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Travel, Blogging and Paranoid Data Wrangling

When I set-off on my trip to NAB in Las Vegas followed by a whirlwind tour round the Southwest USA I had it in my mind that I would be blogging as I went.  Each day I would recount my adventure for the benefit of the internet in word, picture and occasional video.  What actually happened was that...I didn't.  This was not me being lazy or a fit of pique that the Internet did not seem to be paying attention.  It was more a case of lack of time and just being plain knackered.

Generally most days would be filled with shooting or driving or both.  Usually both, because I had my GoPro set filming even when I was driving. So at the end of the day it was likely I would have about 4-5 cards in a mixture of CF and ND to upload.  This is the most paranoid I have been to date about footage so I will share what I did.  I took with me 2 Firewire bus powered drives.  One was Seagate and one WD but that was just what I had.  I also had a 320Gb NexTo Drive.  The Nexto stays in my camera bag in case I have to off-load during the day but I regard this as a last resort and I try to have enough cards not to have do that.  The other drives get split between my 2 suitcases.  I also have a 2011 Macbook Pro 13" and a UDMA FW800 CF reader.

So the cards go into the Nexto first which has a 1 button copy operation.  Next I will pop the CF into the FW reader or SDs go in the Macbook's own SD slot.  I had the Seagate drive plugged in.  One pain is that these drives don't daisy chain and neither does the reader so I have to use USB with CFs for the drive which slows things down.

I use Aperture and this will find all the Stills and Videos on the card.  If your laptop is a secondary machine and you will be moving them when you get home it probably a good idea to create a library just for this trip.  I leave it at the default check all and create a project for that day.  I also create a folder on the Seagate to select as a secondary backup location.  As the GoPro was doing 3D I needed to keep the left and right camera footage separate too.  

So by the time Aperture finishes I should have three copies of the footage.  I then vault the library which was copy #4.  I then used the WD drive along with the backup software it ships with to backup the Laptop HDD.  This includes the vault so that means I now have 6 copies.  With what energy I had left I would now look through the still and choose my favorites and use a plug-in to upload these to Smugmug.  Technically this is even more copies but hotel internet tends to be so slow that I could only send half-res jpgs.  Ideally it would have been nice to get everything into the cloud but it just ain't gonna happen at 100Kbps.

So, the actual travel blogging is going to have to wait a bit. I have started the process of going back through my stills selects and refining the images and their selection.  The video is going to have to wait a while longer.  I think I might make it my first FCP-X project if Apple deliver on their timelines.


Ford Escape Review

OK, I’ll admit this isn’t necessarily in the theme of this blog but it such was an integral part of my trip that it seemed worth recording.  Perhaps if you are planning a similar trip you might find it useful.

I had pre-checkout my Alamo rental on-line.  This was the first time I had done this and it is rather disconcerting process.  Basically, you wave your home printed agreement at the man and he points at a row of cars.  You peruse the row and drive off with your favorite.  Its sort of GTA without the skill element.  The “Ford Escape or Similar” contained just the one Escape and numerous Or Similars from Kia and Jeep.  The Ford seemed the best sized, was well equipped and was the best presented.  The reason for that presentation became evident when I turned it on.  It had done just 4 miles.  I was about to increase that by 50,000%

I don’t really know which version I had for sure as there wasn’t any literature in the car but I am guessing it was the 3.0l Limited model based on the spec and badging.  This is quite high up in the Escape pecking order for a rental car and meant a very nice spec and decent performance.


It’s hard to judge size in the US because there is just a different sense of scale to UK motors but the Escape seems about Freelander size.  The driving position is pretty good with the usual SUV benefits of good visibily forwards.  The privacy glass on the rear half was almost opaque but this was offset with good mirrors with anti-blindspot inserts.  At first the seats worried me a little.  The were quite flat and hard and my arse was going to be spending a lot of time in them.  However, with a little tweeking of the lumber support, they proved to be good companions on a long run.

There were plenty of cubby holes and pockets for all the rubbish that gathers around you on a long road trip.  As this was me, we were on complete gadget overload with iPhone playing GPS stuck on the window.  A 3D GoPro was stuck on windscreen on the other side while a power monkey USB charged spare batteries for it in the cigarette lighter.  A Solar powered Power Monkey soaked up some rays on the dashboard.  Generally the quality of the materials felt durable but a step behind the european premium marks.

Ergonomics were not a strong suit.  I could afford to block the clock with my solar array because I couldn’t figure out how to change it with no manual.  I viewed the “Powered by Microsoft Sync” sticker on the entertainment system with the suspicion that you would expect from an Apple fanboy.  Sure enough, for a while my iOS devices just sulked only accepting only USB power from their tech nemesis.  After some experimentation I persuaded it work as long as it could chose the songs.  I settled for that as I had been stuck on an 80s channel on Sirius for 2 days and did not want to go back there.  

The hifi sounded excellent when MS Sync and I agreed on the choice and the volume went up.  Maybe years of iDrive or perhaps just age means I could remember or locate all the plethora of buttons reliably.  It did look impressive at night though when al those buttons lit up and this is to someone who had Las Vegas outside the car!

The boot swallowed my two large cases and a big camera bag like they were custom made without obstructing the (insurance essential) parcel cover which was great.  The load floor was pretty high but thats a typical SUV failing but it was a good shape with minimal wheelarch intrusion

On the Road

The roads in the South West test the extremes more than you might expect.  Sure, there are plenty of the stereotypical dead straight two-lane blacktop where you need snooze control.  There is also plenty of mountainous, twisty and distinctly slopey stuff too.  On the US “Loniest Road in America” 50 you get both taking it in turns for 2 days.  The Escape felt distinctly sporty for an SUV - there was little roll and the dampening was well controlled.  This was at the expense of a ride which was pretty hard over rough surfaces.  It was a trade-off I was comfortable with given the size of the drops at the side of the road but then I drive a Beemer on run-flats.  The steering was light, direct and accurate and I am used to the slightly disconnected feel of electric assistance.  When you are winding down the super-twisty roads in Yosemite, trying not to imagine what a Ford Escape looks like bouncing a few thousand feet to the bottom by the most direct route, I only had a couple of criticisms.  The first was the brakes which liked a hefty shove and the second was the gearbox.  You only had the option of drive or low.  Low was pretty much meant for crawling through bogs and was not much use on tarmac.  In Drive, going downhill, high gearing meant zero engine braking.  So you would have to resort to those heavy brakes on the nanostraights between the corners if you didnt want unsettling weight transfer or to trust entirely on Mr Goodyear to keep you from a spectacular end.

The engine was a bit of star feature.  I have driven a fair few rental cars in the US over the years including some sportier options and few have ever felt like they had the power their specs suggested.  Often this was the fault of sleepy autoboxes but, still, few engines have shined.  The Ford V6 in a Mustang Cab of a couple of years back felt and sounded purposefully rumbly at low revs.  Actually try and prod it out of Florida cruise mode though and the noise became louder and much more stressed without generating a great deal more pace.  The gearing on the Escape was still stellar but having 6 of them made a difference especially as the engine loved revs and the gearbox seemed to understand that.  It was perhaps a tad behind a BMW straight 6 on refinement but the equal of anyone else’s V6 I have tried.  A world away from the big but breathless big sixes I have tried in the US before.  I am hoping its bigger brother in the 2011 ‘Stang I have booked for my next trip is equally capable.  From a standing start to highway speed the Escape was very impressive.  Before you judge me as a boy racer, if you are coming out of a photo opportunity turnout and there is a UPS triple trailer bearing down on you its not a good idea to hang around.

At speed the Escape felt stable resisting crosswinds well for something that is essentially square.  There was a fair bit of wind-noise especially until I discovered Alamo had missed some tape strips which should have come off.  At the speed my limit aware GPS would start nagging me, the composure was starting to go but this was mainly down to tyre balance.  It is ever so on rentals, I think they unbalance them deliberately to limit over-enthusiasm.

Overall my Escape was an excellent and capable companion over nearly 2500 miles in just 10 days displaying no new car foibles.  It could do the mile eating job necessary in a US car effortlessly enough but showed decent poise and a surprising sporty nature when the occasion arose.  I am happy that I ignored the Or Similars.


Editing and Grading - Reassuringly Inexpensive

When I started editing again a few years ago editing packages came in 2 flavours.  There were consumer ones aiming to suit the person wanting to cut out the foot shots from their 2 weeks in Majorca and add a few cheesy titles.  Then there were the Pro ones which added a nought to the end of the price tag and came with stern and complicated looking interfaces.  Most of these came with some form of colour correction built in.  Apple Color in the Final Cut Studio Suite was atypical being a hard-core grading suite.  At the lower end many of bought plug-ins like Red Giant’s Colorista or Looks.  More up-market productions would turn to applications like DaVinci Resolve which was a hardware/software solution capable of making a 6 digit hole in your bank account. 

On Tuesday all eyes were on the Supermeet to see what Apple might bring to the table.  Apple had been under-pressure from a strong, modern offering from Adobe and a returning to form and increasingly agressive Avid.  The rumour mill was running 24 hour shifts.  Was it going to be iMovie Pro, was it going to be 64bit and just a few short weeks ago even did Apple still care?  I was at the FXPHD party when the presentation started and the party went into suspension whilst the revellers turned to the blow-by-blow account on Twitter.  Well it turns out Apple did care - FCP X (at least what we saw of it) turned out to be more than most people expected.  It is a radically changed UI but not in a consumer direction.  Apple is looking for a paradigm shift in working and its clever and well-thought out.  There is still a lot we don’t know.  Experienced cutters in FCP with shortcut keys hard-wired into their brains are going to find it a shock but not as big as the price sticker.  $299 is what that last slide said which brought the room (and it was a BIG ROOM) to its feet at the Supermeet.  The vibe I got in the days after from people I spoke to was.  “It looks cool but I don’t know whether I can get used to it but for $299 I am going to give it a go”.

On the Colour grading front, two vendors announced free versions of their software.  Red Giant announced a free light version of Colorista.  Even more surprising was a free light version of Resolve.  Coming in July this will lack some features but is still a remarkable journey from super-high end through $1000 Mac version to gratis.  It should run on a laptop according to BlackMagic but remember Resolve really likes Nvidia Quadro cards, a fast raid array and a grading panel.  No-one is giving those away free but at lease Resolve is now supported on the lower cost panels from Euphonix.


Las Vegas

This was my first trip to Vegas.  This is at least partly deliberate.  I don’t really drink very much and the same goes for gambling.  It’s not a deep seated revulsion or based on principle - I just don’t.  So there has never really been a strong desire to go there.

Dawn view from Signature - damn you jet lag!

NAB finally gave me a reason to go - did it live up to my low expectations.  I think the answer is probably yes.  Las Vegas is aptly nicknamed “Sin City” as it is like a corrupted Disney World.  It is just as impressive, well-conceived and efficient and with the same talent for parting you from your cash.  However, whilst Disney blends a spirit of optimism and traditional values with a dash of sentimentality (OK, more than a dash). Las Vegas is set-up to live for the moment and to hell with the consequences.  It’s not a hidden agenda - its right there in the open.  It is unashamed and it is relentless.  It has the same level of sincerity that I see in Disney World that only seems to exist in America.  Its why you couldn't transport either resort to the UK without it ending up a bit rubbish.

I suppose part of my prejudice comes from growing up in a seaside town in Wales.  It’s fair to say that my hometown was not a resort that pitched itself at the upper echelons of the holiday market.  Seeing the massed ranks of slot machines in the Casinos took me back to the amusement arcades of my youth. So when I wander through the Bellagio shopping arcade where every top-line designer is represented to emerge into a giant hall of slot machines is just plain disconcerting.  Especially, when you see rows of people in Guccipradior playing.  That would never happen in Rhyl - well, not real designer wear and they would be trackies.

Ornate ceiling at Bellagio

So would I warn you off going to Vegas?  No, I wouldn’t go that far.  It is worth seeing.  Even if you are viceless, there is a lot to do and the architecture is monumental and the interiors are opulent if not always tasteful.  Its also a reasonably priced placed to stay as the gambling subsidises the rates and there are just huge quantities of rooms available.  Just don’t say I didn't warn you if you come home broke.



NAB and Twitter

They say filmmaking is not about the gear, its about the content - the story in particular.  But NAB is not a film festival its a trade show, so for this one week, gear takes centre stage.  Less evident, but no less powerful is that NAB is about the people.  New relationships, affirmations of relations, chance encounters - it’s all here. 

This same mix of gear and people is what drew me across the Atlantic.  I have had the chance to meet many of the key people in the UK DSLR movement through events like Converge.  However, many of the people I communicate with through the likes of Twitter and blog posts.  When NAB hits Vegas, many of these people emerge from the Interweb and head for Nevada.  I had hoped for a chance to meet a few of these folks during my visit.  However, thanks to events like All-in Film and the RC Live I think I have met pretty much everyone I knew before plus lots of new folks to follow.  Not being the most socially adept person or a even “proper” creative I worried a bit about what kind of reception I would get but I found everyone to be almost universally friendly. 

All-in Film at the Had Rock

I feel heartened that the online community is capable functioning as a real community when the opportunity arises.  I feel enthused and inspired listening to what people are doing and planning.  I look forward to seeing what they produce and I will continue to strive to be worthy.

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