Best Practices: Morning Focus

The most focused my mind has ever been was the moment I unloaded 6 bullets from a .38 revolver in rapid succession. It was also the only time I’ve ever fired a gun — Howard Thompson the A&R man who signed my band The Rake’s Progress years ago had taken us to a gun club 3 basements below a non-descript building in Tribeca, NYC, for a little “bonding exercise.”

The focus came from being forced to be focused. No other thoughts in the mind but handling the deadly firearm. Anything less could lead to tragic results.

One of the reasons busy people love to play golf is it forces you to block out all the noise in your head and focus 100% on the task at hand. When you’re preparing to take a swing in golf, anything less than 100% focus leads to failure.

This helmet literally saved my skull when I got "doored" back in February.

Personally, I transition daily from the early morning cacophony of my 2 small children to the intensity of a long and challenging work day. I need that transition time to clear my head, to quiet the noise, to hit the “reset” button so-to-speak. For this, I ride my bicycle through the streets of San Francisco.

My morning bike ride requires 100% focus. SF might be “bike friendly” but it is still a dangerous place to ride. I won’t get into the details, but let’s just say anything less than 100% focus could be fatal. Any mental drifting off needs to be identified and stopped immediately.

It’s really not that different from the concept of meditation. In most meditation traditions I’m aware of, the idea is to block out all thoughts and just be present. There are myriad devices to achieve that, whether focusing on the breath, repeating a mantra . . .

My mantra when I ride my bike is “keep your mind in the ride.”

It’s a daily challenge to maintain that focus, but the benefits are twofold:

1) I get to my destination intact
2) I get to my destination with a clear, focused mind

That bike ride FORCES me to stop the rest of the noise in my head. It hits the reset button, so to speak. When I get to my office, I get to start with a clean slate.

If riding your bike to work is a practical option for you, I highly recommend you try it. If not, a “walking meditation” works really well. Get off the train/bus a stop early and walk the last 15 minutes to work. Or figure out some other way to get 15 minutes of time before you start your work day. Leave the phone behind. Be outside and focus on your senses, what you see, smell, hear. Be 100% “offline.”

I once got to do a brief walking meditation with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, right before he gave a talk in NYC many years ago. Later that evening I shook hands with Rudy Giuliani and the next day found myself being wheeled on a gurney at high speed into an operating room in order to receive an emergency appendectomy. The world is a funny place.

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Deadline or Die

Deadlines are good.

Deadlines keep your clients, your employees, and yourself honest.

Deadlines light the fire under your ass when you need it.

Deadlines let you position your resources where you need them, when you need them.

Some deadlines can be re-negotiated. Some can’t. Make sure you know which ones are which.

Made deadline? You’re a hero and will get hired again. Didn’t make deadline? You might be shown the door instantly.

That is all for now. Must go. Am on a deadline.

Helicopter Shots Sans Helicopter

This one claims to be able to carry a RED camera with a small-ish lens for 7 minutes on a single charge.

You couldn’t walk very far at NAB this year without tripping over one of these things. I got to watch a few “test flights” of a few different models by a few different manufacturers (the one pictured is from a Dutch company called Aerialtronics and costs around $10k, “ready to fly,” not including camera/lens, and they claimed it can fly as high as a mile).

My main observations:

– They are noisy as heck, so make sure you have an ADR budget.

– The demos were all done when there was virtually no wind, so the shots looked smooth like buttah. Am skeptical about the potential reality of shooting in windy conditions.

– The demos were all done by operators who clearly had lots of experience flying these things. Training is clearly required to get good results (and not send your precious camera/lens crashing down from 10,000 feet).

– They all look like FUN TO FLY.

Considering the costs of renting a real helicopter, this could be an interesting trend. In the right conditions, you could also do jib and crane type effects. Wish I had $10k kicking around right now.

Stand and Deliver

Hard cost = $200. Soft cost = fighting your way through Ikea to buy it.

I’ve been using a “Standing Desk” for about 5 years now. The reason why I tried it in the first place was I was starting to get back pain for the first time in my life, and a colleague recommended it to me as a solution. My office at the time had fancy desks whose surfaces could be raised and lowered at will with a little internal motor, so I tried it out and have not gone back to sitting since.

In addition to no more back pain, I find it easier to maintain the proper ergonomic technique on the keyboard & mouse. I find being able to move around when I’m on conference calls keeps my energy up. I also don’t get fat. If I sat all day I would probably be fat now.

“Real” standing desks like the one I started with are really expensive, like $2k and up.  I found mine (pictured here) at Ikea for $200.  It’s technically a “bar table” but who cares. It’s the right height and is actually made of metal, not their usual particle board BS. It should last a really long time. There’s also enough room underneath to install a very nice fish tank or a hamster cage.

Having a place to sit down is important too, especially when clients come by for a chat. Today my office has a conference room for that, but alternately you can put a small round table with 2 or 3 chairs near your desk and use that for meetings. It also keeps your work clutter separate from your “meeting space” to keep it more tidy and inviting.

Next step is to figure out how to easily create a trap door to have at the meeting table for those moments when a quick escape is necessary.

A Good, Simple Remote Client Review Workflow

Before you output your edit/piece/whatever, lay in some viz code (aka BITC — Burnt In Time Code).  The timecode on your client’s comments should match the timecode on your timeline.  Don’t rely on what is displayed in the player your client will be using to screen the review cut — that is at best imprecise, and at worst inaccurate.

Pop-up menu revealed by clicking the New Item button

In an editing tool, laying in viz code is pretty straightforward, and usually involves something like creating a transparent layer and applying a Timecode effect to it. For example, in Premiere Pro CS6 (which I used to take the screengrabs in this article) this is accomplished in 5 steps:

Create a transparent video clip, lay it in on a new layer on top of your timeline, stretch it to fit the duration of your edit, apply the Timecode effect to it, and modify the Timecode effect so it’s framerate matches your sequence framerate.

Go to File > Export > Media (or whatever the command is for your editing tool), then give the file a name.  Use a solid versioning system, to track changes. I like to use something similar to the way software releases are versioned, i.e. “1-0” is the final cut, and anything before that is “0-x”.  Use dashes instead of dots, otherwise it will mess up your file naming.

Make sure the viz code matches the sequence timecode.

The 1st cut would be called “joes_garage_0-01.mp4”

The 2nd cut would be called “joes_garage_0-02.mp4”

And so on, until the final cut, which would be called “joes garage_1-0.mp4”

This also gives you the flexibility to iterate on your “final cut.” Never forget that with some clients, today’s “final cut” occasionally becomes tomorrow’s “first draft.”

Once you’ve set the file name, set your encoder’s “Format” setting to “H.264” and then set the video and audio settings as seen in the following screengrabs.  I think 2 Megabits per Second is a good bitrate for reviews.  I also think that forcing a keyframe every 3 seconds results in better quality.

Video settings shown in CS6. Outputting at half-frame-size of 720p.

The only caveat is that the audio settings assume you’re not creating something where monitoring of final-quality audio is essential to the reviewer.  In most rough cut scenarios it isn’t.

Once you have your output, deliver it via a file sharing service such as Send Now or You Send It. Don’t e-mail review videos — not only are they too big, they tend to get caught in spam catchers.  Send Now, You Send It, and similar services will automatically notify your client via e-mail once the file has been uploaded and is ready for them to download.  A single click in the e-mail opens a new browser window with a link to directly download the file.  If what you’re sending is of a sensitive nature, make sure you read the Terms of Service of whatever service you use to make sure you’re comfortable with what can and cannot be done with what you are uploading by the company who owns said service.

Stereo usually isn't necessary for review cuts.

Tell the client to send you comments via e-mail, referencing the file name of the video, and the vizcode seen onscreen for each comment. For example:

COMMENTS ON “joes_garage_0-01.mp4”

00:23:11 – Can you find alternate b-roll here?

00:57:03 – Cut away before she yells “turn it down!”

01:01:16 – This is a strong statement, can we move it to the front of the piece?

This is a simple and no-cost workflow that anyone can use.  There are more elegant solutions out there.  Are there any you use and like?

Why I Won’t Use Google Drive, and Neither Should You

Somehow this doesn’t surprise me at all.  Below text copy/pasted from Google Terms of Service

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes that we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

The rights that you grant in this licence are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This licence continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing that you have added to Google Maps).”

So, if my company uploads any of our IP, Google will have the right to create a derivitive work, i.e. a product or service, from our IP.  It would effectively belong to them as well.

No thanks, I’m sticking with Dropbox.

A deeper explanation can be found in this thoughtful article from ZDNET.

“DSLR Killer” Too Good to Be True?

I went to NAB last week, mainly for biz dev meetings for my company, but managed to get a look at some of the new toys as well.

The New Blackmagic Cinema Camera - 2.5K, 13 stops, takes Canon lenses, $3k

My team has shot quite a few projects over the past few months with Canon DLSR cameras, such as the 5D.  On the plus side, you can use a wide range of Canon lenses to get rich, cinematographic looks very inexpensively, and for the $ the 1080p image quality is quite decent.  On the minus side, the 5D isn’t really designed for video production at all, from both a form-factor and feature perspective. I don’t expect a whole lot of innovation from Canon on the DSLR side of things, as they would like us pros to move up to their much more expensive, and higher quality, C series cameras (which I also had a look at during NAB — they look rather impressive).

Blackmagic Design has put out some stellar products over the years, but as a friend pointed out “they’re not known for putting out quality 1.0 releases.” That caveat having been said, I can honestly say I’m pretty stoked about the potential for the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, which they debuted last week at a massive NAB booth, the footprint of which used to belong to Apple before they quit the farm and became the iPhone company.

You can monitor your shot here, and simultaneously with an external client monitor via HD-SDI

If this camera does what it’s advertised to do, it will solve every major complaint I have about DSLRs in video production.  Better image quality, form factor, connections to external devices such as a client monitor, SSD storage — and my company can use the wide range of Canon lenses we’ve purchased (several more expensive than the 5D itself BTW).  On the surface, this looks like a no-brainer.

I expect to have one in my hands in July to try for myself.  Anyone have any thoughts on what might prevent replacing a 5D with one of these?