Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The cinema is a harsh mistress

Taking machinima from the computer to the big screen is an unforgiving experience. Every pixel is magnified enormously, and every visual glitch screams out at you. The encoding artifacts that you can hide on a monitor are suddenly much larger. Every dropped frame or jump in animation looks like a broken film. And whatever the problems with the images, the problems with sound are worse. Once you put the audio through a THX cinema system, you can hear every little thing. The tiny buzzes and clicks that you will never hear through a typical home computer set-up suddenly jump out at you. Every rustle of clothing in the dialogue becomes obvious. And if your sound balance is a tiny bit muddy, you end up with a cinema full of audio sludge. If you’ve ever thought to yourself when doing the final render for the fifth time, “what the hell, they’ll never notice,” just get your film shown in a cinema and see for yourself. They will notice. And you’ll wish you’d fixed it.

On the other hand, it was a very pleasant surprise to see how many of the 50-odd films we showed in the last two days worked really well. Yes, there were some visual issues we couldn’t address, particularly when upscaling some of the older or low-res films to 720p, but those films that started life as high-def were quite amazing. I particularly remember the smile on Jim Thorpe’s face as he sat in on the tech test for Zero Budget, Big Audience and he saw his Marillion video up there. At the end, he turned to me and grinned. “You can see the stars,” he said. And you could. They weren’t just tiny pixels, and possible encoding errors in a tiny window. It transformed the final sequence from pretty good to amazing. If you do ever hope to see your movie on the big screen (and let me assure you, that experience alone is like nothing else for a film-maker), do spend the time to make the highest quality render you can possibly manage. The difference is worth it.

Set-up for first screening in screen 3. That's my laptop with Monad on down there in the midst of that.

Much of the credit for how well everything turned out has to go to three people, Joe, Claire and John, our projectionists. I’d never realised how complicated it is running a projection booth. They really got things looking at their best, and drove the sound system to make the best of the audio I gave them, swapping in different amps, different patches, different filters and different combinations of speakers.

However, their finest moment came when we blew up the analog to digital converter with a rather loud explosion (at the end of No Licence, wouldn’t you know it), and we lost all the sound. I sprinted to the projection booth, and within 30 seconds they’d swapped the blown one out, replugged the entire sound system, and had us back up and running by the start of the next film. Apparently the audience provided their own sound effects and music during the silence – I wish I’d been there to see it! Still, 98% of films screened without a hitch – not bad for a first festival.

Chief projectionist Joe setting up the sound system on screen 2. That huge thing on his left is the 1080p digital projector.

Spending several days in the projection booth has been a fascinating experience. That place is hot*, airless, noisy, and full of exciting toys. They seem to have every kind of projector and sound device known to man. Reels of film are everywhere. (Happiest moment: holding a huge reel which contained a print of the 1933 Frankenstein.) And into the middle of that lot went my little laptop.

The projection room: on my right, screen 2, on the left, screen 1 and its monster 70mm projector, and screen 3 in the far distance.

Connecting the laptop wasn’t straightforward either. Everything was temperamental. After the first screening, we set everything up ready for the second one, then powered down the laptop. 25 minutes before, we fired it up again, and then discovered that the aspect ratio was all wrong, and the digital projector no longer recognised the preset we’d put in place.** So we got it running properly again, tested it again, and everything was OK. Next we got the mics in the cinema working so Saint could do his intro, and then, just in a moment of paranoia, rechecked the video, and to our horror discovered that we had no sound. More panic replumbing of the sound system ensued, more kit swapped in and out, but we had no way to tell Saint we had a problem, and the screening started. And literally as Saint said the words, “OK, roll the films”, John said, “we’re good to go,” Joe brought down the house lights, switched over the projector to the laptop output, I hit the play button, and everything worked perfectly. Nobody knew except us. It’s non-stop seat of your pants stuff, and these guys just coped. Awesomely.

Proper film: Bicycle Thieves showing on Screen 1.

After several days of this, I’m now thoroughly exhausted, but very, very happy. The films looked good, and I'm extremely proud of what we all did. We got good reactions from the audiences, and the screenings and workshops all got 5-star reviews. We got coverage for machinima in the national press, television, and specialist film & animation press, and we've made a lot of new people take notice of machinima and want to get involved. Most importantly, we changed a lot of people's minds. On Friday, nobody knew who we were or what we were doing. By yesterday, we'd earned their respect by showing them that machinima is a serious form of animation, and that machinimators are just as talented, dedicated and creative as any of the other film-makers there. A lot of people became genuinely interested in what we in the machinima community are all about and how we have the potential to change things from grass-roots level, and they want to get involved. That, for me, has made the Cambridge Film Festival a huge personal success.

But I tell you this. I swear I’m never, ever going to do this again.

Until next time.

* It didn't help that one of th air-con units died at the start of the Festival, and shutting the projection room for half a day to fix is simply isn't an option. So we baked.
** To all you Linux/Mac fan-boys, nope, you can't blame it on the fact that I'm running XP. According to Joe, this just happens when you run things off computers, and next time would I please burn everything onto a standard digital format so he can just play it off their kit.


Tari Akpodiete said...

Just fantastic, Matt. Massive kudos to you, and all involved. And congrats to all screened machinima artists.

DavidB said...

you really did miss some great sound effects~! Boom! Kappow! Crunch. Maybe we could do it as "audience participation" next time???

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

At least it was my own film that blew up, so none of the directors can get cross with me.

But yeah, I do like the idea of the "audience participation version".

LifeFactory Writer said...

Glad to read a review, and also to hear the festival was a good time for all involved, even if requiring, what sounds to be, too much work to prepare! Thanks for doing it! [smile!]

As far as poor rendering quality for projection: perhaps the next time it might be worth having the option to upload a high version of the films to a server rather than downloading them from the web, where compression is typically bound to 100mb?

So sorry I missed the event, which I am sure was a blast!

Best wishes,
Sterling Wright

LifeFactory Writer said...

You guys deserve multiple hands giving the "two thumbs up" sign!!!

Tom Ickrayes said...

This was quite an achievement. Cambridge, Hi-Tech research capital of the UK so often hides it's light under a bushel.

Here we pulled off a great exposition of the state of machinima in a traditional film festival format, no mean feat. It was only possible because people from across a number of organisations said "yeah, why not?" and dived into a collaboration. Let's do it again.
But first, a rest is in order...and maybe watch some films as a passive consumer again. Well done all!

Pineapple Pictures said...

Well done to all involved, it's wonderful to see some of the reactions in the media. Sorry we couldn't be there, but thanks again for showing our film..big thrill :)

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

I generally managed to get the highest quality films available, sometimes better than the best versions on the Web - but in some cases, particularly the older films, the original quality wasn't that great and there was no chance to re-render.

Yeah, I might go and watch a film. Frankenstein and Captain Blood look very tempting.

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

In the end, I failed to get to any films except Faintheart (which was, it must be said, brilliant). Exhaustion and the lure of free champagne overcame me. Oh well, there's always next year...