The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'Media' Category

At SIFF, The Movies Watch You!

Posted by Deliverator on 6th June 2013

I’ve been attending the Seattle International Film Festival for close to a decade. Recently, an issue which affects all festival attendees came to light and I feel an obligation to document it here, as SIFF has said little publicly on the matter.

This year, SIFF has included a uniquely identifying barcode on all passes and tickets and mandated that these barcodes must be scanned for entry. When asked about the barcodes and their purpose at press screenings prior to the start of the festival, members were told that the barcodes were for headcount and validation purposes only and that no data was being collected. It quickly became apparent through the My SIFF feature on the SIFF website that this was not the case. A permanent record of the screening attendance of every pass-holder was being created and stored. A heated debated quickly emerged on the passholder mailing list, called Fool Serious. Some passholders liked the idea of being able to track what films they had seen, but many expressed grave concerns about their movie attendance being tracked and to ill defined purpose. I found the situation extremely troubling, both due to the denials that this was taking place, but also due to the lack of any statement of how this data was being stored and used both directly by SIFF and potentially by third parties. At the time, SIFF had NO stated privacy policy, which is exceptional for an organization of its size in this era.

There was no notice that data collection would be taking place as a condition of entry at the time I purchased my pass or at the time the pass was issued to me and the terms printed on the pass itself don’t seem to require it as a condition of entry. I made multiple attempts to engage SIFF leadership, both via email and also via SIFF board members. I sent no fewer than 4 emails to a half dozen top SIFF employees asking that my pass be refunded or that I be allowed entry without being tracked, as I considered the tracking to be a term of execution added after purchase and issuance of the pass. I was told by sources within SIFF that the issue had been brought before directors (specifically named to me) and they had dismissed the issue rather cavalierly and hoped it would go away. SIFF finally responded (minimally, in a way that said next to nothing) almost two weeks after the beginning of the furor and made claims to have not heard of the issue prior to then, which I believe to be untrue.

I was finally contacted by SIFF’s managing director Mary Bacarella and Carl Spence and after a half hour phone conversation was offered to exchange my pass for 50 vouchers that I was assured would be issued anonymously. At no time was I offered the refund I had requested or entry without scanning. I feel I was forced into giving up the significant benefits of a pass including attendance at press screening, priority entry and seating and unlimited attendance, but didn’t feel they were willing to offer more. When I attempted to “cash in” my anonymous vouchers, I was asked repeatedly for my name and had to spend close to 10 minutes explaining that I didn’t want to provide my name. I asked why they needed my name and was told it was only to notify me of venue changes and the like. When I asked if the data was being used for any other purpose, I was told no. I repeated that I wanted to exchange them anonymously and had been given permission to do so by SIFF’s directors and the volunteer finally relented after I handed him Mary Bacarella’s business card and told him to take it up with her.

I’m willing to share many types of data. I don’t really care that my grocery store knows what sort of peanut butter I like. I care a great deal however about having my viewing habits, web browsing habits, reading habits, etc. logged in a uniquely identifying way. Unlike inconsequential data such as peanut butter preferences, what we listen to, read and watch tells people a great deal about who we are as individuals. Such data can also be misconstrued in a variety of ways that have real and unanticipated consequences. While many young people today are pretty blithe about what and with whom they share their information, I’ve seen the repercussions of over-sharing, identity theft, etc. first hand as part of my work and as such, try to maintain a high degree of separation between my public and private lives. I can imagine a lot of ways in which information such as this could be used in ways I would not approve, but it is the unanticipated ramifications that I find scariest.

SIFF finally posted a privacy policy to its website, and I find the terms and conditions layed out in it to be deeply suspect. SIFF does little to draw attention to this document and has made no public press statement on the matter. One provision in the privacy policy allows for members to request that their tracking data be deleted. I made such a request and shortly thereafter found that my SIFF account AND MEMBERSHIP had been outright deleted. When I’ve presented my membership card (which has a clear “valid until” date printed on it) at SIFF venues, I’ve been told they can find no record of my membership and have been further denied the benefits of the membership for which I paid. This whole situation has increasingly grown to resemble a play by either Kafka or Heller and I find this situation deeply ironic given that this year’s festival contains a film called “Terms & Conditions.”

Attendees should be told upfront in a forthright way by SIFF that they are being tracked and not have that data hidden in 6 pt type. They should be given the chance to opt-out in a meaningful and non-punitive way. SIFF has thus far failed utterly to do so. I hope that SIFF will reconsider their position and work with the people who have raised objections to develop a policy that better addresses the concerns raised by many of their most supportive members.

Posted in General, Movies, Rants and Raves | 2 Comments »

The Hobbit in HFR (High Frame Rate) 3D

Posted by Deliverator on 16th December 2012

I caught a 2D screening at one of the least modern mainstream theaters in the Seattle area, Factoria Cinemas a couple days back and then saw it again in HFR 3D today at Cinerama.

To me, the effect of HFR was similar to the transition to high def, in that the HFR seems to increase the apparent detail. There were some scenes, such as Bilbo walking through Bag End lit only by a single candle, the light glinting off the sword Sting when he pulls it from the scabbard, the moonlight shining through the waterfall in Rivendell, the eagles back-lit by the sun, etc. that really popped out at me in HFR that made no impression on me the first time around. At the same time, there were a large number of times where I found the HFR distracting/detracting and I am not sure I liked the effect overall. It is hard to put my finger on it, but here is what I came up with:

With lower frame rates, sudden movements simply blur. With HFR, the sudden movements instead tear/judder.

It is almost as if reality stuttered for a moment. It reminds me a bit like when you are playing a video game and you turn a corner onto a scene with significantly more complex geometry/detail and your graphics card can’t keep up and the framerate drops from 60 to 10ish fps. The illusion of continuous motion is broken. To me, psychologically, this is somewhat similar to the so-called uncanny valley effect when animation tries for realism and doesn’t quite get there.

I wonder if I would have a better response to HFR if the frame rate were significantly higher, such as 96 fps. It wasn’t the smoothness that bothered me, but the smoothness occasionally being broken by jerkiness. It breaks the illusion that you are in the reality of the movie and suddenly you are just sitting in your seat for a moment. I am not sure if all this is an artifact of the filming or production process, or a problem with the digital projection systems not having quite the pixel refresh rate yet. I would be curious to see a HFR digital download version of this movie on a fast refresh rate monitor that is able to sync precisely to the frame changes, but I suspect we will only see a downsampled standard framerate version as Blu-ray isn’t able to handle it. Still, one can hope.

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SIFF Film Micro Reviews

Posted by Deliverator on 11th June 2012

Here is a brief list of films I saw at SIFF this year to be followed with a micro-review:

The Intouchables – Very funny and touching story of a rich, cultured, but deeply unhappy quadriplegic who regains his joie de vivre after the unlikely hiring of a Senegalese immigrant as his full-time helper. A little bit mainstream, but a huge crowd pleaser. Highest grossing French film in the country’s box office history. Showing at several theaters in Seattle now. Highly recommended.

Citadel – A newly widowed and agoraphobic father has to defend his infant daughter from sub-human packs of fear sensing mutant hoodlums inhabiting a nearly abandoned area of England set for urban renewal “any day now.” One of a number of British horror films in recent years with social messages/themes just beneath the surface. I found the actor playing the father to be nearly as creepy as the fear-mutants. Not for everyone, but hardcore horror fans might like.

Fat Kid Rules the World – Mildly enjoyable film about a fat kid who is drawn out of the emotional cave of despair he has built for himself by a charismatic drug using guitar player who saves him from committing suicide and declares the fat kid to be his newest band member. Both parties are using each other and they both know it but pretend otherwise. Gradually a genuine and deep friendship emerges from the relationship and maybe they are exactly what the other person needs.

Sleepwalk With Me – Mike Birbiglia, with the assistance of the oh so beautiful Lauren Ambrose, brings the story of his emergence as a professional comedian to the big screen. I’ve admired his comedy for years on the radio, but it was nice to see it again in expanded form on the big screen. I liked how this was as much of a movie about how you can transform personal pain into something you and an audience can laugh at together as the final product. I think in so many fields there is a long period of time in which a new practitioner will be just plain bad and the emotional fortitude  to keep at it while enduring years of rebukes while honing you craft is really what separates out the cream of the crop.

God Bless America – This is essentially a dark comedic vehicle for Bobcat Goldthwait to take us and The U.S. to task for everything that is wrong in our culture and politics. I agree with most of his points, but the movie develops a somewhat monotonous tone. This is an idea stretched a bit too far to remain funny for the duration. Mild recommendation.

Polisse – Follows the lives of the officers of a child protection unit of the police in Paris over the course of a year as their work is documented by a government photographer. The anecdotes collected feel more like the recollections collected over the course of a long and brutal career in public service rather than a year. I liked how the film showed all the personal and emotional destruction in the lives of the officers as they deal with a unending unspeakable evil on a daily basis coupled with a lack of resources, appreciation and a bureaucracy that repeatedly fails to be flexible enough to help the ones it is supposed to protect. A difficult film to watch and the narrative arc is pretty weak, but the anecdotes are interesting if you can stand to bear witness to some of the deepest and most recurrent evils perpetrated by the human animal.

Bel Ami – Not a lot to redeem this weakly characterized story of a handsome, newly discharged French soldier’s rise to wealth through the seduction and marriage to some of the wealthiest women in Paris. About all that Robert Pattinson brings to the main role are his good looks. Some nice costumes/sets and a good supporting cast, but really not enough there to recommend it to anyone.

The Do-Deca Pentathalon – Mostly enjoyed this film from the dynamic duo of Mark and Jay Duplass about two ultra-competitive brothers mending a deep rift that started long ago over a series of “if teenagers invent the olympics” events called the Do-Deca Pentathalon. Watching the two adult brothers sneak out of the house to compete at lasertag, ping pong, etc. was pretty fun. Would have loved this film if it was a bit tighter and the two brothers had been named Belushi. Mild recommendation.

Found Memories – LOVED this poetic, deeply layered film about a young, woman photographer who walks into a changeless, tiny town inhabited solely by the elderly and through patience and consideration gradually gets the inhabitant to open up to her about their lives and pains. The performances are understated and of the highest quality and the slow pacing perfectly suited to the film’s material. There is something of a French or Russian play to this film in its staging, theming and structure. HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

The Lost Years – A documentary about generations of Chinese immigration to Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand  and their struggles for identity in cultures that presented them with a great deal of societal prejudice and racist legal codes. Some of the material was interesting, but was lacking in overall structure and unified vision.

Lola Versus – I really like Greta Gerwig, but I had a hard time relating to or liking her character. Lola is just too obviously the source of her own unhappiness and I find the idea of someone who is writing a thesis on stillness and silence frenetically packing all of life’s misadventures into a single year to be just a bit too contrived.

Game of Werewolves – I found the old school wolfman costuming and effects to be refreshing and the bit with the fingers was freaking hilarious, but there ultimately wasn’t enough funny there overall for me. The bit with how nobody knows how curses quite work but seem certain of their own opinions could have driven the plot of the movie to great comic effect. It could have made the movie, but the director instead spent more time on a lowbrow joke about villagers and sheep. Can’t really recommend unless you have bottomed out your Netflix queue and are looking for some late night werewolf camp to stream to fill the wee hours of the morning. Would love to rent one of their 40+ wolfman costumes (made with the hair from cash poor, newly shorn Chinese villagers!) for next Halloween, however.

The Painting – Enjoyed the lush and varied styles of “painted” animation in this film which has the half completed characters inhabiting the paintings in a French artist’s studio coming to life and escaping into the real world in order to find their maker and be completed. I loved the animation but found the pacing a bit too slow and ponderous for the audience for which this film was intended. I am not sure what your average 4-8 year old American kid would make of it. The French in the last decade have put out a series of visually and stylistically unique films that are almost a genre onto themselves. The most notable of these are probably Persepolis, The Illusionist, The Triplets of Belleville and A Cat in Paris. Add The Painting to this list.

John Dies At The End – I’m a big fan of the book, but I remember thinking to myself while reading it that this would make an absolute mess of a movie. I enjoyed watching the film, but it was definitely a big mess of a film. I am not sure people who hadn’t read the book would get much out of it. I spent most of the car ride home trying to explain various aspects of the film to my very confused father. An extended cut might help in some ways but would likely cause the film to drag and become even more unfocused. I look forward to the book’s sequel whose title is, I kid you not, THIS BOOK IS FULL OF SPIDERS.

360 – A series of lives are connected through their decisions to act/not act on various aspects of their sexuality.  In some cases their lives are made better, in some much much worse. The movie repeatedly talks about how when life presents you with a choice you are ultimately going to have to pick a path, but never really asserts which is the better path to follow. The movie ends back where it began, which may be the source of the title and speaks to the universality of sexuality as a driver of human happiness/unhappiness. I enjoyed the performances, but none of the vignettes really struck me as terribly original or thought provoking. The stories are almost too universal. I felt like I’d seen them all before too many times.

Eliminate: Archie Cookson – Archie Cookson is a ex-spy who has been sidelined to a desk and has settled into life as a hapless, drunken has-been in a department transcribing foreign language intercepts. When a tape (highly incriminating his paymasters) lands on his desk, they send an assassin to liquidate his entire department. Archie escapes but realizes his days are numbered. His ambivilance about going out gracefully or striking back fills most of the rest of the movie. I found the movie quite funny, although I found Archie’s kid just plain bizarre. A nice change of pace from most spy films.

The Crown Jewels – A meandering adult fairy tail that is too dark for too long. Didn’t enjoy, save for an appreciation of some cinematography that made scenes looked filmed through water. I did like the bit about the gay figure skater becoming a NHL hockey player, but that was about it. Can’t recommend.

4 Days in May – Follows a small group of Russian soldiers (lead by a just and fair man) encamped in an orphanage and a larger group of Nazis encamped on the seashore nearby hoping to escape to Denmark to surrender to the British as they both attempt to survive the war’s end. The thought that surrendering to the Russians would be akin to a death sentence is never spoken, but is omnipresent. The Russians and Nazis do their best to not confront each other. Both sides have seen enough blood and want to ensure no more is spilled, especially their own unless absolutely necessary. What does honor and their humanity demand of them? Eventually the two sides form an unlikely alliance as the children of the orphanage become threatened.  I really liked this WWII film which found something fresh to say in a genre where everything has already been said.

True Wolf – I strongly disliked this documentary about a couple who raise and socialize a wolf (seemingly for the sole, unexpressed purpose of propagandizing the wolf reintroduction movement). The interviews during the movie got extremely repetitive. The phrase “we are here to dispel myths about wolves” gets repeated frequently, yet during the movie very few facts or statistics about wolves and their behavior are introduced. The film comes out heavily in favor of wolf reintroduction and doesn’t really acknowledge that sane, rational people might have a differing viewpoint. Virtually the only footage/interviews of people against wolf reintroduction were of wild eyed loonies frothing at the mouth while saying stuff like “the bible says wolves are the devil’s creature.” Setting up a straw man does little to strengthen your argument. As someone who has read a few books on the evolutionary history of wolves and dogs and their differing psychologies, I found it interesting to see footage of a socialized wolf reacting to people and dogs as you only really ever see footage of wolves in their natural habitat on nature shows, but that opportunity is about the only redeeming quality for this one sided piece of propaganda masquerading as a documentary.

The Ambassador – I loved this extremely gutsy piece of film making by Mads Brügger which exposes (in a surprisingly funny way) the trading of diplomatic credentials to those seeking to smuggle Blood Diamonds and other illicit business dealings through the use of hidden cameras. Mads plays the role of an affable, naive corrupt businessman to the hilt in a performance that is every bit as funny as Sacha Baron Cohen and utterly convincing. One gets the impression that almost any of his many unaware subjects would have put a bullet in the back of his head had his performance not been convincing or had they been aware of the filming. One of the people interviewed several times during the film does in fact get assassinated during the making of the film. This film would get high marks from me by simple virtue of its sheer audacity, but is funny and revealing to boot.

Earthbound – I disliked this overly saccharine, cutesy story of a man who may or may not be the exiled heir of an alien empire, Zalaxon. The whole “is he a space alien or just delusional” concept has been done to death numerous times on numerous TV shows. About the only new thing this film adds to the mix is that he is looking to find a mate. I did enjoy seeing curly haired doll-faced Jenn Murray as the chosen object of genetic compatibility. I last recall seeing her in the excellent BBC series The Fades as a revenant ghost slowly gaining solidity through the consumption of human flesh.

People Like US – I liked this story of a deeply indebted, manipulative, fast talking man who receives an unwanted bequest from his estranged father in the form of $150,000 and the task of delivering it to a half-sister he (and his mother) never knew existed. The movie plays around with the idea of him taking the money for himself, but “selfish bastard steals money from family without guilt” doesn’t play very well in theaters, so of course the movie runs down the feel-good “selfish bastard isn’t really a selfish bastard and finds meaning to his life through connection with others” track. The people in this movie are a bit too beautiful (Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde and Michelle Pfeiffer in the same movie is just total overkill) and the dialogue is at times a little too sharp and unnaturally delivered, but on the whole I liked the concept and execution.

Moonrise Kingdom – Watching this movie is a bit like taking the oddest people you’ve ever met, packing them around a campfire and having them spill out the oddest real events from their lives after one too many beers, then distilling all those people and events into a plot that takes place over the course of a weekend. Whimsical in the extreme with a singular visual and audio aesthetic that is pure Wes Anderson. One of his best, imo.

Brave – I liked the way this latest Pixar film started out (but not how it ended) with Merida as a strong willed young woman refusing to submit to the narrowly defined traditional role and appropriate behavior of a highborn lady, as defined by her mother the Queen. Instead, she wields a bow with great skill, rides her horse with reckless abandon and climbs waterfalls. When her parents force her into a marriage for the good of the realm, she runs away from home and I wish she had stayed there. I wanted this to be the story of Merida setting forth on a great adventure, battling vikings marauder, becoming a war-leader against the British, etc. and uniting the clans through her unrelenting bravery. Instead, the film switches to something that is a lot more formulaic Disney than Pixar, with witches and spells to be undone and with Merida in a burst of filial piety ultimately accepting that she is overly prideful. At the end, the various claimants to her hand go home in their ships temporarily mollified, with the wedding forestalled. The choice of whom to marry is now hers, but the movie seems to never question that the eventual path of her life is going to be marrying one of the other clan’s louts. At the very least, they should have let her kill the evil bear with an arrow through the eye!

I am sure this film is going to make ridiculous $ at the box office and it is not a BAD film per se, but it isn’t what I’ve come to expect from Pixar and I think will be ultimately counted as one of their weakest films, at least by adults who have come to expect lots of in-jokes and layers of meaning. I also question the mixed messages this film sends to young girls.

The Exorcist – Much emulated horror classic that makes almost everyone’s short list for best horror movie of all time. I still get the chills every time I see it. Every time I see it, I become a convert to the idea that Evil is a palpable, deliberate actor held somewhere in the viscera of the world and every once in a while finds an opportunity to torment us. William Friedkin spoke engagingly to a rapt audience for the better part of 45 minutes prior to the film. One of the highlights of the festival for me. Went out and rented a number of his other films that were not shown as part of his retrospective. Would have REALLY liked to have been able to see a print of Sorcerer, which is unfortunately only currently available in a 4:3 pan and scan format.

Carrie – Another perfectly crafted horror classic that doesn’t need to be remade, but is getting the reboot treatment anyways. Sure, the hairstyles, makeup are dated, but the catty, insidious and meticulous conceived torments of teenage girls against other teenage girls are eternal. Same goes for the ruffled, rented suits worn to prom…

Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood – Extremely difficult to watch dramatization about an incident of extreme police brutality in the wake of protests of the G8 summit. A good chunk of the movie is watching hundreds of police in full riot gear moving through a school and repeatedly bludgeoning every person they find over and over again. Almost every person they beat is shown to be fully compliant and peaceful. A dozen or more people left this film during the screening I was at due to the level of violence. I have a problem watching dramatizations of real events. I would have liked to know more about the sourcing of the facts portrayed in the film and to what extent the film was based on consensus views. I would have almost preferred the narrative film had been intermixed with interviews with the people portrayed/effected. This is an important film, in its way, in that I feel it is important for people to serve as unflinching witnesses to history and the evil men do, but I had a harder time watching this than many of the holocaust films I’ve seen. NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

Elena – I liked the concept and structure of this film, but not the execution. I found myself thinking about the themes explored in the film a great deal even weeks after seeing it. There were a few unnecessary scenes that I didn’t feel added much. The pacing was too slow. I highly disliked the single song (a philip glass piece, I think) soundtrack that was used over and over whenever they needed to queue up some dramatic tension. This would have been a masterpiece of a Hitchcock film.

The Fourth State – This is nominally a thriller, but the whole plot and journey of the main character is really just a narrative vehicle used by the creators to take Russia to task for its many ills including intimidation and murder of journalists, everything surrounding Chechnya, the creation of ultra-nationalist partisan youth groups, political corruption, etc. Another movie goes with whom I spoke afterwards said something to the effect “That movie really worked as a thriller as long as I ignored all the major major plot holes.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t. Thumbs down from me.

King Curling – This movie struck me as cheap Wes Anderson knock-off. Filled with bizarre characters doing bizarre things. This movie felt to me like someone had taken a conventional sports film plot and given it the mad-libs treatment. I just didn’t find it nearly as funny as most of the audience.

Las Acacias – I liked this film about a grizzled, hardened truck driver whose shell begins to gradually crack while transporting a single mother and her baby. The actor who plays the truck driver, Germán de Silva, delivers a memorable performance. He has an incredibly expressive face that does most of the acting in this quiet, understated film. The baby is likely the cutest one you will see on film this year.

The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With My Pants On – This movie was not the most fun I’ve had with my pants on by a long shot. I went to see this movie largely on the strength of the trailer. The movie does have some amazing cinematic moments, but you can get most of those from the trailer. This is the sort of personal story that is hard to make resonate with others precisely because it is so personal. Dealing with grief is a highly personal process and it is hard to relate to what is going on in someone else’s head due to experiences and emotions accumulated over a lifetime. Drew Denny’s ever smiling face is just too much a mask and her chaotic actions too much a shield. Grief comes out in funny ways and with a logic that only ever make sense to the griever. I never really felt myself wanting to know what was going on inside her pretty head.

Queen of Versailles –

Tatsumi

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

Future Lasts Forever

Woman in the Fifth –

By my account, that is ~40 films at SIFF. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but I also saw several dozen mainstream films of late and rented a lot of various directors/actors back catalogs when I liked their SIFF film. All told, I estimate I saw ~60 films over this past month. After speaking with passholders, checking out the results of SIFF’s unofficial pass holder group Fool Serious and the awards from SIFF’s official balloting, I would still like to see the following:

Any Day Now
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Breathing
Chasing Ice
Coal Miner’s Daughter
The Details
Dragon
Eden
Ethel
Extraterrestrial
Innocence
The Imposter
The Other Dream Team
Safety Not Guaranteed
The Standbys
Starbuck
Winter Nomads
Xingu

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SIFF 2012 – Random Thoughts

Posted by Deliverator on 11th June 2012

Here are some random thoughts about SIFF 2012:

  • I’ve been going to SIFF for the better part of a decade now, but in the past I’ve always gone as a ticket holder. I’ve usually seen twenty some-odd movies. This year, for the first time, I decided to get a full series pass instead.
  • To make the pass worthwhile economically, you need to see a LOT of movies. While I probably didn’t see enough films to quite make it worth while, I did end up seeing a LOT more movies than I usually have in the past and I enjoyed the flexibility of being able to show up at any random screening and have a good chance of getting in. I also liked the camaraderie among pass holders. I had a lot of fun talking to other pass holders in lines, at coffee houses and restaurants about what films they liked and disliked during the festival and film in the abstract. Some of my favorite films this year were recommended to me in this fashion and equally I was steered away from some real turkeys.
  • This year SIFF introduced the concept of queue cards. The idea behind queue cards is that a volunteer starts handing out numbered tickets to pass holders starting an hour before each screening. This queue card is supposed to guarantee your place in line up to the point they start admitting pass holders and guarantee that you will be at least admitted up to 10 minutes before the start of the screening. The theory behind the system is that you can grab your queue card and go off and catch dinner or coffee between screenings and not spend the whole day waiting in line. Also, by only admitting pass holders with a queue card, they can more accurately count the number of pass holders inside, so that they don’t oversell the venue.  This would be a nice system (in some ways) if it was rigidly enforced, but collection of and admittance by queue card was unevenly enforced at best.
  • The major negative to the queue card system is they stopped doing back-to-back passes for pass holders.  The back to back card lets someone seeing two or movies in a row at the same theater get readmitted without having to go stand back in line. A lot of pass holders like to go for sheer volume rather than picking and choosing. These people basically camp out all day at the theater and see as many movies as possible using their pass. I spoke to several people that saw over 100 films over the course of the festival. In case you aren’t proficient at grade school math, that is seeing 4 movies a day for 25 straight days! With the queue card system in place, the only way to ensure admission at the second screening was to leave the film in progress an hour before the start of the next film to collect a queue card and  re-enter the theater (having missed some of your movie) . This resulted in a lot of people holding up their watches and cell phones to check the time during films, getting back up and returning to their seats. It frankly annoyed the crap out of me, but I don’t blame the marathon pass holders for doing it. I blame SIFF for creating such a crappy system with predictably disruptive consequences.
  • All the pre-film stuff was outright annoying. Watching the same stupid bumper dozens and dozens of times really grated on my nerves. A little variety would have been nice. Oh, it isn’t helpful to anyone to show trailers for films whose screening dates have already passed. Given how little time there is between screenings, especially if you have to rush off to a theater across town, it would have been nice if they kept the pre-film crap to an absolute minimum. This became especially annoying when going to films that were already running 20 or more minutes late. I attended at least 3 films which started a half an hour or more late, 1 film that was 40 minutes late and probably dozens in the 15-20 minutes late range.
  • SIFF should run shuttle buses between festival venues. This would have been especially helpful between Pacific Place, Egyptian and Harvard Exit, which are all relatively close together but in areas with limited parking and are far enough away to make walking between theaters in the time between films difficult.
  • I don’t think SIFF needs to have to make sure all movies appeal to a mainstream audience, but I heard of at least 3 screenings this year where large percentages of the audience were offended, grossed out or upset and walked out. I think it would be a good idea to place some degree of warning on these films listings in the catalog (and no I don’t think it is that hard to figure out which these might be).
  • I disliked the number of movies that SIFF screened that already had secured a wider box office release or were already available on DVD prior to the start of the festival. I come to SIFF to see the movies I can’t see elsewhere.
  • I wish SIFF would go more for quality than simply sheer quantity. I saw a large number of frankly mediocre efforts this year. I would rather SIFF go in the direction of greater curation coupled with more screenings. TIFF for example runs just a little over a week, but I can scarce recall seeing any outright turds there. SIFF usually only runs 2 screenings of most films and screening are usually only a couple dates apart. This makes it hard to make choices on what films to see based on positive or negative buzz from early screenings.
  • SIFF should reserve time at the end of the festival to screen films which were sold out or proved to be audience favorites. This is separate from the existing “Best of SIFF” which runs several weeks after the end of festival and incurs a separate cost. Films like Safety Not Guaranteed were significantly oversold and they probably could have used an extra 300 seats for the Moonrise Kingdom screening at the Egyptian (450 seat capacity). SIFF’s audience attendance has quite frankly outgrown its small boutique theaters. They either need to bring additional venues on board, do additional screenings (my preference) or move the whole festival into a single metroplex like Pacific Place.
  • SIFF did a much better job in terms of presentation quality this year. Last year was a cavalcade of minor disasters where the films kept breaking, sound kept cutting out, hollow sound, out of focus etc. Did notice some oddly rounded edges on a number of films projected at Uptown. Don’t think this was actually keystone distortion, but something similar. A projectionist told me this might have been a result of using the wrong lens in conjunction with a curved screen.  Also noticed some audio hum at Egyptian. Might be the result of a ground loop. This can occasionally be physically dangerous, so it would be a good idea to get this checked out.

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The perpetually sucky state of non-destructive book scanning

Posted by Deliverator on 7th February 2012

Every few years I find myself in the unenviable position of unavoidably needing to non-destructively scan a book. Every few years I pray that someone has come up with an affordable, reasonably quick way of doing this that produces good quality results. Every few years I burn an evening researching the state of the field. Every few years I come away disappointed. Here are my observations from this go around:

Hardware:

Sheet Feeders – If you can afford to destroy the book, you can cut off the binding with a fine toothed band-saw or other power tool of your choice and feed the pages through a sheet-feeder style scanner. Sheet feeders like the popular Fujitsu ScanSnap series can scan both sides of each pages at something like 20 pages per minute at 600ish DPI. This is mighty impressive as it cuts the actual scanning time for a book down to something like a half hour. Unfortunately, when I find myself in the position of needing to scan a book, it is usually some rare tome it took me 2 years and $300 to find on AbeBooks. For my purposes, solutions requiring a band-saw need not apply. Also, many of the better scanners cost $400+, which is pushing what I would consider affordable.

Commercial Copy Stands range from simple single overhead camera rigs to more complex dual camera rigs with adjustable cradles to support the book without damaging it, re-positionable lighting, non-reflective glass to hold the pages flat, automatic page flippers, etc. Commercial, off-the-shelf solutions from companies like Atiz can run $14k+ without even factoring in the cost of cameras (typically high end Canon DSLRs). Great, if you are a university library spending grant money, sucky if you are a book nerd on a budget.

DIY Copy Stands – A substantial percentage of the functionality, speed and quality of these rigs can be replicated for under $1000 by building your own dual camera copy stand following one of the several increasingly standardized designs from the DIY Book Scanner project. This is still more time and money than I want to spend and probably more space than I want to waste for a device I would only very seldom use. When a full, well documented/supported, single evening kit is available for under $300 plus the cost of cameras, I will probably be interested. The BookLiberator looked to commercially produce kits that would meet all my requirements, but efforts to produce the units fell apart after Ion Audio announced its similar sub-$200 BookSaver product at CES 2011. Ion has since VERY quietly pulled the plug on the BookSaver without ever selling any, but their initial product announcement was enough to send most small, independent efforts to produce a similar device scurrying for someplace small and dark.

Flatbed scanners are an inexpensive, mature, widely used technology which suck at scanning books in a wide variety of ways. First, most flatbeds tend to be optimized for high quality scans of things like photos, not for speed. Secondly, most scanners have a significant bezel around the scanning platen, meaning the only way to scan a book is to significantly bend/distort the spin in order to get the pages to lie flat against the glass. Even mashed against the glass, you usually get significant page distortion near the binding resulting in curving text and uneven illumination.

Several years ago I purchased a Plustek OpticBook 3600 plus, a flatbed scanner specially optimized for scanning books. The OpticBook has a very thin bezel along one edge of the platen which lets you open a book to a 90 degree angle and have one page flat against the glass while the other hangs freely over the side. This lets you produce an undistorted scan of a page without significantly bending the spine. The “DigiBook” software included with the scanner has an automatic page rotation feature, so that every other page gets rotated 180 degrees. This lets you scan a page, flip the book over to scan the opposite page and have everything automatically rotated the right way. There are giant over-sized buttons on the scanner that let you trigger a scan in B&W, greyscale or color. The actual scan takes 5-8 seconds, as the scanner is optimized for speed, rather than highest possible DPI.

The OpticBook concept is very nice in theory, but the implementation leaves something to be desired. Even with the scanner bezel as thin as it is, the scanning element doesn’t get close enough to the binding to scan most paperbacks. It works fine for hard covers like textbooks, where the content doesn’t start as close to the binding. The software is also very crash prone and the work-flow somewhat less than ideal, with the operator having to hit a “transfer” button in the software after each page to write the image out to disk, despite the over-sized buttons on the scanner itself. Anything that adds 5-10 extra seconds to the work-flow gets multiplied tremendously over a 500+ page book. These scanners are also very poorly sealed, with significant dust accumulating on the interior of the glass plate with no easy way to clean it short of disassembly. There doesn’t appear to be a way to adjust the lamp brightness, so you tend to get a bit of bleed through from text on the other side of pages you are scanning. Many users also complain of short bulb life, although my unit is still functional. From reviews I’ve read, I am not convinced that Plustek has learned much from their mistakes in successive models in this series.

Handheld Scanners – I’ve never been impressed with the quality of the results from hand-held “wand” scanners. I haven’t personally checked out any of these devices in years, as I’ve largely consigned the whole category into Sharper Image / SkyMall crap-gadget territory. If someone wants to tell me that X device can quickly and accurately scan a paperback, I may look into these in the future.

Software:

Post Processing – While hardware has seen little improvement since my last review, there have been some improvements on the software side of things. The DIY Book Scanner project has yielded a plethora of scripts, tools, etc. for packaging up scans into various digital book formats. Of these, I have found a tool called Scan Tailor to be the most polished, easy to install, and to use. Scan Tailor will take a directory filled with scanned images and will straighten, deskew, remove background and bleed through (to give you black text on a pure white background), set a constant page size/margin, etc. Scan Tailor will work almost completely auto-magically through each step of the process and if it does make a mistake, it is easy for the user to intervene and apply a manual correction. Scan Tailor cut my workflow from previous years of 6-8 programs and scripts (each with fussy dependencies on libraries and frameworks) down to 3. I still do some post processing of scans in irfanView and Scan Tailor doesn’t do the final bundling of images into PDFs, DJVU, etc. or do OCR, but other than that it is pretty much a one stop shop for post scan image processing.

Binding – Once you have a directory full of post processed images, what are you going to do with them? I am still using Presto Pagemanager 7.10 for assembling my post processed TIFF images into PDFs. It isn’t ideal in many ways, but has the virtue of not costing me anything more and working consistently, if in somewhat of a hurky-jerky liable to temporarily freeze Explorer kinda way. I played around with a half dozen PDF/DJVU binder scripts/programs recommended by the book scanning forums and basically concluded that the free options all royally sucked in one way or another, not the least of which is requiring me to install 5 different programming frameworks just to try them out. Scan Tailor is a lovely, consistent, unified application that is easy to install and use. The DIY Book Scanner community could really use something as well done for the binding stage of the process. As it is, one is left to fend with a gobbledygook of unmanageable python scripts, ruby scripts, feeding various Unix command line utilities and throwing an undocumented fit anytime it finds something not to its liking. The situation is marginally improved if you want to output DjVu files rather than PDFs, but only marginally.

OCR – So, you want to turn those post processed scans into a re-flowable format like .epub for easy reading on your ebook reader device? You are kidding me, right? OCR is one of those things that has been around since the dawn of scanning and despite a lot of protestations seems to have changed little. If you asked me about the state of OCR 5 or 10 years ago I would have told you there is Omnipage & Abbyy Fine Reader & everything else. Today, that still seems to be the state of the industry. I tried a half dozen of the everything else variety including OpenOCR (Cuneiform), VietOCR and TiffDjvuOCR. Most of the free solutions seem to use Tesseract, an open source OCR engine from Google. Across 3 books with straightforward, single column formatting and commonly used fonts, I found the free OCR packages basically good enough to create a rough keyword index for searching books, but nothing near the accuracy to create a readable, reflowable ebook without significant time spent correcting errors. I concluded I might actually be able to retype a book faster and more accurately than if I tried to correct all the strange and easily unspotted errors committed by OCR. I would be curious to try the commercial packages at some point, as a lot of book scanners seem to swear by recent versions of Abbyy Fine Reader, but I’m not really in the mood to spend $150+ to fart around with either of the commercial offerings.

Posted in Books, General, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

Inexpensive/Disposable Video Cameras

Posted by Deliverator on 16th March 2011

Five and a half years ago I started fooling around with “disposable” video cameras being sold through the CVS pharmacy chain. These video cameras were meant to be one time use equivalents of the cardboard box disposable still cameras still sold at many stores throughout the world. The idea was you would pay around $30 for the camera, go out and take some footage and then bring the camera back and they would give you a DVD with your video on it, but keep the camera. The pharmacy would then wipe your unit and sell it again to someone else. The CVS cameras were small, built robustly and powered by simple AA’s and inexpensive. Naturally, the hacker community went to work on the cameras and quickly figured out how to download the video without the pharmacy’s help, making them reusable. These were great cameras for use in places you wouldn’t want to risk a “real” camera. People attached them to model rockets, helicopters, planes, placed them next to hot things, explody things, etc. They were cheap enough that you wouldn’t think twice about risking the camera on the off chance of capturing some cool footage. Naturally, I bought half a dozen.

Over the years, I’ve attached them to robots, glued fisheye lenses on them, put them in zip-lock bags and used them underwater. I’ve captured some real fun footage because I was no longer risk adverse about risking the camera. In the process I’ve destroyed two cameras outright, permanently modified two for niche uses and one is good for only spare parts. Only two escaped my abuse entirely unscathed. Today, I threw them all away.

Why?

Quite simply, the magic economic equations surrounding gadgets + mass market demand + capitalism + time has rendered the old CVS cameras obsolete. For under $50 I can now buy a camera from Kodak that is quite a bit smaller, holds more video and at higher quality than the CVS cameras, and is mildly hardened for rugged and underwater use. If you shop around, you can get this camera for more like $40 at stores like Best Buy, but I just got mine at Amazon. There are similar form factor cameras from other makers, but most are significantly more expensive HD capable units that are designed more for people wanting a cheap, small, everyday camcorder or for technophobic people looking for a very easy to operate video camera. These units (Flip for example) tend to be more like $100.

Tomorrow, I am going to strap one onto a robot and watch things go crunch. If the camera survives, great! If it doesn’t, the camera’s Micro-SDHC card is small enough that I can find it intact in the twisted, shattered remains and I probably got some great footage for $50. Photography and videography is at its most interesting when people are willing to push boundaries and experiment. The technology has finally gotten cheap enough that “that would be really cool but I don’t want to break this expensive piece of equipment” is no longer part of the equation.

Some thoughts on the Kodak Mini Video Camera:

-Captures at 640×480 at 30 fps as an AVI file using an MJPEG video codec and 16 bit PCM audio at 11khz. At this setting you can fit about an hour’s video on the included 2 GB Micro-SDHC card. You can also do QVGA at 60hz and take stills as well. There doesn’t appear to be any image stabilization, but what can you (currently) expect from a camera that is under $50. Give it a few years though…

-The camera has a built in rechargeable battery. The unit has a pop out full sized type A USB connector that pops out of the side for charging. You will need to use a USB extension cable (not included) to plug it into a PC to charge. My unit did not show up as a USB mass storage device when I plugged it into a computer running the 64 bit version of Windows 7. Other users report it coming up as a drive letter and forcibly installing (without prompting) some piece of software called Arcsoft Mediaimpression SE which also seizes control of most video/photo file extensions. I was glad this was not the case with my unit.

-Because my unit doesn’t show up as a USB mass storage device, I had to pop the Micro-SDHC card out of the bottom of the unit. I had to use itty-bitty tweezers (thanks Tweezerman!) to grab onto the card as there is no ejection mechanism for the card. A 2 GB card was included with mine, but this camera is sometimes sold without a card.

-The camera is exceedingly easy to use, with just an on/off button, 4 way arrow buttons and center selector and a “settings menu” button. The simple control scheme should make this a good camera for micro-controller driven operation, if someone wants to strip it down to just the circuit board for use on a rocket, kite, balloon or something.

-The whole unit is smaller than a pack of cards.

-I am not sure if I would entirely trust the built in waterproofing on the camera. The only point of entry for water is through the base, which hinges open to reveal the USB connector and card slot and potentially around the membrane rubber buttons. The base does have some rubbery gasket material to seal against water, but it is pretty minimal. I would recommend coating the area with a thick grease/vaseline, etc. before submersion in water beyond a few feet.

 

Posted in Photography, Portable Computing/Gadgets | 1 Comment »

Why I may be through with SIFF…

Posted by Deliverator on 27th May 2010

I’ve done SIFF for six years straight, if I am doing my math right. After tonight’s experience, though, this year may be my last. One of the things that has really been bothering me in recent years, particularly after getting my own home theater is how mediocre the presentation of films has become at SIFF. Tonight was a really, really bad experience on all levels.

I still go to a lot of movies in commercial theaters, especially for the opening nights of blockbusters. I love the soundtrack of a audience’s reactions that you don’t get watching a movie at home. I love the big screen and thumping bass that would annoy the neightbors. Theaters offer a whole host of intangibles that a home theater just can’t match. So to, do film festivals. I love sitting in a cafe after a film and discussing it with other festival attendees, picking up trivia and recommendations.

I don’t like running all over town trying to get from theater to theater. I don’t like standing in the rain for an hour before a film just to get a seat. I don’t like having to watch the same pre-film SIFF promotion for 20 straight movies and here the non-sensical, incoherent remarks of the programmers prior to the films. Mostly, I don’t like the disrespect that SIFF gives its audience.

Today, I showed up to watch Henry of Navarre at The Neptune. This is an epic scope and length film with lush presentation, big battle scenes, sweeping vistas, lots of detailed sets and costumes. In short, it is exactly the type of movie that I still like to see in a real theater. After driving into Seattle, paying for parking, buying overpriced hot dogs and drinks and sitting down, the programmer informed us that the distributor sent them a cut that wouldn’t work on the venue’s projection system, and that instead we would be watching a DVD version. They offered to provide a film voucher if in the first 20 minutes of the film you couldn’t stand the quality. What they ended up showing was a poorly cropped DVD screener with huge watermarks in both upper hand corners, muted colors and blocky compression artifacts and poorly translated subtitles. The video looked like something you might stream via Real Player circa 1995. Needless to say, I took the voucher. What pisses me off is they waited till everyone was seated and had already paid for food to even present this option. The offering of a voucher instead of a straight refund also pisses me off. I paid cash for my ticket, to say nothing of being out gas money, parking & concession costs. Offering a voucher doesn’t affect their bottom line at all.

I receive daily marketing emails from SIFF. This is exactly the kind of information that could be provided in advance via email, a twitter feed, etc. They do have the emails of a good percentage of people purchasing tickets and a simple database lookup would give them the emails of a lot of people who had purchased tickets. It would be nice if they had spent one iota of effort to save me some time and money.

For the last couple festivals, I’ve encountered inconsiderately handled issues such as this at two or more screenings. Last year, I was at a screening during which the audio kept breaking up every couple minutes for 10-20 seconds at time, during which you couldn’t hear the dialogue. I fought for and got a refund, as none was pro-actively offered. I later spoke to someone who went to a later screening of the same film and reported the same issue and lack of consideration.

I don’t know where they got the video, but I’ve already found superior copies of it available online. As everyone but those involved in the industry seem to have grasped, the real reason illegal downloads are flourishing isn’t the free vs cost issue, it is that piracy offers a superior experience than what can be had legally. I am earnestly considering just scrapping SIFF next year and spending more quality time with Netflix streaming, Hulu, the several independent film channels I have on my dish, etc. This little infographic from Making Light sums up the issue quite nicely:

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

SIFF Schedule 2010

Posted by Deliverator on 9th May 2010

Here is my schedule for SIFF 2010. If you would like to join me for a movie, let me know. I have spares available for some films.

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

Maybe the MPAA will try harder next time it is going to release a $2 billion film?

Posted by Deliverator on 9th April 2010

Hollywood fails yet again…

The futility of even the most byzantine copy protection schemes has been proven once again. For several days now, copies of the movie Avatar derived from a retail (region 2) DVD source have been circulating online. DVD copy protection has long been broken, but Blueray has been slightly (and only slightly) more resistant. Now, it appears that Slysoft, maker of the AnyDVD software blueray video player have updated their software to decode the latest Blueray encryption scheme, which appears to only be in use on a single title – Avatar. It is likely that the same source that leaked the retail DVD also has copies of the Blueray version of the film and it is likely that Blueray rips of Avatar will start appearing online as soon as this evening.

I’ve seen this pattern time and time again. Retail DVD/Blueray derived copies of movies will start showing up online sometimes as much as 2-4 weeks in advance of official store release dates. This is an aweful failure on the part of the entertainment industry. The copy protection schemes have proven a minimal deterent, so the next best thing they could do IMO is to ensure just-in-time delivery and manufacturing of physical media and to better track physical media through manufacturing and distribution channels. The entertainment industry really needs to take a page from Amazon, Dell, etc. and learn how to do just in time manufacturing and delivery and look to the example set by NGO’s and various relief organizations on end to end tracking systems that help prevent physical theft/graft issues by pinpointing dishonest individuals in the chain of responsibility.

To have a major title like Avatar show up more than two weeks in advance of store release is pure negligence.

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

A brief rant about ebook readers

Posted by Deliverator on 24th March 2010

I’ve been reading books electronically in one form or another since 1996 (on a USR Pilot 5000). Since then, I’ve owned ~8 devices on which I regularly read ebooks. Several of those devices have been dedicated, purpose built devices, ostensibly for reading ebooks and little else.

I currently do most of my electronic reading on a Sony PRS-505 with a Sony front light wedge/leather case accessory. I’ve been enacting a boycott on purchasing Sony products since the Sony Rootkit Debacle, but received the reader as a gift. Since receiving the Sony reader, Sony has released 3-4 new readers.

This year, it seems like hardly a day has passed when the tech news sites haven’t covered the release of a new reader product from some company or another. In some cases, this latest batch of e-ink readers represent 3rd, 4th or even 5th generation products. One would expect a pretty fine degree of design refinement from a 5th generation product, especially one devoted to such a singular task. Yet, virtually all the readers, announced or on the market today, fail to address 3 fundamental user experience issues. I seldom see these issues brought up to any great degree in product reviews, either. Yet, for me, these issues are key to enjoying an electronic reading experience:

  1. An ebook reader should be comfortable to hold in one’s hand (notice the singular there) for an extended period of time and without risk of slipping or dropping the device due to positional fatigue, accidental jarring, etc. Virtually all the readers on the market are thin, rectangular shaped devices and are often made of slick plastic or metal that provides for an actively slippery surface when combined with sweaty palms. Additionally, the above should apply in both horizontal and vertical orientations for both right and left handed individuals.
  2. Regardless of screen orientation, the next page/previous page buttons should lie under one’s thumbs. Simple turning of the page is by far the most frequently accessed function on any ebook reader. It should just be there without need to reach or place the reader in a stressful/uncomfortable position. The next page button in particular should be over-sized. A D-pad is not an acceptable substitute.
  3. This last is going to be somewhat controversial. The vast majority of day to day recreational reading (novels and the like) is done in the evening and at night, often times in less than ideal lighting conditions, especially for those who share their beds with a partner. Ebook readers need to incorporate some form of front or back lighting into their designs or offer well integrated official lighting accessories. This is a somewhat unpalatable task with the current crop of E-ink displays, where adding front lighting generally consists of placing an edge lit piece of clear plastic in front of the display. Adding another layer in front of the display diminishes the clarity and contrast of the display. And the high contrast, paper-like nature of E-ink displays are a good part of the reason that ebook readers use this sort of display in the first place instead of LCD, OLED and other display technologies.

The only reader I’ve owned which has come close to satisfying these requirement was the Nuvomedia Rocket eBook.

Nuvomedia Rocket eBook

This was one of the first electronic book readers sold and yet in many fundamental ways it was more enjoyable to use than devices made over a decade later in a far more mature & technologically advanced marketplace. It had an ergonomic, curvy wedge shape that was easy to cradle in the palm of one’s hand. Later versions of the device included a rubberized backside to make it even easier to grasp. The page up/down buttons were over-sized and comfortable to actuate without moving one’s hands in the portrait orientation for both right and left handed users and weren’t too bad in the horizontal orientation, either. The screen resolution doesn’t really compare to modern readers, but it was a high contrast B&W LCD and had decent back-lighting for night reading. Astoundingly, 10+ years later, a variant of this original device is still being sold as the eBookwise 1150 for ~$100. My personal experience with the later revisions of the Rocket eBook (post Gemstart acquisition) is that they used much lower quality displays, but I would be interested in opinions from more recent users.

In conclusion, I would really like for Sony/Amazon/B&N or SOMEBODY to make a comfortable to use ebook reader.

Posted in Books, General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves | No Comments »