Category Archives: Film & Video

Scenario One Down!

On Tuesday after breakfast and a swim, we walked back through D’Mall and shopped a little. We had a couple beers at a midget bar called the Hobbit Tavern, then settled in for a pizza at the Red Coconut.

For some reason I decided not to phone home. I’m sure Olivia will understand. 😉

These are the famous Paraw Sail boats. They’re catamarans so you sit in nets and skim over the ocean. That sounds like great fun but I couldn’t convince Eric to do it. So I’ll save that experience for when Olivia comes here.

This was our last full day here, so I was determined to put my drone up at sunset. I had asked at the bar but even the manager (Gerry) didn’t seem to know the law, and couldn’t give me access to the hotel’s roof. He said it was “prohibited” but we thought he meant at the hotel.

You see, I had also scoured the Philippines CPAA website before I left. That’s their equivalent of the FAA in the US. And every indication was that drones are okay here as long as you don’t fly within 100 feet of crowds, more than 400 feet altitude and less than 10 kilometers from an airports. There are signs all over White Beach listing what you can’t do, but there’s not a single sign prohibiting drones.

You know where this is going…

I walked all the way back south to the secluded cove I had scoped out the previous day. I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself so I waited until all the patrols were out of sight. Then I launched from the sand about five minutes before sunset, knowing that one battery was worth at least 20 minutes of 4K video.

I won’t be able to watch it until I get home, but I’m sure it’s spectacular. Even though the sunset wasn’t as dramatic as last night, I flew over several sail boats at just over 100 feet.

The next thing I know, a local Filipino “sentinel” approached me, took photos and made a call. Within five minutes I was surrounded by four local cops and a tall PNP (Philippine National Police) guard wielding an M-16 machine gun.

“Sir, did you know flying a drone is prohibited on Boracay?”

“No, I wasn’t aware.” I explained that I had researched this before my trip and it all looked okay without the need for a recreational permit. But they weren’t having any of it. The interpreter explained that I was within 8 kilometers of an airport (doubtful) and there was a local ordinance passed in 2017. She produced the law on paper and I wasn’t about to argue.

Usually, if you are in restricted airspace for any reason, your drone’s GPS system will disable flight. But naturally the Philippines wouldn’t be part of a system that advanced. They’re still struggling with clean drinking water.

So yeah, this was pretty much my worst nightmare. Not so much because of the legal ambiguity, but because I’m suddenly trying to land my aircraft amid a swarm of people with guns who keep demanding my ID. But at least I had the fortune of being the dumb American tourist.

Once landed, I apologized profusely and asked, “Is there a fine I can pay you?”

“Yes, they will give you a citation and you will pay ₱2,500 to them,” the interpretor said. “You will then go to the Police Station in the morning and the Mayor will give you a receipt.”

“That’s okay, I don’t need a receipt. And I fly home tomorrow morning anyway,” I said, hoping that’s all it really was. When they wrote down my Oregon driver’s license info and asked for my hotel and room number I started getting nervous. I was concerned this might be an “apprehension” but then she said, “Don’t worry, sir. They will bring your receipt to the hotel for you.” I nodded in agreement but my intention was to remain scarce in the morning.

Fortunately I had the cash on me. They allowed me to stow my gear properly and didn’t confiscate anything. And because the fine amounted to just $47.57 US, I now have a great story to share on the Mavic Pro drone forum — and 20 minutes of awesome video I presume. It’s also possible I caught the swarm of cops on video. In fact if I hadn’t been so frazzled I might have thought to aim my camera at them on landing.

It was a long walk down to that secluded cove so I still can’t believe how quickly they tracked me down. Nor how professional they were in enforcing their local law. I had halfway expected them to shoot Scenario One out of the sky! 😉

Next time I might bring one of these Bionic Bird drones.

Look for a video link here next week, once I have time to edit my life of international crime. 🙂

Stop Motion Studio

Returning to my filmmaker roots well ahead of retirement age, Scenario RETROfilm’s little indie animation shop is progressing nicely with Olivia’s help and support. Here are our key technical investments:

Dragonframe 4 software and Bluetooth controller

Everything revolves around Dragonframe‘s amazing stop motion software and communication protocols. Compared to back when I did stop motion in the early 80s, the process is infinitely easier today. For example, Dragonframe has an “onionskin” feature which lets you superimpose the previous frame over the current frame in order to check your puppet moves. So you get immediate feedback instead of waiting a week to get your Super 8mm film back from a Kodak lab.

Canon EOS Rebel T6 bundle

Believe it or not, most stop motion is shot on DSLR cameras — not video (or film) cameras. This bundle was the best value which still meets all of Dragonframe’s requirements, as it communicates best with Canon EOS bodies. That includes the ability to display a live digital view on a Mac through the lens, and the ability to control every aspect of the exposure for every frame. This camera can produce 4K RAW images, which Dragonframe then strings together in sequence at whatever frame rate you want. That’s typically 24 fps, which means a 10-second scene is 240 frames and a 10-minute film is 14,400 frames.

The only modification I made was to swap out the Canon primary lens with a Nikon manual aperture lens. That way Dragonframe can take control of the aperture and eliminate any chance of flicker between frames. This is a known problem and a long-established solution among animators.

eMotimo ST4 Dragonframe Bundle

This is a 4-axis motion control rig sold by eMotimo in San Diego. It’s basically a robot that can smoothly repeat complex camera moves across a scene, producing the parallax shots that today’s short-attention-span-challenged audiences expect. The eMotimo Spectrum ST4 is the only head that talks directly to Dragonframe and can scrub through a shot in real time. That is a godsend to animators. That means if you screw something up in the middle of a scene that has taken hours to animate, you can simply undo those frames and the camera will move back to the precise position it was in. This rig is also great for time lapse shots and even live, unassisted interview shots. Not pictured is its remote control: An off-the-shelf PlayStation 4 DualShock controller. Simply brilliant. Kudos to eMotimo’s team, led by founder Brian Burling. He personally sold me this system.

VIVO Electric Stand Up Desk Frame w/Dual Motor and Cable Management Rack, Ergonomic Height Adjustable Standing DIY Workstation (DESK-V103E)

The slider will rest atop this adjustable platform made by VIVO (the same company that made the retractable TV ceiling mount in my RETROvan).

I’ll cut a rounded top myself out of 2’x8’x3/4″ cherry plywood. Then I can mount all kinds of equipment to it, like a power strip, drawer, keyboard shelf and even my iMac itself via a VESA bracket. This is much better than having one or two tripods sprawled out next to your set, as tripping hazards.

J.Lumi track lights

Overhead we have some cool studio track lights, fitted with LED bulbs (both daylight and warm). We’ll supplement these with other articulated desk lamps and in-set lighting as needed.

So yeah, we’ve been pretty busy writing scripts, acquiring props and building sets — inbetween our day jobs of course. I’ll post some photos of them later. Generally we’re working in 2x2x4-foot modules using 1/2″ plywood. Three such sets are currently under construction and they look amazing. Each set will simply move to a larger desktop (under those studio lights) for shooting, in production order.

Apple & Thunderbolt 3

I recently sold my 5K iMac (late 2014 model) and replaced it with an iMac Pro. Having bought dozens of Macs over 33 years, I was careful not to fall for Apple’s price-gouging trap. Particularly when their internal storage options are now priced at a ridiculous $2,800 extra for a 4 TB SSD (solid state drive). Yes, I emphasize “extra” because you get no credit for the 1 TB stock SSD they replace.

My “old” iMac had a 3 TB Fusion Drive (a combination of mechanical and solid state), so I had to do some serious juggling to pare my internal storage needs down to fit a more affordable stock 1 TB SSD.

In doing so, this was part of my solution: The super-sexy Samsung X5 Portable SSD – 1TB – Thunderbolt 3 External SSD. It’s priced at $499.99 now on Amazon. This drive uses the latest super-fast PCIe interface, called NVMe (cleverly pronounced “Envy Me”). Here are the typical write/read speeds I’m getting with it:

This makes it ideal for use as a Final Cut Pro X cache drive. I’ve learned that to maximize data throughput for video production, it’s important for the system to avoid reading/writing to the same drive. It’s better to read raw video files from a fast, read-only source drive, and write all the project data out to a separate, fast destination drive.

By comparison, here are the typical write/read speeds I’m getting on my iMac Pro’s internal 1TB SSD:

As you can see, they’re both scorching fast. For some reason, the internal writes faster but the external reads faster. They’re very similar on average, though: ~2215 MB/s external versus ~2583 MB/s internal. That means the Samsung X5 is within 15% of the maximum possible performance — and that’s good enough for me, especially considering this solution saved me $300 versus Apple’s inflated upgrade price of $800 to go from 1 TB to 2 TB. That, and it’s portable to boot.

The TerraMaster

Since replacing my 5K iMac with a new iMac Pro, I’m a huge fan of Thunderbolt 3 for maximum throughput. Meet the TerraMaster D5 DAS (Direct Access Storage). You buy this enclosure empty, and add your own drives. I installed five 8 TB Western Digital “Red” drives inside. They’re 3½” SATA drives, not SSDs. Why? Well, because the cost per terabyte is less than $59 and this enclosure puts a super fast interface on them to make up the difference.

I got the enclosure on an Amazon “Lightning Deal” for $639, where the regular price was $799. Each hard drive was $249. So for a total investment of $1,884 I got 40 TB of total storage, which should meet my demanding video production needs for the foreseeable future.

This is a RAID controller, so I configured it using RAID-5 mode. That means out of 40 TB of total storage, the controller will read and write data across all five drives at once to maximize access speed and redundancy. So while the effective available storage is reduced to 32 TB now, that means any one drive can go bad and everything keeps working until that drive can be replaced. Once replaced, the controller rebuilds the array and all is good again.

I’ve been using a 16 TB NAS (Networked Attached Server) for a couple years, so there were a number of problems to solve:

  1. Access speed to and from my NAS was too slow over Gigabit Ethernet. I was spending way too much time waiting for large files to copy. It was also doubling as an FTP server for my security cameras, which meant that it was very painful to browse those files quickly or efficiently.
  2. I was close to maxing out the space on my NAS. At first I used it in RAID-1 (mirrored) mode, which cut its available space down to 8 TB. I later switched it to RAID-0 (striped) and then to JBOD (just a bunch of discs) mode to gain access to all 16 TB, but of course that left me nervous about a potential drive failure.
  3. My NAS was not encrypted or backed up. Not good.

Configuring the TerraMaster took some trial-and-error, given that its UI is typical Chinese garbage. My goal was to strike the best balance between performance, convenience and security — on a volume-by-volume basis.

The first major decision you have to make is the base format. On a modern Mac, your main choices are “MacOS Extended (Journaled)” or “APFS.” You get the option to add “Encrypted” to either choice, but that’s where things get confusing.

Apple’s Time Machine, love it or hate it, is not yet compatible with APFS. And worse, Time Machine does not play nice with encryption. So after a few false starts, here’s what I wound up doing:

  1. I made a dedicated 2 TB partition using Disk Utility. I formatted that partition using MacOS Extended (Journaled, Encrypted) and named it “Time Machine.”
  2. I formatted the remaining 30 TB partition as APFS, unencrypted.
  3. Within that 30 TB partition, I created a few different volumes. APFS volumes get dynamically resized, so you don’t have to commit to those sizes the same way you would for partitions. I chose Encrypted for some of those volumes, and left others unencrypted.

Why? Because encryption incurs a performance hit and I don’t need that much security for everything I’ll use this file server for. And plus, you can always add, rename or resize volumes later in Disk Utility without losing data. And you can replace them as long as you have a way to back them up first.

Using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app, here are some typical results:

  • Write/Read to unencrypted portions of DAS: 515/755 MB/s
  • Write/Read to encrypted APFS volumes on DAS: 475/725 MB/s
  • Write/Read to encrypted Time Machine partition: 375/375 MB/s

Now by comparison, I had some cool 1 TB SanDisk Extreme SSDs connected via USB 3.1. They cost $199 each. Those SSDs yield around 450/500 MB/s on my iMac Pro. So you can see how these 8 TB SATA drives are comparable to 1 TB SSDs at a fraction of the cost: $59 per terabyte versus $199 per terabyte — just not nearly as portable.

So yeah, I’m pretty happy with this solution. Especially considering the biggest 2½” internal SSDs you can buy are 4 TB. And they still cost around $699. Using five of those would yield only 16 TB and bring the total investment up to around $4,134 or $258 per terabyte. That’s 4.4X more expensive than these traditional mechanical drives. And by the time these start failing, SSDs will be much cheaper replacements.

Now there’s some learning to share, for those of you thinking about (or struggling with) the same setup. Here are some lessons I learned:

  1. Apple’s System Utility teams are sadists, and there’s a special place in Hell for them. Not just Disk Utility, but other essential tools like Migration Assistant, Time Machine and AirPort Utility. Their biggest sin is not providing actionable error messages.
  2. Make sure you understand the limitations of Apple’s file formats up front. And no, they aren’t very well documented.
    • Time Machine cannot write to an APFS drive, period. It’ll warn you that the disk is not the right format. Sadists generally don’t want you to know about their shortcomings.
    • You can partition a drive (or an entire RAID array) first, separating the MacOS Extended (Journaled) portion from APFS. And then you’ll have the best of both worlds — as long as you pick the right amount of space for Time Machine to grow over time up to a limit. In my case, I chose 2X the size of my iMac Pro’s internal SSD.
  3. Be sure to encrypt Time Machine’s partition first, using Disk Utility. Then add that volume as a Backup Disk in Time Machine’s UI. Tell Time Machine to use “Encrypt backups” again at this point, even though it doesn’t make any sense.
    • If you do it this way, Time Machine will make its initial backup in around 90 minutes for a 1 TB system. And then it’ll all be done. Yes, it’s inexcusable that Apple continues to ship versions of Time Machine without proper guidance in its UI, when clearly they know about these pitfalls.
    • If you don’t do it this way, Time Machine will make its initial backup very quickly, but it will spend days encrypting it separately. That is no exaggeration. This is a major flaw in Time Machine’s algorithm. That progress indicator will be stuck at around 13% for hours and hours while your drive(s) thrash.
  4. Know that if you’re ever tempted to uncheck Time Machine’s “Back Up Automatically” checkbox, it will abort any backup in progress without warning and it’ll have to start over. Yep, like I said: Sadists. That button used to be titled something like Start/Stop Backup, which reflected the fact that this control is more of an action than a preference. But the lack of a confirmation dialog is absolutely negligent on Apple’s part.