Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Test Strips, Flashback Sundays

I haven't said that much lately; my mind has been elsewhere and I've had a busy past week. It's been a bit tiring. Plus I don't have a lot of perfectly fleshed-out ideas to write about; there are a few, one that has to do with natural belongingness you can get from a place, as well as one that has to do with...I forget.

One thing that's been at the back of my mind for awhile now is my idea to do a song review on this particular song. I started a post on it, but I never got past the first or second sentence as my heart really wasn't in on it.

Well, here it is.


When you think of the song 'Freeze Frame,' do you immediately identify it with the opening organ? The introduction it's probably most known for? The C-C-C-C-C-G-A-A#-A?

I've probably heard that organ introduction many times throughout my childhood, randomly, thinking on some level that I've heard it before. It's one of those sounds you know from somewhere because you've heard it before and recognize it as part of past pop-culture. It's so ingrained in our minds because that's what a song from the past was known for, and that's largely only what it was known for. Of course, that's the mindset of the future generations that hear something striking and only pay attention to that; everyone that was around at the time the song itself came out probably remember the song well as a whole, but those of us that were born later and only heard it somewhere on TV or on radio now and then only notice the striking part it's known for. Even the people who heard it when it was released in 1981 probably identified the song by the introduction.

When I used to hear the organ, I would think it was a song by a southern American rock band. I was wrong.

Generally, when I properly listened to the song, I found it interesting and kind of fun. Here's one thing I want to sort out right now, though: Just because the song contains about a hundred references to photography, it does not mean, as a photographer, I must like it.

Lyric-wise, the song seems to follow a photography theme, as well as a weekday theme. Tools used in contemporary film photography of the time, as well as terms and practices are used as metaphors. It also brings up the days of the week quite often. For instance:

"I could see it was a rough-cut Tuesday
Slow-motion weekdays stare me down
Her lipstick reflex got me wound
There was no defects to be found
Snapshot image froze without a sound"


"Thursday morning was a hot flash-factor
Her face still focused in my mind
Test-strip proof-sheet love is hard to find
Friday night we'll dance the spotlight grind
Stop-time heart for me if she's not mine"

I once mentioned, particularly in my review on the Madness song 'Please Don't Go' that I tend to really like it when days of the week or months or years are mentioned in lyrics. This isn't the case for this song. The only reason I can think of for my non-excitement or pleasure at the mention of Tuesday or Thursday or whatever day is that they are mentioned too often - more than once. There are two songs that have one mention of a day or month, just one, and I like hearing it. Both are Madness songs - 'Please Don't Go' (demo version, mid-September) and 'Missing You' (Monday).

Looking past these metaphors, it appears that the song is about, though I could be wrong, the singer's admiration of a girl he likes, and perhaps any experiences he has with her. He describes the girl and experiences using camera metaphors - 'there were no defects to be found' (she looks perfect), 'Thursday morning was a hot-flash factor' (Thursday morning, she looked beautiful and made me feel great, or, she wore hot, flashy clothes), 'zoom lens feeling just won't disappear' (could be a metaphor for how he feels scrutinized by her, or the other way around).

Looking at all of it at once, I tend to find that this is the perfect song for a photographer's crush on his female darkroom assistant. Or, in school, in photography class, a boy and girl are partnered with each other...

Musically, it's a mostly simple song other than the big brass featured on it. The bass line is very easy - C-G-C....A#-A#-A#-A#-F-F-A-A#-C and over again. The guitar chords follow a C, then A#, and finally a F (low F) chord pattern.
It's a song that has a prominent guitar, organ, and brass to it. The organ repeats its same melody from the beginning except for the G-F part, in which it ascends and then descends. It's not exactly a sound I like that much because it sounds like someone feeling sick and dizzy to me. I don't know why. Maybe it's the ascending and descending sound, as if you're out of balance?

The song was written by Peter Wolf (the singer) and Seth Justman - the organist responsible for the striking introduction, and all the photography/calendar jargon. Interestingly, just about all the songs on the album (also called Freeze Frame) were written by Justman.
Even more interestingly, he produced it as well. Can I go further? Sure. His brother directed the band's music video for 'Centrefold,' their big number one hit-single (written by, yes, Seth Justman). I've made reference to that song on here before.

According to the band's history on Wikipedia, Justman was a former fan that joined as keyboardist. Justman's story here parallels Chas Smash's of Madness - Smash started out as the guy who would jump up on stage at one of their gigs and dance, then he'd announce the band. He wasn't a full member until after their first album came out, and his presence rose from that of compere to competent songwriter and trumpeter (among other instruments). Seth Justman went from fan to sole songwriter for their hit 'Centrefold.' Chas Smash went from 'nutty dancer/announcer/compere' to the writer and trumpeter for Madness's one-hit wonder (here) 'Our House.'

The song's music video (I'm back to talking about 'Freeze Frame,' the song and not the album) is very creative. As you would expect for a song with so many photographic references and jargon, it starts out with still monochrome portraits of each member of the band. You hear camera shutters.
Largely, it takes place in a studio covered with white material. Peter Wolf dances and moves about as he sings, with scenes of Justman playing the organ and Stephen Jo Bladd playing drums and lip-syncing the lyrics. 'Magic Dick' plays sax and whatever other brass instruments feature on the song, and John Geils plays his guitar.

The video is interspersed with very old footage of scenes from old movies. Often someone in the band is super-imposed on the scene, or an instrument being played is.

Routinely, and this is one aspect that annoys me, purple-pink hands will dance or 'walk' across a keyboard during those ascending/descending parts. They're probably, who knows, Seth Justman's? This is super-imposed on the old footage as well.

Gradually the music video gets more crazy as the band eventually stops playing their instruments to instead play with paint and food coloring. This is obviously why everything was covered in white. The band go crazy with their antics - plowing their guitars through bathtubs full of paint, or walking on their hands as someone else holds their legs up, making hand prints on the floor. During the bridge, some sort of stop-motion cartoon thing starts, with this character at the edge of the scene writing 'memories' on a small piece of paper. The Freeze Frame album cover features this scene.

At the end, everyone forms a pyramid with - you guessed it - Seth Justman on top. As the song slowly fades away, he puts out his paint-covered hand (looking rather annoyed) and freezes in that stance. The image is then wiped about with blackness.

When I said the video was creative, I meant that it incorporated a lot of artistic effects in it. Things turn into paintings, old footage has band mates imposed on it, etc. etc.
You'd have to see it yourself to see what I mean. 

Overall, it's an engaging song with a well-established theme and good sound (other than that keyboard bit that makes me think of dizziness and nausea).

Lyrics: B
Music: B+

By the way, just because I think it would be enlightening, here is a short explanation of what some of the terms used in the song mean (non-metaphorically):

Rough cut - demo test photograph.
Slow-motion - filming technique (everyone knows what that is obviously)
Hot-flash - External flash you put into the hotshoe of an SLR camera.
Test strip, proof sheet - a test strip is a strip of photo paper used in the enlargement process to determine the best exposure time needed on the enlarger (by extension, an enlarger is a device used in the darkroom to enlarge a photograph on the film strip onto normal-sized photo paper).
A proof sheet is basically all the film strips arranged together side-by-side, exposed onto a normal piece of photo paper (not enlarged).
Stop-time - filming technique that is similar to time-lapse, but in which the subject is moved incrementally between shots, so that when the shots are run together it appears that the subject can move on its own. The clay cartoon sequence during the bridge appears to use this technique.
Flashback - this is largely used in plot lines in film or literature, not a photographic term having to do with camera flash. I'm sure everyone knows this obviously.
Zoom lens - not necessarily a telephoto lens, any lens that can increase or decrease its focal length (how far you can 'zoom' into a scene).
Darkroom - it's exactly as it sounds like, but it's not totally dark. It's a room in which to develop film photographs onto photo paper. Dim red light is okay to use but otherwise no natural light can come into the room (otherwise the photo paper is exposed).
And, finally, Freeze frame - not exactly a photographic term, more like a film term. Stopping a frame within a film or movie - freezing it so that it's paused on one frame essentially. Like pausing your TV. It's paused on one frame, all of which together make up the entire video or film. I guess you can say the same for 'taking a picture' because it's freezing a moment in time.

I took film photography in high school so I'm familiar with these terms. It helps, except that, again, they're all metaphors used in this song for attraction and beauty. And experiences. And...well, the days of the week.

I haven't heard all of the songs by the J. Geils Band, but having heard two, am I right in assuming there's some sort of explicit theme in each song? This one uses photography. 'Centrefold' uses a lot of graphic design and magazine jargon. What does 'Piss on the Wall' use as a theme? It's another song from the same album, from the brain of Seth Justman.

Anyway, what do you think of this one?

Justin C.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Stitching Tips

Not usual that I'll write tips or tutorials on here, in fact I can't remember doing one since I wrote about creating 3D photo-textured models in Google Earth in early 2009. Not many advice found here...unless it's my biased, synesthetic-based suggestions on songs or videos in my reviews.

The Background

Over the past year, I've dived into trying (with various levels of success) to create full equirectangular panoramas, to put on 360 Cities - and also to create stereographic projections of them, or, as every photographer or viewer likes to call them, little floating 'planets.'

The first 'planet' I ever tried to do was in autumn 2008, with this:
There's a full blog post on my creation of this.

It's not a proper 'planet,' though. For one thing, it's a normal 360 panorama taken with a point and shoot camera, that begins and ends. There's no center ground coverage, no sky coverage, and it's not a true equirectangular image.

Anyway, throughout 2010 I used the free panorama stitching program 'Hugin.' It worked alright and I learnt how to use it properly over time. To see how my planets evolved from errors to better refinement, check out my Flickr set of Planets. I desired the program PTGui though, largely because it has a cost, and my belief was that if you have to pay for it, it's a better program that's superior to Hugin.
That was my first false assumption.

Have you seen the beautiful results produced by people using PTGui though? It's perfect - I have a very hard time finding stitching errors. Unfortunately, when I finally bought the program a few weeks ago, I was so shocked over how crappy my panoramas turned out I barely used it anymore when I kept getting the same results, no matter how much I tinkered or tried to fix it.

The Tips (or The Secret, whichever you prefer)

A few days ago I realized that Hugin had since been upgraded and further advanced since the version I'd downloaded in early 2009 (which was version 0.08). It had gone up to version 4.0. Jesus.

But here is the plain truth: No panorama stitching program, paid or free, is going to give you your perfect result automatically, without your intervention.

My full secret, though, is this: Don't let Hugin, or PTGui, or whatever, do a thing until you are ready to stitch the final result.

A panorama is created, when using these programs, by implementing control points onto the images. There is always a set of control points  between two images. Each are placed on the exact same spot in the corresponding images. These are the points the program refers to when stitching it together - matching the points over each other on each image, therefore matching each corresponding point on each image, and warping it accordingly, so that it is properly stitched and aligned.

When you load your images into either Hugin or PTGui, you can press a button - 'Align' - and it will auto-generate control points on each loaded image. That is, each loaded image that in some way matches the other.

When you let the program do this, you have very varying levels of success in the result. But it is almost never properly aligned, or accurate, or stitched properly, to the point it's a perfectly stitched panorama.

The problem is this: When the program auto-generates its own control points, what it actually does is try its best in finding a point in an image that is exactly like the point in the several corresponding images around it. A pixel that is the exact same color and surrounded by similar pixels.
The result is often either several control points on top or within a pixel of each other, clusters where points are further from each other but still clustered around an area of image, or, worse, control points that are completely miss-aligned altogether. Usually it's all three scenarios - clusters, miss-alignments, and double-deckers (points directly on top or within a pixel of each other).

What's more, there will be still more images that the program cannot find a single similar point to add points to, at all, so you still have to manually add them. This is usually the case with stitching the floor, the ceiling, and any random shot even, especially if it's significantly brighter or darker than the rest.

Auto-generating control points may take half a minute to a minute for the program to do (PTGui is slightly faster at this than Hugin) but the time you take to tinker with and attempt to fix and replace and re-align the panorama can take hours, and even separate days if you give up in frustration and resolve to try it again later.

That was my case just about all the time, basically. Especially with PTGui.

You can get pretty lucky and have almost no trouble at all in auto-generating a stitched panorama. It's possible. There will still be (albeit, small) errors, but you can do it as long as you take the panorama in an empty, expansive space. Examples like a field, or empty parking lot, or anywhere there isn't a lot of, well, things or objects to stitch. To stitch a horizon in a field is nothing. When I stitched Moloughney Park here in Barrhaven, all I had to manually stitch was the sky. Otherwise, after hitting 'align,' I just did the sky, then hit 'Stitch Now!' and saved it to the folder it's in. Done.
I'd forgotten to stitch the ground in that one.

The first time I got a good result from manually stitching a panorama was my backyard. I'd been extremely surprised at how it turned out, if I'd done it all myself. The reason for the manual stitching was because the program on my computer couldn't for some reason stitch it automatically. Why hadn't I realized then that manually stitching it would easily give me better results? That was last April.

Doing it manually, you know the identical points within two images and where they are, so you can accurately place each corresponding point in the proper place. Furthermore - and this is where the program fails - you can place them all throughout the image instead of clustering them. For a better result, I'd recommend that you place them as far apart from each other as possible, particularly in places where the images would really need to be warped. Like in corners, or at the top, or edges, and the center as well. You don't have to place them virtually (and literally) right on top of each other.

The best part in all of this is this: You only need 4-8 control points for each image. I put 8. Eight well-placed, accurate, distanced control points essentially guarantee you the closest perfectly-stitched image possible.

The time it takes you to do this manually is ridiculously shorter than letting the program mess it up and fixing it over a long, frustrating time. For 26-30 images, it usually takes me about an hour to an hour and a half. Then I'm, really, done.

When you stitch the images, you need to do more than just stitch the image with the one next to it. You do one full rotation of stitching images next to each other. For me, I use a 10mm wide-angle lens. I take around 10-12 photos, vertical, looking largely downwards so that the horizon is in the upper half of the image. Then I take about 12 more looking essentially upwards closer to the sky, with with horizon in the lower half of the image (never removed). Then I take a shot of the ground and one of the sky (or floor and ceiling). That's about 25-26 images, more if you are cautious and your images have a lot of overlap. You do the bottom half of the panorama - the images pointed more towards the ground - first. One rotation. Then you do the upper half of the panorama - images pointed more towards the sky but not directly up - second. Another rotation. The next thing you do is stitch the upper and lower images together to put the halves together. A third and final rotation.
The last thing you do is stitch the ground and sky, which is a little harder but still perfectly possible. My recommendation is two to three control points for each lower-half image and the ground, placed as far as possible away from each other (preferably in each bottom corner of the image). It's the same for the sky.


Doing this all manually is a bit of work at first, because you're starting from scratch. But it pays off hugely. You really don't have to do much at all. After doing three full rotations of control points, lower, upper, and connecting the two, plus the ground and sky, all you have to do is press 'Align' - that's when you press it - and the program will stitch together a preview of the panorama that will look almost perfect instead of generating its own points. The last thing you do is fine-tweak it (there can still be some easily-noticeable miss-alignments) and then save the result and press 'Stitch Now!'

Program-wise, I would suggest Hugin since it's free and just as capable and PTGui, and as far as user-friendly goes between the programs, Hugin is better. When you place the points, it will zoom into the place in the image you clicked on for a perfect placement (while PTGui doesn't).

These are my tips and my secret if you want to think of it that way, and I hope they are helpful.

Justin C.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are Plays Better Than Movies?

I very rarely see plays at all. The last time I saw one I was in grade seven and it was more of a silent ballet kind of thing where music played all the time as characters jumped and bounced around in dance, acting out scenes in Wizard of Oz silently to the music.

Other than that, all I've actually seen are two musicals, and the one I saw today.

It was part of the SFY program I'm in. Don't ask why, I don't know. It was a short walk down Wellington from where it bends into Somerset to Holland, where the GCTC building - the Great Canadian Theatre Company - stands. It's a fairly new development. Built in the last five-seven years.

For one reason or another, we all accompanied several classes largely made up of girls from Canterbury into a theatre where a simple setup was arranged on the stage. I knew that the play was called Strawberries in January (or February, or March, whichever).

Instead of writing any kind of review, I'm going to briefly state what I found different about seeing a play in comparison to a film. Then I'm going to bed.

Firstly, it wasn't bad. The actors were quite good and very engaging to the audience. They pulled off the characters easily and with grace.

What I largely find in seeing a play is that you are up close and personal with the characters. They're right in front of you. They're acting in front of you and you can see the action with you own eyes, not the camera lens, which makes it perfect and very real. Unless you have bad eyesight.

What I like is that the people playing the characters can really get into expressing themselves really well. It's a lot more realistic. It's live and it's atmospheric. You can enjoy the acting as it happens.

As for film, the positives here are that you are guaranteed with a perfect show, quick action and different scenes that take you to different places altogether instead of the same stage with certain props moved around or set designs. You get special effects and movie magic. You get scene transitions and effective ways to propel story lines in a more non-parallel format.
In a movie, if an actor makes a mistake, they redo the scene until he or she gets it right, and whatever was filmed prior can get put on a gag reel if it was a particularly funny or significant blooper. On stage, the actors have to be very good at performing perfectly then and there.

In the end, movies are clean and well-cut and stylish (depending on the talent and reliability of the actors, directors and editors of course). Plays or musicals, on the other hand, are realistic, in the moment, up close and personal, and very engaging.

What do I prefer more?

If I see anymore plays that are as well-produced and pulled off amazingly like this one, then I'd have to say plays. They're more intimate and I feel I can connect with the actors a lot more on the stage than on a screen. Plus, I think they're a little more fun.

On this occasion, we left too quickly. I wanted to congratulate the actors and shake their hands for a well-done, perfectly pulled-off performance. Maybe I'll look into attending more plays in the future.

Justin C.