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Video Reborn: film making in the digital era

September 22, 2012


If you're an aspiring film maker, or at least dabbling with the idea, you couldn't have picked a more exciting time to begin.

The art of film making and video production in recent times has gone from a highly specialised science only a decade or so ago to what it is now – a pick-up-and-go affair. Chances are that you already have all the raw material needed to shoot a high definition short film, complete with basic special effects and musical score, and you probably didn't even know it! Today our everyday gadgets sport an array of multimedia features that would only be thought of as magical or probably diabolical thirty odd years ago. We now live in a world where entire films have been shot on cell phones; one of them was even an Oscar contender!

The time of the analogue

In the good old days of video production and film making, everything was analogue. Most of us don’t even remember the analogue era of VHS and Beta Cam, but let us take the humble audio cassette as an example. Imagine having to make a mix tape on cassette using nothing but albums that are also on cassette tapes; sounds horrifying doesn’t it? Now imagine that same principle and replace the songs with each and every cut in a movie scene, that’s what video production was like back in the day. Not a pretty picture.

Going Digital

Now in the digital era video editing is all done on computers, yes very much like the one you have at home, only with more processing power and specialised software. Digital means that every picture is coded into a series of numbers and this number sequence remains the same. As a result, there is no quality loss when copied again and again. That is why movies and audio remain crisp and pristine in the digital domain. Another remarkable ability of digital media is random access, which means that you can skip to a precise location of a movie or song without having to scrub through any length of tape: no fast forwarding or rewinding necessary! That alone has changed the face of video production like never before imagined.

For the amateur film maker, gone are the days of heavy, cumbersome industrial-sized equipment and long, tedious processes that required a hefty bank balance. It seems almost laughable to think that your average smart phone today probably has more video recording capability and functionality than the most advanced digital video camcorders from only ten years ago, and at the rate technology is progressing it’s only going to get more fun and exciting, not to mention cost effective! Naturally, that doesn’t mean that film making and video production has been demoted from an art form to a casual pastime. We still have multi-million dollar movies, only the millions of dollars are now more often spent on eye candy for the viewer rather than being squandered on equipment and production studios. That’s always good news for us movies fans!

What it was like for the Hollywood legends from the past

 Looking back, film legends such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and even more recently, Steven Spielberg, were fortunate enough to be exposed to filming equipment and studio facilities earlier in their lives when it was not only difficult to put anything on film but also would cost a fortune. Each of today’s master movie moguls have their own story of how hard work, good fortune, and a little conniving on their part put them on the path to motion picture greatness. They all testify to working long, hard hours just to get their hands on all the equipment they needed to work on their very first amateur production.

Luckily, the only hard work most of us have to do to get on that path is a little coaxing and prompting to get a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera for our next birthday or graduation!

First step to film production: DSLR

Congratulations! You’re now the owner of a swanky new camera! After showing it off to friends and family (and updating your Facebook status) we can finally get down to making our first movie – after all, how difficult can it be?

Aha! Time out! Hang on there a second Mr. Director. Let’s take a moment to assess the situation: it may come as a nasty shock to most of us but let’s not forget that simply owning a shiny new DSLR camera doesn’t make you Steven Spielberg, and especially not Alfred Hitchcock! Granted that video production has come a long way since the dark days of analogue media, but the art of storytelling is still the deciding factor between an engaging movie and a boring home video. No amount of Hollywood wizardry can make a dull story come to life. So first things first, have a story to tell, and tell it well.

Second step: techniques

Thankfully, we have a plethora of new technologies that help in the art of storytelling. These range from cheaper, cooler, and more portable lighting options to anything and everything imaginable during the post-production process. Once you have the basic raw elements of your story captured on your favourite digital camera, you can then decide on how to present it. Software and the internet come in very handy at this stage. Anyone using either Microsoft Windows or Apple OS can take advantage of the resident video editing and production software already available at your disposal. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the software, remember that it is still way more powerful than anything our previous generation could ever hope for. The latest versions of your operating system will make transferring and laying out your individual shots an almost automatic process. No need to fuss around with formats, and containers, and codecs, aspect ratios, and frame rates. It’s all usually done for you, but anyone wishing to go further in this field should be prepared to delve into the somewhat confusing world of video formats – but more on that later.

Third step: special effects

With the growing success of sci-fi blockbusters, any aspiring filmmaker would want to throw in explosions, gunshots, laser beams, spaceships, or simply text moving about on the screen. Back in the day special effects weren’t that special, and frankly speaking, weren’t that effective either – but they worked for that time, and people got the idea. These days realism is what sells, and effects are getting more and more real with each movie release. There is dedicated software where all the magic takes place. Entire battlefields are populated with terrain, soldiers, barracks, vehicles, armoury, weapons, fire, explosions, smoke, and all their corresponding sound effects on nothing more than computer software. Basically, everything except the actors (at least at the time of writing this article) can be fabricated by software and made to look more real than reality. In fact, most movies even without apparent special effects are brimming with scenes that were never there during the shooting phase and only built during post production. Can you imagine what the makers of classics like Cleopatra or Ben Hur would have given to have that kind of technology? Seeing the potential behind this technology there has been a rapid influx into the world of animation of many aspiring digital artists and coders, they specialise in adding glitz and dazzle to otherwise bland video footage.

The format

Coming back to the codec debate, with the progression of technology and the many individual research groups who have been working tirelessly for our benefit, we can expect several different branches of video formats active today. That, unfortunately, is an understatement. There are more codecs and formats in digital video cropping up all the time, so much so that it has become quite a big problem. So where we have progressed from the poor quality of analogue video we are now stuck in the codec pit. The term “codec” simply means “compression-decompression” and is how video gets coded and decoded from its digital form to a format that we can see on a screen. It wouldn’t have been too much of a problem but it seems that a video which is in one format, when converted to another format may or may not look as crisp as it did originally, or in some cases may not work at all!

With some luck the format wars wouldn’t have tripped you up, especially if you’re using the newer range of cameras and software. It seems that hardware and software companies are surely settling on a common format and codec which also works well for the web; and more often than not, that’s where most of our video handy-work will end up for all to see.

YouTube it

Let’s face it, YouTube is the one place where almost all of us go to view our favourite content, be it music videos, or video blogs, or movie trailers, or just random cute cats. Everyone with a camera is a director and YouTube is everyone’s stage. Once registered and signed up to YouTube, you have access to a host of features that range from media management to distribution networking to good old post production. Yes, that’s right, you can edit your videos online right there on YouTube, plus have really cool colour grading tools and even an image stabiliser! This is something that we still have trouble believing.

So, everyone’s a director and filmmaker because everyone has some sort of video recording device available to them at all times. This in itself poses a problem. With so many filmmakers out there showcasing their videos on YouTube, how do we know who’s good and who’s not?

That folks, is another story altogether.