What Goes into a Modern Documentary of Modest Means?

First of all, I’m not the expert. I was once an expert in video production, and much of that experience still applies, but getting down to the nuts and bolts has been a major re-education. I worked on video almost every day for a decade or more, but that was more than a decade ago. It was before HD, much less 4k UHD. It started before digital editing was powerful or particularly reliable. I spent fortunes on systems that lived with open cases and box fans blowing on the chips just to keep them cool. I worked with used 3/4″ tape decks from TV station surplus sales. I fined tuned my ability to push buttons in a hopeful effort at getting within a second of where I wanted the edit to occur. I used and killed hard drives that weighed 15 pounds and stored less than a freebie flash drive from a trade show. Ah, the early days.

Now, all I need is a decent computer (could be a laptop), a piece of editing software, and enough storage to hold the footage.

All of us grassroots video producers in those days were chasing the holy grail of broadcast quality. Standard definition was the only definition and broadcast quality was about color accuracy, being able to carry that signal though the edit process without ending up with smeared video mud. Mostly we failed. The only way to true success was through a very expensive gateway that was dominated by stations and networks that not only could afford the equipment but had all the means of distribution under their collective thumb. Raise your hand if you grew up with 3 channels on your floor cabinet TV…

Now your cell phone probably shoots pretty good video, you can find free (but limited) editing software, and a YouTube account anxiously awaits your next post.

After a whirlwind tour of the state of the art in video, some basic rules bubble to the surface:

One, it’s remarkably cheap to make credible video these days at quality and resolution that far exceeds the high five-figure cameras I used way back when. Accurate editing is no longer even an issue. Honestly, it wasn’t really a problem when I stopped making video a decade ago, but the modern ability to manipulate footage has made enormous progress and offers up a lot more room for creative decisions.

Two, relatively high quality still costs relatively large amounts of money, but the entire cost/quality scale has dropped radically, especially compared to shooting on 35mm film, the only way to achieve a filmic look back in the day. If you recall, George Lucas created a big stir when he decided to shoot the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy on digital cameras – code for staggeringly expensive video cameras. We all know how that turned out. The modern equivalent is impressive across a broad range of cost, but in general, the quality of “film” costs more like a used car than like a new mansion. Good news.

Three, the line between film (which was a dream in the old days) and video is very blurry. Most high end television and a large chunk of feature films no longer even use film even though they look exactly how we expect film to look. They are technically shooting video on the set. Low end television, obviously shot on video, still looks like it was shot on video. The point is that there is no radical split between video and film these days. It’s simply a matter of process and technique applied to equipment that allows enough room to achieve a filmic look. If you know what you are doing, that equipment line extends all the way down into GoPros and cellphones, with some nerd-talk limitations too numerous to mention.

Four, nothing about making a good film has changed. It’s still about telling a story that matters, at least to someone.

Now for the nuts and bolts, and why there’s such a large number attached to my GoFundMe page.

First, audio before video. My documentary is about our relationship with dogs, and features Old Dog Haven as the tip of the sword. Like any story, it requires a number of elements, all working in concert. Yes, it’s a video, and a lot of effort is being spent on the quality of the video. However, anyone who has produced video for a living understands that great video is nothing without great audio. Right now, I have a good microphone on my primary camera. This leads to three questions: One, is the audio good enough? In many cases, yes. In edge cases, no. I shot some quasi-interview footage at the Walk for Old Dogs, and the result was good as long as I was close to the subject and there was no major background noise. It also had the real drawback of no backup audio. Backup audio can take many forms, depending on the camera and microphones. In a perfect world, there are at least two video sources for any given interview and two audio sources. The video sources allow me to edit from one shot to the next to keep it interesting, and the multiple audio sources allow me even more flexibility. Let’s say that one audio source is a lavaliere microphone and one is the audio from the camera five feet away. In the edit, I have the ability to choose from both of these audio sources and mix between them to create the most clear and natural sounding audio for the interview. Most importantly, if one recording fails for some reason, like a jet flying over or a garbage truck rolling through the neighborhood, I have the ability to use the other source to cover the problem. Are there ways to clean up problem audio? Sure, Does it cost more than recording good audio in the first place. You bet, in both time and money.

Second, video quality. As you read this, be aware that I am simplifying drastically. Modern video quality depends a lot of factors. First is the camera. My current generation cell phone shoots amazing video, and the audio is impressive as well. So why not shoot the entire film on my phone? It has been done. Well, modern phone video is good but it comes from a minuscule camera buried in a phone and is largely dependent on the software that processes the video before it gets recorded. This is a great thing if you want to throw an off-the-cuff video on Facebook. It’s a drawback if you want to mesh the video with other cameras in the course of making a large scale presentation that looks like a film.

It gets into some technical issues, like bit-rates and codecs, but the long and short of it is that if you want to make a long-form film, having more control is better. At the ODH walk event, I shot on one camera, and Kelly shot on his GoPro4. Both kinds of footage came out very well, but they do not match. If my goal is to tell a seamless story without the distraction of two entirely different looks, I need the control to make the footage match. If anyone has spent time with a GoPro, you know that it shoots amazing footage in bright sunlight on a clear day. The colors are punchy and vivid, and the footage is crispy and sharp. This is a beautiful effect for video, as in, welcome to the part where I jump off a sandstone cliff and plunge into huge surf where a surfboard is waiting for me to shred (or whatever surfers do). As part of a seamless film, well frankly, it needs to be toned down. The usual method for controlling the over-punched effect is to shoot in something known as log. In GoPro terms, it’s called Protune. This is a method of shooting the footage without all the punchy effects, the high contrast, the vivid colors, the in-camera sharpening. The downside is that you can’t throw the video up on YouTube in one fell swoop. The upside is that it captures a bit more dynamic range than the normal method and allows you a lot more latitude in the edit. You can more flexibly define how the final footage looks. This is an important factor when trying to make footage from multiple, different cameras look like they are shooting the same scene.

Nerd ALERT! Then there’s the codec issue. Most lower end cameras shoot some variation of h.264, which is a codec (encoder/decoder), a particular algorithm for compressing the footage through the camera before it gets crammed onto an SD card. As it turns out, h.264 is good enough for this purpose, and it’s good for delivery of the final video. What it’s not good for is the in-between, the actual editing of footage. The reason is that h.264 is an interframe codec, meaning the compression considers the earlier frames and the later frames for each frame of video. It’s very efficient for storage of camera footage, but it places a high demand on the CPU of the computer doing the editing. Every time you look at any given frame of the video, it has to look at multiple frames to display that frame. This takes time, which equates to delays when actually trying to make edit decisions.

What’s the solution? First, I had to throw out my favorite editing software of many years. Even in its most current version, it choked on h.264. Of course, it could be my hardware causing the problem, but the reality is that I am running a heavyweight desktop machine. Yes, it’s a few years old, but it’s a serious, high performance chunk of hardware. Each individual hard drive is suspect, and I do have a few performance duds in the box, but I’m not using those for editing. I’m using the best single drive solution I have right now. If it’s not the hardware, then I need to look at the codec. It turns out that there are a multitude of good editing codecs, and every last one of them takes up more hard drive space than the camera original h.264. My first test filled up a terabyte of hard drive space like it was nothing. I worked through the options until I found one that had less-than-ludicrous storage requirements. Needless to say, my powerhouse machine for writing, photography, graphics, and CAD finds itself begging for more and faster hard drive space.

That’s without reliable backups. Imagine you go out for several days and shoot lengthy interviews of dog rescue volunteers and the related B-roll footage of the dogs under their care. You fill up multiple SD cards and take all that footage back to the editing machine. You copy it across to the hard drive and because you need the SD cards for the next shoot, you delete the files from the cards. The next day you’re happily editing away on all that interview footage and the hard drive picks that very day to release the magic smoke and grind to a halt. Without a backup that you made at the same time you imported the footage, you just wasted three days of your time, hours and inconvenience for each of the interview subjects, any money it took to get to the locations, and far worse, you just lost any of those magic moments that happen during interviews, moments that will never happen again.

Currently, I do have a backup drive just for footage, but at the rate I’m going, it will be full by the end of August.

Then there’s the camera itself. Thanks to support from some mighty kind folks, I have a camera that is almost perfect for capturing dogs in their element. Does that make it perfect for everything involved in this documentary? Unfortunately, no. The camera in question can record audio from the good microphone I mentioned earlier, but it cannot record the optimal audio for a solid interview. It is very good up to its limits but those limits do not include high resolution recording of colors. Why does this matter? Let’s say you are standing up for an interview and you are trusting me to make you look good. Higher quality recording of the color-space allows me to do a lot of adjustment to your facial tones and that includes some selective sharpening to minimize age. If I record at low end camera specs, I have very little room to adjust. If I record with better camera encoding, I can do quite a lot to make all my interview subjects look great.

Luckily dogs don’t care. With a modicum of love, they are all convinced they are perfect. This brings me to the other end of this camera point. The dogs.

If you spend as much time among dogs as I do, you understand that they operate at a higher speed than we do. They make decisions, change facial expressions, and interact with us faster than we do among ourselves. This demands the use of high frame rates. If I shoot a dog at the normal television 30 frames per second and slow it down, the software is forced to interpolate and artificially blur the action. If, on the other hand, I shoot at 60 or 120 frames per second, the software does not have to guess at what happened. The information is already there. At 60 fps, I can cut the speed in half. At 120 frames per second, I can cut it down to quarter speed and all the frames are available for the software to pick and choose. This means that I can slow the dog footage down to the point where we can see them at the speeds they actually play and interact. In a film about dogs, you can understand why this is important.

So, I take the output resolution of the whole project, I look at cameras that serve that resolution at high frame rates, I consider the quality requirements, and I end up with a certain camera.

I start with the amount of space I’ve already used for the footage I’ve gathered, extrapolate that into the plan for this film, and throw in some performance requirements to come up with a bundle of hard drive solutions. There are multiple approaches to the problem, but like everything else with this project, I aim squarely for the best cost/benefit solution.

Audio is a bit more complex. If I fail to gather enough support, then I aim for an add on solution to the camera I have now. If I get enough support, I can build most of the audio solution into the camera I would use for the interviews. In a perfect world, I would do both for all the redundancy I can manage. I’m pretty serious about those magic moments. Missing one, or capturing one that I can’t use because of bad audio would hurt – a lot.

This just to lend a glimpse into what it takes to make a quality film that involves a mass of footage and at least two species. (You never know when a cat will photo bomb the whole scene.)

There are two points remaining. One is that there are far more expensive ways to do it, and two is that the story is worthwhile. Please help me finish it.

 

Our Roster of Love

Well, Hagar was put to sleep yesterday. It was a hard decision and no one wanted to do it, but it was clearly time. The photo above was in his last hour.

 

Hagar in Better Days

First, I need to thank the entire crew at Tumwater Veterinary Hospital for their incredible support. We joked that Hagar was a rockstar, since he liked to wander late at night and sleep until noon, but he was clearly popular at our vet’s office too. We would walk in, and the folks behind the desk would announce, “Hagar’s here!” before the door even swung shut. I thank those techs who came in to say goodbye to him, and I thank Dr. Lina, who went above and beyond in her pursuit to keep him healthy. Old Dog Haven dogs are a tough problem. They almost always come with a mysterious multitude of health issues. I suspect that she was beating herself up with a bunch of woulda-coulda-shouldas, but the fact is that dogs can’t tell you what hurts. It’s a tough job. I’d trust her with any dog.

Minky Feeling Good

The consolation in every ODH foster is that every one of them is a dog who could have died alone and afraid. Instead, they pass on surrounded by people who love them, and they know it. When it’s time to say goodbye, they go with a palpable sense of relief and joy. My guess is that Hagar had some kind of event a couple of Friday nights past, a neurological thing that changed his behavior and made his recovery impossible. We will never know for sure, of course, but there is a certain spirituality in the passing of a dog that tells the tale. Hagar was lost and miserable. His body and mind had failed him. Dr. Lina administered a sedative, and I could feel him relax and let go of the pain. She delivered the coup de grace and he was gone. Usually I can feel it, but this time, it took a while. I imagine it as shaking off the effects of having a damaged brain, but after a while, I could tell that he was feeling the joy of re-connection to whatever dogs reconnect to after they leave this life. It was time indeed.

The ODH foster role can be tough, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Every relationship with a dog is rewarding, but these ODH dogs are the tip of the sword. The payoff is usually short lived, and the effort is high. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Will we do it again? Without a doubt.

The Aussie Club

Meanwhile, we have our own pack. I consider Hope to be the matriarch, even though she doesn’t really care for leadership. She cares for love and play. As a large Chocolate Lab, she lives for lap time with Sharon, although it’s a recliner destroying freak show of love. Behind her is Elke, who came into our current life with me. She is a Border Collie Jack Russell mix, which means that she has every form of dog OCD you can name, and she considers herself in charge of everything. The fly in her personal ointment is that fact that she has gone blind. I’d say she is almost fully blind now. It’s a long drop from her youth as a killer frisbee dog, but she has full-on bat hearing to compensate. She still has the ability to find balls and frisbees that our fully-sighted dogs cannot. Let’s just call it focus. Behind Elke is Jay.

Elke in a Tent on a Bike Tour

We pulled him from a shelter adoption day in the tri-cities. He’s some kind of greyhound mix, and he is probably our sweetest dog. He falls a bit on the timid side, but as he gets older, he puts up with less from the other dogs. It’s not hard to hurt Jay’s feelings, and we can tell when he faces the corner with only furtive glances to make sure we can see that he is offended. Then, there’s the Aussie club. Make no mistake, it is an exclusive membership club. They have certain rituals that look violent, but are not, until someone outside the club tries to participate. Luna is 7, and was born deaf. It’s a common problem among Australian Shepherds. In practical terms, it has no effect. She misses nothing. Her younger half brother Roscoe is our youngest at five. He’s not a rescue in the classical sense as he came from a quality breeder and he is as healthy and stout as a fresh NFL linebacker. He is simply a mismark, which means he doesn’t meet the breed standards for markings. This takes nothing away from his beauty and magnificence of course. Breed standards mean nothing to me. He’s a sweet boy, and a little Aussie crazy. I could explain the commands he responds to, but I promise it would make no sense at all.

So, five dogs, five rescues, and enough shedding fur to sculpt a new one every week. Yep, it’s worth it.

Roscoe’s Usual Attitude

I know that some of you wish I could do nothing but write fiction. There is a major appeal in that for me as well. However, if I had not spent my life doing a whole bunch of things, I’m pretty sure the writing would have less authority and less meat on the bone. Some people look forward to retirement. I can’t even imagine retirement. I’d be happy to keel over with my hands on a keyboard. I have a great many things I want to do, and the only sad part is that I can’t possibly live long enough to do them all. Thanks to a certain reshuffling of life, I am fully engaged in writing again. I’m knocking down at least 20,000 words a week now, but that will never be all I do.

In Western Washington, we have a perfect summer that lasts from July 4th to roughly mid October. I want to spend a great deal of that time producing a documentary about Old Dog Haven. This is an organization that deserves every recognition they can get. It is the creation of a woman named Judith, who is frankly remarkable. She burns the candle at both ends. She’s on her mission 24/7 and has managed to build a rescue organization with virtually no overhead that spends $90,000 per month on old dog medical expenses. My hope is threefold. One is to bring in more support with a film quality documentary about dog rescue in general and ODH in particular. Two is to use the footage to create some pointed fundraising videos for  ODH, and three is to make the entire footage library available to the organization for their communication efforts. There are some follow on goals as well, but first things first.

To that end, I have set up a gofundme campaign. If you want to get involved in something very personal and central to me, you can donate here. On behalf of myself, ODH, and a lot of dogs that need help, I would greatly appreciate your support.

 

Sewing-n-Sawdust

Although anyone reading my author blog would much prefer to see me making announcements about the Renewal universe, a hard fact remains. I have to make enough of a living to stay afloat. I have spent far too much time doing things that are completely antithetical to the goal of writing, but thanks to a few changes, I am redefining the system as we speak – so to speak.

Anything I write as an independent author has a significant time lag from publication to actually making money. If you are still out there, waiting for the sequel to Renewal, and the sequel to that, then my best case scenario is that I publish and roughly 120 days later, I get paid enough to stop doing all the things I do to keep my pirate ship afloat. If you are not there, if you have moved on, understandably so given the amount of time it has taken, then my chance of being able to focus on fiction full-time is slim to none. If you would chime in at this point, and let me know how you feel, it definitely helps my decision process.

Meanwhile, I need a system that pays for my time in the short term. Paycheck to paycheck. This could be a normal job, which I suck at doing (since most bosses are idiots) or even landing, since I am a profound generalist, jack-of-all-trades, Renaissance man kind of guy with an earnings history that weeds me out before I get started. We all know that companies look for specialists who have spent 7 years doing a very specific thing, using a very specific technology. Frankly, I disagree with this entire approach. Broad expertise that can be focused is far more valuable than a life spent in the side pocket of a pool table, but the stats don’t lie. Companies continue to look for cogs in the machine rather than broad-based problem solvers, and there is nothing I can do about it. Except…

There are things that matter in terms of making a living, and things that matter in terms of making a life. Obviously if we could all solve both at once we would. That’s a rare gift indeed. In my case, I strive for it. I’ve had enough significant health issues that I regard life as too short to spend on things that don’t matter to me.

So, what matters? People, obviously, and what they do, how they cope and interact with each other. How they communicate in world where communication seems to be broken across ideological lines. Animals, and giving them a refund for their total dedication to us, which includes dog rescue in a major way, spoiling cats in a significant way, and acknowledging the glory of beef, pork, chicken, and eggs on my table. The fish, well… I’m not sure they give a crap. Survival is survival.

I dove into sewing for one primary reason. I wanted to make dog clothing for our current ODH foster, Hagar. Hagar came to us as a captured stray. He had no fur, but he was clearly loved and spoiled at some point in his life. I imagine that his people succumbed to Alzheimers and forgot he was in the yard. His remaining person probably got picked up and moved to a nursing home without anyone knowing that a tiny dog was waiting patiently in the backyard. Eventually, Hagar realized that he would have to fend for himself and escaped, and some time later, he was picked up as a stray, wearing a grimy sweater and without his proud mantle of Pomeranian fur. As ODH fosters, we were presented with this dog as the worst of the current crop. The shelter had decided that he may not be in his right mind, and that we may have an impossible task on or hands. Of course this was what we wanted. As my wife said, “If Jim can’t connect with him…” It’s true. I can read dogs very well. The end result was that Hagar was emotionally wounded, yes. But he was not gone. Our connection with him is now is as solid as dogs we have raised from puppies. He trusts us and is excited to be near us. I can’t really express how gratifying it is to gain his trust, but that trust is true. Just like it is with all dog relationships.

So, I decide to tackle sewing to make Hagar more comfortable. For me, every moment of an old rescue dog’s life has become important.  I do my usual massive, generalist data crunch, like I do on every new skill, and I discover a few remarkable things. First is that sewing is massive and highly refined. In sewing terms, every basic sewing problem has been solved to a high degree, and information is raining out of the sky like a Tennessee Summer storm. Second is that it speaks an entirely different language than a man with a lifetime of crafting skills. If I want to make dog clothes, there is plenty of information, but it all falls in the realm of costumes for dogs rather than practical solutions. If I want to make a bed for dogs, I can find tons of good information on how to make an old sweater into a dog bed, which is great, but I can’t find anything on how to make a dog bed from scratch. If I want to compensate for a dog’s behavior in design of a harness, or a grab handle, or flotation, products exist, but they are expensive and they can never cover every case, such as dog that is blind, deaf, old, and happens to like running out into the street for kicks.

I extend this into other problems, such as the 100 times I have tried to design a trade show both and been stymied by the fact that I needed some sewing done, but I was speaking a different language than the sewist in question and I realized… there is giant man-shaped hole in sewing. Go ahead and look. There is no book on sewing for men. This is for two reasons, I suspect. One is that the men who actually sew for a living defend their territory (as men do) for competitive advantage. Two is that sewing is a grand feminine tradition. I do not mean to imply that this is a bad thing. It is a cultural tradition of sharing that probably reaches back to the dawn of civilization. Women are more than happy to share their knowledge and experience in sewing. That’s not the problem. The problem is that men are no more ready to ask the dumb questions than they are inclined to stop and ask directions when they are lost.

That being the case, I have studied the crap out of sewing and reached out to machine manufacturers in an effort to bridge the gap between a grand feminine tradition and the male tendency to avoid a language barrier that equates to asking for directions, even when we know full-well that we are lost. I’m bridging a predominantly female tradition with a male tradition of making things that can shear off hands and shoot flames out of tanks full of volatile gas. As my editor Connie says, “Tailoring requires the same kind of mind that would build a trebuchet.” I think she’s right.

As such, I have created a YouTube channel called Sewing-n-Sawdust, where we will build shop-sewing projects, from a male list of motivations, and see if we end up with something useful. Lest you think it’s a sexist screed, let me paraphrase my friend Miranda, who will always be able to sew circles around me. ” I agree that the sewing world is full of frilly nonsense. Unless I am going to a formal event, I would just as soon burn a dress as to wear it.”

As man facing the women’s world of sewing, we are just trying to catch up, but we probably never will.

Spambotted

Well, after a massive attack this morning, I did two things. One is, I culled several hundred spammy-looking users, and two, I added a captcha plugin. I hate captcha. I put it off as long as possible, but now you must prove your agile-minded humanity to subscribe. Apologies for that and for any legitimate users I made have accidentally deleted.

Walk the Fire

Good morning!

In case you weren’t aware, I’m honored to be one of the authors in a shared world anthology known as Walk the Fire. It’s a Kickstarter funded project by John Mierau and David Sobkowiak, and as of right now, it is 84% funded with three days to go. Before I jump up on my soapbox and have at it, I’d like to ask you to head on over to the Kickstarter page and kick in a few dollars to get the project funded.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1325849873/walk-the-fire-a-shared-world-sf-anthology-series

If that mighty example of left-handed salesmanship didn’t do it for you, I have a few more things to say.

First off, I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t like the concept. The “shared world” part means that John and David have created a grand sandbox in which to play. They have a world concept and a list of authors. Each author writes within the concept to come up with a tapestry of narrative within the universe of Walk the Fire. If the first anthology is any indication, this is a very cool way to build a story with many voices and interpretations on a theme. I personally have about four Walk the Fire story ideas competing to be written. I suspect the many of my co-authors are way ahead of me, and I’m excited to see the results.

Next, I’m a big fan of Kickstarter. It’s brilliant. We live in tight times. The traditional methods of getting things done are no longer working to drive us forward. Corporations tend to work in tried and true pipelines. The government can’t innovate its way out of a paper bag. Finding the money to try new things is harder than ever before. Along comes Kickstarter to create an engine to finance good (and sometimes not-so-good) ideas based on the actual demand for the idea. It’s a direct line of communication between the makers and those who want the products. If you spend any time there, I can almost guarantee that you will find something you always wanted but didn’t know it, something you realize is a perfect solution to an insolvable problem, and in concert, a better vision for our future.

More broadly, I’m one of those wingnuts who believes that the core of greatness comes from innovation, not in the bland platitudes of a Presidential radio address, but in the greasy, dirt-and-sawdust-covered hands of those who actually try to make something, to fix something, to grow something from bare earth and a handful of seeds.

We swim in raging rivers of information every day. People make entire fortunes with nothing more than data and a clever algorithm to mine revenue from the stream, and that’s fine, but there will never be a replacement for actually creating something tangible, from nothing, with our own hands, with our own minds.

Make something new, and support those who do. It helps us all improve the world, and sometimes, it just feels good. I think we’re built that way.