Saturday, April 21, 2012

My big break

Forgive me for boring you all to tears with this, but it’s a pretty exciting time for me at the moment. For those of you who haven’t been following my tweets, YouTube videos and Google+ posts (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?), the basic facts are these: The (Catholic) Parish Church in Seligenstadt is, this year, celebrating the 200th anniversay of its move from its original church to the monastery church, and have been celebrating all year. As well as a special wine, a book and a whole range of festivities, exhibitions and so on, one of the highlights is going to be a showing of two short films in the local cinema: an old black-and-white 16mm movie from the 1940s or thereabouts, followed by a more recent video filmed and edited by yours truly.

Yes, I have been making a film which is to have its screen debut in a real cinema. People will be watching it having bought tickets and probably even popcorn, and I don’t mind telling you I am a little nervous. Apparently, the €5 ticket includes entry to a small reception afterwards, although since this will be midweek (Wednesday 25th April, to be exact), I assume it will be a fairly subdued affair. Mostly, though, I’m nervous because obviously I’m not a professional and the video is a bit rough around the edges here and there. I keep finding horrible mistakes.

Still, the people who count were pleased with the rough cut. I was even more pleased when we tested it at the cinema, just to make sure the technology was working correctly, and I have to say it looks surprisingly good on the big screen. And it sounds fantastic through the professional sound system. Not Hollywood by any means, but a lot better than I could have reasonably expected.

Given a bit more time to film, a slightly steadier hand, better lighting conditions, and maybe one or two assistants with reflectors and such, I could have turned in something looking almost professional. This isn’t a boast: this is by way of encouraging other people to try their hand, because the equipment I’m using is by no means state-of-the-art or even particularly expensive. In fact, let me make a little list:

  • Camcorder, admittedly near the top of the consumer range, but still a bargain at about €1000;
  • Shotgun microphone, €100;
  • Cheap lapel microphone, about €10 (I bought it so long ago, I really can’t remember);
  • Tripod, €50;
  • Video editing software, €100.
I would really love a better tripod that will allow me to pan smoothly (mine doesn’t) and a semi-pro camera of the sort that you carry on your shoulder, but I don’t have €10,000 lying around so that’s not going to happen just yet.

And yet I have successfully created something I feel justified in asking money for. Pretty good going for an outlay of less than €1300 and no formal training of any kind. And I daresay that with a much cheaper camera, it should be possible — just a bit harder — to create something not too shabby: you just have to understand your camera’s limitations and find ways of overcoming them.

And to be honest, I do sometimes wonder why people feel the need to spend serious money on expensive video editing software like Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere. If, like me, you’re an amateur, you don’t need all the random whistles and bells that come with it. What you need — at least, what I need — is multiple tracks (I have 99, I have only ever used about ten), an intuitive user interface, and tools to tweak the image for those occasions when a reflector was necessary but not available (I have learned to love the way I can lighten shadows without affecting the rest of the image too much, although there is a limit to what you can get away with before it starts to look artificial).

So, in conclusion: You can’t tell me that the reason you’re not making videos is because you can’t afford to buy lots of expensive things.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shiny new YouTube features

Once in a while, I get the chance to make a video for YouTube, which is nice of them. Or nice of me, perhaps, but I have ulterior motives: they bring more views which bring more cash. And you thought I was being altruistic.

In any case, this one introduces a whole range of updates which constituted a big, big project which got delayed again and again, which is always the way of big projects wherever they are. Finally it went live, and I have this mental image of YouTube engineers, haggard from worry and lack of sleep, collapsing exhausted among congealing slices of pizza and dirty coffee-cups, their heroic leader opening one eye to murmur, “Never again…” before falling back into a deep slumber.

Of course, the nightmare isn’t over yet, as soon all the bug reports will come rolling in to shatter this moment of temporary resolution.

There is always the chance that I simply have an overactive imagination.

Here’s the YouTube Creator Blog announcement. And here is the video:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The end of an era

Pretty soon, Berlin’s historic Tegel airport will close, to coincide with the opening of the new Berlin Brandenburg airport.

I say “pretty soon”, but of course it won’t be until the beginning of June.

I say “historic”, but of course Berlin Tegel airport was opened a little while after the Second World War as a sort of a stop-gap, desparately bolted together on a field in the north of the city. It was only ever half-completed (literally: the original plans were for a second terminal, a mirror-image of the first, to be built, but when additional terminals came, they were hastily constructed out of what looked like laminated cardboard in the last couple of years in what could be described as Tegel’s terminal phase). What there was of it was designed so that passengers would only have to walk very short distances, which is why the airport was chronically overcrowded, with queues at the check-in desks obstructing the main concourse. Worryingly, the airport carried a secondary title — a concept unique to the German-speaking world — honouring Otto Lilienthal, one of the pioneers of powered flight, but also the first aviator in history to stall his plane and die in the resulting crash.

Lufthansa is planning to officially say goodbye to Tegel about ten days before it actually closes by allowing an A380 to circle above the aiport.

Not land, apparently: circle above it, unless I’ve misunderstood something. Or rather, circle above the city, since a plane of that size has a fairly large turning circle. Tegel, I believe, isn’t big enough for an A380, and Berlin Brandenburg won’t be open, so I’m not sure what they’re planning to do with the A380 once it’s circled. One assumes — hopes, certainly — that they won’t attempt to re-enact Lilienthal’s last flight.

To make the whole thing even more pointless (or less pointful?), the mayor of Berlin will name the plane “Berlin”. Suddenly, it becomes clear what all these civil servants are doing who earn three quarters of a million euros sitting in an office for 14 years: they’re not actually doing nothing, they’re being held in reserve should the need arise for a little brainstorming.

“Okay, chaps,” a schoolmasterly mandarin will say (although in German, obviously), “this is your big moment. We’re closing down Berlin’s principle airport. We need to mark the event somehow. What can you come up with?”

After a lot of civil service headscratching, a brave soul tables a suggestion. “How about we get the biggest plane we can find, fly it to Berlin, but we don’t let it land. To symbolize the lack of airport,”

“An interesting idea,” says the mandarin. “But can we think of a way to emphasize the connection with Berlin?”

A few minutes of finger-drumming and distracted humming ensue, until a nervous little man raises a hand. “Do you think,” he ventures, “we could get the mayor to give it a whack with a bottle of champagne?”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Well, he said it.

G√ľnter Grass is no stranger to controversy. An artist, sculptor and writer, he admitted in 2006 that he had once been a member of the Waffen-SS. He was 17, and thus quite likely somewhat naive, but at a time when large numbers of people had been brainwashed by a regime that knew how to use propaganda to win friends and influence people. He seems to have been trying to atone for this, founding an organisation to further the interests of the Sinti and Roma (that is, “Gypsies”), and lending his official support to a campaign for gay and lesbian partnerships to be given the same rights as heterosexual marriages. He is keen to be seen to be supporting at least two groups persecuted by the Nazis.

But never mind that, because he has thrown it all away by publishing a poem called Was gesagt werden muss (“What must be said”). And now all hell has broken loose.

It’s not a great poem, and it’s full of self-important guff about why he has decided to write this now with his “last ink”. Actually, as a poem, it’s as abysmal as you’d expect of a poem that contains phrases like “growing nuclear potential”; but this isn’t the reason it’s caused a fuss.

In short, the poem criticizes the state of Israel for, as he sees it, developing a nuclear threat to deal with, as he sees it, a non-existant threat from Iran. He does have a slightly over-simplistic grasp of foreign policy, does our Herr Grass, but as far as the state of Israel is concerned, the important thing is that a former SS officer is saying nasty things about Israel, and this should not be tolerated.

Even Grass’s critics (the non-Israeli ones, that is) appear to have been taken aback by the reaction. That he has been branded an “antisemite” comes as no shock to anyone, least of all to Grass, whose offending poem actually contains the line, “The verdict ‘antisemitism’ is prevelant.” I did mention the fact that this wasn’t a terribly good poem, didn’t I?

Israel’s politicians are up in arms about this. He has been declared persona non grata. The foreign minister has accused him of wanting to “sacrifice Jews on the altar of antisemitism”. There have been calls for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize.

Now, the problem here is that Grass hasn’t been saying nasty things about Jews, which would be antisemitism. He has been criticizing Israeli foreign policy. The two things should not be confused. There is no doubt that Jews have historically fared very badly, and that this came to a head in the Third Reich. There is no doubt that antisemitism, along with other forms of racism, still exists. But to cry racism every time government policy is attacked is immature and cynical. Much of what Grass says may be completely wrong, but what it isn’t is antisemitic. Israel — and it’s important to note that I am here talking about Israel as a nation state, and not Jews as a race — appears to be seeking carte blanche on the grounds that they once suffered terribly.

This is no way to prove that you are a nation worthy of international respect. It is true that various Arab nations in the region have acted appallingly, but Israel has not exactly been a paragon of virtue either.

When people complain that, for example, Britain has no right to the Falkland Islands, I don’t take that as an insult to my culture, heritage or religion. It is a criticism of what my government is doing — in my name, granted, but not because I told them to. Usually, critics understand that; crucially, I understand that the critics understand that. I can agree or disagree, but I can’t cry “anti-Britishism” and expect that to settle the argument. I have, in my time, criticized America of a lot of wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop them from letting me into their country last year.

So let me put this as clearly as I can: We shouldn’t tolerate isms. But we must have the freedom to criticize governments. There is no room on this planet for a nation that thinks it has the right to do as it pleases on the grounds that their parents and grandparents were once persecuted.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Back to earth

No, I am not in fact in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic. Although, if I’m honest, I would have been great as a Star Trek baddie.

I actually didn’t expect anyone to seriously believe me, but a few comments I’ve had suggested some might have done — although I’m torn between believing that they did believe it, and believing that they were just playing along.

Sorry about the rough greenscreening, but I wasn’t paying too much attention to production standards.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I have finally made it!

Yes, the big day approaches, and fame and fortune beckon. To be honest, I was finding it difficult to keep this under wraps, because this is such monumental news… but you have to be careful what you say, if you don’t want to scupper your chances.