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Lessons in smartphone videography: What I learnt from editing a video shot on a phone

By on Aug 10, 2013 in Tech Takes | 2 comments

I have been obsessed for a while now with the idea of making a short film shot entirely on a smartphone. The versatility that a phone would allow in sheer ease of organising filming schedules is what attracts me the most. There has been a significant amount of interest from amateur / professional filmmakers in the industry along similar lines. What I did not want to do, however, is to plan a shoot, film it on a smartphone, and then end up with a substandard product. I needed a low-risk project to try out my idea on. Fortunately, the chance presented itself when I got the idea of recording my time at the university’s Graduation Ball: I would record videos of my friends talking about the first time they met me, and what they thought of me. The beauty of this plan was that due to filming times, I would get to put my smartphone camera through its paces in a multitude of lighting conditions and noise environments, and since the video was unscripted, the content of the videos need not be a “good” or a “bad” take. You can watch The First Time…At Grad Ball to see what my effort worked out as. (The second part of my The First Time project was a photo album on Facebook telling the story of the first time I met my friends and what I thought of them.) I realise that the video itself is pretty much a vanity project. Yet, I felt genuinely happy to do this because for the first time in my life – because of psychological issues I’ve had – I actually feel connected to my friends; that I care about them as individual beings. I wanted to create something to capture the essence of those emotions that I felt. Graduation, even though I’m not graduating yet, is one time people are allowed to be sentimental. But I digress. The point of this blog post is to document my experience of what I learnt through the process of filming and editing video on a smartphone. The “Why Now” On Smartphone Filming Mobile phones have been able to record videos for around six years now, so it’s interesting to note how in general there’s a lot more buzz now about using them in amateur / prosumer contexts. Part of this comes from the fact that while early “smart” mobile phones (think Symbian and their ilk) could record video, the de facto recording format was 3GP / 3G2. Typically recording at QVGA / VGA resolution, the 3GP format allowed compact filesizes necessary for storing video files in a time when phones didn’t have much on-board RAM (to process a video while recording / playback) or storage space (which was often not extensible on such early smartphones). As you can see in this example Tom and Jerry video, at the amount of compression used on such phones, video quality was poor and often had block distortion artefacts. Furthermore, for storage saving reasons the paired audio format used with the 3GP container was AMR or low-bitrate AAC that results in distorted audio; typically recorded mono channel or doubled-stereo from mono recording. (Never search “3GP” on YouTube. I did, to find an example, and I got pages after pages of softcore porn. Brrrr.) Another drawback of early smartphones was that they could not record at 24 fps and above. Phones as recent as my erstwhile 2009-era Nokia 5630 XpressMusic could only record at 15 fps (as demonstrated by this sample video). Such low frame rates added to the jerky, low-quality effect of mobile videos making them unusable for anything beyond sharing and viewing on other mobile devices. Things started to change around the launch of iPhone 3GS, which came with the capability to record video at 30 fps. Android and Symbian handsets launched around the same time could record at similar frame rates, with some able to do it at 720p and others at 480p. The seed for my desire to film a project on a phone was sowed by this attempt by Nokia in 2010, who commissioned a short film shot entirely on an N8 (starring Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame as well as Baywatch‘s Pamela Anderson). Fast forward to 2013, when most smartphones can record 720p video at 30 fps, typically in MP4 format. Significant advances in sensor technology, video processing software, even optical image stabilisation in higher-end phones means that the resulting video shot on phones these days is of much more decent quality. Certainly workable for amateur video projects. I expect, given the rate of progress in the field these days, that such advancements will continue to trickle down to cheaper devices. Another important aspect of any video production happens to be sound. It may not be the first thing on your mind, but good audio quality is crucial in video recording. Smartphones are getting better at this too, with multiple microphones, noise cancellation, and high-quality AAC audio recording. You can audibly hear the difference that high quality, distortion-free stereo recording can make to a video in this comparison. The Gear Now that I’ve covered my reasons for why I think present-generation video recording on smartphones is usable-enough to be used for video projects, I’ll move to my own experience. My video was shot using my Nokia Lumia 620, so your mileage may vary according to what phone...

So, I guess I’m not graduating with everyone else

By on Jun 27, 2013 in Personal | 3 comments

I can’t believe this is happening. My university released its results for this academic year and I’ve just found out that I’m not graduating this year. I need to resit two modules in August as part of the late summer resits the university offers, which means that the exam board will not be able to ratify my results in time for the graduation ceremony in July. In June, I was called by the department to discuss “my case”. I was told in that meeting that I had the following options: Take a leave of absence from university on medical grounds, take exams later, and defer my graduation until next year. Sit for the June exams as normal, but in doing so acknowledge that I was going against the department’s advice. I do accept my personal responsibility for why this is happening. I chose the latter option, and the gamble didn’t pay off. *** It’s not hard to pinpoint where my academic career went off the rails. Earlier this year, I talked at length about the mental health issues that I have been facing for a considerable period. That was back in April, at the beginning of Easter break. I was still struggling to get back on my feet when I wrote that piece, as I was ramping up my dose of prescribed antidepressants at the time. By mid-May, I finally felt better, felt that the situation was under control. The problem I faced was that I’d gone into a freefall for the period from February to May. I had a pile of work to chew through and not enough time. I felt paralysed. I felt claustrophobic. My primary concern was my dissertation. I’d sunk a lot of effort into it at the start of the academic year, and it was a project that I was proud to be doing because it was innovative, it was an idea that I came up with myself, and something that I felt passionate about. I planned to use the Easter break to catch up on my project, and I emailed my dissertation supervisor for guidance at the time. I never heard back. I looked up to my dissertation supervisor as role model in academic research, almost as a father-figure for how he guided me through the year. (And my counsellor was someone that I looked up to as a mother-figure too.) It wasn’t until that blog post I published on depression that I felt comfortable to talk to him about what I was going through. I was ashamed to admit it, and I was scared whether he’d consider me less capable for it. In fact, he was quite understanding and supportive. It reassured me the tiniest bit to know that he had my back. So when I didn’t get an email response back during Easter break from him, paranoia kicked in. I thought my supervisor was mad or disappointed with me, for letting him down. I felt shame and guilt for not performing to what I thought was the best of my abilities. Faced with technical challenges, I just plain gave up on working on the project for weeks. The truth was for more mundane: the email that I sent simply got buried in the flood of emails that academics usually get. I could have resolved the situation simply by pinging him again. When I finally felt stable, I tried to get on track with getting in touch with people in my department. I’d been regularly attending counselling sessions and having medical reviews of my case, and I went with this evidence to them. The university does have procedures in place for considering extenuating circumstances. Unfortunately, the process of applying for one and the evidence being considered is a long-winded process, and decisions can take weeks – if not months – to be reached. By the time I applied I started getting decisions back on coursework and dissertation deadline extensions, it was already a week to go for my exams. It literally came down to the wire. I remember frantically panicking in the library because I’d supplied all the evidence, and yet only found out half an hour before the normal dissertation deadline whether my circumstances would be considered. I almost had a panic attack. And then…I just got a week extra, when I was finally getting back on track but felt I needed more time to catch up during all those lost weeks. I didn’t realistically think I’d get an extra three months, but what I wanted was to have my dissertation deadline stretch into the summer before the exam board met so that I could focus on preparing for my exams. That, apparently, wasn’t possible because of logistical reasons. I could have appealed the decision my department took directly with the university. However, due to the procedure laid down for this, it would have meant waiting for 3-4 months before I found out the outcome. And if I lost the appeal, well, I’d be up shit creek without a paddle for having failed my dissertation. So I decided not to, and rushed through with wrapping up my project. I redirected all my efforts into getting the project, and did have a working demo in time. My project was to create a real-time gaze tracking system that worked with standard webcam video on mobile phones. (Kinda like what the Samsung Galaxy S4...

Netflix vs Lovefilm Instant: my impressions on streaming services in the UK

By on Nov 28, 2012 in Reviews, Tech Takes | 0 comments

I am a cord cutter. I live in a house of other cord cutters. By that, I mean that we don’t own a television in our house, instead opting to watch all our video content on our computers or portable devices. The obvious advantage of this is that none of us need to pay for a TV license. While I haven’t been able to find any market research to back this up, anecdotal evidence that I know suggests to me that a sizeable number of students are like me in that they consume a majority of their video content streaming rather than on television. The UK is different from the US television market in that a lot of the original TV content produced here is made available online quickly. There’s BBC iPlayer, Channel 4’s 4oD, and ITV Player – from the top three British broadcasters – that make their content available for free-of-cost (without a subscription or a TV license). The exception is Sky, which uses exclusivity of its content as a unique selling point for its own services. What remains then, for the viewing needs of cord cutters in the UK is a) streaming movies b) on-demand playback of older content no longer active on the broadcasters’ own services. This is the gap that online streaming services such as Netflix or Lovefilm Instant fill in. Now, I could easily pirate the content but I these days I try to do the right thing. I buy all my books from the Kindle store rather than pirating PDFs. I subscribe to Spotify‘s premium service. I genuinely believe that content creators deserve to be compensated for their work. (Reading Paul Carr and Monday Note has convinced me that digital content needs to be paid for to create sustainable businesses which will continue to amuse and entertain us.) So even with films and television, I want to get my content from legal sources rather than pirating them. There simply isn’t any excuse when the price for such services is so affordable: £5-6 a month is something that can comfortably fit into any student’s budget. Although I’ve been a subscriber to Spotify’s premium service for years, it’s only recently that streaming video services have launched in the UK have become mature enough to use. I only make an exception when there’s no legal avenue at all to obtain something I’d happily pay for; that’s when I pirate. I totally understand why they don’t make it available because at the moment, they don’t want to cannibalize their existing business. Even making it available on a paid basis gives an incentive for people to cancel their satellite / cable subscription, and that revenue it far to worthy for them right now to risk it to online services which is a more price sensitive market and won’t accept higher prices. (Read this Fast Company piece on the struggle Hulu is facing in the US along these lines.) What’s good for the customer is that most streaming service companies offer month-long or longer free trials that give you a fair amount of time to test how good their service is. This is exactly what I did. Here are my thoughts on the ones I tried out. Lovefilm Instant Lovefilm Instant (£4.99 / month) is Amazon’s play in streaming services in the UK. (In the US, this is branded as Amazon Instant Video.) I tried out a 45-day free trial of Lovefilm from a voucher I got along with an Amazon purchase. My first impression of the service was that it’s a confusing mess. DVD / Blu-Ray titles are mixed in with streaming titles. The ‘Instant’ bit essentially lives on a section of the main Lovefilm site. Discovery is primarily done through ‘lists’ created within Lovefilm according to genre and lists created by users such as ‘Best of Lovefilm’ or ‘Staff picks’. This feels odd. I remember a time, many months ago, when Lovefilm also used to make films available for a payment and some included within the subscription package, so the whole ‘With Package’ section these days – when it no longer offers films on payment – feels like they tried to stuff the current titles into the old interface. The search function does not have autocomplete. You’re flying blind as to what’s available and what’s not – or if you don’t know how to correctly spell a film title or actor / director name. The hangover of the legacy business of renting DVDs becomes quite apparent whenever you search for a title: results thrown up show a mix of DVDs as well as streaming titles. If I’m a streaming-only customer, why make things more complicated by showing me results that I cannot possibly access on my subscription plan? Perhaps this is a ploy at upselling you to their costlier plans, but for someone like me who doesn’t even have a DVD drive, this is completely pointless. While it’s possible to filter the search results according to ‘lists’ again to show only Lovefilm Instant titles, my point is a user shouldn’t have to do this extra step themselves. Okay, so let’s say you don’t have a particular film in mind and just want to browse titles they have according to genre. So I clicked on a list, and to bring some sanity into sifting through the results, choose the option to order results according to ‘Member rating’....

I Survived A Zombie Apocalypse

By on Nov 13, 2012 in Personal | 0 comments

Watch the horror unfold among our group in this video on 2.8 Hours London 2012 You never think a zombie apocalypse will strike your city – until it does. Fortunately, my friends and I were prepared when one struck London on 10th November. Or at least we thought we were prepared. Conceptualised by Slingshot Games, 2.8 Hours Later is a real-life zombie apocalypse game where players need to navigate their way across a city in “2.8” hour-long marathon while dodging actors dressed as zombie hordes. Essentially, it is an elaborate game of tag, as getting ‘infected’ by a zombie means they tap you and you must stop to let them mark you with UV pens. The catch is that some of the UV marker pens work and some don’t, so you don’t find whether you’re infected or not until the end when you’re ‘scanned’ at a quarantine camp. In case you’re infected, they make you up as a zombie, and then you’re off to party at a Zombie Disco. My friends and I were told of our starting location near the Docklands in London mere days before the event. We made our way there on a cold Saturday evening, along with about two hundred other people taking part on the same day. Once we signed the customary waivers (“remember, if you get hit by a bus, you WILL die!”), we were briefed and given maps with grid coordinates and sent off on our way. Our first checkpoint was through an underpass – which we were told was ‘clean’ – but, surprise surprise, there were zombies there. And while we ran, my map fell out of my pocket. I would probably be the most useless member of a group in a real zombie apocalypse if I lost my map within the first two minutes of trying to make an escape. That first encounter with zombies left us spooked, and we spent our time constantly checking our corners and walking in separate flanks. Next stop was a shipping container yard. Bit ironic, because while on our way to the game we were discussing the best places to hide in a zombie apocalypse and a shipping container yard was one of our top choices because we figured they would be a storehouse of many different kinds of essential supplies and not many people would necessarily think about going there. We quickly realised why nobody in their right mind would ever go to one: shipping container yards are fucking scary places at night! Especially when you have a crazy actor with a hook torturing a bound woman inside a container (who gave us the next coordinates) and not knowing whether there would be a zombie around the corner. (And shipping container yards have lots of corners as we discovered!) The game is as much about orienteering as it is about strategy. At each checkpoint on our way to the “helicopter extraction point”, actors played various eccentric characters who gave us grid coordinates for the next location – sometimes in exchange in for tasks which, not surprisingly, involved going into dangerously zombie-infested areas. And then we had to figure out the best way to reach that coordinate using the map we were given. We reached a multi-storey car park, where we found the “husband” of a woman (actor) we met earlier in the game. Apparently, he was a diabetic who had dropped his sweets on another floor of the car park, and needed us to get them. You would think that teamwork is the best way to tackle this, as there were three floors between us and the sweets we needed to get, and we did indeed start off that way but man, when a zombie starts chasing you, you really do forget whatever you planned! once one of us did pick up some sweets, we were hit by the that sinking realisation “Aw shit, now we need to make it back.” I was the first person to get ‘infected’, tagged by a zombie as I indeed up being a human shield against one of my friends. The game organisers went out of their way to make it creepy. Along our route, we found makeshift memorials with pictures of “missing people” with nobody around. As usual, we were spooked and keeping out a watch. Were we supposed to do anything at the memorial? We didn’t know! This element of uncertainty throughout kept the game interesting. By far the scariest bit was a park infested with zombies that we needed to make our way across. We walked in and saw the footpaths and the greens littered with shuffling actors (at 8pm at night, you can’t even clearly see them) when a couple asked us whether they could join our group. We said yes and started discussing how we’d approach this, when that guy started screaming. In that instant, it clicked for us that it was an actor and we ran for it. And boy did we run, with zombies chasing us from all directions! We were told that the helipad in the field had been overrun, and we needed to cut our way across the field to go a blinking transponder which would give us our next location. Many of us got tagged in the process. There were chances to ‘cure’ ourselves too. At one point, when walking down a road we were told there...

You say ____, I say _____

By on Apr 4, 2011 in Food For Thought | 21 comments

(Request to my readers, especially my subscribers: There’s a question right at the end of this post which I’d appreciate if you could answer. Reading the post will help explain the context but perhaps not everyone among you has time, so I wanted to flag the question for your attention in the beginning.) Travelling around and living in different places makes you notice certain things about a place fairly quickly. One of the first things you notice is – this is no surprise – is the way people speak. However, it takes a few months to get the idiosyncrasies down pat. When I first went to the UK, many other Indian students hit the ground running with a ‘fake’ accent. (I, personally, have never been able to do that.) And you know what? The reason people do this, to an extent, is justified. What I have learnt through numerous interactions with British, American, Canadian – ‘Western’ friends, if you will – is that a fair number of them genuinely have a hard time understanding the Indian accent. Some tell me they may understand only three-quarters of what a person with an Indian accent, and then use context to fill in the rest. Bet it’s the same with a majority of Indians when they watch American movies / television shows. You’ll notice how theatrical releases of films in India almost never have subtitles as is standard in practically every other country where English is not a native language, but cinemas in India cater to an upmarket or an aspirational crowd. On satellite TV movie channels, on the other hand, captioning has been so popular that all channels quickly adopted it and saw a rise in viewership. I have friends with an impeccable command over written English, yet are completely lost without subtitles when listening. An explanation offered for this is that “Westerners speak too fast” but on the other side of the pond, er, ocean, they think the  exact opposite! This is probably just a case of ‘feeling’ that someone is speaking fast because you cannot catch what they are saying. Try learning a new language and you’ll always feel that native speakers speak ‘too fast’. It can get much worse than that. I encountered situations in the UK, try as hard as they might, people couldn’t understand what I was saying. This goes both ways. For a quick headcount, how many of you can understand what comedian Kevin Bridges is saying in this video from Live at the Apollo roadshow? (The Welsh and the Scottish accents are notoriously hard to understand, even among native English speakers from England. Shed a silent tear for me – my two roommates last semester were both Scots.) This reminds me of a funny anecdote from first year at university. We (my batchmates and I) used to work together in the computing labs on our software engineering assignments and ended up discussions possible solutions with each other. Now, the Indian way of pronouncing ‘arrays’ is ‘ah-rays’, while the British way of pronouncing it is ‘uh-rays’. By the end of the year, I was pronouncing it ‘uh-rays’ and my English friend – a legit scouse – was saying it the Indian way! I had an interesting debate with my current roommate (who’s from Canada) this semester. We were trying to solve a physics question when I used the trigonometrical abbreviation ‘cos’. He laughed and said the correct pronunciation is like in ‘cosine’ with the ‘-ine’ ending chopped off; I disagreed and said it’s like in the ending of ‘because’. We made a bet; the hard part came when trying to prove ourselves right. No matter how much we searched on YouTube for lectures on trigonometry (video channels such as MIT OpenCourseWare etc), none of the speakers used ‘cos’ as an abbreviation! That’s another thing I learnt that day – how pervasive the use of the full form ‘cosine’, ‘tangent’, ‘cosecant’ et al is in American English. I eventually posted the pronunciation of ‘cos’ question on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. Responses from the forum posters confirmed my suspicion that mine was the British English pronunciation while my roommate’s was the American / Canadian English pronunciation. As an aside, our pronunciation of hyperbolic functions is miles apart too – he pronounces ‘sinh’ similar to ‘cinch’ while I pronounce it as ‘shine’, and so on for the other functions. But enough of maths for now. No matter how well-read you are, and regardless of whether you are a native speaker of English language or not, there will always be words whose pronunciation trips you. One common scenario is when you read a word long before you learn the correct pronunciation through real-life usage – there’s an entirely fascinating thread on EL&U StackExchange (again) on words that are said entirely unlike how they are written. Go through those pages and I’m certain you’ll discover a clutch of words you have been speaking the wrong way all this while! Word choice is also a curiosity you notice when you meet other people on travels. For instance, in the UK when someone uses the term ‘Asian’, they usually mean someone of Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi origin; any other ethnic groups are specifically referred to, such as Chinese. In Canada and US on the other hand, as I often notice when talking to my (current) roommate, ‘Asian’ usually means...