The SXSW Festival and Conference 2007: Film

March means different things to different people. To college basketball fans, it means the madness of the NCAA college basketball tournaments. To fans of Shakespeare, it means the ides are here. But to fans of movies, music, or multimedia, March can only mean one thing - itis time for the South By Southwest (SXSW to those in the know) Music, Film, and Multimedia Festivals and Conferences in beautiful Austin, TX.

Weire talking about three totally separate but overlapping festivals and conferences, spanning the course of ten days, and taking place in dozens upon dozens of different locations in downtown Austin. Most of the conferences take place at the cavernous new Austin Convention Center, while most of the music, movies, and multimedia exhibitions take over almost every club, bar, movie theatre, art gallery, playhouse, coffee house, or other public space within a mile of downtown Austin. Itis total chaos and such fun it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

This year The Mac Observer and asked me to attend SXSW and provide you, gentle reader, with my report. Itis a tough job but somebody has to do it. So last week I sat down with schedules for all three conferences and picked a handful of sessions that seemed to represent the SXSW vibe and be of interest to a Mac user.

And so, on Monday, March 12 I attended two sessions, both part of the SXSW Movie conference: "High Quality, Multi-Format, and Low Cost HD or SD Production using Sonyis XDCAM HD and Apple Final Cut Pro" and "Tech Tools for Film Artists."

HD and SD Production
I learned quite a bit about professional high definition video production on a budget in the High Quality, Multi-Format, and Low Cost HD or SD Production using Sonyis XDCAM HD and Apple Final Cut Pro session. The presenters - Mike DesRoches, a sales support engineer from Sony, and Orlando Luna, a senior systems engineer from Apple - obviously knew their stuff cold. Not only did they define and demonstrate an HD video production workflow, but they also managed to answer every question the audience threw at them (and there were quite a few).

The Sony XDCAM HD video camera is relatively new to market and notable for its choice of video frame rates, interlace or progressive modes, recording data rates, HD or SD formats, and 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios.

But wait - thereis more! Itis not just an HD camera, itis also a little tiny Linux computer, which performs MPEG2 encoding in real time on the fly and records it on special 23GB reusable optical discs. These discs, which sell for around $30 each, can hold up to 66 minutes of HD video and were developed by Sony specifically for professional recording applications. Whatis sweet is that when you finish shooting, the camera connects to your Mac via FireWire 400 and the optical disc mounts on the desktop just just like any other disk volume.

Prices for XDCAM HD camera bodies start at around $16,000 and include the viewfinder and microphone but no lens and weighs roughly 9 pounds. Once the crowd stopped drooling over the camera Mr. Luna took over and showed how easily footage captured with the XDCAM HD could be imported and edited with Final Cut Studio. In a nutshell, if you know how to use Final Cut, you already know pretty much everything you need to know to use it with footage from an XDCAM HD.

Furthermore, itis possible to edit your HD video on notebook systems such as the MacBook Pro. We watched Mr. Luna edit some HD footage which not only looked spectacular but ran at totally acceptable frame rates. The combination of portability, capture options, tapeless recording, and seamless integration with Appleis Final Cut Studio makes this camera more desirable than some more expensive cameras. This may be why, according to Mr. DesRoches, the Discovery HD channel has said that content acquired on the XDCAM HD system at the 35Mbps data rate is fully acceptable for 100% of production. So, if you were to shoot a production on the XDCAM HD at the 35Mbps data rate today, it would meet the acquisition requirements for broadcast on Discovery HD. (This is in contrast to something like the HDV format, which can only be utilized for up to 10% of the content of a program.)

What I took away from the session is that the combination of Sonyis XDCAM HD camera and Appleis Final Cut Studio software may be the lightest-weight, lowest-cost, true HD field acquisition and editing package available today. If I were a professional filmmaker or videographer Iid buy this camera in a heartbeat.

Tech Tools for Film Artists
That afternoon I attended another session, this one a multi-presenter panel called Tech Tools for Film Artists, moderated by Anne Hubbell, a Regional Account Manager for Kodak, with panelists Aaron Simpson, a content producer for JibJab Media; Christian Zak, the V.P. Digital Film Services for Technicolor; Mike Curtis, proprietor of the HD For Indies Web site; James Finn, a marketing executive for Panavision; Matt Feury, an evangelist for Avid; and Patrick Davenport, a producer for Image Metrics.

Initially I was disappointed by this session. It seemed that each panelist was doing nothing more than plugging their own goods and services. I believe that presenters have an obligation to do more than just shill for their masters, especially at conferences that cost real money like this one. I mean, I speak at Macworld Expo every year and I am certain that Paul Kent, the Brand VP in charge of the conference, would never stand for such shenanigans.

I will say that I was fascinated by Patrick Davenportis demonstration of Image Metrics advances in motion capture technology. Instead of dressing actors up in special sensor suits or attaching sensors directly to their faces, the latest motion capture technology analyzes actual video footage of an actor and spits out "animation curves" used to generate realistic animated actors in near real time. It turns out Iive actually seen the result--my son is a big fan of Rockstar Gamesi Midnight Club 3, Dub Edition for the XBox, which uses facial animation technology by Image Metrics.

Beyond that, though, the sales pitches left me cold. Fortunately, they ended after about 15 minutes and the rest of the session offered tips, insights, and observations about art and the filmmaking process. Mr. Curtis pointed out that festivals like Sundance and SXSW now allow filmmakers to present their work digitally, which saves them tens of thousands of dollars theyid otherwise have to spend on a film print. And almost all of the panelists offer some kind of price break to students and independent artists.

Mr. Zak pointed out that artists often spend more money then necessary on post production, fixing mistakes that could have been avoided during production. As with any project, proper planning up front can save money down the line. Mr. Finn added that you should know everything about your format, frame rate, aspect ratio, and so on before you shoot a single second of footage. And Mr. Curtis made the point that you need to figure out what your deliverable is before you can even think about production. Do you need a film print or is this project going to be distributed only on DVD? Whatis your budget? What can you afford? Finally, moderator Hubbell felt that if you think youire going to need more money than youive got to finish your project, raise the money now not later. She explained that sheis seen many projects that were never completed because the producers ran out of money halfway through.

Near the end, someone asked about collaboration and sharing files and the panelists were fairly unanimous that setting up a Wiki or message board or using a commercially available service was invaluable. Most of them favor FTP for distributing large files, but some use services like Sharefile, XDrive, or DigiDelivery if theyire working with less computer-savvy users. (Note that DigiDelivery is an Avid product and was mentioned by the Avid guy?another shameless plug.)

The bottom line was that after a rocky start I felt the session turned around and ultimately provided plenty of useful insights and food for thought for the budding film artist. In spite of the shameless plugging in the beginning, I rated it "very good" on my feedback form.

Later this week Iill report on sessions from the Music conference, namely, "Crash Course: Recording," which will look at whether or not recording studios are obsolete, and "Come Together: Mobile Phones and Portable Music Players Converge," with panelists from Cingular, Motorola, Verizon, SonyBMG, and Napster.

So donit touch that dial!