it required of me, but in its way, maybe one of the better efforts.

There were two ways to get dialog into a State animation. One was simply to type text in, as advertised, and let the program use its licensed voice synthesis modules to create the dialog, and auto-animate the mouth movements to match the phonemes. The other way was to take recorded dialog and map it to one of the characters, and again, the program would create the mouth animation.

In this case, I was using recorded dialog. This is Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address (oddly enough, I seem to have uploaded it on the Fourth of July). Sam Waterston also provided the voice-overs for President Lincoln in the Ken Burns series The Civil War, and so is likely to sound familiar to anyone who's seen it. One of the characters in the Choo Choos set wears a top hat, and so was the obvious analog for an Abe Lincoln role.

This was made entirely within State. It was possible to have various camera angles within the same scene, and even to have characters orient themselves to different cameras, as you can see when "Lincoln" turns to address and approach this or that camera. There was no need to post-process this, at least not as I recall.

The music, incidentally, is Winston's Diary by the Eurythmics from the soundtrack of 1984, something I listened to literally hundreds of times on the bus to and from classes when I was in university.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

We need to stop calling them "cowards"

I shouldn't have to preamble this, but it's a touchy issue, so I will. I don't agree or identify with the aims of the people I'll be talking about. Their methods are objectionable and repulsive. Frankly, I think they represent some of the least redeeming characteristics of our species, and they're motivated by some of its most backward, primitive attitudes.

But they're not cowards.

A coward is someone too paralyzed by fear to act. Clearly, that is not case here. On the contrary; these are people so motivated by apprehension, and anger, and hatred, that their need to act overwhelms their otherwise ordinary senses of justice, compassion, and reason. Their philosophy empowers them with the belief that if they are condemned by all their fellow creatures, that's nothing, because they will reap the praise and reward of the only being whose opinion matters.

I think we do a real disservice all around in simply throwing out the word "cowardly" to describe incidents like the hotel attack in Kabul. It mischaracterizes the motivations of the attackers and makes it less likely we'll be able to understand, and thus effectively counter, their methods. As I see it, these are people who feel themselves, their culture, and their religion (their god, if you will) as under attack by forces too wealthy and powerful to take on directly. Only indirectly can they attack us, by ducking under our formidable armour and striking us where we're soft and unprotected. Lest the temptation to reaffirm this as "cowardly" be succumbed to here, I would also remark that much of the Second World War was fought on a similar basis. When the prospect of being utterly pulverized by attempting to wage direct warfare across the English Channel stalemated the land war for four years, neither the Germans nor the Allies had any compunctions against targeting and killing civilians on the other side, from the air, and by the hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions. What feeble defence could be offered by fighters on either side to wave after waves of bombers was little more in comparison than what suicide bombers or gunmen face in armed guards. The bottom line is, I don't see how we can call people who risk their lives attacking essentially defenceless people "cowards" if we're not prepared to say the same of men who risked their lives to roast alive, from above, civilian men, women, and children indiscriminately in their hundreds of thousands in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. And I don't think we are.

I think we do better to stand up before the world and tell them these attacks are "pointless". These men give up their lives, beggar their families of their love and support, and sicken mankind with their poorly-considered bestiality to achieve nothing. Nothing changes that they could remotely consider advancing their cause or addressing their aims. All that happens is an increase in human misery for their own families and those of their victims, and a momentary release of schadenfreude in like-minded people that quickly fades. If anything, their goals are made more remote as these tactics tend to stiffen the resolve of their opponents and make them less willing to see things from their point of view or try to compromise.

So the word we should use is pointless. And we should make it clear why.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Christopher's Movie Matinee

The National Film Board, to my surprise, has a YouTube channel, and they've started posting a number of their movies and animations. One of the movies I've come across was one shot in the mid-60s called Christopher's Movie Matinee.

It's kind of a romp; a lot of college-age kids given a NFB film crew to command in the Summer of Love. It's a bit like a review I heard of Magical Mystery Tour: "they went on the road to film whatever happened. Nothing did." But I don't mean that in the negative way it's meant about MMT. This movie is edited to be self-referential. Some of it records decisions, directions, and arguments about the shots and why the kids want to make them, what they want to say, and why they want to say it, while they're being opposed by slightly older professionals who are embarrassed about having to do shots they consider unprofessional and even potentially damaging to their reputations as pros. It's almost as though they were recording the metadata to cover their own asses. In any case, they provide a revealing contrast in the attitudes across the gulf of a mere half generation, as well as that between unbridled, if unrealistic, creativity on the one hand, and experienced, if staid, practicality on the other.

There are the things you would expect, even demand, of such a film from that era... the political debates; the naive idealism; the firm belief that they can change the world. Let's give them some credit; to some extent, they did. We at least live in a world now where people are still prepared to voice their opposition instead of merely accommodating orders from above. For a person of my age, and born when I was, it's interesting to listen to the middle-aged patriotic businessman with an Australian accent on the bus berate the youngsters as unrealistic, and tell them if he had them in his old regiment for five minutes he'd completely turn them around; and to listen to the kids ask him why they ought to be expected to fight in wars and have the man practically sputter things along the line of "that's just the way it is" (at one point, he actually advises them to "conform"). He may not reach the same conclusions as them, but it's clear he's suddenly facing a question he probably hadn't genuinely considered before. But he also scores a solid point of his own when he marvels that middle class Canadian white kids could dare to compare themselves and their issues to those of American blacks in the south. Earlier there are shots of a confrontation in New City Hall between the kids and former Toronto mayor Allan Lamport, who notoriously hated Yorkville's hippies; a confrontation that frames an interesting moment in the city's history.

For me the most interesting thing is probably the least-intended. The movie serves as a long moving snapshot of various locations in Toronto in 1967. For example, one of the more notorious locations in Toronto was the Bayview Ghost. It was started with permission and the Borough of East York refused to follow through on servicing, so for nearly 30 years, this unfinished, increasing derelict, and rather dangerous low-rise (no railings on the balconies or barriers to the elevator shafts, I'm told) stood like a giant tombstone on a bluff overlooking the Bayview Extension. By the time I got to the sight in the late 90s it had been torn down and consigned to history for 15 years, an open field; now the site is covered by a small, expensive pocket subdivision. But in the film, several shots were taken in and around it. In fact, based on the view, the second, fourth and sixth shots in the movie are clearly taken from one of the apartments inside the Bayview Ghost. The Don Valley Parkway is visible in the distance, while construction goes on immediately below them on Bayview Avenue. Later one comes an extended sequence of young people dashing around the wasteland at the foot of the building, and appearing in its windows and on its balconies. It has a charm to it, and one that absolutely couldn't be reproduced today... both because the building itself is long gone, and so is the zeitgeist. There are also shots of things that are charming because they haven't changed that much, like the ones taken of the Old Mill Road bridge over the Humber River... still pretty much identical today in situ. There are other shots, mainly taken downtown, that would probably be of interest to people more attuned to the changes that have happened there over time than I am.

In any case, it's an interesting little movie with a lot to recommend it. Poignant, frank, at times unintentionally funny, it's worth a look.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

R.I.P. Xtranormal State

State was a program, created by a company called Xtranormal, that permitted the user to very quickly and very simply create dialog-driven animations with simple movements and gestures using an array of pre-existing characters (my favourite set, called "Choo Choos",  was a bunch of anthropomorphic animal rockers). The company's slogan was, "If you can type, you can make movies", and that was almost literally true. It was easy to use if you simply wanted to have a talking head for your presentation, and fun to work with if you were doing conversational humour. I used it fairly extensively around 2008-2010 just to make something little things to amuse myself.

I was really shocked to read last week that Xtranormal folded up last summer. State phones home when you start it... you have to log in... and now that there's nowhere to log into, it won't start. So it's not bad enough there'll never be another version, I can't even run the one I have. That really, genuinely sucks. Even though I haven't used State in a long time, I had a lot of fun using it and the thought that I never will again is a real downer.

Below is what was probably the most ambitious project I ever undertook using Xtranormal's State animation program. Because there's no realistic way to get the program to identify different spoken voices as different characters, or even separate dialog from music, I actually had to sing the lyrics myself to make the mouth animations, and then resync them to the actual song. All the scenes were composited, along with the music, in Adobe Premiere Pro, way back in the summer of 2009. The song is Steal My Sunshine, by the "one hit wonder" Toronto band Len, and came out in the summer of 1999, a particularly contented period of my life and a year when the hits, as far as I was concerned, just didn't stop coming. I love this song, with its strange, unrelentingly idiomatic lyrics, and I loved making this little video for it.

In case you'd like to follow along, here are the lyrics...

Tim: Hey, Matt..
Matt: Yeah, Tim?
TIm: Hey you talked to Marc lately?
Matt: Uh... I haven't really talked to him, but, he looks pretty, uh, down.
Tim: He looks pretty, uh, down... Yeah, well... maybe we should cheer him up then.
Matt: What do you, uh, suppose we should do?
Tim: Well... does he like butter tarts?

I was lying on the grass on Sunday morning of last week
Indulging in my self-defeat
My mind was thugged all laced and bugged all twisted wrong and beat
A comfortable three feet deep
Now the fuzzy stare from not being there on a confusing morning weak
Impaired my tribal lunar-speak
And of course you can't become if you only say what you would have done
So I missed a million miles of fun

I know it's up for me
Making sure I'm not in too deep
Keeping versed and on my feet

Tim: Chad... come here come here come here.
Chad: Wow... look at her!
Tim: I know!
Chad: Wow, I've never seen Sharon look so bad before.
Tim: I did once before, but this is pretty bad.
Chad: Yeah... what do you think she got up to last night?
(Tim laughs)
Tim: Well... I... Jared... I love you!

I was lying on the bench slide in the park across the street
L-a-t-e-r that week
My sticky paws were in to making straws out of big fat slurpy treats
An incredible eight foot heap
Now the funny glare to pay a gleaming tare in a staring under heat
Involved an under usual feet
And I'm not only among but I invite who I want to come
So I missed a million miles of fun

I know it's up for me
Making sure I'm not in too deep
Keeping versed and on my feet

I know it's done for me
Not as some and hard to see
Keeping dumb and built to beat

My Sunshine

Friday, March 14, 2014

Morning exercises

Okay. So. In keeping with what I just posted, here's what I've come up with most recently. This is a collage of stuff I've done in Premiere, including some material that's come in from After Effects (in this case, the LED billboard effect and the smoke and text reveal effect at the very end). Most of it is just re-editing work to take mundane things and try to make them funny.

Let me break it down. First of all, "HLAF". As far as I know, no call letters in North America start with "H". That's a reference to Hamilton. My buddy Dig and I met there when we were kids and we were [ah, phone call from headhunter as I write this; interview for contract position next Monday... hi ho, hi ho, it's off again we go...] big into Battlezone, the Atari tank game. He was tank commander "Logan" (after Logan's Run, I think) and I was "Fox", a call sign I thought was cool. Anyway, we were Logan and Fox, and we both signed LAF in the high scores. Didn't matter whose score. We were kind of Lennon and McCartney about it. So, this is an homage to my friendship with him and our long traditions. In fact, most of the humour in these things pretty much springs from it. Dig makes a cameo at the start of the video as the station tech director, Ernie "Tiny Tubes" Bokstek. ("Bokstek" is another in-joke. Leave it at that.)

The second segment is my trying out an LED billboard effect in AE that I learned on YouTube. The sentiment, while somewhat crude, is simply meant to be ironic in its context. I actually saw it some years ago on a bumper sticker on a truck and I laughed so long I nearly had to pull over. It really swept me away. It's kind of stayed with me ever since. :)

The third bit is pure Premiere. It needs a little backgrounding. The audio comes from a bunch of my friends fooling around at the radio station one of them worked at back in high school (yes, we're talking nearly 30 years ago now). They were visiting him at work and he talked them into reading the script of a commercial for one of their clients. This is the first take... and it shows. I thought it would be funny to use it as the "whoops, wrong take" audio of a simple commercial for a small local business.

The next bit is also pure Premiere. I've had a disk of crappy little photo object since the 90s... photographic clip art, essentially... and I thought it might be funny to just throw a bunch of them up there and do a cheap "animated" commercial that made no sense, and really make the point by having someone jabber rapidly in Spanish. Anyone who understands Spanish will just be confused, but if (like me) you don't, then it comes across as the missing link... you'd "get" the message implied by the visual elements if only you could understand the man. Well, anyway, it's the kind of Pythonesque stuff Dig and Larry and I find funny.

Next is one of those station identification bumpers that often appears just before the start of a program. It's deliberately 80s style. "Here's a scene from one of our shows; here's who we are..." kind of thing. In this case, it's a scene from the animated Geronimo Stilton series. I put words of my own in the nephew character's mouth to lampshade the double entendre in the actual dialog, and then cut to the station intro. This, too, was mostly done in Premiere, although adding a heavily reworked bit of dialog in my own voice was done in Audition.

Finally is the title sequence for a fake BBC documentary... one of that unceasing string of documentary series they make about anything. Name a topic, they'll do a documentary series about it. In this case, I took video footage associated mostly with famous disasters (the exception is the merely comic effort at early flight at the beginning)... the Titanic, the Hindenburg, the embarrassing post-Sputnik launch failure of Vanguard 1... and wedded them to a smoke and text reveal effect created in After Effects. I think it's faintly convincing as the kind of thing they'd actually do.

So now that you know what to expect, here it is. :)

While I'm waiting... (and waiting, and waiting...)

One of the reasons I haven't been around here much since last summer is how soul-grinding it's been not having work and trying to find it. The fact that the world can get along nicely without you and what happens to you doesn't really matter much is probably in the back of all of our minds but this kind of thing really brings it home. I'm not utterly depressed, but I can compare this, in a way, to having cancer and trying to find a cure. I keep firing off resumes and every so often I get an interview but nothing seems to work. I found work in December that put it into remission, as it were, but only till January when they came up with what I'm pretty sure is a bullshit reason to get rid of me. Frankly, I think they were just looking for someone with the requisite skills to get them over the hump. It was pretty crushing all around. But hey, that's not really what I wanted to talk about here. Sort of just preamble.

More preamble. Jim over at On the Road recently posted an entry in which he talked about how he writes his posts as they occur to them and in fact saves them up so that he can post regularly. It also means he has something to post at times when he really has nothing to say just at the moment. I think this is brilliant. I've tended to just blather here whenever something occurs to me, and then it's crickets for weeks or months. But I do actually have some things I could be posting every couple of days or so, at least for a while. I think I'm going to give that a try.

So. Heart of the matter time. I've been a subscriber to Adobe CS/CC for about two years now. This gives me access to most of their creative programs. I've known how to use Photoshop and Illustrator more or less low-level-expertly for nearly 20 years. But there are a lot of other programs. So while I sit here waiting for the phone to ring and hoping something finally gels for me before I'm in debt I'll never get out of and I've cannibalized my retirement savings, I'm keeping myself busy by learning new things. They probably won't help in my career, but they're keeping my mind active and trained to learn new things, and that probably will be key when... if... I land the next job.

I've been fooling with Premiere on and off for about ten years, but I've gotten more involved with it in the past couple years. I like being able to make fun little videos and it's exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do back when I was a teenager. But back then, working with audio was really all my friends and I could actually do. But now, for a few dollars a month, I have abilities at my fingertips you would have needed a half-million-dollar studio to achieve just 20 years ago.

The program that's really got me enthralled at the moment is After Effects. I've been aware of it since the 90s but it's always been a mystery to me. I've never been really clear... I'm still not... about just what exactly it can do. I understand most of the other programs, what they do, and how they do it. They're reasonably straightforward and you know going in what you're going to achieve. But After Effects is almost literally like having a magic box. You reach into it and you pull out some indescribable wonder that floats in the air. If you want to see what I mean, just go to YouTube and do a search on After Effects. I promise you, you will be amazed. There seems to be no end to the visual effects you can create with it. And so, a lot of my very, very free (in every sense of the word) time lately has been taken up with following tutorials on YouTube and pulling magic right out of thin air in AE. I've been using what I can do there as a springboard to presenting ideas and things that I find funny, mostly in the form of a little fake TV station I made up. Just about all the programs I know get used to make these things... elements come in from Audition, Photoshop, Illustrator, and AE, and typically get assembled in Premiere. So just for something to do, I think I'll start presenting some of what I've come up with here every couple of days.