Friday, 2 July 2021

EKI's VIRTUAL REALITY COURSE for DUMMIES

Virtual Production of The Mandalorian

Monday. Called Eki to catch up. NA. When I got him, he said he'd been on a shoot. That always gets my attention. Asked him what was the project. He said they were doing Virtual Reality tests.  And began to tell me how it works. Whoa. I was totally lost.

He sent a  STAR WARS video of a crew working on VR. I could see a circular screen.  Still didn't have a clue. Called him back. He tried to explain. But it was only after I compared it to 1930s pre-on-location movies, where the action might take place in Monte Carlo. The French cafe' is on a set, and the MC background is stock film. But VR surrounds the actors and they can see the action. I think.

He said he'd been working on the technique on and on for three years. And sent a video of the set-up in his home office. Three years sounded like a long time for Eki to nail something. So it must be tough to cracK VR. I want a Dummy: VIRTUAL REALITY 101.  Over to you EKI.

Source: personal experience

Next week: FLYING through COVID 


Note: Okay, this is a big one to bite at one go but let's try ;-)

First of all, it's not Virtual Reality, but rather Virtual Production. The two are related but not the same. Virtual Reality is when one puts on VR glasses and is immersed in a video game. Virtual Production is when similar techniques are used to produce movies or other video content.

There are a few different disciplines of Virtual Production, but I'll just concentrate on the two that best apply here. The common characteristic is that they both share the use of real footage from a camera combined with elements (usually a background) that is computer-created with a game engine, in real-time.

Virtual Production Demo Day, Helsinki 2020

The first is what was used with The Mandalorian, a Star Wars spinoff series. As Maggy writes, it's somewhat similar to the rear projection techniques famously used on the original 1930s King Kong and other films from that era and well to the 1960s. On those, a background scenery film was projected on the rear side of a translucent movie screen, and the live-action set was built in front of it. The camera captured the actors and the background at the same time. The effect was sometimes quite convincing, and no post-processing was required. These days, the film screen is replaced with a led wall - essentially a huge television set. This technique is in wide use also in television programs, where the led walls often replace practically built sets.

King Kong, RKO Radio Pictures 1933

The challenge with this method is that the angle of view is fixed. There is no depth to the background image, which is fine if the screen is used just as an abstract set piece like in television shows, but becomes a problem if the backing is supposed to be a real environment like in movies. The illusion breaks the moment the camera starts moving as the backing is just a flat 2D image - the perspective works correctly just from one single angle.

The solution is to use a computer-generated 3D background that takes the changes in perspective into account. The location and rotation of the real-world camera are tracked in real-time and the background seen on the screen is always rendered from that point of view. When the camera moves, the backdrop changes accordingly, and everything lines up. One can think of it as if the camera was a character in a 3D game - which is actually quite close to how the effect is really done: the backgrounds are usually made with the same game engines that are used when making computer games.

On the high end of the production scale, the video screens are not just flat panels, but rather surround the set and the actors almost 360 degrees, often called a "volume". Even the ceiling can be a screen. This has the benefit of immersing the actors in the scene. The set looks and feels real to those in it - if there's a distant city on the horizon, it's not only seen by the camera but also by the actors and crew on the set. Another important benefit is that the screens act as a light source, giving a realistic ambient light to the set. They also show in reflections, which can be very important if the subject that's being shot is e.g. a car, most of the look of car paint actually comes from the reflected environment.

My Virtual Studio setup at an early prototype stage.

The second Virtual Production technique is similar, but using a green screen instead of a led screen. The actors are in front of a green wall, and the computer-generated backdrop is keyed behind them on a computer, in real-time. The same game engine as in led screen productions is used, the real camera is tracked in the same way. The main difference is that the camera does not capture the final image, but rather just the foreground element, and the actors need to imagine their surroundings.

Lucia – a Christmas story
littlemargieproductions 20©08
    
This technique also has a long history, and even moving cameras have been used for a long time - but not in real-time. Tracking and matching the camera moves was usually done in post and could be a very slow and tedious process. Because of this, most productions opt for a stationary, locked camera. This is also what we did for the acted "old black & white" segments of littlemargieproduction's Lucia - a Christmas Story.

On television, real-time virtual sets have been used since the late 1990s but they required state-of-the-art supercomputers of the day and were rather cost prohibitive. In Finland, only the large television broadcasters could afford setups like this. They were also horribly non-user-friendly. I worked with one of these systems back in the day, created the virtual sets for a digital sports channel in 1999 or so, and it was quite frustrating, to say the least.

The largest benefit of modern green screen based Virtual Production is cost. Large led volumes cost millions to own, and tens of thousands a day to rent. Greenscreens are relatively cheap. A working basic setup can be built for a few thousand, including the green screen, cameras, computers and so on. This is what I've done at our SW5 studio. It's still a work in progress, but getting there.

The green screen stage at SW5 Studio, freshly painted.

The basis of all operations at our studio is of course the green screen stage. We built it from basic construction materials and some flexible vinyl floor for the curved areas, painted with Rosco green screen paint. It's not the prettiest in the world, but it was affordable, can be torn down if we ever have to move again, and it does the job.

The cameras are tracked using a consumer-grade Vive system. Essentially, we take the data of a Vive VR headset's trackers and apply that to our virtual cameras. This gives us an area of a few meters across, where the computer knows exactly where the real camera is positioned and how it is oriented.

The video camera's signal is connected via an HDMI interface to the computer. I use an affordable Sony a6300 hybrid mirrorless as the main camera. This is one place where the low budget shows - while the image quality is actually great, the cabling and connections are not as robust as with dedicated professional systems. Our streaming computer is a decent, but not by any means high-end graphics workstation.

UE5 demo shows the rendering capabilities of the next generation
of the Unreal Engine. All this film-quality animation is real-time - no more waiting.

The virtual background is created using Unreal Engine. Unreal is a popular and very powerful piece of software, it can be used to create first-class video games - and the photorealistic virtual sets we need. Best of all, it's free. The data from the Vive tracker drives a virtual camera inside a "video game". The position, orientation, and lens properties are matched as closely as possible to the real camera.

If done right, the two align perfectly and the live actor can be placed within the virtual world.

The video and background could be combined within Unreal Engine (or a 3rd party addon like Aximmetry), but for now, i am using Open Broadcasting Software, OBS, for compositing the two. This may change in the future. Obs is also used for switching between different angles, mixing audio, and adding on-screen graphics, etc., as well as streaming the live video to Youtube or other platforms. OBS is another great piece of free software. 

I coded a simple greenscreen keyer for OBS, as i was not happy with the results i got with the built-in tools. Once i have perfected that, i'll probably share the code so that others can benefit from it too - hopefully i can contribute a little to this amazing free tool. 

Having these free tools at anyone's disposal is nothing short of a miracle. What once cost millions is now at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection and the will to learn.

CU
--
Eki

Thursday, 13 May 2021

POX on ANTI-VAXERS

I believe in getting immunity the old-fashioned way: By letting a bat virus take control of my lungs and turn my face into a disgusting plague fountain while my immune system desperately Googles 'how to make spike protein antibodies'.

Comic by XKCD.com

Germany ain't pulling their punches – AVs are kept under surveillance.  Deniers come from different tribes: loyal Trumpers, skeptics, lazy layabouts who can't be bothered.  Read about a far-left Catholic nun who thinks the vaccines are a capitalist plot. And  I know a kid. 23, she thinks the planet is dying and we are too,  so what's the use.

Every AV, unless they're hermits, is a walking talking time-bomb for the rest of us. The vax jab protects us, but we can still get ill. And we'll all be stuck a lot longer in virus-limbo. Unless AVs wear T-shirts with ANTI VAXER printed in 3-inch letters  in bright red on the front,  we won't know who is safe and who is not.

About 25 % of the word's pop. are AVs. Even if some far-off country is the worse-hit, the virus and its variants are speedy spreaders. Just about anywhere, except the great outdoors, is not safe. Sweden (pop. 10.5 m.) with its 'let it all hang out' policy, has had 15,000+ Covid 19 deaths. Finland (pop. 5.5 m.), with hot spot restrictions and obligatory face masks in public places has had 910 deaths – the best record in the EU. Hip, Hip, hurray for SUOMI!

Sources: The Economist, Washington  Post New York Times, Cyril Marret

Next week:  EKI's "VIRTUAL REALITY" course for DUMMIES


Note: 

I know a few anti-vaxxers too. What's scary is that some of them are people that I actually like in normal circumstances. Smart colleagues, dear old schoolmates, and so on. Intelligence - or being an overall good person - does not seem to be a foolproof guard against conspiracy theories.

I've had too many debates on Facebook and other social media with these. It's rather infuriating at times: how do you reason with a person whose position is not based on reason? 

Well, the same as with any other form of science denial. Try to be calm, state the facts, point out the lies and logical fallacies. Go high when they go low. Not for the one you are debating (they are likely beyond salvation already), but for the others reading the discussion (they maybe are not).

But as said, this can be rather irritating: you are restricted to sticking to the actual verifiable facts and need to take into account all uncertainties, while the opponent can just spew new lies every time the previous one has been debunked. 

And in the end, they do not even need to win. It's enough if they can sow something that looks like "reasonable doubt" to the layperson, and suddenly the scientific consensus is just another "opinion".

I'm worried that this might be a losing battle. And THAT is scarier than anything.

CU
--
Eki

Monday, 26 April 2021

Helsinki's UGLY BUILDING COMPETITION - by invitation only

"Makkaratalo":  not art-deco. Image: Wikipedia
(The Central Railway Station is in the background)


The city planners have published their five choices for a building next to Eliel Saarinen's famous Railway Station. And its neighbours:  the 1938 art-deco Central Post Office, Lasipalatsi. One of the contenders looks like a giant pagoda plucked out of Peking. Helsinki, a gem of great architecture has fans all over the world.  The city planners seem clueless.


"Klyyga", one of the entries for the new building. Image from the competition site.
(Also starring, from top left: Kiasma, Sanomatalo, Oodi, Sokos building, Central Railway Station, and a tiny bit of "Makkaratalo" in the bottom.)

When Eki and I made the series, TEN FINNISH ARCHITECTS, we were lucky to see, and learn, close-up why Finland is so famous for its architecture and design*.  Poor, mostly agricultural,  until after the second world war,  I was knocked out by how Finland's bold and unpretentious architecture developed and flourished. At least one reason was Open Competitions.

Without Open Competitions, the city planners have given permits for duds. Hotel Clarion is a perfect example. It wrecked the entrance to the center.  When the taxi from the airport takes the route by the sea, or a ship comes into port, there it is – a high-rise exclamation point with one of the best views of the Baltic. In June the citizens of Helsinki will have a chance to voice their opinion about the project by the RR station. Let's hope the majority put a big, Black X  on NO.

* Long before I moved to Finland, I was a big fan of Marimekko. It was my first introduction to the country. Eki and I made a documentary about the company.

Source: the Shark

Next Week: A POX on ANTI-VAXERS 



Note: Well, where should I start. There are two main issues I rather strongly disagree with.

1) The first is that you're sort of lying by omission. Sure, there's the Central Railway Station and Post Office and Lasipalatsi, which are early 1900's art-deco.

"Oodi": not art-deco. Image: The City of Helsinki

But there's also the "Makkaratalo" which is a rather ugly shopping center from the late 1960s that got its nickname from the sausage-like concrete bulge that surrounded its 2nd-floor parking lot (now renovated to hold more shops), the 1990 Kiasma modern art museum which is almost Gehryesque, Sanomatalo from 1999 which is an all-glass office building, the Helsinki Music House concert hall from 2011 which is a tilted glass and marble box, and the 2018 Oodi library
, which is a beautiful piece of abstract modern wood-glass architecture.

All these are within about the same distance from the new building as the art-deco buildings you list.

2) Second: I think what makes cities appealing is the layering of different styles and bold architecture that looks the period. I'm actually pretty sure that the art-deco buildings that are now praised were seen as "too modern" and "not fitting" in their own time.

And that appeal, to me, includes even the ugly 1960's shopping centers, "a little too high" hotels and whatever buildings there are - they are children of their time, and they all have a place in a city that wants to have a history and character that is there for the future generations to discover. Today's abomination can be a future jewel.

PS: I'm actually not sure whether the other buildings mentioned here were a result of an open or a closed competition. Likely both. 

PS2: I actually like some of the new competition entries.

CU
--
Eki

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

FINNAIR Falls Flat On Its FACE

    Airplane trailer (Paramount,1980)

It was a long, meandering message. The gist: a company that  Finnair is associated with was breached. Some Finnair Plus members' info might be involved. Nothing serious, but they advised US to change our passwords. There was tel. no. to call. I called. A recoding said they would get back to me. Decided to call Finnair Plus and talk to someone.


Talked to an agent, in English.  I asked him about the breach. He knew nothing about it, said he would check and come back to me. I waited. Several minutes later he came back and confirmed there was a breach. I was surprised that he hadn't been informed.  And called customer service in Helsinki. He said that all I had to do was change my Password.

I went back to the original message and put in my email address and a new password. It didn't work. Thought I had made a mistake and tried three more times. Called Customer Service in Helsinki again. Another agent.  When I told her the problem, she explained that Finnair was still investigating the problem and I wouldn't be able to change the password until it was resolved. She wasn't sure when that would be – maybe tomorrow. I haven't received any updates from Finnair.  So am out to sea about what to do.

Finnair is three years short of its 100th anniversary. State-owned, it has iconic status in Finland. The blue and white carrier gives us confidence. We feel safe when we fly on one of its planes But the way the company handled this small glitch in the system was a red flag. Do they take US loyal passengers as a given? Especially now when airlines are reeling from the pandemic losses. After the virus is subdued and we get on the move again, the competition will be ferocious. Finnair WAKE UP.

cc: Topi Manner CEO Finnair

PS: After a week I received a message from Finnair Plus: there will be a five-day break in the Finnair Plus service while they fix the system.

Source: personal experience

Next week: TRUE FINNs 2.0

Note: I have only had good experiences with Finnair. Despite this hiccup, I like their track record. Also from a safety standpoint - they are the 6th oldest still working airline company, with no significant accidents since 1963. That's longer than I have lived.

Also, when we shot Chasing Esa-Pekka, they let us shoot an interview on a plane, on the ground. Gotta give kudos to the company for doing that.

CU
--
Eki

Monday, 8 March 2021

CON-spiracy CULT

 

Blue Marble (The Earth as seen from Apollo 17), flattened.

2015:  Donal Trump rolled down  the escalator at Trump Tower to announce he was running for president  - like GOD descending to earth in a Sat. Night Live skit.  He paid a small crowd to cheer. His cartoony looks and rage-rant were comedic. The media zoomed in, so did we. Love him or hate him, he was not boring. By a fluke, he won.

Oath Keepers ad Proud Boys were waiting for a leader like Trump... Ok, ex-military and retired cops, are trained, armed and organized. PBs, white males with a mission to take back America, designated a terrorist org. in Canada. The two groups ignited the mob that stormed the capitol. Five people were killed. By comparison, Qanon is a quirky-jerky cult that touts Democrats are pedophiles, with headquarters in the basement of a pizzeria in Wash. D.C. A Qcon member was arrested after  he shot up the joint.

Trump also has built a rock-solid, adoring  Base. Terrified of being primaried by a T chosen candidate, most Republican senators and reps have bowed down and kissed his ring. After four years of a crack-pot president, in exile now plotting revenge, there are red alerts. The Economist picked How Democracies DIE* as the most important book  of the Trump era. A noted historian** urged the US to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.*** Corrupt politicians and conspiracies have been around since God. But Trump's Black-Magic is tapping Social Media on speed – that evil Genie can't be put back in the bottle.

PS: The Twitter ban has muted Trump, it's also victimized him.

PS2: A gold, six-foot statue of Trump dressed in shorts and clogs, is front and center at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Made in Mexico.

PS3:  Authorities warn that extreme right-wing groups have hatched a plan to bomb the Capitol when President Biden gives his first speech to a joint session of congress. The date has not been announced.

*Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

**John Meacham

**William Shirer

Sources: The Economist, New York Times, Washington Post,  The Guardian, MSNBC, CNN, FOX News, the Shark

Next Week: FINNAIR Falls Flat On Its FACE

 

Note: I dunno.

I'm kindasorta bored of the Trumpist insanity. There are more relevant conspiracy theories out there - anti-vaxxers come to mind (though sure, there's overlap). I hope the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and the rest of MAGA conspiracists will soon flush down to their proper place in history: to the sewer of irrelevance along with the flat earthers, Area 51 nuts, evolution denialists, 911 was a hoax crowd, climate change denialists, chemtrail wackos and the already mentioned anti-vaxxers. 

I don't think they deserve the attention anymore, really. Or, more accurately, hope.

CU
--
Eki

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

FINLAND for FOREIGNERS: outsider's view

Air guitar. Image by Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay


ODDBALL EVENTS

SWAMP FOOTBALL  (Suopotkupallo): if you like mucking around in  knee-deep in mud, getting down and dirty, this is the game for you.  Soldiers and athletes – mostly cross-country skiers – dreamed up this muscle-building sport to train in the summer.  It caught on and went global. Around 300 teams compete around the world. The next championship is in Turkey.

AIR GUITAR FESTIVAL (Ilmakitarafestivaali) Oulu, August 2021:  Dead-serious contenders play guitar with no instrument. To the non-woke, it looks wacky. In the mid-1800s it was considered a form of mental illness. But contestants, and fans, are dedicated. Some copy styles of famous guitarists. A contender played the AG behind his back and won the championship. The festival is so popular it pulls in around 300000 fans.

TANGO FESTIVAL (Tangomarkkinat) Seinäjoki, July 2021: A friend and I went to the festival. What it wasn't, was anything like the sexy Latin-American tango. What it  is, is hugely popular with around 100,000 dancers and on-lookers. 1.50 m follow it on TV and radio.  People dance, eat, drink and play all over the town center. Music air all day into the long, light Finnish summer night. A tango-song-wring contest provides new tunes every year.  Lively and fun but don't expect the sex-charged traditional tango.

WIFE-CARRYING CONTEST (Eukokanto) Sonkajarvi. July 2021: The idea goes back to the 1800 village tales – thieves carrying off the women. Today couples come from all over to compete in this crazy contest. The world champions – for two years  - are a man and wife from Lithuania.  The wife clings to her husband's back as he runs through the hurdles. To the fans in the stands, it looks dangerous for both. And you wonder if WC wannabes should choose skinny partners...

Sources: the Shark, internet.

Next week: CON-spiracy CULTS


Note: What can i say? Not much. So i won't.

CU
--
Eki



Tuesday, 26 January 2021

SHOWDOWN 2021

A composite of images from Pixabay

TRUMP got run out of Wash DC by 81,293,098 voters.  He's back up in his Florida digs plotting revenge. The law is on his tail. Criminal evidence piles up. Big-business cash, banks, Twitter and Facebook have dumped him. Old-Money, Palm Beach neighbors want to kick him out of Mar-a-Lago.  But his MAGA  gang is hanging in. 

Showdown 2020 by Little Margie Productions

What a movie – horrible and hilarious. A second impeachment will try to nail him for stoking up up the rally crowd to storm the capital. And for two months he tried to annul the election. We wait for the scene when the sheriff opens his toxic tax returns. The reveal? Money laundering for the Russians? Over-evaluating properties to get loans?  Under-valuing them to taxes? Secret payoffs to women he sexually harassed? A shocking surprise? All of the above, or worse?

Trump has 70 million in campaign-cash to make trouble. We've gotta hope that the cray chaos of the last four years is a wake-up call for US. We thought he was a joke.  Ha. Ha. TRUMP turned out to be THE JOKER.

“What fools these mortals be” --  Shakespeare

Sources: Washington Post, New York Times, Economist, MSNBC, CNN, FOX News, the Shark

Next week:  FINLAND for FOREIGNERS: an outsider's view - ODDBALL  EVENTS

Note: On this blog, Maggy writes, and I find and/or make the images (and fix the typos, ha!). This week, we discussed a cartoon with Trump writing "AIR FORSE 1 TOO" (sic.) to the side of his private jet with a sharpie. It was a funny idea, but A) i do not think it would have worked too well in practice B) it would have been quite a lot of work to make well and C) I like to surprise Maggy with my choices of imagery. So Trump the joker it is ;-)

CU
--
Eki