Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Barry Ptolemy

I recently had the pleasure to direct this Big Think interview with documentary filmmaker Barry Ptolemy. His latest project, Transcendent Man, chronicles the efforts of techno-prophet and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil visited the studio the same day, but we interviewed the two separately. Watch Kurzweil share equally entertaining thoughts, here.

Barry shared some pearls of wisdom applicable to storytellers of all flavor – from writer or filmmaker, to businessperson or teacher. Watch above as Ptolemy explains The Hero’s Journey.

Uncaged: Cultural Canvas Thailand, Art Relief International, and Baan Piranan

During my stay in Thailand I produced this short piece, Uncaged, which tells the story of two young children, Nong Mai and Nong Wichai.  The boys have cerebral palsy, which can be devastating if left untreated.  Three organizations (Cultural Canvas Thailand, Art Relief International, and Baan Piranan) have teamed up to give these children a new life and a new voice through the powerful medium of art.

If you would like to contribute to the outstanding work of these NGOs, you can learn more here.

View above or in HD on Vimeo.

BigThink.com Interview with Salman Rushdie

In my new role as Director of Production at Big Think, I was pleased with this clip from Salman Rushdie.  It’s interesting, as many of our experts have very different takes on the the importance of inspiration.  More to follow!

Original post at Big Think.  Full interview with Rushdie.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Video: The Latest Breakthrough in Videography

I’ve been a big fan of HDR photography since I first discovered it three years ago.  While it can be overdone, or applied without motivation, it can produce some amazing results under the right circumstances.  Capturing detail in the highest of highs and lowest of lows results in an effect that I like to think of as “hyper-real.”

As a videographer, I scrambled to apply the technique to video.  The obvious approach (considering my lack of a degree in optical engineering) was to apply HDR technology to timelapse videography.  There are some great creatives out there that have been perfecting the craft, with lots of great advice, but here is my personal approach:

  1. Choose your subject wisely -  you’ll be combining bracketed exposures, so no (or very little) movement can be in the shot.  Unfortunately, that means no people, traffic, etc.  You’ll also want a subject with a wide range of luminance, in order to maximize the exposure latitude HDR will give you.
  2. A camera with automatic bracketing is necessary, as you’ll be manipulating exposure by bracketing shutter speed.  I use a Nikon D200 (until I get my 5D MKII, that is), which allows for 5 stops in either direction (more than enough range).
  3. Set the intervalometer accordingly (there is no magic formula that I’m aware of… this really depends on the situation).  Luckily, the D200 has a built-in intervalometer.
  4. I use Photomatix Pro to batch-process the series of shots into HDR images.
  5. If needed, you can further tweak the HDR set via Lightroom or Photoshop.
  6. Open an image sequence in Quicktime and export the movie.  I like waiting until I pull the clip into FCP before I crop to the correct dimensions, but you can easily do this in step 5 as well.

I’ve been waiting for someone unleash full HDR video, though I honestly thought it would be a few more years before a feasible arrangement was discovered.  Soviet Montage Productions solved the problem by using a beam splitter and two 5D Mark IIs.  I have yet to find a detailed explanation of the technique, but am eager to see the rig.  You can view the video above.  Engadget has a brief review, as does the caption in the original Vimeo post.  Wow.

Lightscapes: Non-Verbal Series on Discovery

I never thought I would see a broadcast television series that sites Baraka as its main inspiration. Slated to air on Discovery HD Theater, Lightscapes is billed as a “half-hour experiential television series that captures famous buildings and landscapes around the world as they are transformed by stunning, large-scale lighting displays.” Read more about the project at the official site.

After Effects Tutorial: Random Binary


In this quick tutorial/tip, I show you how to animate strings of binary code so that the values fluctuate randomly.  The effect is relatively simple, but you have to dig a bit into After Effects before you get to the right parameters.

[HD version available on Vimeo or YouTube.]

My Latest as Director of Photography – “Fanihi: A Cultural Digest”

Fanihi (The Mariana Fruit Bat, a type of Flying Fox) have long been considered a delicacy by the inhabitants of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).   Unsustainable hunting has brought the population of Fanihi to critical levels on the archipelago’s small island of Rota -  despite recent laws prohibiting the killing of the endangered species.  Fanihi: A Cultural Digest explores the slippery slope of cultural preservation versus environmental conservation… and whether the two efforts are necessarily mutually exclusive.

I acted as Director of Photography for the film, spending two weeks shooting on the island.  The film is a project by my good friend and fellow producer, filmmaker and shooter, Jim Tharp.

Watch the standard-definition version above.  Watch in HD at Vimeo.

1 Great Concept, 4 Days of Shooting, 8 Months of Post: Nuit Blanche

Filmmaker Arev Manoukian combined all of the right elements to make his amazing short, Nuit Blanche.  From Wired:

For Arev Manoukian, capturing the live action for his elegant short film Nuit Blanche came easy: He filmed two principal actors in four days on a green-screen soundstage in Toronto.

The hard part happened over the next eight months, as the 28-year-old Canadian filmmaker hammered out densely layered digital effects shots culminating in a crushingly effective slow-motion car crash lavished with beautiful breaking glass.

That attention to detail paid off. Within days of posting the four-minute, 41-second romantic drama on the Spy Films website, Manoukian says he got calls from Hollywood agents and managers. He signed with talent agency William Morris Endeavor last month and went on a two-week spree of meetings with studios and producers. “Needless to say, it’s very exciting,” Manoukian told Wired.com in an e-mail interview.

In March, he brainstormed with Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov and 9 producer Jim Lemley. “I just came back from some very promising meetings,” Manoukian says. “They are interested in producing my first feature!”

Continue reading the article for some of the technical details and a short interview with Manoukian.  Also, just to round everything off, watch the making-of video.

Tutorial: “The Kid Stays in the Picture” Effect Using Photoshop and Motion

In this tutorial I show you how to create the so-called “The Kid Stays in the Picture” effect (sometimes referred to as the 2.5D effect).  The idea is to separate a still image into distinct layers, move those layers in respect to the Z-axis, then animate movement on those layers to give the impression of 3 dimensions.  The effect is a refreshing (though admittedly similar) alternative to the omnipresent Ken Burns effect.  Like the Ken Burns effect, it lends itself nicely to documentary films which tend to rely heavily on using stills or photos as illustrative B-Roll.

The effect is named after the documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, which uses the technique extensively and in many creative ways.  If you have not seen this film, I highly recommend checking it out.

Viewing options: View the full tutorial in HD, above.  View in HD on Vimeo.  View in HD on YouTube (Part 1 and Part 2).

Oscar Nominated Documentaries Cut On Final Cut Pro

Final Cut Pro Screen Grab

A recent Macworld article points out that 9 out of the 10 documentaries nominated for the 2010 Academy Awards were edited using Final Cut Pro…  pretty impressive, considering that the first version of FCP was released only twelve years ago.  (The exception, Burma VJ, was cut on an Avid).  From the article:

Apple’s PR rep put it this way: “This year’s Academy Award nominations demonstrate that the best documentary filmmakers in the world are using Apple.” According to the “2010 SCRI Report for Non-Linear Video Editors”—a scintillating sounding report if ever there were one—Final Cut Pro captures half of the professional video editing software market.

This is good news for me, as I’ve been using Final Cut from day one.  It seems like the natural progression would be for a single professional editing application to ultimately dominate the industry.  Anyone that’s collaborated on a project using more than one NLE (e.g. FCP and Premiere) truly knows what it means to have a headache.  My guess is that, surprise releases aside, Final Cut Pro will be used on 90% or more professional productions within a few years.

‘The Virtual Revolution’: BBC’s Collaborative Web Documentary

Virtual Revolution 3D Explorer

From the BBC, regarding The Virtual Revolution, their collaborative documentary about the web:

It was a radical change for BBC documentary making – an open and collaborative production, which asked the web audience to debate programme themes, suggest and send questions for interviewees, watch and comment on interview and graphics clips, and download clips for personal use and re-editing, all months before broadcast.

The subsequent distribution is just as innovative.  At the project’s web site, you can explore the documentary in 3D.  As you visually browse through clips, you are presented with the option to follow links associated with the current topic.  The project is a great example of innovative use of digital media and maximum interactivity.  Click the pic above to launch the 3D Documentary Explorer.