tishaturk: (OTW)
[personal profile] tishaturk
On Monday, June 4, I testified in this year's hearings about exemptions to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Rebecca Tushnet is doing her usual comprehensive write-ups of panels and has already posted her notes from our panel. What I'm posting here are my own notes from which I spoke; as usual, I sort of riffed as I went, so the official transcript, when published, will be slightly different. I've also added, in [brackets], a few comments, elaborations, and clarifications.

I introduced myself and explained my Official Credentials, and then I began...

I’m also a vidder myself, and that’s the perspective from which I’ll be speaking today. Professor Tushnet and Professor Coppa have spoken about the legal and cultural aspects of remix video; I’m going to talk about aesthetic and technical concerns.

There are two main points that I want to make: 1) Vidders need high quality source for both rhetorical and aesthetic reasons. 2) The screencapture solution posed at the May 11 Tech Day hearings doesn’t work.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, we were all accustomed to fuzzy images: VHS tapes of LA Law or Twin Peaks recorded on SLP, maybe recorded over multiple times. Even now, we’re still used to seeing fuzzy images in certain contexts: We’ve all seen streaming video on YouTube that’s kind of blurry or grainy: cat videos, dancing babies, whatever. Those kinds of videos are essentially home movies, and most of us are still pretty forgiving about mediocre quality in home movies. But when it comes to commercial media, our standards have changed. People start to lose their tolerance for fuzzy versions once they’ve seen TV shows and movies on DVD or Blu-Ray on a 46" or 55" hi-def TV or for that matter a good 23" computer monitor. Even streaming services like Netflix have improved dramatically in quality in the last few years. What this means is that when people see bad versions of good source, they might quite reasonably hit the back button.

So if I want to comment on or critique or even celebrate Lost or Mad Men or True Blood or whatever, I need high quality source. I need it in order to communicate to my audience, and I need it in order to make something that meets my own artistic standards.

With that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about why some of the procedures suggested by the opponents of Class 7 won’t work. I’d love to be able to talk about their suggestion that I use my smart phone to record DVDs, but I can’t because I don’t have a smart phone to test it with. I watched the video of the Tech Day hearings, and when David Taylor described smart phones as "pretty ubiquitous" I got all excited and went and looked in my bag, but alas, all I had was the same old not-smart phone. Apparently Mr. Taylor was using a special definition of "ubiquitous" that means "omnipresent 33% of the time."

So let’s talk about screen capture software. When I watched Tim Short’s demo at the Tech Day hearings, I was really impressed by how easy it made the capture process.

I should back up here for a moment to explain, for those of you who haven’t done it, that preparing ripped DVD footage for editing is a pretty complicated process. When I rip a DVD, I get a .vob file, which my editing software can’t handle directly. So I have to feed the vob file through an indexing program that makes my editing software think it’s working with an .avi file. Then I have to deinterlace the file. Do you all know what interlacing is? [Shockingly, they did not.] I don’t have time to explain it now, you can ask me during the Q&A if you want details, but the short version is that motion pictures are interlaced or telecined for showing on a TV, and they have to be deinterlaced or reverse telecined somehow before they can be edited. There are several ways of doing this; I do it by writing a little piece of code called a script. These days DVDs are usually encoded anamorphically. Do you guys know what that means? [Once again, they did not.] The short version is that the image comes out stretched vertically, so it has to be resized—either stretched horizontally or squished vertically—to have the correct aspect ratio. Then the file has to be clipped somehow, because you can’t just throw a two-hour movie or an hour-long episode of TV on a timeline—or, well, I guess you could, but it would be silly. And I have to do all this boring and complicated prepwork for every single disc I want to use, even if I only want to use three seconds from it.

So when I saw the screencapture demo, I thought, Wow, that could save me a ton of work.

Then I actually tried it.

The problem is that the process is easy, but the results are terrible.

When you think about it, it makes sense that the results are bad: these programs are intended to capture still images or for low-framerate tutorial videos; the top-reviewed capture programs generally don’t mention DVD capture in their product descriptions. [Specifically, they self-identify as allowing the user to make demo videos (Snagit); "[capture] on-screen images you want to include in manuals, training handouts, presentations, marketing materials, and web pages" (FullShot); "produce dynamic instructional videos; record PowerPoint presentations, websites, webcams, and software demos; edit screencasts to perfection" (Camtasia).]

But Tim Short’s Tech Day demo [demo starts at about 1:04:30] used Replay Video Capture [which I refuse to link to because OMG no], which does bill itself as being able to capture DVDs. So that’s what I used in the examples I’m going to show you. Tim Short talked about the tech; I want to talk about the results.

So here’s what I did: I captured the first ten minutes of the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie using Replay Video Capture. I captured at 24 frames per second, since that’s what I get when I rip a DVD. And then I ripped the same ten-minute scene and pulled some individual frames and put them side by side to compare them. That’s what we’re looking at here: the captured footage is on top and the ripped footage is on the bottom.

When we look at these two frames, we don’t see much difference, because this is from a shot with minimal motion and low light contrast, and screen capture actually does a decent job with those shots. Think back to Tim Short’s example from the May 11 hearings: he used a scene from the movie Gattaca that’s essentially sepia-toned talking heads. That scene may be okay for prompting a discussion about ethics in a high school biology class, but visually it’s about as interesting as a bowl of oatmeal. Once you try to capture scenes where people and objects are moving or where there’s high contrast or bright light, you start to see problems:

The blocky effect you see here is called pixellation: the total video data has been reduced by converting color gradations into blocks of solid color; for example, 16 pixels of slightly different colors might become a 16-pixel block of a single color.

Here’s the thing: We often think of making digital copies as simply duplicating, and sometimes this is true: copy an .mp3 from your computer to your .mp3 player, you get an exact copy. If I send you guys a copy of a .ppt file I have on my computer, you now have the exact same file I do. Editing video is different. When you save video—when you export video, when you compress video—you lose quality. It’s like a photocopier: if you make a photocopy of a book, and then a copy of the copy, and then a copy of that copy... It may still be recognizable, but the quality goes down noticeably. Think about what Jim Morissette said at the previous panel about losing frames. I’m going to quote here directly from the Microsoft website’s explanation of digital video compression and recommendation for editing practices: "Every time you save your file in a lossy file format, it discards more of the data—even if you're saving it in the same format. A good rule of thumb is to move to a lossy format only as the very final step in your project." [Note: this quote is from an older version of the Microsoft WMM help files, and the page is no longer available; I really should have pointed to the Wikipedia page about video compression.]

So converting video means losing quality. If the original quality is good, this is a manageable loss. If the original quality is not good, things get ugly. I took the frames from the previous example and cropped and resized them to get a closeup on the character’s face:

This is what we mean when we say garbage in, garbage out: As someone who has been using powerful video editing programs for ten years now, I am here to tell you that there is nothing I can do to fix that top image. It’s easy to degrade source quality but nearly impossible to improve it. If I start from an image this compromised, I can’t say what I want to say, either because people won’t watch or because they literally won’t be able to see what I’m trying to do.

The point I want to stress is that in this movie—and by extension most of the movies that get vidded—screen capture will get you acceptable quality on only a small fraction of the frames. I mean, I had to actively look for a shot that was not aggressively pixellated. I scrubbed through the entire ten-minute opening scene, and I found... that clip, and one other (another low-contrast shot: tiny ship moving slowly through dark space). If you take a look at the OTW’s test suite of vids, you’ll see that while vidders do use some relatively still shots, we also use a lot of shots where things are moving, or the camera itself is moving, or there’s high light contrast and bright flashes. If I’m limited to using the clips that screen capture renders decently, then I can’t vid. Unless, apparently, I want to vid the most visually boring scene in Gattaca. The whole point of vidding a show rather than writing an essay about the show is to use the visuals—that’s the value of multimedia speech.

[At this point we showed a bit of the side-by-side comparison video I made; the embed code isn't working for me on DW/LJ, but you can find it at that link—it's the first video on the page as of this posting date. Personally, I think things get really interesting around the 1:00 mark. Watch things pixellate as they travel left (ripped) to right (captured) across the screen!]

After working through this exercise, I was more confused than ever by the argument that screen capture should be good enough for me. If the quality of screen capture’s so great, I would think that it would be a terrific technology for piracy. In fact, as we can see, the quality is not great—or at least, it’s not good enough for my purposes. As a consumer, I guess I could tolerate a screencaptured version of a movie, though I can’t imagine why I would; I’d rather just watch the actual DVD. But as an artist, I can’t work with the terrible-quality results of screen captured source.

I want to conclude by noting that using high quality source doesn’t guarantee that I’m going to communicate successfully or that I’m going to create great art. Anybody who’s seen much art knows that there is a lot of professional art that is ineffective or just plain bad, to say nothing of amateur art like the noncommercial remix I do. I myself have made some pretty bad vids; there’s a reason I’m an English professor and not a professional artist. But I have also made some good vids, vids I’m proud of, vids that my community has responded to really well. If I fail as an artist, I want it to be because I failed, not because I was forbidden to use the tools that I need.

There were a few moments from the Q&A about which I hope to post in the next day or so, because they were this amazing blend of offensive and hilarious—the short version is that one of the industry lawyers attempted to mansplain video capture and frame size to me and I got to actually say the sentence "Well, the problem with that is that it's not true." But more on that anon.
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tishaturk: (Default)
Tisha Turk

November 2016

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