Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Save the iPad's Orientation Lock

I just started this online petition. It's a first for me, but this change in what I heralded as one of the best ideas on the iPad is just stupid.

Update 1/12/2011: Apple's iOS 4.3 version update now allows users to choose whether the hardware switch is an Orientation Lock or Mute switch. Hoorah!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Future Arrives... in a Theater Near You

by Ellsworth Chou, October 7, 2010

In 1999, my wife (a TV/film professor) and I (also a media professional) saw Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace three times in two days. Not because it was so great (we learned that when we saw it twice on opening day, which involved sleeping in our car on Hollywood Boulevard down the street from Mann's Chinese Theater - but that's another story), but because we had the opportunity to see it projected digitally on two competing systems that were vying for what was expected to be the future of the cinema. We saw a traditional 35mm film projection, a Hughes/JVC D-ILA projector, and a Texas Instruments DLP projector. In the latter two presentations, 20th Century Fox had provided an exotic hard drive array with a digital, essentially high-definition video copy of the movie - in the form of a then-impressive 340GB of files, if memory serves. In these special Los Angeles area screenings, I took binoculars along, then brazenly walked up to the screen itself during the movie, where I was joined by others who shared my curiosity.

After seeing those presentations, as well as digital projections of the 1999 animated Tarzan, Pixar’s Toy Story (which was fully digital from production to projection - meaning that there had never been any light involved in the production at all) and a handful of other motion pictures, these points of observation and speculation emerged:

  • Motion picture distributors would absolutely want this as their future. Motion picture prints cost thousands of dollars each. Prints cost distributors a lot to ship. Prints scratch, break and wear out. Trailers - those previews of future movie releases - and commercial ads are hand-spliced to the beginning of the movie print by on-site staff. If a multiplex theater finds a movie performing unusually well, they must wait for additional prints to be shipped (if extras are available at all).
  • In a world of all digital theaters, it would be possible for movie files to be delivered electronically, via Internet or satellite. Need to add additional screens to accommodate unexpected capacity? Click on a button and license another projection. Replace your projectionist with an I.T. guy, and never handle film again. Additionally, any or all the screens in a theater could be booked to show live content - think Pay-Per-View for hundreds of people at once, or simply television content.
  • Though modern digital projectors looked fair to very good, they did not effectively produce similar images to film prints (in 1999, those digital cinema projections had only 2/3 the resolution of today’s HDTVs). Though this might improve over time, the political and commercial forces at play in the cinema distribution business would place little priority upon aesthetic merit. Cinematographers, whose entire artistic endeavor is to know and discreetly affect what the image will look like in your neighborhood theater, collectively cringed at the coming massacre of their craft.
  • Perhaps most profoundly, who would pay for these projectors? At the time, the projectors cost well over a hundred thousand dollars each. Theaters, who had invested in expensive film projectors when their facilities were originally built, would not benefit financially in the way that distribution companies would. But distribution companies didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to upgrade the theater chains with which they had business arrangements.
  • As the inevitable transition from an all-film distribution network to all-digital took place, how awkward would it be to deliver both forms? How would it work when only a small percentage of theaters had made the change?

Living in Los Angeles, we were privileged to see many of the pilot programs. Our neighborhood AMC theater in Burbank, California installed a single prototype theatrical DLP projector next to the film projectors in its booth, and when digital “prints” were made available of selected movies, presented them in that theater. We saw as many of those presentations as possible in both film and digital projections. In time, AMC added a few more digital projectors to its three Burbank theaters (totaling 30 screens). In the last two years, they installed a Digital IMAX theater. Keeping with the current trend, the Burbank AMC theaters installed several digital projectors in the past few years to project "3D" releases using the RealD stereoscopic projection system, which depends upon digital projection rather than film.

A little over a year ago, a friend who works for a major movie studio in distribution told us that they were approaching 20 per cent digitally-delivered “prints,” and that the studio was offering discounts for digital delivery as a way of incentivizing theater chains to foot the bill for the projector conversions.

A press release back in March of 2009 announced Sony’s signing a contract with AMC to replace all of its 35mm film projectors with so-called “4K” (having four thousand pixel resolution horizontally - considered by some to be the subjective equivalent of the detail reproduction of 35mm film) Sony digital projectors by 2012. It was a surprising announcement, but 2012 seemed a long way off.

And yet, when we were at the AMC Burbank theater tonight, and I was idly perusing the electronic marquee of this evening’s offerings, a sudden realization rather shocked me. At the end of 13 or so of the 18 listings were the characters “-D.” As in “Digital.” I’m sure I blinked, then skimmed the marquee. The only shows NOT bearing this code were listed as “IMAX” (which in this case is digital, and NOT the massive film format upon with the IMAX corporation made their name), and a live pay-per-view event - obviously video. I asked the teller, “What do the D’s at the end of the listings mean?” “Digital,” said the teller.

I quietly gasped. We’d been away this summer on a 40-day trip, and upon our return, found a lot of things changed - as though people had actually waited the previous 20+ years we’d lived here before making big changes. This one was the capper. No managerial staff in sight, I tried asking the ticket-tearer at the AMC whether all the theaters had digital projectors now - her answer wasn't satisfactory, and I'd still like to know how many film projectors remain in the complex. But the marquee spoke the message clearly enough: No film here.

It will take some time for this change to reach the far corners of this country, as it will the rest of the planet who have been using 35mm film since Thomas Edison patented it 115 years ago. Film will remain an acquisition medium for as long as the currently-working cinematographers - some of whom claim that they will retire when film does - can argue for its existence. That chemically-coated, light-sensitive film offers a durable, high-quality archival medium with a 100+ year history isn’t lost on film executives. These movers and shakers of the entertainment world still value keeping original negatives of motion pictures in vaults. These same executives are even now generating revenues by authorizing the re-scanning of movies which were originally projected in film; later telecined to video for television, home videotape and DVD release; and now re-scanned in high-definition for sale to the same public who previously purchased or watched the movies in the theater and on their standard-definition televisions.

The handwriting is on the wall for film. Despite its current superiority at reproducing the subtle tonal values of a given scene, film’s future is surely at risk. For one, much of the aesthetic qualities still uniquely credited to film acquisition is a cultural phenomenon. Those of us who have watched cinema for the past century were accustomed to the not insignificant “frame blur” of motion picture film exposed at 24 frames per second (try taking photos of any kind active scene with a still camera set to something near the 1/48th second of motion pictures). Likewise, we’re accustomed to just how film “looks,” including the nearly limitless abstractions that visual craftsmen have applied to alter the contrast, color, grain, and texture over the decades.

In a world without film acquisition - our near future - generations of humans will likely learn to think of the “look” of film as something representing the past - as we already do with black and white motion pictures and television programs. In our new “HDTV” world’s 16:9 “widescreen” aspect ratio, even slick television productions of just the last decade can’t hide their squarish 4:3 shape. Any contemporary arguments for the technical and artistic superiority of film acquisition will be moot points to most human born in the last decade or so.

Consider, too, that the technology behind film projection - aside from the lens and illuminating lamp - is the strip of film itself. As film manufacturers Kodak, Agfa and Fuji have improved their print stocks, their innovations are shipped out with subsequently-released motion pictures. Improvements to digital projectors will surely come, but will require the replacement of expensive projector components, or the entire projectors themselves - at exhibitors' expense. What incentive will the local theater chain have for improving the image quality of their huge investment in digital projectors?

Today, an increasing number of television programs and motion pictures are being produced without film. Television programs destined for high-definition distribution, even so-called “prime time dramas” which have been the last bastion for the prestige and “quality” associated with film, continue to transition to video production as cameras and techniques have more closely approached the perceived images produced by film.

Film’s demise may have been hastened by an unexpected source. Two years ago, a friend who works for the Screen Actor’s Guild (the labor union which represents performers for film and television), related a current issue within the union which was to have significant impact on the use of film. When television was still in its infancy six decades ago, SAG and AFRA (American Federation of Radio Artists) met to discuss how the two performers’ unions would divvy up actors working in motion pictures and television. SAG magnanimously offered AFRA the television work - which subsequently became AFTRA, while SAG would maintain the prestigious clientele of the fully mature motion picture industry. Flash-forward to 2009, when the Screen Actors Guild had been mired in internal negotiations for new contracts for almost two years. Its constipated efforts had remained in entertainment-industry headlines constantly, and entertainment executives were increasingly uncomfortable with dealing with the troubled union, even though all the most desirable actors were and are SAG signatories. At some point, someone in the industry realized that there was subtle language in that half-century old contract still held by AFTRA that specified that if a production was shot on video - the technology of television from the 1950s and today - then any AFTRA performer was eligible to work on that production. SAG and AFTRA have agreements in which members of either union are eligible to work on shows covered by the other union. The upshot? If you shoot a television show without film, then you can sign SAG and AFTRA performers alike - essentially all working actors - to your production. Following this discovery, the 2009 television pilot season was predominately shot on HD video, and all those performers were signed with AFTRA contracts. SAG - still bickering internally to this day - was left out in the cold. But so was film.

For all of the technical and aesthetic arguments that industry artists and craftsmen have made over the past two decades about the future of film itself, few to none would have predicted that a major force of change in film’s survival would be the impact of a half-century old union contract for actors.

Despite my progressive attitude toward technological change, I am also a filmmaker. When at age 13 I shot my first narrative sequence on 8mm film, then waited a week and a half for it to return from the processor, then threaded that film into a projector and watched the results, it was MAGICAL. Even sitting in dailies on a major motion picture and watching footage we shot the previous day, there’s a fantastic, psycho-visual effect: it feels like someone else shot that footage, years ago, far away. Conversely, I can play a personal videotape I shot in 1981 and believe that we’ve just returned from that trip this morning, and are reviewing footage - so powerful is our cultural association with the visual qualities and historical uses of the two mediums. I will be sad the day the last motion picture is shot on film: for nostalgia; for the deep cultural impact that film has had since photography’s dawning almost two centuries ago; and because once closed behind us, that door will likely never be re-opened. I already miss the smell of cracking open a new can of film and inhaling the strangely appealing perfume of emulsion emanating from within.

My wife has told her cinema students that this was coming for years. We’ve known this was the future, like it or not.

The future is here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

facebook Announces Personal Content Archiving

The press announcement from facebook today (CNN, TechCrunch, addresses something I've really worried about (not for myself, so much): that all this effort people put into their fb profiles could some day vanish, or become unavailable to them. Facebook could be purchased, go out of business, or just have a massive data loss incident. You or your children might be interested in the life you shared online in 25 years - will facebook exist? Plus, this just appeals to the data manager in me.

From the CNN story:
With "Download Your Information," Facebook users will be able to create a zip file of everything they've done on the site.
From TechCrunch:

Facebook Product Manager David Recordon explains that you can access the “Download Your Information” feature from your account settings, hit the download button and Facebook will allow you to download everything off your profile, including your friends list, events, all of your messages, wall posts and all of your photos into a zip file.

Downloading your profile in this way does not delete it from the site, but simply provides you with a copy. Users wishing to erase their data entirely will have to go through the process of deleting their entire Facebook profile, separately from “Download Your Information.”

Recordon emphasizes that the product will be simple enough for laymen to use, a one click process.

More importantly, when asked during the Q&A whether a Facebook user could ostensibly download their information and then reupload it to a site other than Facebook, Zuckerberg answered:

“At a high level we’ve built two different things, Facebook Connect — which is our real effort to bring our sites to other sites, and “Download Your Information” where you can download your information and upload it to another site. Stuff that you put into the site, you should be able to take out.”

“Download Your Information” should be rolling out to all users beginning today.

As of this writing, the "Download Your Information" feature has not yet appeared on my facebook Account Settings.