77 Million Paintings

Hard to say what this Brian Eno invention is. Part book, part screen saver, part gallery painting, part DVD video, part music, part software. It slices and dices your perceptions! The accompanying book in this package makes it clear that this an art piece that is normally exhibited in a large room. Here it comes disguised as DVD that you load onto your computer (Windows or Mac). When you fire it up, it starts to slowly generate paintings constructed by random layering of several hundred of Eno’s foundational images. Very S–l—o–w—l—y each painting melts into the next painting, so that the total number of image permutations tops out at 77 million. While the images shift, Eno’s ambient music also swirls in the background. Like an extremely slow screen saver, the result is ambient painting. But instead of happening in a gallery this evolution of paint happens in your space.

As I spent time watching these lovely paintings gradually, almost imperceptibly, evolve into another image, I had a epiphany. These 77 Million Paintings are not about colors, space, or painting — but time. The reason audiences will spend hours watching gallery installations of this same DVD is that their “nows” are elongated. If they are like me, they wait anxiously for the first image to change (Hurry up, man, this is slow), but by the time the fifth one is changing , it no longer seems slow, and by the 20th, you are in some eternal zen now. It is quite remarkable how colored lights can change time.

Besides the handsome 52-page book written by Eno, and the software, there’s also a DVD interview of him discussing the project. A very nice package.

-- KK  

77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno
$32

Available from Amazon

"This high definition HD video contains a 35 minute time lapse recording at 12 times normal real time presentation speed - equivalent to 7 hours (or 420 minutes) of one unique real time performance instance of 77 Million Paintings..."

7 More Hours in 77 Million Paintings (2008.03.16) from Pitch Bend on Vimeo.



Graphic Novels

Okay, so you’ve read Maus. What’s next? This book will turn you onto a hundred more great graphic novels (you know, comics for adults) that “will change your life.” If you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about, this guide is a great way to get into the only part of book publishing that is growing (the graphic novel section of large bookstores can be measured in yards). The author, fan-boy Paul Gravett, selects graphic novels that are contemporary (not classic super-heroes), easily found, in book form (rather than serial magazines), and are beyond mere colorful fantasy, and not just dark teenage angst. They are great stories, with very personal art, in a wonderful cross between cinema and text. This guide is smartly designed and a joy to use. You get sample pages from choice works, Gravett’s insightful comments and analysis, related books, and plenty of context to tell what you can expect from each book. It’s one of the best shopper guides I’ve seen. (more…)

-- KK  

Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know
Paul Gravett
2005, 192 pages
$23

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Blankets

How does a boy raised to obey the Bible reconcile his deep faith and the stirrings of sexual attraction? Craig Thompson pieces together his answer, first by going back to the small cruelties inflicted on him by his parents, and to his guilt over failing to protect his younger brother. He blends these scenes with the slow unfolding of him falling in love with Raina, a girl he meets at church camp. Nothing is rushed, as here Thompson shows the first nearness of their bodies and frees them from confining panel borders. “Blankets” refers not only to the Wisconsin snow, but also to the bed that he an his brother once shared, and to the quilt that Raina makes him.




Foam Latex Puppetmaking 101

With digital editing tools, stop-action animation (think Wallace and Gromit, or Tim Burton) has become more forgiving to make and therefore more new artists are trying their hand at it, making stop-action film more common in commercials, shorts and MTV-ish channels. But it’s really difficult to make a decent flexible figure for stop-action that will not move unless you want it to, but will move exactly as you want it to when you do, and even more challenging to make one that looks alive. I know I’ve tried. There’s really no other way to do this; you have to make a special armature figure. I can’t imagine there are more than five readers of Cool Tools interested in how to make a really good latex puppet for use in animated videos and films. But for you five, here’s some gold: an all-you-need-to-know step-by-step DVD from a gal (Kathi Zung) in New York City who’s perhaps the only professional animated latex puppet maker in the galaxy. She does everything in her loft kitchen, and is very eager to tell you what she has learned. It’s as thorough a workshop course as I’ve seen, with no detail or potential problem unattended.

-- KK  

Do it Yourself Foam Latex Puppetmaking 101
$25
Zung Studio

Sample Excerpts:



The Work of Director Michel Gondry

My bet is that future generations will consider Michel Gondry an original genius on the order of M.C. Esher and J.S. Bach. Gondry is a French filmmaker of music videos and amazing clever shorts. He specializes in radically playful creations, many of them which point to themselves in the recursive manner of the best creations of Esher and Bach. His films circle around in strange loops, mess with paradoxical perspective and POV, and explore the edges of linear reality with the spirit of a 12-year-old boy. He’s recently made feature films (one is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but his best work is still showcased in these 27 brilliant short films and astounding music videos collected here. They are utterly arresting, even now long after they were made. I am reminded of a Annie Dillard quote that says (paraphrasing) that when a creation refers to its form as well as its content, then it refers to art.

-- KK  

The Work of Director Michel Gondry
2003, 400 minutes
$20

Available from Amazon

Or from Netflix

The White Stripes - "Fell In Love With A Girl"

Sample Excerpts:

From Kylie Minogue’s music video “Come Into My World.” She circumnavigates a city block, while additional copies of herself join on top of multiple layers of background jokes. It’s as if a snake with its tail in its mouth begins to unroll into a larger more colorful dancing dragon.




The Complete Animation Course * The Animation Book

All films will become animations. That prediction is based on the rate at which special effects become standard effects in big-budget films. Even a “live action” movie these days is composed frame by frame, and the skills and logic of animation take over. An ordinary digital camera, a hi-end PC or Mac, with iMovie software or equivalent, gives anyone the tools to do cinematic animation without tears. The Complete Animation Course is the best of many recent books riding the re-newed popularity of animated films. This guide is a great how-to orientation for making your own animated film using affordable technology. It introduces you to classic animation basics, and the many methods which combine old fashioned techniques (cartoon, paper collages, claymation) with computer based tools. I found it had just the right level of detail — sufficient to get you going without bogging down in how to do what’s already been done.

The Complete Animation Course is not as thorough on basic technique as the new Digital Edition of Kit Laybourne’s classic The Animation Book, but it is far more up-to-date and digitally oriented. The Animation Book goes deep; there’s none better for grasping the secrets of traditional cell animation. Many of those techniques are still essential. The Complete Animation Course goes fast: there’s none better if you want to use a digital camera, scanner, and home computer to make an animated short.

The Complete Animation Course: The Principles, Practice, and Techniques of Successful Animation
Chris Patmore
2003, 160 pages
$10
Amazon

The Animation Book: A Complete Guide to Animated Filmmaking — from Flip-books to Sound Cartoons to 3-D Animation
Kit Laybourne
1998, 426 pages
$18
Amazon

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

Twelve Principles of Animation

1. Squash and Stretch.
2. Anticipation. This is setting up the action before it happens, usually with a slight movement in the opposite direction to the main one.
3. Staging. This is related to the way the film as a whole is “shot,” considering angles, framing, and scene length.
4. Straight-ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose. Straight-ahead action starts at one point and finishes at another in a single continuous movement, such as running, whereas pose-to-pose is a variety of actions in one scene requiring clearly delineated key frames to mark the action’s extreme point. How the in-betweens are executed can alter the whole rhythm of the action.
5. Follow-through and Overlapping Action. Follow-through is the opposite of anticipation. When a character stops, certain parts remain in motion, such as hair or clothes. Overlapping action is when the follow-through of one action becomes the anticipation of the next one.
6. Slow In — Slow Out. This means using more drawings at the beginning and end of an action and fewer in the middle. This creates a more lifelike feeling to the movement.
7. Arcs. These are used to describe natural movement. All actions create circular movements because they usually pivot around a central point, usually a joint. Arcs are also used to describe a line of action through a character.
8. Secondary Action is just that, another action that takes place at the same time as the main one. This may be something as simple as turning the head from side to side during a walk sequence.
9. Timing. This is something that can’t be taught. In the same way that comedians who rely on it to get the most from their gags have to learn it through experience, you too will get it right only through practice. Timing is how you get characters to interact naturally. Timing also has to do with the technical side of deciding how many drawings are used to portray an action.
10. Exaggeration. This is the enhancement of a physical attribute or movement, but don’t make the mistake of exaggerating the exaggeration.
11. Solid Drawing. This conveys a sense of three-dimensionality through linework, color, and shading.
12. Appeal This is giving personality to the characters you draw. If you can convey it without the sound track, you know you are on the right track.

These are not hard and fast rules, but they have been found to work since the early days of animation. Bear them in mind at the storyboard stage and your animation will definitely have more fluidity and believability.

In these two shots, from Rustboy by Brian Taylor, we can see the dramatic effect shaders and lighting can have on a scene. The top picture is the flat model produced by the software while you are working on it. The picture below is a fully rendered scene, with all the shaders, textures, and lighting added to give it depth, atmosphere, and believability.




Archos

I commute 2 hours a day by train and also frequently fly coast-to-coast, so I’m always looking for a good portable entertainment device. My laptop is fine to use once in a while, but for my daily commute I just don’t want to bother lugging it around. I have a portable DVD player and an iPod, but neither quite does the job…the iPod is great for music, but nothing else. Same for the DVD player and DVDs. Carrying them both at the same time is worse than having a laptop. I haven’t been impressed enough with portable video players to actually buy one. Then I came across the Archos AV420. Now that I’ve had it, I’m surprised I don’t hear more about them.

The AV420 is made for watching videos, playing music and viewing photos, and it’s pretty good at all three. Music-wise it’s primarily made for MP3s (and WMAs), which is fine by me since I’m not a fan of Apple’s DRM on iTunes. For video it uses MPEG-4 SP, which is not my first choice but is serviceable. And it will store and view any size JPEG for photos.

Since the MP3 player part works like most others based on MusicMatch, I won’t waste time on it, other than to say it’s fine for what it is. Same for photo viewing and storage. Video is where it gets interesting, since the AV420 is really a pocket-sized VCR with some fledgling Tivo-like abilities. Hook it up to your TV and you can record whatever is on, and you can also schedule recordings, including having the AV420 change channels with its IR suction cup attachment. You can do some rudimentary Tivo-style scheduling through a My Yahoo! Account but, since I have a Tivo and can dump recorded files directly into the AV420, I haven’t bothered with it. The AV420 has 20 GB of storage, enough for about 40 hours of video.

You can also record DVDs to the AV420 for playback on the built-in LCD screen, a brilliant 3.5 TFT. Unfortunately the AV420 will pick up macrovision encoding from standard DVD players, meaning you can’t play recorded DVDs from the AV420 to an external device like a TV. Since I bought it to watch on the train, this isn’t an issue for me, but could be a deal breaker for some. On the plus side, if you’re only going to playback the video on the built-in LCD, you can record the file at a lower resolution to save space. It will still look great on the LCD, since the screen is lower resolution than a TV.

You connect the AV420 to your computer via USB2, and since an XP machine will see it as an external drive, you can store anything you want on it (though it will only display the previously mentioned files). Very handy. It also has a CF card reader that can take an adapter so it can read most digital camera storage cards. I plan to use this on vacation to free up my meager 256K SD card when it’s full rather than carrying extra cards.

The AV420 has a docking cradle that is a bit of a nightmare in terms of design — a total of six 2-foot-long composite cables and an S-video cable dangle out the back, in addition to the power cable — but is perfectly functional otherwise, though I wish it had component inputs/outputs. That, aside from the macrovision, is the only real drawback for me. Battery life for video is 4 hours, but on the 20BG version the small rechargeable battery can be switched out so you can buy a second one for long trips. For me, 4 hours is fine for video, and that goes up to something like 12 for audio if you don’t use the LCD screen.

The street price of the AV420 is $450, and it tends to get two reactions. Either, wow, that’s pricey, I can buy a Mac Mini for that. Or, wow, that’s only $100 more than a photo iPod — what a bargain! I obviously fall in the latter category.

Manufactured by Archos

-- Craig Engler  

[*Newer models with more memory have since been released, such as the Archos 5, which offers 250GB for $300. -- SL]

Archos AV400
$467 (now $200)

Available from Amazon



Toshiba SD-H400 DVD-Tivo

If you want Tivo, but don’t want to subscribe to the monthly Tivo fee ($13), or the very high lifetime fee ($300), then this basic Tivo box is great.

It is the least expensive Tivo box which offers the Tivo Basic features. This is a no-fee service which allows you to program the Tivo either by manually specifying a time and channel, like a regular VCR, or you can choose to record from a 3-day-in-advance programming guide. You can store up to 80 hours on the Basic (highest compression) quality. On the Best quality, which I use exclusively, much less compression occurs, and you get about 24 hours.

Pros: The Tivo interface is exactly the same, except items that are only accessible to the Tivo Plus paid service subscribers do not appear on several menu pages.

Cons: No advance Tivo features, like season pass, or search lists to snag future shows based on keywords. And the 1 button, 30 second commercial skip is not supported on this unit. You can still scan forward/backwards in one of 3 speeds, just like a normal Tivo box, so honestly, I really don’t miss it. Also, the remote control is not the same as an elegantly designed Tivo remote. (In addition to the buttons for Tivo control, there are buttons used for the DVD control.) Tivo Basic does not have the Wish list feature.

Summary: The Tivo Basic feature is great if you just want simple time shifting capabilities, and the convenience of random access, high-speed scanning of a digital recorder. With no subscription fees.

– Jaime Villacorte

Toshiba SD-H400 80GB
$210
From discounters such as
Overstock.com

Or $275 from Amazon
Amazon

Manufactured by
Toshiba

 



iStopMotion

From my 7-year-old son’s stop-animation of the Hulk action figure.

This is a very cool application that creates stop-motion and time-lapse videos. For years my kids and I have been making claymation episodes, doll and figure animations, paper cutout sequences, and fun time-lapse movies with our family handy-cam, but our primitive method of simply blinking the on-button has always been less than satisfactory. Our brain-dead way creates three problems: the interval is too long (jerky movement), you can’t see what motion should be next, and you can’t edit out goofs when you make a boo-boo — which is 100% certain.

iStopMotion software is a much better way to do animation, and it solves all three problems. You connect a live video feed from your camera to your computer (via USB or Firewire) and then you control the film from your keyboard — or this is cool — via voice command! After you capture a frame, the program overlays that frame as transparent layer over the current camera view so you can see exactly where you need to move next. You can even request the last 5 frames (onion skinning animators call it) to get a sense of direction and trajectory, which allows a very fine tuning of the motion. And you can edit mistakes, and do redos on the fly. All this is simple enough that my 7-year-old could instantly manage it. Yet it is sophisticated enough that film students use this software for thesis projects. Making time-lapse films is even easier.

The joy of this tool is that your computer screen rather than your camera screen drives the animation. The downside is that you either need to do all your filming within cable reach of your desktop, or else on a laptop (with sufficient shade on the screen outdoors). The closer you can get your screen to your “stage” the better. When you are done animating, or time-lapsing, it is very easy to export the Quicktime file to iMovie to add a soundtrack and titles.

There are three programs in this genre and all three run on Mac OSX. I’ve tried all three (iStopMotion, FrameThief, and Stop-Motion Studio) and iStopMotion is by far the superior. It has the most features, ease of use, speed and stability. It is also the best designed. Check out the entertaining examples completed by folks on the iStopMotion website.

-- KK  

iStopMotion
$50 (free demo for 7 days)



Cheap Home Theater

home_screen.jpg

Five years ago we moved our video habit from a tiny 13-inch monitor that was hardly bigger than most laptop screens to showing DVDs on something a little bigger — like a wall-sized movie screen. It’s been pure joy since.

What we had in mind was an assemble-it-yourself home theater.

I considered big TV screens and large flat panel displays, but in the end choose a projection system as the most reasonable way to go. Finding an inexpensive screen was not difficult; you can try eBay for a real bargain. I bought a new one that was 6 feet by 8 feet. Yep, it’s big. We hung our huge screen on a wall; it rolls right up and disappears when not needed.

To project the DVD image I bought the cheapest, smallest, computer projector I could find, the kind of portable conference projector you see advertised in airline magazines. You can get a good one now for around $800-900 (see below).

In addition to the small projector we also added surround sound to the room using five strategically placed Bose speakers, each no bigger than a softball, and one woofer hidden beneath a table. The result: With a good DVD offering 5.1 surround sound, the experience is as about as good as our rinky-dink local half-plex theater.

Is it perfect? No. Our cheap home theater quality does not match the experience of viewing a good print on a large screen in a good theater. Also, because of the large windows in our room, we use the theater mostly at night. With a projector of 2000 lumens you can watch during the day, but you don’t get the full theatrical experience unless the room is dark. The projector has a fan in it so it is not as silent as a TV or a flat panel, but in a large room with the surround sound cranked up you won’t notice the hum at all.

Our set-up includes our trusty old VCR that also plugs into the projector. The quality of a lot of tapes projected on this scale is, let me put it this way, less than one desires. But the total effect is still better than on a small screen. DVDs on the other hand are crisp enough. Another down side is that the expensive bulbs in the projectors are rated to have a lifespan of several hundred hours; however after 5 years of running a couple of movies a week we are still on the original bulb. It is, of course, possible to run a TV signal onto the screen, too, say, for sports events.

When I first researched this idea I discovered a couple of things. First, salesmen of the projectors report that a lot of other people had the same idea: this was the low-rent way of making a home theater, even though the manufacturer’s literature and the home theater publications have ignored this use because the cheap projectors aren’t optimized for TV. But the cheapest “home theater projectors” I could find started at $6,000, and these monsters needed expert “set up.” Forget it.

Secondly, all you need is the cheapest projector. Essentially the quality of even the low-end projectors exceeds the quality of video. It’s not necessary to get super-duper res, because while this will improve a computer display’s image, it won’t do much for a signal from a DVD or VCR.

Five years ago the cheapest projector was the Sony VPL-CS1. It still works fine for us. We have also used the Sanyo ProX-III, a little larger box, slightly more money, same result. I have not tried it, but Epson is now selling a portable projector, the PowerLite S1 for $800 street price. It is being sold as a home theater projector. The main distinguishing feature at the low end is lumens — the brightness. The difference of a few hundred lumens will not be noticeable; the level has to double before you can perceive the increase. If you show at night, a lumen level of 1000 is probably all you’ll need.

We combined our Sony with a Pioneer Dolby DVD player and receiver with the aforementioned Bose 5.1 surround sound speaker system. Our screen is a Da-Lite model; I picked a mid-range quality screen (not flat white, but not the highest reflectivity either). From about 12 feet away the projector will completely fill a 6-foot high by 8-foot wide screen. This size screen is large enough that wide-screen mode (which doesn’t fill the screen) is still plenty big.

All the electronic gear sits compactly hidden beneath a tiny end table, on the floor. (By design the projector angles upward slightly so it fills the screen from the floor perfectly.) Most visitors to the room don’t have any idea that it can transform into a serviceable home theater in the time it takes to roll down the screen.

Now that most films can be rented or bought on DVD, we only venture into a movie house a couple of times a year, primarily when we want to see something early, while everyone else does. The rest of the year, the home theater is more than adequate.

And if you do need to project a computer, you’ve got a fine unit at your service. Just unplug and carry.

-- KK  

Epson PowerLite S1
$993

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Epson



Remote Web Cam

Stand alone web cams have been around for a few years but only recently have dropped in price to a few hundred dollars. Stand alone web cams differ from standard web cams in that they have a server and connectivity built in making them independent of a computer. That means you can put these web cams somewhere far from a computer (say in a cabin, or the top of a building) as long as you have a phone or ethernet connection. The cameras made by Axis seem to be the most compact and well-designed. These cams use a Linux-based server and come with an ethernet port so you just plug it into the network, assign it a public IP address, and presto, you are live on the web. Far from a network, you could even plug the camera into a phone modem and have a PC call the camera to see the images. We’ve had an Axis working in our office window for a few months without problems. There is a choice of models depending on whether the camera will be indoors, outdoors, or wants sound, etc.

-- Alexander Rose  

[This review was written for the 2100, which may no longer available. The 211 series appears to be similar.]

Axis Standalone Network WEB Camera
Manufactured by AXIS
$705

Newer models available from PC Connection
888-213-0260

Axis remote network cam used as a London "Jam Cam" for web-based monitoring of traffic. Can be viewed here