Monthly Archives: March 2012

Vanity Project: First Hurdles

No small part of the issue with remastering Star Wars: The Gifted is what’s left of it. There’s no original footage—only the final cut of the film. That means that everything we did to the original tape—capturing, rendering, visual effects, the whole shebang—is there to be worked around.

SWTG was shot on NTSC VHS tape, which in and of itself is a poor medium to capture from. Wikipedia tells me that VHS records 333×480 pixels per frame at 30 frames per second. The source footage was captured by Chris in an early build of Premiere at 640×480, at 30 frames per second. I believe it was captured using the old Cinepak codec, which would explain a lot of the artifacting and blockiness of the footage and why it kind of looks like an old FMV videogame. For an example of what I mean, check out the heavily- banded opening shot of a pan down to Earth, lifted from one of the movies and compressed all to hell:

In the real Star Wars film this was ripped from, the planet was detailed and had smooth gradients where here it’s posterized and flickery.

Still, 640×480 would be something to go on. I could reasonably upscale that to 720×480 NTSC widescreen and do my best to fix the quality issues, smooth out the posterization that happens with Cinepak.

Unfortunately, I don’t have true 640×480. I also don’t have 30 frames per second.

Details for SWTG’s final cut–the only remaining footage.

The entire film is at 15 fps. And many of the visual effects shots weren’t done at 640×480—they were rendered out of Premiere as 320×240 filmstrips that we edited in Photoshop. You can see which shots were done at 240 versus 480; the tightness of the halos on the lightsabers are a dead giveaway.

Click to embiggen. Notice the difference in compression artifacts and overall quality.

Chris and I split the VFX work, and since this was my first time using Photoshop, I did the task based on a tutorial he found online without too much observation of what I was doing. The tutorial gave settings to make great-looking lightsabers at 240×320; some of the filmstrips I got from Chris were 640×480, which meant the lightsabers’ halos came out tighter and more solid. (I also just flat-out did some of them wrong, but that’s another story.)

So the film was not only captured at a mediocre resolution using a weak early-90s-era codec that resulted in horrible-looking banding, but the footage I have left to work with runs only at 15 fps and frequently drops from 640×480 to 320×240. Further, the DivX codec used to export the final movie resulted in lots of blocking, ringing, and colour noise.

There’s a general rule when upscaling that the more source pixels you have to upscale from, the better the final product will be. That’s why some BluRay players do an awesome job upscaling DVDs. But I don’t have that luxury. Those pixels I need simply don’t exist.

I’ll need to find another way.

Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals,

Trevor

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Anecdotal Evidence

We’re having a bit of a heat wave in the nation’s capital right now.

I haven’t been able to remember a spring that got this hot this early. Usually, there are warm sunny days and cold cold nights–perfect weather around March Break for sap to flow quickly, perfect weather for making maple syrup at the farm. It’s so consistently warm now that CBC ran a feature yesterday evening about syrup producers’ concerns that the industry will take a hit from the bizarre weather.

Just out of curiosity, I looked at the historical temperature data from my weather app:

On average, it’s going to be 29 degrees Celcius warmer today than it’s ever been in Ottawa.

This is so surface-level it’s almost laughable, but if anyone doubts that climate is changing, this should make them think twice.

Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals,

Trevor


Vanity Project

2012-2013 is the 10-year anniversary of the first student film I made. I did choreo, cinematography and visual effects for my buddy Chris’ Star Wars fan film in the second half of grade nine. Armed with a VHS camcorder and Photoshop 6, we put together 17 minutes of fanboy magic that have formed some of my fondest memories of high school.

The title card from Star Wars: The Gifted (2002)

Chris posited in the film that George Lucas was a historian and activist, not a fiction writer, and came to Earth from Coruscant to spread knowledge of the Force and the evils of the Empire. The Jedi had long ago had a presence on Earth, and only the planet’s youth and insignificance protected it from the turmoil of galactic events. Now, however, the last vestiges of the Sith had turned their gaze towards the planet, and a pair of Force-gifted youth were mobilized by the spirits of the Great Jedi Masters to defend the planet from the insurgency. The two grapple with tough choices about their friendship and feelings for one another, as well as sacrifices they will be called on to make for the greater good.

Chris & costar Michelle as Eric and Robin, unassuming Force-gifted youth (Star Wars: The Gifted 2002)

Periodically, I’ve watched it and thought about our grand plans. We had entered preproduction on a sequel in my grade 10 year, with a full script, expanded cast, shooting models (one, a table-sized Jedi temple), props and costumes all complete. But one thing led to another and the product, and its final future episode, were abandoned.

While episodes two and three of our trilogy only exist in dim memory and dusty Word documents, Star Wars: The Gifted very much exists, and I’ve dabbled in remastering the film for a couple of years now. In 2010, I built some art assets based on conversations Chris and I had about what the original intent was for many of the scenes. We essentially set ourselves on the task of doing what Lucas said he was doing from the Special Editions onward: going back and doing what we would have done if we had the technology to do it.

..like seeing the Jedi Temple more like how Chris envisioned it and in line with what the movies presented, instead of not at all.

Some of what I’m planning to add or have brought into the mythology is new, of course, things we’ve spun since then that would better contextualize the universe. Some of it is designed to lead into sequels that never existed and never will exist. It’s a complete vanity project, meant to test some of my technical ability and so that I can experience this particular magic again.

There have been some things significantly holding up the project. For most of the time I wanted to do it, I only had a crappy laptop to work on. What Lappy can’t handle, however, the Obelisk, a fairly-new desktop built for editing and gaming, can do nicely.

For example, Lappy couldn’t even handle this quick colour-grading test from last year decently.

It’s time to stop doing tests and experiments, though. I’ve come up with some ideas on how to salvage the footage (there’s no original footage left, so all the remastering will be done from the existing final cut of the movie). Chris and I combed through the film to reframe shots and establish how we were going to add new visual effects or footage to make the story clearer. I’m sure there will be many more conversations about what’s going to end up in the final remastered version, and plenty of nitpicking over content.

Addition of badass spaceship: non-negotiable.

One thing’s for sure. Getting to see this old project fresh, being able to put this remastering project to bed, will be a way to exorcise some of my filmmaking demons. I don’t do as much film work as I’d like, but making short films just is not really in the cards for me right now. This is a low-impact way to complete a “new” project and turn something I was proud of into something I am proud of.

See it again… Or, more likely, for the first time.

More on the technical front in the next Vanity Project post. For now, I ask: what was your biggest Star Wars fantasy as a kid? I’ve fallen out of love with the franchise, but I can’t describe how much I loved the idea of being a B-Wing fighter pilot, like Rookie One was in Rebel Assault 2.

Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals,

Trevor


Windows 8 Apps Wrapup: Reader, Skydrive, and Internet Explorer

It’s the last day of the Great Metro App Roundup, and we’ve got two of the biggest new apps to go!

Reader

This… this is not one of the biggest two apps today. This document and PDF viewer is, like many of the preview apps, totally functional. But I’m not sold. It’ll very obviously work better in touch mode, and it’s much peppier than Acrobat for loading and viewing PDFs, but the granular control over printing isn’t in place yet; it’s even missing things like being able to print single pages.

Skydrive

The built-in Skydrive app offers basic file management, which is acceptable if you use it just as a locker service, but lacks a function I really want from Skydrive: Office.

Being able to edit my documents on the go, from my phone or another computer, is a feature I really enjoy. The Office Web App is totally functional and I like that option. This highlights something that’s missing from Windows at this point, but, I believe, is going to be remedied in the future. I am of the understanding that Windows 8 will ship with a version of Office that works natively with Skydrive for cloud storage;  this is perfect. Once Office web apps fall in line for easier document sharing, this’ll be a killer feature.

PS: the photo of a button? My sister made it. It says I love hope something eats you. My sister is awesome.

Internet Explorer Metro

Here’s my love letter. I’ve been really critical thus far, but I cannot overstate the impact that Metro IE has had on my perception of what the web is.

Look at that screenshot. There hasn’t been any cropping done. That’s just what it looks like. There’s no anything! All the browser controls are hidden behind the page in the right-click menu. And what this does is turn any well-designed web site into a tight app-like experience. The content is allowed to be front-and-centre rather than being subject to the structure of the application.

Right-clicking brings up the tabs and controls. Otherwise, they hide and allow the content to be front-and-centre.

And it’s fast. Holy crap, it’s fast. I did some informal speed tests between it, Chrome, and Firefox, and IE beat the pants off both of them.

It also has a pretty Metro-styled “New Tab” screen.

Two things bother me about it, though. One: It’s a different app than desktop IE rather than a just different UI over the same program. That means that if you’re browsing in Metro and switch to desktop, your open tabs and windows don’t carry over.

It also means compatibility issues. Metro IE doesn’t support Flash, even on x86. That means no streaming video on most websites, including Facebook video, no multi-file upload dialog on WordPress, even some YouTube videos have issues.

I get the decision not to support Flash on ARM-based systems. There are legitimate performance concerns (especially on lower-end ARM hardware). But I’m on a proper computer, with the horsepower to run full-screen streaming flash video, and I want to do that thing. HTML5 isn’t here yet, not in the way Apple and Microsoft want it to be, and in the meantime I still want Flash support in my browser. If there was Flash support in Metro IE, it’d be my primary browser in a heartbeat.

All that said, other than for those tasks where I want Flash support, I’m thrilled by Metro IE. It’s phenomenally quick and has, literally, made me reconsider how I want to use web browsers. The lack of browser chrome on any given page, even at the top of the page, is great. And I can’t wait to see how it improves with the addition of new charms and improved notifications.

The Share charm currently only supports Mail, but it’s still a quick and awesome way to share content.

Formatting in the Share email makes sending links to people less aggravating and much cleaner.

That’s it on Windows 8 for now, folks. I’m continuing to use it and enjoy; there has been an update recently to Mail that has smoothed over some performance jenk and I imagine things will continue to trend towards awesome. Windows 8 is looking like it’s going to be another Windows 7–that is, an incredibly stable beta, lots of engagement with the community, and it’ll deliver an awesome product.

The apps are going to make or break it, of course. You’ll notice no official Facebook or Twitter apps in my review; that’s because there are none. But there’s been a pretty solid standard set by Microsoft with their built-in apps, and I’ll keep posting as things change and evolve.

Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals,

Trevor