A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

In fact it is right now.

I was out enjoying another reading in the park with a bit of lunch when it started coming down in buckets. It was pretty overcast when I went out today and a little chilly. Thankfully because of that I was in my car at the time it started raining.

I’ve noticed a strange thing about rain in Los Angeles. Having lived in Boston and Chicago for a number of years I have a “feeling” for what rain should be like. LA doesn’t seem able to fit into that picture I have. We will go the entire summer with literally no rain. In the winter, when it does rain, I’m always amazed. The local news turns it into this big event. STORM WATCH ’04 plastered all over their broadcasts. I know for a fact that Los Angeles gets FAR less rain then I ever got growing up back east. I’m used to bad weather. In fact the first time my dad ever took me out to teach me how to drive, there was 3 inches of snow on the ground. These are not conditions that Angelinos have to deal with.

And yet whenever I get caught out on the road driving in my car when it starts to rain here in LA, I always have a feeling like it’s the end of the world. I just had it not an hour ago driving back home from the park. I was going about 15 MPH because I couldn’t see a damn thing. Everyone was. And this is where the really weird thing comes in: I know that if I turn on the news tonight, they’ll say we had 0.10″ of rain. Maybe 0.20″. It’s completely bizarre. Back east, you have a massive downpour like that, and you’ll find out it was 3 or 4 inches. I don’t get it.

Digging For Sound Effects

Yesterday I was shown a demo of a great sound library program called Soundminer. It’s very exciting: 58 metadata fields, SQL search functions, Rewire support for multichannel monitoring, Quicktime support for auditioning against picture, all kinds of fun stuff. But I get ahead of myself…

A sound company’s or sound supervisor’s bread and butter is the sound effects library. Attitude, communication, and all those customer service things are very important, but without a sound effect library there can be no post-production sound. A critical factor in the sound effects library is how easy is it to get to the necessary sounds?

When I started working in this industry eight years ago, most Supervising Sound Editors would use a process similar to this: Take the continuity list that shows the division of the film into reels and scenes. For each scene create a list of spots. Search the sound effects library for appropriate sounds for each spot. Listen to the CDs and DATs and make lists of the chosen sounds for each spot. Print the lists. Have the assistant load the sounds into the computer from the source CDs or DATs. Have the assistant copy the sounds to the editors’ drives and make copies of the lists for the editors.

For example, scene 20 is a car chase through New York with gunfire between the two cars. So spots might be Good Guy Car, Bad Guy Car, Good Guy Guns, Bad Guy Guns, NYC Traffic Day. It might get even more specific since the most dynamic sounds for the scene would probably be the cars. So there might be spots for Engine Revs, Tire Squeals, and Brake Slams.

Supervisors would use a database program like Filemaker Pro, Leonardo, or even something on a ancient Alpha Micro computer to search for sounds. Type in “Engine Rev” and see what goodies pop up. Or maybe there was that one recording of a really beefy police car who’s engine sounds might be perfect, so the supervisor types in “Crown Vic Engine”. The list of the matching sounds would be displayed, and then the process of pulling the DATs or CDs from the shelf, finding the right track number and listening to the sounds would begin. Between all this searching, finding, listening, and the all the loading, copying, and photocopying that the assistants would do, the process could take weeks.

Thankfully now we have large quantities of cheap disk space, high speed networks, and some really great sound library software. Now most supervisors have made a point to get their entire sound effects library loaded onto hard drives and ready for instant access. These might be Firewire drives that sit in their office or they might be network storage hanging off a server. With the new sound library software, supervisors can type in keywords to search for in the database and then click a button next to the description to immediately start auditioning the sounds. Choices can be made and put into a “pull list” or “bin” depending on the terminology used. And then with another click of the button, the chosen sound effects can be downloaded on to a cutting hard drive from or server or set of master drives, and imported into an open Pro Tools session.

As you can probably imagine, this saves HUGE amounts of time.

Three years ago this May, Cameron, the Supervisor I work with, and I set up a system like this for ourselves. We used a program called MTools from Gallery and it changed everything. Suddenly the process that used to take weeks could be done in several days. And we loved it for a long time. MTools is basically a series a utilities applications that interfaced with a Filemaker Pro database. The database would list all of the information about the sounds, and by clicking a button, the path to the sound would be handed off to a program called Dcode which would audition the sound from the server. Dcode is the same program that would copy of the files from the server when the pull list was sent to Pro Tools.

Unfortunately MTools has also been a bit buggy. It’s a problem with a lot of sound software. We’re definitely a niche market and it doesn’t attract the top developers. The Filemaker part of the equation was pretty rock solid. Some people have complained about the speed of Filemaker search hundreds of thousands of sounds but I never found it to be too bad. The problem typically stemmed from the strange behavior of Dcode.

Sometimes it would refuse to run. As soon as it started, it would immediately quit. The solution was to throw out the preferences file and copy “fresh” Dcode from the install disk or the server. Then if you auditioned your first sound, Dcode wouldn’t quit if you hit Command-Q. There is this button with a down arrow that is supposed to rebuild waveform overviews, but by clicking this button, Dcode will quit after you’ve auditioned your first sound. It also has a problem remember the path to the save directory. You run the program, select the directory you want all your sounds transfer into, spend an hour selecting the best sounds, click the transfer button, and it throws up a bunch of error messages. You realize that there’s no longer a path listed in the destination field. There was literally I time two weeks ago when I sat on the phone with Cameron for two hours while we tried to get Dcode to copy the selected sounds to a local hard drive.

We have decided that we need to find a better solution. That is where the demo of Soundminer comes in. It does all the basic functions I’ve talked about flawlessly. And there’s a lot of extra functionality that we never had with MTools. You can customize the layout, font size, color, etc. as easily as you can with a program like iTunes. (You can make customizations in Filemaker Pro and in general it’s a pretty easy database program to learn, but doing something simple like change the font from 12 point to 18 point because the editor has bad eyes is a bit involved.) You can set in and out points on the sounds your auditioning and it will only transfer those portions to your editing session. It has a function where it will find matching sounds based on the characteristics of the sound itself, not just the keywords you typed in. And about a half-billion other things that are great.

I suspect that I will spend most of next week in the office switching us over to a new Soundminer-based library.

And Then The Dinosaurs All Died And Turned Into Oil

Com_Bat_Rac_Coon mentioned that there is a “Business Week” European cover story about how it’s getting tougher to get at the oil in Saudi Arabia.

If you’ve read my little introduction to Peak Oil or any number of other websites about it, you know that after we reach the peak it gets increasingly harder to extract the oil from the ground. As it says on the cover, “There’s plenty in the ground. But it won’t be easy to get. The kingdom may need major new foreign investors. Will it dare open up?”

According to the article the Saudis claim that they could easily “ramp up to 10 million bbl. a day from its current 8.5 million and comfortably sustain that level through 2042.” The concern of some of outside analysts is that we really don’t know how much oil they actually have since they are a bit secretive about that. Another concern is that maybe the Saudis can sustain this level of production for the next 40 years, but if oil starts getting scarce in other parts of the world, they might need to double that amount by 2020.

These various oil supply and demand models are all fine, but the real question is what will we do after 2042?

Goin’ To Las Vegas With An Aching… In My Heart

Well, I’m already in California.

My buddy and I booked the plane tickets and hotel rooms today. We’re off to Vegas on April 18 for the NAB show. This will be fun! I have never been to NAB. (National Association of Broadcasters, for those of you who don’t know.) It’s a huge convention for media production and post-production. Lots and lots of software and gear. Heaven for tech geeks like myself.

I’ve never been to NAB. I always seem to be working on a movie when it comes around. In fact when you do film sound, like me, you always hope that you don’t have to wind up on a dub stage for a mix while NAB is going on because you can never get any tech support from engineers or people at the companies who make the products we use since they’re all hanging out in the Las Vegas Convention center.

I am also going to use this opportunity to check out Star Trek: The Experience at the Hilton. I’ve never seen that either and now that there’s the new Borg 4D adventure to go along with the original one, it should be extra-super-cool.

I talked to another friend on the phone today who’s spent the last 2 months hanging out in Chicago. (He’s from there but lives here in LA now.) He’s coming back into town on Friday for 5 days before he takes off for Australia and South-East Asia for another 2 months. We going to go see “Hellboy” the movie before he leaves. Oh yeah!

Seeking Out Strange New Worlds

There’s another website of fan-created Star Trek episodes. These are done in the style of the original series and take place aboard the starship Exeter. I think it’s very cool that fans are taking the time to make these great shows.

In other Trek news, startrek.com has a write-up of the Grand Slam convention that took place in Pasadena over the weekend. They talk very favorably about Wil Wheaton who has written about the experience on his own website.

You might wonder why I write about Wil a lot. I don’t know the guy. Even though I probably live only about 10 miles from him and I’m a Star Trek fan, I’ve never met him. He’s kind of my hero. Wil’s a year or two older than I am. He went through his teenage years on screen at the same time I was going through mine in the real world.

In the summer of 1986, I had just moved to Boston from Detroit. I was going into junior high and had more than my share of teenage geekiness. I had recently grown about a thousand feet over night and I no longer seemed to have control over my voice. The neighborhood I moved into had a lot kids in my age and I was trying to make new friends. One night my mom let me go see my first R-rated film in a movie theater with some of the other kids from the neighborhood. It was “Stand By Me.”

I read a lot of Steven King books and it was exciting to go see one in a theater. With NO adults. And it was rated R! I felt so “grown-up.” I immediately identified with Wil’s character and by extension with him. Or at least I wished I could be like him. He was smart and confident and seemed to be so cool. Of course as we all know, there is nothing more important than for a junior high student to be “cool.”

More recently watching those first few seasons of TNG again, I again saw myself at his age in the character of Wesley. Too smart for his own good and socially a little bit on the awkward side.

It was his website more than anything that was the inspiration for my site. I’ve mentioned before that I have had or worked on various websites for ten years, but I’ve never done one that was so personal. The first website I made in college was a Mighty Mighty Bosstones fansite. Years later I did another band fansite for The Donnas. There was my writing for the RTC zine that had a bit of my personality in there, but mostly it was a fictional persona I hid behind. This is the first time I’ve come out and said, “This is me. This is who I am and what I’m thinking.” It’s a little frightening if I think about it too much.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

A recent study by professors at Harvard and the University of California shows that illegal MP3 filesharing has not hurt the record industry. They said that “downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero….” Of course the RIAA thinks this is completely untrue.

I suspect that filesharing probably does effect sales a bit, but I refuse to believe that it is the sole cause. I would love to see album sale statistics for last 15 years or so. When did the downward trend start? Was it the day that Napster was introduced to the world or did it start a few years before? How about looking at the number of bands that been created in the last ten years by a marketing team and not by musicianship? Now how many of those same bands get in the heavy rotation on radio stations? How about looking at the actual number of major record labels. I can drive down the street, just past NBC studios and see the building that is home to WEA (Warner / Elektra / Atlantic). Three different names, one actual label. Or how about we look at the number of über-corporations that own the majority of radio stations in this nation? Four companies? Five? Six? And how much of the market? Seventy percent? Eighty?

If the RIAA wants to get to the bottom of declining record sales, they should take a look at the record labels themselves and at the radio stations that play those albums. Steve Albini wrote an insiders look into just how much money a band makes on a major label.

The article is hosted on Negativland’s website, the poster child of the anti-establishment, anti-corporation movement. Who can forget their classic U2 album?

Negativland's U2 Album Cover

Oh yeah, it was pulled from the shelves after a lawsuit. Thankfully you can download some of the tracks from their site. You’ll never look at Casey Kasem the same way again.

Stupid Windows

Stupid IE6.

Ok, so here I was thinking I was done with my website redesign. Unfortunately I didn’t preview it in a bunch of browsers. Safari in OS X is my browser of choice. I guess I’m at fault for using an extremely standards-based browser. My website looked great in Safari.

Safari

There were a couple little glitches in black areas of the header and footer under Firefox and IE5 for Mac but they were easily fixed by adjusting the border setting in those areas. I think Firefox looks almost as good as Safari–though their forms display needs a little help. I’ll have to look into tweaking that.

Firefox

Internet Explorer 5 for Mac looked worse of all but hey, what do you want from a browser that hasn’t been updated in years?

Internet Explorer 5 for Mac

Imagine my shock when I fired up Windows 98 in Virtual PC “just to be sure” and my website looked like a disaster.

Internet Explorer 6 for Windows

It seems that wonderful Internet Explorer 6 has a wonderful “feature” that floating elements like my nav bar don’t behave as expected.

Internet Explorer 6 for Windows

After a lot of research and “trial and error”, I was able to fix the problem. My XHTML code is pretty simple: There’s a container <div> which is everything that is not the grey background. Inside of that there’s a header <div>, a navigation <div>, a content <div>, and a footer <div>. Obviously there’s more going on than just that but those are the basic elements. In my CSS, I floated the #navigation to the right, set the #content exactly next to it (to the pixel), and told the #footer to clear both.

Ultimately I discovered that IE6 can’t handle the #content touching the floating #navigation. I had to leave 8 pixels between the two. I’m sure it could be a little less but 3 pixels had the same problem and I got sick of playing with it so I left it at 8.

I am SO glad that the web browser that something like 70% of the world is using doesn’t actually properly support standards. Ugh!

Anyway it’s now working. I would however appreciate it if anyone who happens to actually read this site who is using some other operating system / browser combination, would be kind enough to send me a screen capture from their system. Or at least drop me a note in my email or in the comments letting me know how it’s working. Thanks.

Stupid IE6.

Ten Years, Man! Ten Years.

I’ve spent the last two days learning XHTML and CSS. Actually I didn’t spend ALL day both days working on this. I had a very enjoyable several hours on Saturday in a park in the mountains here in Burbank–I’m still a little red from the experience. I read a lot more in the Robert Jordan book I’ve been working on, “The Eye Of The World.” Watched a little TV last night.

It’s been interesting to get back into web design. I have been away from it for several years and things have definitely changed for the better. When I was designing the mostly monthly Right Turn Clyde in 1999, I was using Dreamweaver to put together the site in HTML4, and boy was it messy. I shudder to think of what the code looks like on those pages. Lots and lots of tables to attempt to position things correctly

There was this mysterious thing called Cascading Style Sheets but it had different versions based on your Document Object Model (DOM) and because of the non-standard nature of Internet Explorer and Netscape at the time. Even now I’m getting a little nervous just writing this. So I ignored that and stuck with trusty HTML and tables.

The cool thing I’ve discovered is that XHTML is even easier that HTML4. It reminds me of when I first started writing web pages by hand back in college in 1994. Back then I had to compile and install my own server just so I could have a website. I worked in the computer labs on the Norwestern campus so I had accounts on every computer. So a little Sun workstation in a lab was my web home for several years (http://crow.acns.nwu.edu:8080/). Don’t bother looking for it. It’s been gone for a long time.

The thing that made me so excited about the web was this program that had just come out on the Mac (my trusty Quadra 840 AV at the time), NCSA Mosaic. It was a web browser and YOU COULD PUT PICTURES IN THE PAGES! The year before I saw a web program called MacWWW but it was just pages and pages of unformatted text. You could click on something that was underlined and it would take you somewhere else. I couldn’t see that it was any better than our Gopher server. But then the pictures came and everything was different. In fact I got my first internship in Hollywood because of my web site, but that’s a story for another day.

I used to use BBEdit Lite to write my webpages. It was all by hand but there weren’t that many tags to learn. And it wasn’t all that different from using a word processor like WordStar for DOS–which I used to write all my papers in high school. Instead of putting a ^U on either side of text that I wanted to underline. I would just use the <u> and the </u>. Nothing too scary.

Now I find 10 years later that we’ve come around to those days of simple tags again. Simple tags. Focus on meaningful content. Let the CSS handle the layout of the page. The idea is to separate the content from the layout so that the content can easily be displayed on lots of different output devices. The computer screen is the obvious one, but more increasingly: web-enabled TVs, PDAs, and cell phones. Not to mention allowing visually handicapped people access to this wonderful internet with programs like screen readers. Imagine a screen reader program trying to make it through the mess of tables of HTML4? Yuck.

The wonderful thing about XHTML is that it has standardized some of the non-standard tags, and there are a whole list of tags that should no longer be used. It’s great. Simple. The thing that takes all the time now is messing around with CSS trying to get your layout right. But even that’s not too difficult one you’ve learned how it works.

I’m back to coding web pages (mostly) by hand with BBEdit. The full version has a great set of markup tools to handle all your HTML needs. It’ll handle the CSS for you too, but I’ve been using a program called CSSEdit to do that. Mostly because it has a bunch of categorized fields to fill in. It’s easier while I’m still learning CSS to say, “Ok, now I need to work on the font. Go to the font tab, fill out the appropriate fields. Now let’s change the background. Go to the background tab. Change the color.” Instead of trying to remember all the selectors, just type in the fields.

I use iBlog to make my weblog entries and deal with generating all the various archive pages and whatnot. It makes a series of static webpages and uses a bit of javascript trickery to generate a few things on the fly. It means I can have a weblog on my $3/month server that doesn’t allow server-side scripting at that price. Not the most flexible program, but it works well and it’s easy. One of these days I’ll setup PHP on one of my computers and figure out that whole thing. (That’s one of the nice things for us geeks about OS X, it’s a Unix operating system.) And then maybe I’ll move up to a $5/month or -shudder- $7/month server and MoveableType or something like that. But not today.

For now I’ll just keep messing around with my CSS. And someday soon, perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, you’ll see a new Monsters from the Id website in all its XHTML 1.0 Strict and CSS glory.

Hey, Rocky, Watch Me Pull A Rabbit Out Of My Hat

It is done. After a little bit of wondering where my title graphic when off to and then trying to figure out why there was an orange stripe above the graphic, the Monsters from the Id revised website is done. Please let me introduce you to a style I call:

Halloween

It is inspired by a style called “Zen Pool” from the excellent CSS Zen Garden website. This weekend while I was bringing my site up to date, I created another style I call “Frankenstein” which was basically the same as “Zen Pool” with a different color scheme. The author of “Zen Pool” had a fixed amount of text to deal with for that design. After many hours of messing around, I found that his method does not work at all with my weblog of various page lengths. So I scrapped it, read up a bunch more on CSS, started taking baby steps and wound up with “Halloween.” At some point I’ll probably rework “Halloween” to get a new version of “Frankenstein”, but that will be when I set up the site with user-selectable style sheets.

Of course I did end up putting the obligatory weblog stickers down in the corner of my navigation bar. I swear the blog police knocked on my door and said, “Sir, we need you to add a zillion of these little 80×15 images to your site or we’re going to have to take away your computer.” It was either that or a post by Wil the other day where he gave a link to a sticker generator. One thing lead to another and suddenly I found myself at a sticker archive. I couldn’t help myself.

I’m going to go play with my Colorforms and Shrinky Dinks.