Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Six hours of 720p

When I agreed to sort out all the films for CFF, I had little idea what I was letting myself in for. After all, I've shown machinima countless times. You just line up all the films in a folder, rename them 01_blah, 02_blah, and so on to make sure they're in the right order. fire up VLC, and just hit play one after the other.

It's not quite like that when you're doing a cinema screening, though. The audience doesn't want to see a Windows screen, and they certainly don't want to watch you flicking between Explorer and VLC, then flipping into full screen each time. They expect a proper show. It's what they've paid for.

One option was to burn everything onto a DVD, and just run it off that. This sounded like a really good idea until I realised that all the hi-def pieces would be shown at something rather less than their best quality. Since we have a top-end HD projector and a huge screen to play with, I really wanted to push the quality as far as possible And, since DVD software is very picky about what aspect ratios and frame rates it will handle, I'd have to convert pretty well every single movie anyway.

I opted instead to build each screening as a single film of between 75 and 90 minutes, complete with opening and closing titles and a title screen before each film, and then just play that off the computer plugged straight into the projector. This seemed like a sensible idea, until the reality of dealing with 50-odd movies began to hit. What was sitting on my hard disk was an assortment of films in different file formats (wmv, mp4, mov, avi, and dv), different codecs, different frame rates, different aspect ratios, and different resolutions. At this point Premiere threw a complete wobbly. It refused to read some of the files at all, others had video but no audio, and some just came out as a blurry mess. (Yes, yes, Final Cut Pro and a Mac, I know!)

So, many hours with a transcoder later, I managed to get everything into Premiere, then resized everything so it would fit as nicely as possible into a 1280x720 frame. Some pieces just slotted straight in, others end up as widescreen (Red vs Blue, for example), and some end up as a 4:3 frame in the centre. Then, after a manic paranoid backing up session, I finally hit render for the first time.

Each screening takes about 20-26 hours to render. Well, we are talking 100,000+ frames of high-definition video, all of which has to be decoded, resized, its frame rate changed, and recoded. It's not a small job. It's a nerve-wracking time, as you pray that it's not going to crash or the power go out, and only when it's complete do you get to find out how well it came out. Even checking the finished thing is exhausting: you have to watch like a hawk for unwanted artifacts, typos in the titles, and bad clipping, and if it goes wrong, you have to wait for the current render to finish, then spend two minutes in Premiere correcting the mistake and another twenty-odd hours waiting.

So far, it's all looking good, and I can't wait to see this on the big screen next week. But I don't think I want to go through this ever again, unless someone gives me an enormous bank of seriously powerful computers and several minions.

To anyone who's ever organised a film festival - you have my utmost respect.


Pineapple Pictures said...

Now that you've done all that work I wonder if you could use the renders again..at another venue? Not sure how the creator permissions would work, but it sounds as if you have created a useful resource, and it would be a shame not to make the most of the effort involved, Kate

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

Well, if it didn't say "FDMX, Moviestorm and the 28th Cambridge Film Festival present...." at the start and end of each session, then it would be really quite easy to show it again elsewhere.

However, I can certainly ask the CFF organisers if they'd mind some additional publicity.

Bill said...

We'd love some additional publicity. And I'm already trying to get something organised at Tyneside Cinema later this year... :-)

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

Well, alrighty then!

LifeFactory Writer said...

It sounds like you are doing a great job! I would be very happy to be a "minion" at a future date and contribute my rendering capacity!

I am bummed I will not be able to make it to Cambridge for the screenings and am wondering if there are any plans for streaming of the related machinima events? Again...I would be happy to help with this, but am on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thank you for taking the time to arrange the highest quality possible. I hope the version of my film downloaded from the web, will also fit nicely into your mix.

Have fun and best wishes!
Sterling Wright

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

No plans for live streaming AFAIK, but I think Saint plans to video the events, and he may be making some of those available online.

Most of the films we're showing are available online if you search for them.


You went through all that work just to make other artists look their best?

Baby, you're a star!

james.thorpe8 said...

And after all that, he still managed to pop an A to D converter on the sound system making the projectionist almost have a heart attack.

Matt, when you introduced me to Bill, little did I know I was being introduced to a media icon the likes of whom I will seldom encounter, my apologies for not being able to stand up to shake your hand sir, I have a dodgy knee (it is my excuse and I am sticking to it, but will from this day forward will feel embarrassed because of it).

I wish I had been involved at the workshop, from the pictures it looks like Ross, Hugh and Jonnie were overwhelmed with interest, I would have gladly helped out.

Anything I can do to help I gladly will, I fight for the user.

Jim Thorpe