Sunday, June 11, 2006

Quirks of the iDshot

No camera that costs $160 and can shoot stop motion at 1280x720 with live video out can be without problems and short falling, and the iDshot certainly has it's fair share. In my last entry I basically said why I can never go back to shooting at web cam resolution, in this entry I'll go over why I not fully satisfied with it and want to upgrade to a Nikon D50, and how I work around these problems while I can't afford to do so.

One of the seemingly great things about this camera when I first bought it was that it included a 730mb memory card, I don't think most cameras include cards this size, and 730mb is sure a nice start for free. However, it is a proprietary card (to the best of my knowledge it's like a miniDVD RW) and only is available in the 730mb size. Once you start shooting in full resolution tiffs thats only 10.5 seconds of 24fps animation, this becomes rather problematic. If you want to animate a shot over ten seconds long there are two options: first you can just shoot in jpg, its a compromise in quality but it will get you by, or you can transfer the pictures and wipe the card mid shot. Only do the later if your camera is connected to the computer at all times during the shot and is rock solid. To do this you need to turn the nob on the top to connect the camera to the computer, load the pictures to your PC. There is some kind of weird problem when you turn the nob back to picture taking mode, you will need to disconnect the camera from the fire wire card for the camera to acknowledge that it's back in shooting mode. Do this at the computer end, not where the fire wire goes into the camera, that way you won't bump the camera. For some reason, after you put the camera in transfer mode and back again the manual functions are turned off. To turn them back on you will need to push the button, and push on the opposite side of the camrea so that it counteracts the push and the camera is not bumped. That turns of the focus and white balance, but for some reason that exposure and shutter speed need to be turned on again, I have no idea why.

The next quirk is a weird issue with the aperture and zoom. I think there may have been a few topics about this on The more you zoom in the less you can open the aperture. For example if you are fully zoomed out the aperture can be set to 2.4, but if you are fully zoomed in the most it can be opened is 4.4. This is not so bad if you want to shoot at that aperture, however this directly affects the brightness of the viewfinder, so even though you can expose the hero frames longer you're frame grabbing image will be very dark. The way I handle this is to just not zoom in as much as possible. Zooming is not ideal because zoomed in images have less depth then zoomed out images. Besides, if you are shooting at full resolution you can use digital zoom anyway.

Perhaps the worst design flaw of the iDshot was the proprietary optical memory disk, rather then using some standard format they created what is basically a built in CD burner. The problem with this is that it is the only camera I have ever used that can overheat due to extensive use. I first encountered this problem when shooting Attack of the Evil Robotic Turkey [From Outer Space]. We where shooting a scene and had a light directly over the camera, this did not help the heating level of the camera one bit and we soon saw a temperature icon pop up on the screen, if this happens TURN THE CAMERA OFF. Don't do anything else, no picture transfers or anything. I recall some stories of people burning out the camera due to overheating, I have not had any problems because I turn it off if there is a problem. Keep in mind that every time you take a picture you create heat. If you are a very fast animator you will kill this camera. Pace yourself while shooting, for the good the the camera. Once you finish the shot and have the pictures on your computer turn the camera off and give a break, let it cool down.

As if overheating and burning out the camera weren't bad enough, the hotter the camera is, the more electronic noise (sometimes called rainbow dots by confused iDshot users). If you animated a shot that has rainbow dots in them you notice it starts out with none and they slowly fade in, this is seeing the effects of the rising heat of the camera. I've only just discovered this, or put one and one together. As far as I can tell there is less noise at faster shutter speeds, the noise becomes very noticeable at 1/4 sec and slower shutter speeds. If there are only a few dots here and there you can paint them out by had. I have used CompositeLab Pro (and VisionLab Studios when I upgraded) to create another layer of the video, mask out everything but the dot and a small space around it and apply a gaussian blur that lightens the dot. I'm sure After Effects users can do something equivalent fix. The noise has almost no effect on very light areas on the frame, if the dots get very bad you can gaussian blur the whole image and create another video layer that has anything that need to be in focus in it. The best solution to avoid this kind of work is to not shoot a 1/4 sec exposures or longer and keep the camera cool.

I know a few people have been asking about getting an iDshot, I beleave the only place that you can buy them new was selling them for around $400 last I checked and this camera is NOT worth $400, it is worth under $200, if you want one I would try and see if anyone on wants to sell there iDshot, I'm sure there are quite a few that hardly used it and it's just sitting collecting dust.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Watch the Fresh Element Intro and lots on the iDshot

You can see the Fresh Element web intro which is what I have been working on for the longest time here

For those of you that frequent you might remember the iDshot craze in the spring of 2005. The craze that drove everyone and there mother to buy one, or even two of the cameras, it ended when B&H Photo ran out.

You would think that this large quantity of iDshot owners would create large quantity's of animation so that they could justify the $160 or whatever they spend on the camera. However, to the best of my knowledge I am the only person who actually uses it to animate. Upon finishing the Fresh Element Records web intro (my fourth iDshot project) Lio was wondering how it was working for me. In this post I'll try to over the different work flows I have used and the advantages it has over web cameras. If you like posts with this kind of technical info could you please comment on them, I try to spend a lot of time making stuff like this interesting and it's sad when the only people that comment are my friends, most of which with never make an animation without my involvement.

I've shot Attack of the Evil Robotic Turkey [From Outer Space] which had about 3.5 minutes of 15 fps animation (1.5 minutes got cut from the final version, I had a web cam aimed at the rear LCD for frame grabbing, I would like to apologizes for the stupidness of this movie as well.) I then shot about 1 minute of the Vampire From Beyond the Crypt (23.98fps, webcam LCD frame gabbing, the project is not finished so I won't show it.) Later Marc wanted me to write a review of the animateability of Stikfas so I made a 30 second film called The Arena (15fps shot blind.) I then got the Fresh Element job which was 36 seconds (24fps, frame grabbing with a capture card, shot blind on dolly shots.) Thats 5.5 minutes of stop motion, that should qualify me to write about it.

The workflow on this camera can be a bit wonky and hard to get used to, but once you do you can take advantage of its high resolution tiff files. Unlike most cameras, the iDshot has a stop motion mode built into it, however you should not use this, I have heard that it is buggy and crashes, also you can shoot at a max resolution of 640x480, if you shoot at this resolution you are shooting yourself in the foot because that resolution comes in handy in post. You'll need to set everything to full manual and get the camera taking the picture you want it to be taking. Because the camera's view finder does not quite show the picture the camera really takes you'll need to transfer the test photo's to your computer, so keep your computer close enough to the camera to have the firewire cable attached to at all times, it just makes things easer. If you are using USB, stop what you are doing, go out and buy a firewire card, the iDshot has so many problems with USB and is so slow that it is not worth using the USB. Once you get the right exposure, aperture, white balance, and focus you will need to set up you're frame grabber. I've done it three ways.

When I first started out I just aimed my web camera into the viewfinder and used that. The picture quality is not that great but you can get an idea of the movement, no fine details however. If you already have a webcam and don't have a capture card this is the cheep solution. You do need to remember take a shot with the frame grabber, then use the remote to take the hero shot with the camera. When I shot The Arena I just shot blind because it's much faster and you don't have to worry about taking two pictures. You would not want to do important animation like that.

When I got the Fresh Element gig I bought a capture card so I could output the picture on the viewfinder to my computer. However you can't use Anasazi with the capture card, so the only other free choice is Monkey Jam, the problem with Monkey Jam is it does not play back in real time (only frame flipping which is OK) and does not have onion skinning, which is handy. The viewfinders output is a bit better then looking in the real viewfinder because the frame cuts off the image so somethings there will be something that you think is out of frame that isn't.

Once you've animated the shot you have to download it to the computer. If you shot in tiff format (which I usually do) you will have to convert it to a tiff format that the rest of your programs can read in Sanyo File Manager. I usually use VisionLab Studio to convert the image stream into a resized movie file adding any digital zooms or pans with the extra resolution.

The primary advantage of the iDshot is that you can shoot at the lower spectrum of high definition (1280x720, cameras max resolution is 1360x1024) in Tiff format. When you are using the max resolution tiffs you can only get 10.5 seconds of animation, however I rarely have 10 second long shots, I sometimes worry that it might by my ADD being manifested in my animation, but no one has complained yet. The great thing about the extra resolution is that you can reframe the shot if something comes up that you did notice when you set up the shot, you can also add digital pan and zooms, which can make shots a lot livelier. Because of the complications of dolly shots and panning in stop motion this can be advantages to tripod shooters. A very interesting thing I discovered you can use the extra resolution for is if you used a dolly rig to pull or push the camera away from the set you can use a digital zoom to create Hitchcock's Vertigo effect (I did this in the Fresh Element web intro.) If I'm not planning on shooting in high def I usually shoot at 1024x768 and downsize to 640x480, the extra resolution is just to useful not to have at your disposal in post. If you don't want the extra resolution you may as well use a web camera.

watch the Hitchcock zoom here

OK, thats enough about the iDshot for one post. Maybe next time I'll go over the querks of it and how I work around them.