If you look closely at my friend Drew Olbrich, you might notice something strange about him. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but: the part of Drew you can see is just an infinitesimal slice of a much higher-dimensional being.
To give the rest of us a sense of what it’s like to be him, Drew’s written a nifty little app (for your iPhone or iPad) called The Fourth Dimension. Give it a spin, and see if it doesn’t thicken your mind up just a little bit.
Following up on yesterday’s post about higher frame rates in movies, there’s another question looming. If high frame rates catch on industry-wide, what will it mean for animators?
We won’t really know for sure until the movies start coming out. But we can guess. There are televisions on the market that will play movies at 120fps regardless of how the movie was shot. They do this by creating the inbetween frames automatically, in real time. (How exactly it’s done, I’m not sure, but it’s probably some sort of optical flow technique, like Twixtor.) When you see this done to a live action movie shot at 24fps, the effect is impressive: movement really does feel incredibly smooth, and the strobing/juddering problem is minimal. But if you watch an animated movie on one of these TVs, the results are not good. Timing that felt snappy at 24fps feels mushy at 120. Eyes look bizarre during blinks. And don’t get me started on smear frames.
Of course, this is just a machine trying its best to interpolate frames according to some fixed set of rules. Animators will be able to make more intelligent choices, which of course it’s our job to do. But that’s where it gets interesting. How many frames should a blink take at 120fps? What’s the upper limit on how snappy a move can be, if you can potentially get from one pose to another in a mere 8 milliseconds? It could open up new creative possibilities too. Take staggers for example: at 24fps, if you want something to vibrate really quickly, your only option is to do it “on ones” (that is, alternating single frames). But at 120fps, you could potentially have staggers vibrating on anything from ones to fives. How will those different speeds feel to the audience?
One thing seems pretty certain: animating at 120fps would be a lot more work. For animators who agonize over every frame, it will mean five times the agony. It will certainly mean more reliance on computer assistance: more spline interpolation, fewer hand-crafted inbetweens, and forget about hand-drawing every frame! I look forward to hearing animators’ stories from the trenches on Hobbit. Will they find 48fps twice as hard, or more, or less? What tricks will they have to invent to make their job manageable?
There’s been some discussion brewing among certain filmmakers about the impact of making movies that play faster than the current standard of 24 frames per second. Peter Jackson is shooting The Hobbit at 48fps, and others are reportedly experimenting with rates like 60 or even 120.
Mixed into the discussion are some really deep misconceptions about how vision and perception actually work. People are saying things like “the human eye perceives at 60fps”. This is simply not true. You can’t quantify the “frame rate” of the human eye, because perception doesn’t work that way. It’s not discrete, it’s continuous. There is, literally, no frame rate that is fast enough to match our experience of reality. All we can do, in frame-by-frame media, is to try to get closer.
The problem is that our eyes, unlike cameras, don’t stay put. They’re active, not passive. They move around in direct response to what they are seeing. If you watch an object moving past you, your eyes will rotate smoothly to match the speed of the thing you’re looking at. If what you’re looking at is real, you will perceive a sharp, clear image of that thing. But if it’s a movie made of a series of discrete frames, you will perceive a stuttering, ghosted mess. This is because, while your eyes move smoothly, each frame of what you’re watching is standing still, leaving a blurry streak across your retina as your eyes move past it, which is then replaced by another blurry streak in a slightly different spot, and so on. This vibrating effect is known as “strobing” or “judder”.
Applying camera-based effects like motion blur only makes the mess look worse. Now, your stuttering ghosted multiple image becomes a stuttering, ghosted blurry multiple image. (The emphasis on motion blur is particularly bad in VFX-heavy action movies, which is why I try to sit near the back.)
Filmmakers tend to work around this problem by using the camera itself as a surrogate for our wandering eye: tracking what’s important so that it effectively stays put (and therefore sharp) in screen space. But you can’t track everything at once, and a movie where nothing ever moves would be very dull indeed.
I am pretty sure there is no frame rate fast enough to completely solve this problem. However, the faster the frame rate, the less blurring and strobing you’ll experience as your eyes track moving objects across the screen. So I am extremely curious to see what Jackson’s Hobbit looks like at 48fps.
There’s a second problem here, which is cultural. My entire generation was raised on high quality feature films at 24 frames, and poorer-quality television (soap operas, local news) at 60 fields per second. As a result, we tend to associate the slower frame rate with quality. Commercial and TV directors caught on to this decades ago, and started shooting at 24fps to try to get the “film look”. How will we perceive a movie that’s shot at 48fps? Will it still feel “cheap” to us? And what about the next generation, raised on video games that play at much higher frame rates? What cultural baggage will they bring into the theater with them?
I was home sick from work today, too sick to talk or really get out of bed and do anything– but fortunately not too sick to tap on a keyboard for a while. So I cracked open my long-neglected laptop and downloaded the latest version of Processing, which for those of you who don’t know it, is a really cool programming environment designed for artists. It’s a great big toybox full of fun gadgets, with plenty of examples to crib from, so you can just start with something interactive right away, and tinker with it until it does what you want–or does something completely unexpected.
It’s funny, because I was just talking with a friend the other day about watercolor, and how the happy accidents are what make that medium so much fun. We were comparing it to our day jobs in computer animation, where everything that happens is deliberate (not to mention expensive.) So it’s nice to see that happy accidents can happen in the computer once in a while too.
Neuroscientist Olympia Colizoli has done an interesting experiment where she tried inducing synaesthesia in non-synaesthetes:
To test the idea, they gave seven volunteers a novel to read in which certain letters were always written in red, green, blue or orange (see picture). Before and after reading the book, the volunteers took a “synaesthetic crowding” test, in which they identified the middle letter of a grid of black letters which were quickly flashed onto a screen. Synaesthetes perform better on the test when a letter they experience in colour is the target letter.
The volunteers performed significantly better on this test after training compared with people who read the novel in black and white.
I’m curious as to how significant the effect turned out to be for non-synaesthetes. (I also wonder: what was the novel? Something by Nabokov maybe? ;-) Unfortunately I can’t find Colizoli’s data on line anywhere, as her research appears to have been presented as a conference poster session rather than a full publication. But hopefully we’ll be hearing more about this in the near future…
Update: You can read a more detailed abstract of Colizoli’s experiment over at synesthesia.info.
Digging through some old archives, I found this picture, which sums up one of the frustrating aspects of colored-letter synaesthesia. There are so many colored letters in the world, but to any synesthete, most of them will be wrong. I actually sorted through this entire bin of foam letters to pull out the ones that are colored correctly according to my synesthetic map. It’s the tiny pile on the right. Yes, that’s all of them.
Asemic is a magazine of asemic writing, or writing without semantic content. It’s full of fun peripheral glyphery, little black-and-white shadows of nonsense coming out of the fog. The individual pieces are hit or miss, but the variety is wonderful.
I never knew there was a word for it, but asemic writing is something I’ve loved for years. The fact is, I love the form of language more than its content. It’s why I like foreign accents, and listening to languages I don’t understand. It’s why I spent so much time in college listening to Cocteau Twins. It’s one of the main reasons I love graffiti. My first Burning Man project was an exercise in asemic writing and speech.
I started speaking in tongues on the subway in New York in high school. Acting like a crazy person is an effective strategy for dealing with certain tricky situations. And it was fun to watch people try to guess where I was from. But over time, it became something I would do for my own enjoyment, even when nobody else was around. It was just a joy to be able to speak without having to mean anything. All the beauty of form without the burden of content. It was comforting, like a dog’s chin resting warmly on your knee, not saying anything in particular, just existing.
an almost completely asemic piece by San Francisco writer APEX.
I’ve also noticed a trend towards asemic writing among some of my favorite graffiti writers. While most start their artistic lives with the written word, there’s always an abstract component, and there comes a point in certain writers’ development where the abstraction takes over completely. Maybe they feel the same attraction to meaninglessness that I do.
So, while going through this whole website restoration process, I discovered that Google’s search engine (funny how you have to be specific about that, now that Google is no longer just a search engine…) seemed to have completely forgotten this site ever existed. If you searched for “Cassidy Curtis” or “how to make a baby” or even “otherthings.com”, you’d find no results whatsoever on this domain. Zero. Considering that a few weeks ago this site was the top search result for all of those phrases, that seemed pretty weird. But I figured it was just because our server had crashed, and it was taking Google’s spiders some time to crawl back over to my little corner of the web.
The truth turns out to be a bit creepier.
I only found out the true nature of the problem by visiting Google’s webmaster tools, where I found an anonymous message dated October 20th, explaining what had happened. The message was sent to nobody, or maybe it was sent to my old email address, the one that died with my old server. At any rate, I never received it. But Google being the ultimate data hoarder, it archived it, and it was waiting for me when I identified myself as the owner of this domain.
Here’s what I learned: Remember a few years ago, when my blog got hacked? Well, the hacker in question used this blog’s machinery (Movable Type, at the time) to plant a nasty little trove of fake web pages advertising all the usual types of internet snake oil, the kind of stuff that usually gets caught in your spam filter. Well, when I switched over to WordPress, I never bothered to delete the old files, I just moved them to a different location, figuring that would break any incoming links and neutralize the problem. (I know, bad idea, right? This is why you should never let me be your sysadmin.) It didn’t work. Somehow, said hacker managed to find the files, and keep using them for their nefarious purposes.
The files were full of sleazy code that did things like: showing one thing to human visitors and an entirely different thing to search engines. Google doesn’t like that. So it reacted, in its anonymous, machine-like way, the only way it knows to respond: it removed otherthings.com entirely from its search engine. Harsh! Luckily, Google lets webmasters appeal that decision once they’ve fixed the problem. They said “it may take several weeks for your site to show up in search again”, but in actuality it only took a day.
Why was this creepy? Because it revealed just how much power this one corporation has over the shape of how we communicate. If you displease Google, it can make you disappear.
So, about a year ago, a few things happened. We bought a house. We moved to the suburbs. I started working on a new movie. Our kid turned two. And this blog ceased to exist. I’ll spare you the details, mainly because I don’t understand them, but it had something to do with a bad database, or gnomes, or sunspots. Maybe all of the above.
They say that being a parent really changes your priorities. What that means in practice is, you have an incredible excuse to be lazy about anything not directly related to your kids. Awesome! So the blog remained dead.
Then, last week, things got a little worse: the machine with the dead database crashed altogether, taking all of my web sites with it. Basically, the Internet forgot I existed. This was a little too much to take. So, I dug up my poorly maintained backups, found a new web host, and set to work making things right.
A lot of interesting things have happened in the past year, things I would have blogged about if I could have. So you might start seeing backdated posts popping up here and there. Be nice and pretend I really posted them on the “published” date, would you?
Cassidy Curtis's splendid display of colorful things.