Reminiscing

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, as you do, I was greeted by an image reminding me it was Zoran‘s birthday today. This made me think back over the various DoP’s I’ve known, worked with and/or studied under and I thought now would be a good time to locate and collate all those “crew” photos from ages past.

We have the birthday boy himself – Zoran with credits ranging from Raindance Film Festival trailers through to features such as “Love is Thicker than Water”, Deadly Virtues, Dangerous Parking and more

Cinematography with Raindance

Tony Pierce-Roberts who worked on films such as Disclosure, Underworld and Vampire Academy

Tony Pierce-Roberts masterclass in cinematography 2016

And then my own films and crew photos including

The Night We Opened for the New Ed Sheeran

The Night We Opened for the new Ed Sheeran (2019)

Geneticide – my first Sci Fi short

Geneticide (2019)

behind the scenes / unofficial crew shot from Dating Dilemmas
– a satirical look at love in the naughties

Dating Dilemmas (2018)

There are a number of other films I’ve worked on in the last 2 years however I’m struggling to find crew shots for them currently – which I think highlights the need to make sure that they happen, and that they’re kept archived somewhere useful like this post 🙂

They include

Under Duress

Damellette

Lenore

Momentum

The Power of Max

Britain’s Little Broadway

Coping With Lockdown

It’s (almost) November 2020, and the UK is heading back into a series of local lockdowns or “Tier 3”. COVID is rife and the much anticipated second wave is starting to take hold. 

This is my personal story on how COVID has impacted me to date, and how I’ve coped with lockdown and the associated isolation. 

When all of this started, I was single, 48 years old and living one of my childhood dreams; preparing to sail around the world on a yacht. 

You join me in Gibraltar with a bunch of guys who I’d met only a couple of weeks earlier and hardly knew. We were training for the RYA Yachtmaster ticket, improving our skills and building miles.

I had been travelling in one guise or another since October the year before. October, my mother and I had gone to Zante for 2 weeks as a chance to get away and spend some quality time together.  My mum lives in the Isle of Man, so I don’t see her nowhere near as often as I’d like. 

December we went to Lanzarote for 3 weeks, again to spend some time together and get away from the cold and wet British weather.

Yes, you may have noticed i seem to have spent most of my time scuba diving and no, at 74 my mother doesn’t scuba dive … in fact she doesn’t even swim! But we did still spend at least half of each day together! 

Towards the end of February we are starting to hear reports of COVID and by March it was evident things were going to get worse. 

Through local contacts, I had heard that Spain was about to close her borders and I decided it was time to head home, I could always come back later this year to finish the course.

I arrived home on March 15th.  Oddly this would have been my Dad’s birthday.  It was also the day we said goodbye to him in 2013 following a brief battle with lung cancer.

David Morby, 1946-2013

March 17th, a group of about 20 of us got together for a last supper, I went home, closed my door and pretty much didn’t emerge again until September.


During the next 6 months of self imposed solitary confinement, the UK saw more than 918,000 cases of COVID and experienced more than 45,000 deaths.  We were told to stay home if we could, save lives, save the NHS.

source uk.gov Oct 28th 2020

Having spent the previous 2 months on an 11 meter (37 foot) yacht co-existing with 4 other blokes, coming home to my 2 bed terrace in Watford felt like a palace! Friends had been cat sitting for me while I was away, but it was evident I had been missed and for the next few weeks and months Vesta barely left my side.  Eventually she realised I wasn’t going anywhere and started getting back into her old routines though.

Initially the solitude really didn’t bother me.  I was really enjoying the space, my own company and not tripping over everyone on the tiny 3 metre wide boat.  I was also mentally prepared for the solitude as I had known I would experience this as I sailed for weeks at a time between countries, with no one to talk to but the birds and the fishes…

I had a long bucket list of things to do while I was away, dozens of books to read, finally learn to play the guitar, write that killer screenplay which I would sell on my return to civilisation – or shoot myself being a budding director and cinematographer.

I sat down and started working on my now 8 year old Mac Pro.  It may have been old, but it was still the only Pro computer Apple sold and it was still one of the most powerful ⎌in their product range. The only problem was, it was slow. It couldn’t cope with rendering even some of the most basic 4K film projects, and to be honest I had become quite disillusioned with Apple and OS X over the last couple of years anyway.  I decided that as I was going to be stuck here for the next few months, and as the purchase of my boat had fallen through thanks to COVID, I had some spare cash and it was tie to buy a new computer.  So, I bit the bullet and decided it was time to build myself a new PC. 

My old day job, before I sold the company in June, was running an ISP (or Internet Services provider).  I built and ran Linux based servers all day, every day, so the building of a PC wasn’t scary. Switching to Windows on the other hand, and OS I really hadn’t looked at since the days of Windows XP – well that was something else!

I ran a few tests, just to make sure, and soon became convinced that actually OSX was old hat and what a refreshing change Windows 10 was … Microsoft had finally done something right!

I placed the order for the components and £3,500 and a week later they arrived, and were soon assembled into a shiny new PC.

I needed to test out this beast, and ran a few benchmarks …. yes, this was an awesome bit of kit, so much faster than my old Mac. 

It was at this stage, I remembered an old computer game which I had been a backer of years earlier, but had to stop playing the Mac because the Mac just couldn’t keep up.  No, not Crisis, this was Elite: Dangerous … so I dug out the download, installed it, found my VR headset and resurrected my old account.

That, was my first big mistake. I got so hooked on the game that I played for 2 months straight. 12 hours a day at least! I took my ancient and barely developed account and turned it into a multiple Elite level beast. I increased my credit balance from 100,000 credits to 30 Billion credits in the space of those 2 months and bought a fleet carrier … which got me even more hooked! I then started a 2nd character, and a 3rd! I was playing for hours in bed on my old Xbox, before getting up playing some more on the PC first as one character, then as the other.  All I did for 2 months solid was play this game!

I met a bunch of interesting players online, and even got one of my old friends to install Elite and start playing, much to his wife’s chagrin as apparently the DIY jobs around the house weren’t going to do themselves!

It was now May and my 49th Birthday. We were still heavily in lockdown, and I celebrated the day on my own … well with Vesta. A sad and sobering day, one which would normally be filled with dozens of friends, a BBQ in my garden and more often than not, followed by at least 2 days of clearing up and a recycling bin overflowing with bottles!

June came and went.  My mums 74th birthday, we’d usually spend the time together in London, doing a show or two, dining out and always some window shopping. Instead it was spent briefly on Skype before getting back to more Elite. 

July and August soon blurred into one.  By this time though, my mood had changed. I hadn’t noticed at the time, but May, June and July started to see the depression really set in. I was no longer bothering to do anything around the house, I was ordering take out more and more. Amazon had been delivering my groceries for weeks/months. They were the only place that still had delivery slots and even they weren’t all that easy to get. 

By this stage I had put on 20kg through constant snacking and no exercise. All the weight I had lost since August 2019 had been put back on, and some. I couldn’t even get into clothes that were falling off me in January  … and realising this just made the depression worse. And what do I do when I’m depressed? I comfort eat! Yes, putting on even more weight. 

I decided I needed to do something, and had seen that Raindance were starting a BA(Hons) top up course in film making. 3 years ago, when I had decided I wanted to change the direction my life was going in, I had signed up for a 2 year HND course in film and media studies. I loved the course, met so many amazing people and made a bunch of new friends… we made nearly 50 films in the 2 years, many were experimental, some made it to festivals and a handful were screened at the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square. Life was good!

I graduated with a distinction, and the same year found a buyer for my ailing company. Did a deal and found myself free to explore and experience life.  My mid life crisis was well underway!

Now however I was really beginning to feel lonely, prone to frequent outbursts of tears for no real reason and I was finding it harder and harder to sleep.  

Part 2 follows next week

That Windows Life – Part 1

Windows Logo

Having pulled the trigger and finally decided to move to Windows from OSX, I thought I’d list a few things (in no particular order) that I love / hate about the move. What am I missing and what has blown my mind.

First off, Windows Hello. This is FaceID for the desktop and is awesome! You need a camera that supports 3D scanning such as the Logitech Brio 4K, which isn’t cheap, but seeing as though I’m always mistyping passwords and forgetting PIN numbers, this seemed like a really nice upgrade from my old Logitech C920. And, thanks to COVID, I’ve managed to sell the C920 for about the same as I paid for it 2 years ago, so, all in all, it’s a win-win!.


Next, performance. This machine is quite literally blisteringly fast! I have never seen Cinebench run that fast.

Faster than a speeding bullet! 🙂

Windows does try to be a little clever at times and each time it detects a change on the video outputs (I either switch the monitor input to another computer, or even the screen just goes to sleep) Windows was randomly rescanning speaker and microphones and assigning the HTC Vive headset priority instead of the Yeti microphone and Bose USB speakers. I have now, finally (I hope), found a fix for this and have Steam VR playing through the VR headset when I want it to, without impacting my day to day enjoyment of Spotify / etc (whether there’s a monitor attached to the PC or not – while I’m decommissioning my old Macs)


Cortana

latest-microsoft-cortana-update-emphasizes-productivity-features

I was amazed at how good Cortana actually is. Probably not quite as good as Alexa, but light years ahead of Siri. Siri is sadly another example of something that Apple innovated well with and then dropped the ball. While Amazon (and Microsoft) seem to have continued to develop the underlying technology and making the AI more intelligent and responsive, Apple just seem to have focussed on making Siri sound better (debatable) without actually working on the AI or recognition factors.


Microsoft Edge

Edge / Internet Explorer / etc have always sucked. They’ve just really been bad. Microsoft seem to have finally come to terms with this and have redesigned/rewritten their web browser, based on Chromium. Yes you heard it, Microsoft Internet Explorer is now Google Chrome with a Windows Logo on it. Well almost. Annoyingly (for me) they’ve also replaced the Google sync sign in with sign in to Microsoft Live. Not augmented it so we can have either or, they’ve just replaced it. This means I’m not really getting to use Edge as much as I could because of the way Microsoft consume everything it touches, and the fact that I’m already consumed by Google (at this stage at least) and to a lesser extent Fido (which I owned and ran for 20+ years before finally hanging up my Director’s braces and donning my film makers baseball cap instead!).

Gaming

Where to start! There are literally thousands of games available for Windows and new top mark games appearing almost daily. Whether it’s the latest release of Doom, Tomb Raider, Assassins Creed, Diablo from Blizzard, Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, the list is almost endless!


My personal favourite game (since 1984) has been Elite. Obviously I’m not still playing the 1984 BBC micro version today (although I still can through an emulator!), Elite Dangerous released in 2014 and now Elite Dangerous: Horizons are awesome space



The VR gaming experience is amazing. I’m still blown away by how realistic it can feel.

VR as a whole is still only just coming into its own. May 2020 and we’re still in lockdown, however, I was able to “get out” and walk around Stonehenge, go for a parachute jump out of an aeroplane and even walk around art galleries in London, all without actually leaving my house. Having been staring at the same 4 walls for over a month now, I needed the escapism – and through the world of VR, it was actually very realistic. I’ve also found a world of VR content online with short films and interactive experiences that I’m working through, some of which are incredibly realistic and make you feel as though you are totally there in the room and in the moment!

a Web Room (Mozilla Hub) where you can meet up and wander around a virtual representation of Stonehenge

How Easy is it to switch?

Ok, so the UI is different and takes a little getting used to, but if you can navigate OSX then you can navigate Windows 10 – although the window toggles are on the right not the left.

Applications – do I miss them?

Look at this list of apps … as you will see, most if not all of them (apart from FCPX) have native Windows versions.

ApplicationMacWindows Alternative?
Adobe Creative Suite
(Premiere, Photoshop, etc)
YesYesN/A
Davinci Resolve StudioYesYesN/A
Microsoft OfficeYesYesN/A
Google ChromeYesYes
Mozilla FirefoxYesYes
Apple MailYesNoWindows Mail
Final Cut Pro XYesNoDavinci or Adobe
Sublime Text EditorYesYes
Macromates TextMateYesNoSublime
MalwarebytesYesYes
SteamYesYes
SteamVRNoYes
Elite DangerousYes (no VR)Yes
Elite Dangerous HorizonsNoYes
Doom, Tomb Raider, 500 other cracking gamesNoYes
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020NoYesXPlane
Built-in Unix shell for SysAdmin stuffYesYes!
Messenger, Skype, Telegram, etcYesYes
Thunderbird, PostboxYesYes
Spotify / SonosYesYes
iCloud Drive / Sync (Photos/etc)YesYes
Google DriveYesYes
Dropbox, pCloud, etcYesYes
iMessage and FaceTimeYesNoSkype/Messenger
Telegram/WhatsApp
Kyno (media management)YesYes
On the whole, most tools are cross-platform now

To be honest, the only real deal breaker might have been the loss of iMessage. That said, millions of Android users and Windows users have survived without it and I still use Telegram and Facebook Messenger every day, and WhatsApp if I have to. I still have iMessage on my Phone and Tablet … and I’m not dropping those, yet a while anyway! (Note, I did try 2 years ago and bought a Samsung Galaxy S10. I lasted a week and had to send the phone back, I just couldn’t get on with Android – or the fact that apps constantly crashed)

Subtle UI differences

There are some subtle UI differences. For years I’ve been able to drag a file from a folder to a dialogue box to change the directory that the dialogue box is searching in to open a file. On Windows, if you drag the file from a folder to the dialogue box it actually moves the file into the folder that the dialogue box has open and doesn’t change the directory. Not a major issue, but something I got caught out on initially.

Likewise, I have been used to clicking on the icon at the top of a window to copy/move a file, this doesn’t work on Windows. I need to do a “save as” instead – big deal

Backups. Time machine has been amazing. I’ve rarely ever needed to use it, but I have done a full bare metal restore using it twice now I think. Windows has snapshots, but I think I might need to “buy” a 3rd party backup tool (thankfully I have the QNAP and that has backup tech built in)

Leaving Apple Behind – Part 2

Last week I wrote a brain dump on why I finally decided, after almost 20 years of being an Apple fan boy, that it was time to move “back” to Windows and PC as a desktop.

The benchmarks and bank balance tell a good part of the story, a machine which is 30-60% faster and yet roughly 1/3 the price of the Apple equivalent, and that’s with me throwing in a few frivolous extras like RGB lighting and an “Elite” case when a basic case would have done.

My daily editing work-flow has been based around Davinci Resolve for a while now. I used to be a devout Final Cut Editor, from “back in the day” with Final Cut Studio and iDVD, all the way through the trials and tribulations of Final Cut Pro X. There was a time when I used to edit in Adobe Premiere, however when I decided to move to Apple in 2000, Adobe annoyed me by saying that I would have to re-buy their entire suite of tools if I wanted to use them on the Mac, my Windows licenses were not transferable … so I did the big “screw you Adobe” and bought Final Cut instead (for over £1,000 at the time).

Roll on 2020 and the world of lockdown and quarantine. I’ve had a lot of spare time on my hands the last few weeks and finally decided that it was time to pull the trigger and move to Windows. I had been experimenting with Windows 10 in a virtual machine on my Mac Desktop, and have been supporting Windows 201x server installations for years as part of my $dayjob. Now was the time to jump in with both feet.

Rather than build a “toe in the water” build, (Ryzen 5 (1600 AF), 16GB RAM and an RTX 2060 Super) which would potentially cost me about £1,200, I decided to jump in with both feet and instead splurge on the Ryzen 9 3950X processor, 64GB of RAM and an RTX 2080Ti GPU. The total build cost comes in at about £3,500 with VAT, X570 motherboard, case, power supply and ultra-fast NVMe storage.

Why did I choose the AS Rock X570 Creator motherboard instead of a cheaper but still viable motherboard? Well, a year ago I migrated all my storage onto a new QNAP TS-932X SAN with dual 10 Gig NICs and spent a small fortune on 10 Gig switches and 10 Gig interfaces for the Mac Pro and my MacBook Pro (the dongle life!). As I was going to need 10Gig, I could either buy a motherboard with it built-in or lose an expansion slot to a 10Gig NIC. I may want those expansion slots (3 x PCIe4.0) for NVIDIA RTX Graphics cards (especially when the RTX 3000 range launches with PCIe4.0 support later this year!).

I guess I went for the Ryzen 9 3950X instead of a cheaper CPU as I didn’t want to have to upgrade again for at least 12-18 months (the CPUs can be swapped without needing to replace the entire machine) and the 16 cores/32 threads just got me excited. I could rationalise till the cows come home, but fundamentally more cores mean faster performance (rendering) and I wanted a silky smooth 8K editing workstation, as well as an amazing gaming experience!

How has the experience been so far?

Having missed out on the debacle that was Windows 7, Windows Vista and to be honest even Windows Millenium Edition I have come to Windows 10 without a lot of the negativity and bad experiences that other Windows users have had over the last 25 years or so. On the whole, I quite like the Windows 10 UI and whilst there have been some niggles with Windows trying to be “clever”, on the whole life so far has been relatively easy.

Ok, so I have had some issues. Office 365/Outlook no longer lets me add custom Exchange servers, so I can’t use Outlook to read my 5 different email accounts – all of which are hosted on Fido Glide (Zimbra based email service), but I was shocked and amazed to find that Windows Mail is actually usable now, and handles Exchange (EWS) mailboxes and even Google Suite/Gmail mailboxes as well as the usual POP/IMAP setups. I do honestly wonder why I’m bothering to pay for the Office 365 subscription these days (£79.99/year) as I’m using Google Docs for anything vaguely Word/Excel/Powerpoint related, I can no longer use Outlook (not that I ever really have done) and I really don’t need Microsoft Access DB or whatever else they bundle with the Office suite.

All of my video clips are ingested and stored on a QNAP TS-932X NAS which has 5 x Seagate Ironwolf Pro 12TB drives, and 2 x 1TB Samsung EVO Pro SSDs for read/write cache. I built this NAS about a year ago and wrote up my experiences at the time.

Editing on the NAS was problematic at times, not because of the network but because of Mac OS/X’s incredibly poor Finder integration with CIFS/Samba. A few years ago, Apple decided to quietly drop support for their own network file technology AFP (Apple Filing Protocol) and instead recommend everyone uses CIFS (Samba) for networking. Final Cut Pro was tweaked to support CIFS shares and AFP was basically left to fall by the wayside. Getting Samba (SMB/CIFS) to work initially was tricky, and you had to make various tweaks in smb.conf to get it to work. Eventually Samba matured and became reliable, however it has never been as rock solid as AFP (in my experience) on the Mac.

With some trepidation, I performed file system performance tests on the new Ryzen based PC using the built in 10 Gig NIC. Performance was good. Amazingly so in fact. Twice the speed of the Mac Pro 2013 (850MB/sec vs 420MB/sec) despite using exactly the same cables, switch ports, files, software, everything. The only difference was the OS and of course the new hardware. Even better are the local disks. 4000MB/second over PCIe4.0 compared to barely 1000MB/second on the Mac Pro / MacBook Pro.

So finally came time to test the entire setup in a real world scenario. Davinci Resolve rendering the last short film I made (Geneticide). The short is 7 minutes long, 4K and includes various SFX, a full colour grade in Davinci Resolve and sound design (with OpenFX effects on the sounds) in Fairlight. The project took approximately 30 minutes to render on Mac Pro and 21 minutes on the MacBook Pro with an eGPU (Radeon RX580). On the Ryzen PC, the entire project rendered from scratch in 4’48”.

I had to update the project and change the paths as I’d had so many problems rendering the project over the SAN on OSX that I had actually copied all the material to a local Thunderbolt 2 RAID array (Pegasus R8) and used that as a scratch disk. I undid the kludges (which took about 5 minutes) and pointed Davinci back at the SAN storage for all files, updated the destination path from the Mac Desktop to the Windows Desktop and hit render. I was amazed at how quickly Davinci sped through the footage, and the file it created looked perfect – no artefacts or glitches anywhere!)

What else has improved? Well, a year ago I was buoyed by Apple’s announcement of VR support coming to OSX, and I bought the HTC Vive headset. I also love playing Elite Dangerous and had previously bought the Oculus Rift Developer Kit so I could play Elite through the early beta phases as a backer. Elite sadly outgrew my Mac and Frontier eventually dropped support for Elite on the Mac because the hardware simply wasn’t up to the job. Remember that impassioned speech from Steve Jobs about Killer Graphics going forwards? It seems the boffins at Apple have certainly forgotten anyway 🙁 Even Valve, the poster boys for VR at WWDC 2017 have now announced they’re dropping Mac support on their platform.

Once upon a time the Mac was a powerhouse, the machine you aspired to own, something immutable. Now, Apple’s phones are more powerful than their desktops and Apple only seem interested in selling you a new colour strap for your Apple Watch. They may be big now, but all it will take is for another manufacturer (Samsung?) to innovate and produce a better handset than Apple and the sheep will migrate. Yes, Apple are trying to lock people into their ecosystem with Apple TV and iTunes/Apple Music/etc, but that market place is saturated and given time another Napster will emerge and chances are the customer base won’t be all that loyal to Apple.

Check back in next week for more details on the actual work flow and how I’m coping after what will have been roughly 3 weeks using Windows as my daily driver.

If you’re interested in buying my old Mac Pro, it is currently for sale on eBay and has just under 4 days left to run.

Why I gave up on Apple after 20 years

What follows is an attempt to explain why, after almost 20 years of being an Apple/Mac devotee (fan boy) I have finally reverted to “the dark side” … and (spoiler alert!) I’m loving it!

Having been a Windows user since the early days (well Windows 3.11 and Windows NT) and then IBM’s OS/2, as well as Linux (Slackware!), I was looking for something “better”. In steps a young Steve Jobs with a possible solution!

Steve Jobs launches the single OS strategy for Apple
Image result for osx public beta initial release date

So, it’s January 2000, and Steve Jobs announces plans for a new state of the art operating system. Fast forward to September 13th 2000, and Apple has released Public Beta 1 of their new (to become) flagship operating system “Mac OS X”.

The promise of “state of the art plumbing” (hardware), killer graphics, designed for the Internet from the ground up … and the promise to “make the next great personal computer operating system”. Having battled with OS/2, Windows 3.11, Novell Netware and even Slackware, I was keen to see what Apple had to offer and I bought a MacBook Pro, initially with System 9 (the old Mac OS) installed and I waited with bated breath for the beta of OSX which I’d ordered online. The future was here, and it looked amazing!

Since then, there have been 15 iterations of OSX, Steve Jobs sadly lost a battle with pancreatic cancer and Apple had a few false starts in their “Pro” lineup, launching Final Cut Pro X and dropping support for Final Cut Studio on the same day (which saw hundreds of thousands of filmmakers move to Adobe Premier overnight too when they saw how incomplete FCP X was and they saw that Final Cut Studio was no more). One of the biggest mistakes Apple made here was having no migration path available for existing Final Cut users. They upgraded/installed the new version and had no way of opening any of their old Final Cut projects. (Unless they installed Premier, which had the option to import from FCP).

Apple went from strength to strength in the Pro market from a hardware perspective, with adverts extolling the virtues of the G4 and then G5 Mac Pro, so powerful it was classed as a munition and needed an export license from the US Department of Defence. They eventually moved from PowerPC processors to Intel processors and did that move so seamlessly that no-one really noticed the processor under the hood.

The old Mac Pro (G4/G5 and Intel)

I was hooked! I bought G4 Mac Pros, G5 Mac Pros, iMacs .. I moved a number of my consultancy/business customers onto them because they were so easy to use and such low maintenance (this actually backfired as they were so easy to use and such low maintenance that we lost a fortune in revenue from callouts that didn’t happen to clean viruses from the machines. Windows users were so often in trouble with malware and viruses, but Mac users never seemed to experience the problem).

The new Cheese grater Mac Pro

They also had more than a few problems with their “Pro” lineup of hardware though, the i9 MacBook Pro overheated and had to be “crippled” with a firmware update (which only worked in OSX so if you booted into Windows you would still thermal throttle). They launched the trash can Mac Pro (the iBin) in 2013. Barely upgradeable, they were out of date almost as soon as they’d launched. A small hardware refresh happened after a couple of years, but they were still underpowered and under spec’d – with no sign of anything new on the horizon. Apple finally realised this and launched the iMac Pro as a stop-gap (with an eye-watering $17,000 price tag for anything powerful enough), they then made a gushing apology at WWDC and promised a new Mac Pro that would be upgradeable, that would be powerful and that would, of course, be stylish. This was the “cheese grater”. They failed to mention that it would cost more than a Tesla and that it would still take them nearly 2 years to deliver, however.

The iBin (Mac Pro Late 2013)

Over the period from 2000 to 2018 I have been loyally giving Apple my hard-earned cash, falling for every marketing line they offered up, whilst slowly wondering if they were ever going to actually innovate any more (beyond the amazing new colours for their new watch straps and phone cases). The iPhone is getting bigger and bigger, the price of their kit is getting more and more expensive, and I’ve now realised that if I want to buy a Mac Pro of any relatively decent specification, I need to re-mortgage the house to do it. At the same time, I look at the actual specifications of the hardware that Apple are putting into the new Mac Pro and the prices of the components. A CPU that can theoretically handle 2TB of RAM which costs $7,500 – although that 2TB is realistically only 1.5TB – and Intel actually sell an equivalent CPU that can address up to 1TB of physical RAM for $3,800).

Custom NVMe2 SSD cards that cost 4x the price of a standard NVMe2 drive, and similar “price gouging” on RAM upgrades – and I finally woke up, Apple are milking their “sheep” fan base as hard as they can. I also started to evaluate what my work flows were and where the bottlenecks were in performance as well as what I could do to improve these either on Apple, or PC, and whether or not I could build a platform that was actually agnostic.

Disk performance test after disk performance test made me realise that whilst Thunderbolt 2 attached external storage was faster, it wasn’t scalable. £3,500 for a 24TB Pegasus2 RAID unit was pricey, but it boosted disk access times from 80MB/sec to 400MB/sec. This meant I could work on 4K video footage in Final Cut. At this stage, I’m still a heavy Final Cut Pro X user, but at the same time, I have started to explore alternatives. I have enrolled in film school with Raindance and they are pushing Adobe Premiere as the NLE of choice. At the same time, Davinci Resolve is starting to look like a serious contender. I have a debate with the lecturers at Raindance and convince them that so long as my work is delivered on time and to a standard, it shouldn’t actually matter which NLE I’m using. An NLE is an NLE. It shouldn’t matter whether I’m using iMovie, Final Cut, Adobe Premiere or Davinci Resolve – and in fact, being able to work in all of these editors should in fact be a bonus were I to try and get a job with a production house at the end of the course.

I decide that it’s time to seriously consider a switch, and spend far too long working out the ideal Intel-based i9 build, Z370 motherboard, RAM and more … and then AMD catches my eye, and Threadripper 2. These are pricey, $3,999 for a 32 core (64 thread) CPU, but boy oh boy is the whole Zen 2 architecture exciting! and then, AMD releases Ryzen 3000. Specifically the Ryzen 3950X with 16 cores (32 threads) and a price that’s shockingly affordable, it only addresses 128GB of RAM though (who am I kidding having been stuck with 16GB as the most my poor MacBook Pro could handle). I spend a few more weeks (months?) thinking about it and then finally decide to pull the trigger in March 2020.

final build of the new Ryzen 3950X desktop PC

The machine should out perform almost anything else out there currently, especially with PCIe4.0 architecture, I spec a PCIe4.0 SSD which benchmarks at over 4000MB/second in read/write tests. I choose a heavy duty X570 motherboard with built in 10 Gig ethernet and 802.11ax (Wifi 6), Thunderbolt 3 and support for Zen 2 and Ryzen 9 (including the 3950x) processors.

The build takes me about 2 hours, I spent over an hour trying to work out the optimal route for the power cables and water cooling so they would look “pretty” through the tempered glass side, and of course the RGB. I confess I am quite pleased with the result.

The Peel

The new machine benchmarks extremely well

AMD Ryzen 9 Geekbench TestScoreApple Mac Pro 2013ScoreDifference
Single-Core Score1234Single-Core Score8351.5x
Multi Core Score13451Multi Core Score32714.11x
CUDA139046Metal223546.22x
OpenCL122296OpenCL210595.8x
Ryzen and a single RTX 2080Ti wipe the floor with Apple and Dual FirePro D300’s

Cinebench R20 is equally as impressive

Ryzen scores 8949 whilst the old Mac Pro scored 1416

Ahh I hear you say, but that’s against a 7 year old Mac Pro. How does your new build compare to the current Mac Pro 2019? Well, I don’t have one to run the tests on myself – however a quick Google of benchmarks comes back with

Mac Pro (Late 2019)ScoresRyzen is faster
Geekbench v5 Single-Core10301.2x
Geekbench v5 Multi-Core80421.67x
CineBench R20 – 16 core Mac Pro68591.3x
Ryzen 9 based Windows machine is half the price and 30%-60% faster in benchmarks
Source: barefeets.com

Enough of the history, if you’re interested in the day to day operation and how well it fits into my workflow then read on – part two coming up next week as I make notes on how Windows 10 fits into my workflow and what (if anything) am I missing from the OSX days.

Sound Recording and Design (A04 T03)

April 11th, after several weeks of planning, it was time to record sound for Sammy’s “The Night We Opened for the New Ed Sheeran” (or Jesus Wept as it has become known).

Whilst there was little I would be able to record the actual band’s performance due to the amplified volumes and sensitivity range of the available equipment, I would still be able to record dialogue, ambient sound and other diegetic sounds and effects, such as a beer can being opened, the sound of guitar and drums as the band enters stage and connects with their instruments,

The sound design itself was relatively simple. Take a studio recording of the band playing the song, add some effects to make the music sound as though it was a real, live performance in a club, add some ambient sounds to mimic a busy night club at the request of the Director, including some effects as the band walk on stage (guitar riff, sounds of tumbleweed and crickets) and other comedy effects.

Additionally, I tuned volume levels to suit the performance, ducking sound samples under dialogue and ensuring that audio levels were kept within bounds.

Adobe Audition – Editing Sounds for “Jesus Wept”

Having received a project file with some basic sound effects and sounds mixed up across multiple tracks (with music, dialogue and sound effects all intermixed) my first job was to split the tracks out so that dialogue was on one track, the band’s music was on another and so forth.

I then added ambient sounds, effects including reverb on the band’s music, I tidied up and removed background noise from the dialogue tracks, and worked with the Director (Josh) to get the effects and Foley in as he wanted them in order to tell the story through sound as well as visually.

I then bounced the audio file out and sent them the finished mixdown, along with the project file and copies of all of the samples I had used.

Several changes and tweaks were fed back by both Producer and Director and were included in the final mixdown. The finished bounce was completed and uploaded before the final deadline.

Were I to do this again, I would want to make sure that the equipment being used would be more suited to the task, the ability to record directly from the mixing desk would be good for example. It would have also been nice if we had been able to use Lavalier microphones, however, these weren’t available and so the only option was to record with the boom mic.

I have yet to see (hear?) the “finished” (merged) product in public, however, the work I submitted to Sammy for inclusion was very close to what I had wanted to achieve. I did feel that some of Josh’s notes conflicted with my wish to deliver the best possible mix, that said, Josh was the Director, and as such has the final say as it was his artistic vision. There are some areas of silence (for example) which I think should have been filled with band noises, and there was a “riff” section which no-one could agree on in the time we had, so Sammy was tasked with doing his own version ahead of the tight deadline for final submission. I think if we add in a decent guitar riff (or put back the sounds of a guitar being tuned) as well as smoothing out the silence and mixing in a little more backing track then the impact will be quite positive.

Sammy has since said to me that he wants to do an enhanced final mix, taking on board some of my original suggestions – once the HND Showcase is out of the way – and he looks to promote the film around the festival circuit. He has said that on reflection he agrees with my original comments on the sound effects, and especially the momentary gaps/silence.

I think one major problem with this project was that at no point were Sammy, Josh and I all in the same room listening to the mix at the same time. This was due to a number of scheduling conflicts and work commitments coupled with the incredibly tight deadline and the fact that Josh and Sammy were working on multiple films at the same time.

That said, given the limited time I had to work on the final product, I think it worked quite well. Contrary to my usual workflow of DaVinci Resolve and Fairlight, I worked entirely in Adobe Audition in order to meet the requirements of the project. Adobe Audition was relatively easy to use and the change had minimal impact on my workflow or ability to deliver the project on time. Obviously there is always room for small improvements, and it is rare for anyone to be completely happy with their work. That said, on the whole, I am proud of the sound design, and flattered by the fact that Sammy has since been in touch asking me how I made certain sounds and effects as they were just what he wanted and he needed to do similar on Priscilla’s sound design to make the room effects sound more realistic.

I would certainly have liked more time to work on the crowd effects and the guitar solo riff, but on the whole, I think the project went well and I really enjoyed the task. A future version would include a 5.1 (or maybe even 7.1) surround sound mix, and I regret not having been given enough time to do that on this project. (This is something I can do easily and quickly in Fairlight, and I was keen to experiment and work out how to do the same in Audition).

Reflections on Directing A02 T01

For the purpose of this assignment, we were tasked with a 4-hour film challenge.

The Rules

  1. Minimum 8, Maximum 12 shots.
  2. One line of dialogue “I Knew this would happen”.
  3. One compulsory prop: An item of confectionary.
  4. 90 secs maximum finished film.
  5. Story must have beginning, middle end.
  6. Story must have distinct genre.
  7. Only two lights may be used.
  8. At least one member of each team must appear in film

Chessie, Santiago and I were put into a team and told to come up with an idea and to write, shoot and edit the finished product within 4 hours.

The first hour was spent coming up with a suitable idea, we all pitched our ideas and then decided upon the best one. After some deliberation, it was decided that my “Raiders” idea was worthy and we set about preparing to film. Chessie was one of the actors and also responsible for costume and set design, Santiago doubled as gaffer and the lead character in the story.

Whilst neither Chessie nor Santiago are professional actors, they took my direction well and we had the shots we needed within 2 hours, despite numerous interruptions and distractions (we were filming in the middle of Raindance, with limited control over the set)

We worked on the premise of a master shot technique with 3 main shots, and then a number of cut-ins to add to the pacing and story.

During my pitch, I described this elaborate scene where Santiago triggers a trap and in true “Indiana Jones” style he is swept away to his doom. This was achieved with the help of a table cloth and two strong bodies we managed to co-opt from passers-by who were trying to use the area we were filming in as a meeting space.

Whilst neither Chessie or Santiago could visualise my idea for the “stunt”, they were soon on board and were impressed with the finished result. Using a sheet (and not just pulling Santiago across the floor) was key to making the effect work smoothly and without any injury to the actors.

Reflections on Directing (A02 T02)

We undertook a 4-hour film challenge in class. Split into teams of 3, we spent the lunch hour devising a story and then came back to shoot.

Due to the small size of the team, and the fact that of the story ideas we came up with it being my story which was selected (and the fact that I do not wish to be in front of the camera!) I was appointed as the shooting director (DoP/Director combined)

Chessie and Santiago were the characters in the story, and set about sorting the set design, costume and setting up lights and other equipment.

Brainstorming ideas for the story

Having scratched out a script, and having an idea for some in-camera special effects to add to the drama, we set about shooting the short.

The usual problems of trying to film anything at Raindance (people walking through the shot, picking up and moving the sweets, picking up tripods you were using because they weren’t bolted down, faulty kit, the list is exhaustive!) 🙂 were addressed as they came up and whilst we lost nearly an hour due to interruptions and walkthroughs, we were still able to complete the shooting part of the exercise in just over 2 hours 30 minutes, which technically left us 30 minutes for the edit. Below is the final edit which admittedly took slightly longer than 30 minutes to grade, do some basic sound design on, render and upload – but the spirit of the exercise was adhered to.

final draft edit of our 4-hour film challenge short

The Rules

  1. Minimum 8, Maximum 12 shots.
  2. One line of dialogue “I Knew this would happen”.
  3. One compulsory prop: An item of confectionary.
  4. 90 secs maximum finished film.
  5. Story must have beginning, middle end.
  6. Story must have distinct genre.
  7. Only two lights may be used.
  8. At least one member of each team must appear in film

Reflections

There is much that is wrong with this short film, the focus is soft in a number of places, the image is shakey through being handheld with no stabilisation, the packshot (pack of M&Ms) could be better …. I had spent an age smoothing the packet out and then one of the first years came through, picked them up and pretended to open them … this resulted in the packaging being creased and there was no time to get another packet, and whilst I had originally managed to get some symmetry in reflection from the tray, this was all lost as we rushed to get the next shot …

One of the things I have noticed from all of my shoots at Raindance to date is that there always seems to be a sense of urgency and rush to the shots, everyone is in a rush to get to the next shot and what we have “will have to do” .. This is against my programming and not something I am used to. Whilst I appreciate that “time is money”, I also strongly believe that rushing to deliver a mediocre product is a huge waste of time and money as the resultant product will not be the best you could have done.

If I take away one thing from this exercise, and the last two years on the HND course, it will be “less haste more speed” and to try and find a way to keep everyone around me calm whilst working to get the shot/scene/etc and to avoid panic and uncertainty where ever possible. (Most often, I feel this can be achieved through simple communication)

a less than perfect packshot before grading

The challenge was to use between 8 and 12 shots, no more and no less. Whilst I had originally thought of shooting the whole film as a one-shot, these rules made it harder. We did still manage to shoot the main part in 3 shots, and then used a total of 8 additional cut-ins to add to the story and effect.

The finished edit

Moving on to the in-camera effects, I had the idea of putting Santiago on a table cloth and getting a couple of people to pull him across the floor as though he was being pulled by the rope that sprung around his leg. This took a few attempts and tests to get right, but the final shot is almost exactly what I had hoped for (minus the vape which appears in his hand “as if by magic” that wasn’t spotted until checking the rushes).

Santiago and his continuity challenging vape

Continuity, set design, lighting, camera, director, gaffer, actors, crew (not to mention post-production teams, editors, sound design, vfx, foley, etc, etc) all need to work together in a seamless and rhythmical fashion in order to deliver a polished film. If one single member of the team isn’t a good fit then the whole project can suffer.

Thankfully, on the whole, I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of professional and dedicated HND students over the last two years, and together I believe we have learned a great deal about the machinery required to make a GOOD film.

I’m looking forward to working with several of these people on upcoming films over the next year or two as we all begin to find our feet and our own areas of expertise.

Sadly, due to the time frame and limited crew, it wasn’t possible to get much in the way of BTS during filming. I will, however, sign off with this picture we took of Justin checking in on us and making sure we were still alive.

Justin checking in on us

Sound Recording

On 11th April, I recorded sounds for the short film “The Night We Opened for the New Ed Sheeran”. This was a comedy Directed by Josh Farrell and produced by Sammy OA

There was minimal preparation time, and whilst we did undertake a location visit before the shoot, and I had made several recommendations for sound recording options, none of these seemed to have been taken into consideration on the day, so I was left with little to do other than to record some dialogue and to do my best to record the ambient sounds and room tone on the day. Everything else was just a recording of a loud noise as the microphones supplied (Rode NTG2/NTG3) were totally unsuitable for recording “gig” noises, and whilst I had recommended that we hook into the professional soundboard at the venue in order to record a mixdown for editing later, this was rejected by both Josh and Sammy, as it would have been too complicated and too time consuming to get the venue to assist, and all they really wanted was some dialogue… they didn’t care about the crowd scenes too much or any of the other sounds as they just wanted me to dub those in post …

Jon and Ana discussing audio from one of the takes

During the day I experimented as much as I could with the levels, however the recording equipment itself wasn’t really suitable for the job at hand and we experienced a large amount of clipping even with the input levels set as low as possible

Sound design has been fairly basic. Adding reverb to the recording of the band playing so that they sound as though they’re in a large room rather than a recording studio, some noise reduction on one piece of dialog that was recorded with the microphone hidden out of shot on a wide (because again, we weren’t allowed to hook into the physical mics which were on stage)

Jon and Santi preparing to record sound on a scene

The edit I received also had 3 different sets of dialogue plus random bits of music all on one track, so this needed to be edited and split into multiple tracks. Bouncing the mix down from Premiere into Audition and then back again seemed to introduce some timing issues with clips, partly because many of the clips don’t seem to have in/out markers, they’re just “compound” clips that stretch to the exact length required .. there were also some gaps that were apparently intentional, but other gaps which weren’t. With deadlines looming I tried my best to discuss these with the Director by email, however that didn’t seem to work, so I now have an 11th hour meeting scheduled after class on Wednesday to review the final mixdown before passing it to Sammy to add to his render and then submit on Friday ahead of the cut off for Raindance submissions. We’ve already missed submissions for the London Short Film Festival sadly (although I suspect Sammy has submitted an earlier edit to meet their deadline)

I received instructions along the lines of “can you try some tumbleweed sounds on the crowd scene” and “add some club sounds on the tracking shot” … despite asking for more detailed descriptions with timecodes. We are currently playing with “guitar riff” sound effects to try and find “the right one” and at this stage I’m waiting on Sammy to produce something himself (or from the band) that would fit the requirement as the 4 versions I’ve submitted so far have all been rejected as not quite right for the shot/scene.

Sample log sheet taken by Arabella

We kept a combined shot and audio log which was maintained by Arabella. These were then written up and stored as a spreadsheet for reference during the post-production process.

With hindsight, the workload for all concerned was high, we had limited time to plan and even less time to post produce. If I were doing this in the real world, I would have hoped that the production team would have spent more time planning and rehearsing and that we would have been able to utilise better equipment, including the venue’s own mixing desk, in order to record better quality sound. The sound design process has been stressful too as I have effectively only had a week in which to review the film, identify key moments that require additional sound, work on cleaning up the various clips which had noise and adding in effects to make the film more believable. The Director has not been available to review the changes due to other commitments, which again means that the finished project is further delayed, and at this stage, I don’t know if it will actually be finished to everyone’s satisfaction, by the hard submission deadline. All quite frustrating considering the amount of effort put in by all concerned, but I believe this is just how the industry works!