Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Craig Ferguson is leaving "The Late Late Show" in December

Last night, Craig Ferguson announced that he's leaving CBS's "The Late Late Show" when his contract expires at the end of 2014. According to press reports, he contacted CBS management earlier in the day to alert them that he intended to announce his departure, and the network sent out a press release a few hours before the show aired on the East Coast. Ferguson will have completed ten years of hosting the show when he leaves in December.

From the beginning, Ferguson was one of the most unique hosts in U.S. late night television. His monologues are what got early notice--the common style was (and still is) to make a series of jokes about the events of the day, while Ferguson frankly discussed his battles with alcoholism and drug addiction and other personal topics. He makes a show of tearing up the "blue cards" that his producers prepare with information about his guests. The show isn't rehearsed, which sometimes leads to problems but far more often gives Ferguson's show a spontaneity missing from the rest of late night.

Ferguson is also unique for not only how he interviews, but who he interviews. He won a Peabody Award for his interview of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2009. He devoted an entire episode of the show to an hour-long one-on-one interview with Stephen Fry without a studio audience in 2010. He also interviewed philosophy professor Jonathan Dancy, and admitted later to Dancy's son (Hugh Dancy, star of NBC's "Hannibal") how intimidated he felt during the interview. Ferguson has interviewed a "Who's Who" of British, Scottish and Irish actors, many of whom are his long-time friends. These interviews are never as rehearsed or forced as the interviews these actors have on other late night shows; instead, they're conversations between two friends catching up with each other.

Ferguson, who's a published novelist ("Between the Bridge and the River") and autobiographer ("American On Purpose"), has interviewed a wide range of authors, including (in 2013 alone) Lawrence Block, Jackie Collins, Michael Connelly, Helen Fielding, Doris Kerns Goodwin, John Green, Philip Kerr, Dennis Lehane, Ben Mezrich, Jo Nesbo, Anna Quindlen, Anne Rice and Jon Ronson. You'd be hard-pressed to find any authors of note on any of the other broadcast networks' late night talk shows.

In his cold open Monday night, Ferguson said that the decision to leave "The Late Late Show" was his, and he had actually planned to leave in 2012 but was persuaded to stay for two more years by CBS's commitment to give him a new, larger studio. Despite the stories that began to swirl around after David Letterman announced his retirement, I take Ferguson at his word. If CBS had discussions with other potential hosts, it was (at least initially) to provide a backup in the event that Ferguson decided not to renew his contract at the end of this year.

I've always compared Craig Ferguson to one of the greatest late night show hosts, Jack Paar. I was very young when Paar hosted "The Tonight Show" (from 1957 to 1962), but what I remember from that time and gained a better appreciation for when I was older was that Paar was both intelligent and risky. You never knew for sure what would happen on Paar's show: In 1960, he left the show for three weeks to protest NBC's censoring of a joke, and he left the show for good two years later. Paar wanted guests with whom he could have interesting conversations, not just guests who had something to plug.

Like Paar, I've expected Ferguson to at some point thank his audience, turn on his heels and walk out of the studio, never to return. As of Monday night, we now know that time will come before the end of the year. When Ferguson leaves, it'll be the end of an era. I'm going to enjoy the remaining eight months with Craig Ferguson, because it's very unlikely that the host who replaces him will be as interesting.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Don't overbuy your next cinema camera

Last week, I published a post that recommended four steps to take before you buy or rent a 4K cinema camera. There's an important point that I left out: The rate of change in the camera (and for that matter, production and post-production hardware) business is greater than at any time in memory. Consider that it wasn't too long ago that a properly maintained 35mm camera could be expected to last 20 years, and a film editing table (Kem/Steenbeck) could last 30 or 40 years. Today, we're well along with the transition from 2K to 4K (at least on the acquisition side,) and Japan's NHK is already building prototype hardware for the 8K generation.

The rate of change is at least equal to that of the heyday of personal computers, when faster processors and better displays were released every year. Today, it's likely that a camera will become technically obsolete well before it's no longer repairable. Here's a few reasons why:
  • The sensitivity and dynamic range of imagers continues to improve, and rolling shutters are being replaced with global shutters.
  • Codecs are also improving, with support of higher bit-depths and bigger color spaces.
  • Storage speeds and capacities are increasing, while the cost of flash-based storage is falling.
With things changing so fast, you don't want to get locked into a capital investment in a camera that you can't pay back before it's obsolete. My recommendation is to plan on a three-year usable life for most of today's cameras. That doesn't mean that they'll break in three years, but rather, the state of the art will progress so much that you'll want a new camera in three years, especially if your competitors already have one. So, you need to know how often you're likely to use the camera over those three years.

Let's say that the camera you've decided on costs $20,000, including some accessories that you won't be able to use on future cameras. If you'll use the camera ten times a year over the three years, that means that you'll be spreading the $20,000 cost (plus routine maintenance) over 30 shoots, and the camera will cost you $667 per shoot. (Lenses are extra.) If you're only going to use the camera once a year over three years, it will cost $6,667 per production. A cheaper camera doesn't have to be used as much to justify its purchase, so long as it does everything you expect to need over those three years.

One other important consideration is lens mounts. Even if you're planning to rent most of your lenses, you'll probably want to own some lenses that you use often. You don't want to have to sell your lenses on eBay when you buy a new camera, so you should get a camera with a lens mount that's likely to satisfy your needs in the future. EF and PL mounts are the most widely used today, and are likely to be the most widely used down the road. There are fewer MFT- and E-mount lenses available, but there are adapters and Metabones Speed Boosters for both EF- and PL-mount lenses to fit MFT and E mounts.

If you buy (or rent) cameras with a three-year useful life in mind, don't overbuy based on the number of shoots you expect to do over those three years, and choose a lens mount based on your long-term needs, you're far more likely to be happy with your purchase across its entire usable life and beyond.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Blackmagic adds studio cameras to its live production suite, makes its switchers 4K

Blackmagic Design has long been known as a post-production hardware vendor, starting with its DeckLink cards in 2002. In 2010, the company moved into live video production when it acquired switcher manufacturer Echolab's assets out of bankruptcy. Together with its Videohub routers and video & audio monitoring hardware, Blackmagic built a fairly complete line of live production products. Then, in 2012, Blackmagic introduced its first camera, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC). Many people wondered if the Cinema Camera could be used for live production since it has an HD-SDI output, but Blackmagic cautioned against using it that way. The BMCC's color output is so flat that it can't really be used without color correction, and Blackmagic's subsequent camera models launched prior to this year aren't much better suited for live use.

However, at NAB earlier this week, Blackmagic introduced a line of cameras designed specifically for live production, the Studio Camera HD and Studio Camera 4K (which outputs video in Ultra HD and HD.) The Studio Cameras are designed around 10" LCDs that do double duty as viewfinders and menu displays. The company claims that the viewfinders are the largest offered by any manufacturer. Unlike the Cinema Camera and Production Camera, the Studio Camera's display isn't touch-sensitive; a row of buttons below the display is used for user inputs. The company claims that by eliminating the touch-sensitive layer, the Studio Camera's display is brighter.

On the back of the display, there's a wedge that contains all of the camera's connectors, the lens mount (active Micro Four Thirds), imager and most of the camera's electronics. The result is a very strange looking camera, but one with significantly better features than previous Blackmagic models. For example, the company's previous cameras have become known for their poor battery life, but Blackmagic says that the battery in the Studio Camera will last for four hours, and a standard four-pin power connector allows users to connect external batteries for more runtime, or AC power for continuous operation. The single minijack or dual 1/4" jacks used for audio input in the previous cameras have been replaced with dual XLR connectors with phantom power.

The Studio Cameras also have several new features:
  • A LANC interface for connecting a remote iris, focus and zoom control (if your lens is compatible)
  • Dual jacks for connecting an aviation headset for intercom use; Blackmagic claims that aviation headsets are much less expensive than video production headsets with comparable features
  • A bidirectional optical fiber connector that's compatible with the ATEM Studio Converter and provides the same functionality as the $595 ATEM Camera Converter. This enables the Studio Camera to send and receive HD or 4K video, stereo audio, talkback/intercom and tally lights over cable runs as long as 28 miles
  • A software-based Remote Camera Control that works with any ATEM Production Studio. All of the settings on the camera can be monitored and controlled with this software. In addition, a full copy of DaVinci Resolve's primary color corrector is included for live color balancing
You may be thinking, "These Studio Cameras are better than Blackmagic's first-generation models in almost every way, and they're the same price, so why would anyone buy the earlier models?" One big reason is that the Studio Cameras have no storage. No SSD, no CFast, no SDXC, nothing. You can, of course, add an external recorder such as Blackmagic's HyperDeck Shuttle, and you've got other options using the Studio Cameras' SDI connections. However, an external recorder adds to the size, weight and cost of the cameras.

The Studio Camera HD is shipping now and is priced at $1,995 (U.S.), while the Studio Camera 4K is expected to ship in June and is priced at $2,995. Given Blackmagic's track record with cameras, don't bet your life on that June ship date, and expect some problems with the cameras that are shipped for the first several months.

Blackmagic has also made a number of changes to its ATEM line of switchers (all of which are shipping):
  • The original HD-only models of the ATEM 1 M/E and 2 M/E have been discontinued; the sole HD-only switcher that remains in the product line is the $995 ATEM Television Studio, which is primarily intended as a "personal" switcher for webcasts and small productions
  • The new ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio and 2 M/E Production Studio support 4K and HD on all inputs and outputs (except the monitor outputs, which are HD only)
  • Last year's ATEM Production Studio 4K, which has similar functionality to the ATEM Television Studio except it supports 4K, remains in the product line at $1,695
  • The ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K is priced at $2,495, and the ATEM 2 M/E Production Studio 4K is priced at $3,995, $1,000 less than last year's model
With the Studio Cameras and its 4K switcher line, Blackmagic now has just about everything needed to build a live production facility.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

For 4K cameras, price is A thing, but not THE thing

I'm back from NAB, where the overriding theme this year was 4K everything--cameras, monitors, editors, special effects, routers, switchers, etc. Perhaps the biggest battle was in cameras, where AJA Video entered the market for the first time and Blackmagic Design and Sony announced new 4K cameras. (JVC also announced its first 4K digital cinematography cameras, but gave no prices or availability dates.) 4K cameras have been a "thing" ever since the RED One, but $10,000 was the least that you could spend to buy one (Canon's 1D C) until Blackmagic shipped its 4K Production Camera late last year, priced at $2,995.

The floodgates have now opened:
  • Panasonic's GH4: $1,699, or $3,299 bundled with its SDI/XLR interface dock
  • Sony's A7S: $2,499.99, will ship in July
  • Blackmagic's 4K Production Camera: $2,995
  • Blackmagic's URSA EF: $5,995
  • AJA's Cion: $8,995
None of these cameras cost more than a fraction of the price of an ARRI Alexa ($80,000+) or Amira ($40,000-$52,000 depending on enabled features,) RED EPIC-M Dragon ($50,000+), or Sony F55 ($29,000+) or F65 ($65,000+). You'd think that ARRI, RED and Sony would be shaking in their boots, but they're not. There are two reasons why the companies that make high-end cameras aren't necessarily threatened by the new inexpensive models:
  1. There are many elements that determine whether or not a specific camera is appropriate for an application, and
  2. You get what you pay for.
Here are some (but far from all) of the elements of camera design that influence how the camera performs and what it's good (or not good) for:
  • Imager size
  • Imager resolution
  • Color space (e.g., YUV or xvYCC)
  • Color sampling (e.g., 4:2:0, 4:2:2 or 4:4:4)
  • Bit depth (8-bit vs. 10-bit)
  • Video output resolution (DCI 4K (4096 x 2160), UHD (3840 x 2160), 1080, 720)
  • Video compression formats (e.g., AVCHD, H.264, ProRes, DNxHD, XAVC, XAVC S, AVC-Intra, AVC-Ultra)
  • RAW storage and/or output
  • Frame rates supported at specified resolution (e.g., 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 59.94, 60 or 120)
  • Dynamic range in stops
  • Native ISO speed
  • Sensitivity (maximum usable ISO speed, NOT the camera's rated top ISO speed)
  • Lens mount(s)
  • Lens control (manual, automatic or limited automatic)
  • Image stabilization (digital or optical, in the camera body or in the lens, or no stabilization)
  • Viewfinder, display screen, both or none
  • User interface design (e.g., touchscreen(s), menus, dedicated buttons and knobs)
  • Storage capacity
  • Storage media
  • Internal or external storage
  • Video interface(s) (HDMI or HD-SDI, with different HDMI versions and, for HD-SDI, maximum speeds)
  • Audio connector(s)
  • Balanced or unbalanced audio in
  • Phantom power availability
  • Run time on battery
  • Removable or permanent battery
  • External power voltage and connector
  • Camera shape
  • Camera weight
  • Ruggedness
  • Manufacturer and design maturity (how much experience does the manufacturer have in designing cameras, and how long has the manufacturer been making this particular camera)
There's an enormous number of elements to consider, and some elements work much better for certain applications than others. In some cases, buyers have a wealth of cameras to choose from, while in other cases, there may only be a handful that can do what they need.

Rather than salivating when you hear about a new low-priced camera with attractive features, ask yourself these questions:
  1. What am I going to use it for?
  2. What trade-offs am I willing to accept (for example, are you willing to live with less sensitivity in order to get a higher-quality compression format?)
  3. How often will I use the camera (do you know that you'll be using it over and over on new projects, or do you have one project in mind and you don't know when you'll have the next one?)
  4. How much can I afford to pay?
Answering the first two questions will allow you to compile a list of cameras that meet your needs. Answering the final two questions will tell you whether you should buy or rent the camera that you can afford. In some cases, you may decide to buy a less-expensive camera and use your remaining budget to buy lenses or mounting equipment. In other cases, you could rent a camera and use the savings elsewhere on your production, or rent a camera that you can't afford to buy that's superior to other choices for your application. In short, you should answer the four questions first, rather than starting with the price of the camera and instead hoping that it will meet your needs.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Brendan Eich's resignation from Mozilla is a victory for no one

Earlier today, Mozilla announced that recently-appointed CEO Brendan Eich has resigned, both from Mozilla's for-profit arm and from the board of the non-profit foundation that controls the company. The reason for his resignation was the blowback from a $1,000 contribution that Eich made to a group supporting California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 (his contribution became public knowledge in 2012.)

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I worked with Brendan, Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker and Mozilla Foundation Director Bob Lisbonne at Netscape in 1995-97. In addition, I strongly support gay marriage. With that in mind, I'm very sad that Brendan was forced out of an organization that he was such an integral part of for so long, not because of any claims of mismanagement, financial irresponsibility or technical incompetence, but because of a personal belief.

If the shoe was on the other foot--if an executive who had contributed to a campaign supporting gay marriage or gay rights (like NOH8) was targeted for dismissal by opponents of gay marriage--would the members of the gay community calling for Brendan's head have supported the executive or the rights of the gay marriage opponents? I'm pretty sure that it would have been the former, and I'm very sure that their actions would be hypocritical.

Brendan had agreed that his opinions about gay marriage would play no part in how he ran Mozilla, and his opponents could point to no evidence that his opinions were even known within Mozilla prior to 2012. In addition, although I'm sure that he was paid a good salary at Mozilla, he could have become far wealthier by going to work for totally for-profit, pre-IPO company. Instead, he chose to work on open source projects that would increase the common good for everyone.

All of us have opinions and beliefs that other people disagree with. For example, I support a woman's right to have an abortion, an opinion that's wildly unpopular in parts of the U.S. However, unless I was working for a company with a strong publicly stated position on the topic, like Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby, I would expect that my belief should have no impact on either my employment or how I do my job. By forcing Brendan out, supporters of gay marriage have paradoxically given more power to opponents of gay rights, women's rights and a host of other issues, who want to force people who don't share their beliefs out of companies.

I'm also clearly disappointed by Mitchell Baker's blog post today announcing Brendan's resignation. Here's a quote:
We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.
Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Free speech, of course, cuts both ways. As a lawyer, Mitchell knows that Brendan had a perfect right to make that contribution. If Mozilla had dismissed Brendan on the grounds of his contribution, the company would have been guilty of religious discrimination under Federal law. So, Brendan had to "voluntarily" resign, for the good of the organization, to correct the "mistake" of appointing him CEO. However, the appointment wasn't a mistake--the people who made the appointment knew all about his contribution. Baker and the Mozilla Foundation board should have stood behind him. Now, however, we know how Mozilla will respond to external pressure in the future--with cowardice.