“Civilisation” — Nature diaries, part 4

Nature diaries is an ongoing collection of five short films, often not spanning more than three minutes in length, which explore select ideas in a raw and organic, yet subtle, manner. These are shot entirely handheld and in natural light, with no setup whatsoever.

This means I need to be prepared when something is happening, not after the fact; and this often leads to some funny situations: since I enjoy photographing everything, people start to think I do this because I am excited by it, and they are right. But they fail to realise why I am excited by it: it is not that I have never seen that thing before (I probably have) but because every time I look at it, I see it as a new work of art.

I photograph roads. Sometimes I spend several minutes rooted to one spot trying to capture the graininess of a road or the wave white lines running along it in an artistic manner. This is construed as my awe with roads because I have not seen such roads before.

On the one hand this is outrageous and, if anything, shows the other person’s complete lack of knowledge of globalisation; but, to me, this proves to be very entertaining. This was what I experienced when I set out to film for the fourth part of the Nature diaries collection, titled “Civilisation”.

And that was understandable. Why would anybody pick up their camera and film a random street? The obvious conclusion drawn was something like, “he hasn’t seen such streets where he comes from”. (Guess what, even if I come from Tristan de Cunha, I still have internet access these days.) But what most failed to see was the composition(ally?), photographically, geometrically rich few seconds or simply a fascinating synchronisation in things.

But that is not all I hoped to capture here. Smaller things come into the picture: juxtaposing cycles with motor vehicles, chronicling the darker, graffiti-ridden side of an otherwise beautiful city, organisation, people in the very middle of their everyday lives, always looking for something interesting to do or say, the hustle, the calm, the shady, the sunny, the dreamy, the extraordinary and the same old white picket fences everybody still craves.

Here is the final result:

VHBsign

 

(P.S. When I started off with the nature diaries, I only had ideas for four parts which means I am open to any topic you can pick for the fifth and final installment. Do take a look at the entire collection as of now to get a better idea as to the kind of topics we explore through Nature diaries.)

Film review: “Lake Tahoe”

One of Fernando Eimbcke’s earlier feature films, Lake Tahoe, almost disappeared from mainstream cinema alongside some better known films that came out that same year on the international stage (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Quantum of Solace, Indiana Jones: the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

That is something very unfortunate, because Lake Tahoe, at the very least, is a stark contrast to all these big budget commercial works in that it is truly a work of art.

Despite what many might argue is an excruciatingly slow, somewhat motionless film, I believe that that is exactly where Lake Tahoe’s strength lies. Right from the very first, lengthy, action-free still that opens the film, Mr Eimbcke’s intention is pretty loud and clear.

Screenshot courtesy of Slant magazine

As I can recall off-hand while I pen this review, the entire film is shot more like a series of carefully thought, beautifully composed photographs with a single moving subject right up to the point where the camera starts rolling in a dolly alongside Diego Cataño’s disturbed teen on his way to a mechanic’s.

The film literally begins with a bang. Juan has hit his car onto a light pole. And for every passing moment then on, we give ourselves to Mr Eimbcke’s patient story-telling. One mechanic shop to another; one person to another.

EVERY FRAME ACTS LIKE A PLAYGROUND LETTING [EIMBCKE'S] ACTORS BECOME PAWNS IN THE DIRECTOR’S INVESTIGATION OF LIFE.

Back home, our protagonist, Juan’s, mother is depressed, having locked herself in the bathroom. Joaquin, Juan’s younger brother, in his tent, is perhaps most oblivious to their father’s passing if his scrapbook right at the end is no indication.

Every incident in this story of life itself is designed to teach Juan something about his on-going attempt to face his father’s death. At first he refuses, tries to get away, but that is not an option, and he learns that very gently, almost as if only Mr Eimbcke’s wide shots could.

The film starts by feeling more like a series of photographs interspersed with long black screens during which the viewer is left to visualise the film the way they want to, supported only by a continuing audio. Every frame acts like a playground letting his actors become pawns in the director’s investigation of life. This is truly something that has to be seen.

But the film, just like life, is also made up of small things: Hector Herrera’s talented portrayal of Don Heber letting go of his dog, Sica; or, in better times, Heber and Sica sharing a bowl of cereal in synchronisation; Lucia’s missing the concert; David’s Bruce Lee obsession; and the fridge, which, seemingly like everything else in Juan’s life, is broken.

Screenshot courtesy of Bryan Schutmaat

Lake Tahoe is not a film to be missed. Between Baz Luhrman’s heavily CGI-dependent The Great Gatsby which decided to take its own path away from the book, and Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Wolf of Wallstreet, Lake Tahoe definitely leans towards Wolf…’s organic tone making it a match to these much newer films for any connoisseur. As for Gatsby itself, now that we mention it, nobody who has actually read the book can be satisfied with the film that looked like Mr Luhrman’s own creation.

The only thing nagging me was the film’s title. Lake Tahoe — or water itself, for that matter — has little to do with this film, so where does the title fit in except for that obscure reference to a Lake Tahoe bumper sticker Juan’s aunt had sent them and that his father hated. I suppose some things are truly rhetoric devices even in films.

To formally sum it all up: Tahoe is a moving, captivating film that only demands you give a lot more of your time to it than you would expect. It deserves a good 4/5 because, at times, it left me wanting an ever so slightly inconspicuous camera presence in the hall.

Sometimes, you realise a camera is there, other times, you are pulled into a vortex of uncanny, yet appealing, film making, like when Mr Eimbcke makes you watch Juan sitting still in a car and turns off his camera when the traffic lights turn green, or when he does that again every time somebody closes the car door.

This is one of those films you end up loving or hating with a passion. I, for one, loved it.

VHBsign

Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

A long thirst well quenched!

On 11/11/11 Tintin released here in India and I soon realised there was hardly any movie I had waited so eagerly to watch, ever. I first came across Tintin as a kid of very few years of age and—like so many others around the globe—found it impossible to leave the fandom. A few years later, I wished I could watch Tintin on the silver screen. This was in the last millenium. Today, that wish came true!

Now this is not a review or a critique, merely my thoughts on the Spielberg-Jackson venture which few, if any, expected to be bad. First things first: I shall try to go in order.

The characters have eyes!

Alright I had noticed this in the trailers. Something had seemed wrong. A while later when I took out one of my Tintin cartoons from my collection, I realised that Herge drew the characters with mere dots for eyes.

Tintin happens to be blue-eyed. While this does not spoil anything and while Jackson was right in deciding to go for stop-motion animation as opposed to a live action film, what disappointed me was that all the pivotal characters were not present.

To be precise, Prof Calculus is absent

That is right. Cuffbert Calculus is absent. What was Spielberg thinking? Perhaps, now that I look back at the film, I see Calculus would have hardly fit in; but Steven Moffat is one of those writer-geniuses who I’m sure could have worked out a plot to fit Calculus into it.

Snowy was entirely animated and some actors (Craig and Serkis) happen to play two characters and the entire thing comes out flawlessly. I could not think of a better substitute for Bell to play Tintin.

To me, Jamie Bell was an unheard of actor. I never knew him before The Eagle. I later recognised him in Jumper when I watched it a second time on television; then in the more recent Jane Eyre. In fact, I had no idea the boy was in King Kong (2005) either! Well, I will not say much now except that Man on a Ledge is a film I await.

Andy Serkis’ accent, Thomson and Thompson

Now Serkis’ accent (for Capn Haddock) was as new as actress Kim Stengel, who plays the Captain’s favourite, Bianca Castafiore. I have heard to (got accustomed to) Haddock’s voice in the animated films and the rolling of the R’s in the films seemed a tad difficult to put up with, but the smooth performance by a man whose face is, unfortunately, often hidden from the camera (Remember Gollum?) made it truly likeable.

That said, Moffat’s mixing up Herge’s three stories (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure) was brilliant. It was nice that, while I could identify almost all bits and pieces from the three stories, I was waiting to see where he has deviated from one to add stuff from another.

British comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost make a remarkable detective duo. Although I did feel they had put on a little weight from the comics to films, they were quite the lovable characters Herge meant them to be.

The Original Comics

Perhaps it was right then, as Herge put it, that Spielberg alone could bring Tintin to the screen while doing justice to the original comic works. This was back in the 1980s when Speilberg was to have met the Belgian writer but could not as he passed away just that week. Herge’s widow gave Speilberg the rights and over two decades later the director seems to have put it to good use. At least I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What I wish to see are few: the opening train sequence from the animated films and the Tintin theme music from those shows seemed to have become the norm among all Tintin fans and I expected to see that in the film; but, like Ccalculus, perhaps we will have to wait for a second part. Or perhaps, unlike the Professor, these will never come?

Time will tell. In the meanwhile, perhaps I will go again the coming week! All in all, the characters got a whole new dimension of theirs (no pun intended) and it was a pleasure to watch. I only hope Peter Jackson will not delay too much in bringing out the sequel.

And I hope it releases first here. Again.

Guide to buying a digital point and shoot camera

Or, how I bought a great camera and how you can too!

There are way too many p&s cameras out there in the market and almost everybody seems to portray their products as more worthy a buy than another. But how much can we bend before we break?

I faced the same problem when I was contemplating on which camera to buy, and after a few weeks’ repeated consideration which required quite a lot of endurance, I finally ordered one. But I learned an extensive lot in the process: terms I never new existed, stuff I never knew mattered and more stuff I never knew meant nothing. And most importantly, what one’s itinerary ought to be on the map of confusion that is the market of cameras. So this is my two cents on what you ought to consider when you buy the next digital camera. Rest assured I have covered everything there is in this brief, yet informative, guide filled with all you need to know. Plus my own experience from a few days ago!

Is what I have now not good enough?

Perhaps the first question one needs to ask themselves is whether they need  a digital camera at all. A few good reasons you can convince yourself is because the images are output digitally, which means they are easier to handle and you do not have to wait for an entire reel of film to run out before you develop it (if you really like to hold it physically.)
That said, and if you already have a digital camera or a mode of shooting digitally  (I had my smartphone) do you need a new one? Again, a few good reasons might be that you need better picture quality than your lousy phone can give you, or maybe you want to pursue photography as a mainstream hobby and cannot afford (or do not want) a dSLR, so a p&s is a better option. Or maybe you have got better with photography and want to explore a world where your camera allows a tad more of those envious manual settings than can make or break an image—and only you are to blame. But it is fun nonetheless.

The main advantage of a digital camera is that it is handy and cuts out all that acutance jargon most people do not understand (and if you did not know, acutance is what the layman calls sharpness.) Even more of a reason would be those preset modes. But these are misleading, as we will later see.

What my camera would need, as opposed to what it would want

So the two main questions before us would be, what are those elements my camera absolutely cannot do without (in other words, would be a waste of an investment.) And those that will not really matter to me.

Megapixels

For new entrants into the camera market, MPs are everything. But the fact of the matter is that they mean nothing unless coupled with a golden leaf. (I will come to that leaf later.)

Megapixels, roughly translating, tells you how big a picture you can get out of a shot you have just taken. Would it be over 4000 pixels by length and height? (About 14MP.) Or just over 1200 either way? (About 5MP, maxed out.) Or, to take it further, will you be able to print out a three foot by four foot framed photograph without losing detail, introducing noise or (to put it loosely) compromising on quality?

[For the curious mind, MegaPixels really means million. Mega is a prefix used in physics, for instance MegaHertz for frequency, Megametre for a million metres or a thousand kilometers and so on. It is one followed by six zeroes and so 6MP really means your image can have up to 6,000,000 pixels—although cameras always have an option to click a picture in any lower pixel density, such as 5 or 4MP, in the settings menu.]

But even these megapixels mean nothing without our golden leaf

Image Sensors

So the image you have before you is not all fitting the LCD Live View screen? Or are those 30MPs seeming like large pixelated tiles while the guy over at the camera store told you it should be smooth as silk, like pictures from an issue of NatGeo? Blame your image sensor.

These little devices have odd looking measurement styles. If you looked at the specifications of any camera, you would find Image Sensors listed as something like 1/6” or 1/5” or moving to dSLRs, 1/1.2” and so on.

While this seems to make perfect sense to any student of photography or physics, the layman might get lost here. The idea is that the larger the Image Sensor, the better the processing is. Take graphics cards, for example: the larger their memory, the better their output. But in case of the Sensors, when we speak of large, we mean it literally.

Take 1/6” and 1/5” for instance: dividing 1 by 6, we get 0.166”; and dividing 1 by 5 we get 0.2”. Clearly, the second one (two tenths of an inch) is larger than the first. Therefore the second Image Sensor is better.

The further gameplan is this: a very small image sensor, like 1/6”, given an elephantine lot of pixels, like 14MP, will be unjust. The tiny thing will not be able to do a good job and the end result will be a noisy photograph. On the other hand, a 1/5” sensor coupled with a 3MP camera is meaningless because the input image itself is not sufficiently sharp. The right combination of these two is therefore extremely necessary.

My Canon PowerShot has a 14.1MP with a 1/2.3” sensor (about 0.45”) which is a good standard. You can perhaps use that to get an idea as to what MP goes with what sensor.

But why do manufacturers still put in such large MPs into cameras? I think it is a marketing gimmick. More than three-fourths of the consumers out there go by MegaPixels and hardly any of them have even heard of Image Sensors. But now you know.

[For those of you who have at some point of time studied electronics and circuitry, the Image Sensors that are of the Charged Couple Device type are generally better. Others might want to look for the CCD marking like ‘1/4” CCD Image Sensor’ on the device specs.]

And the others

You will be surprised to know these are the only things you absolutely must bother about when buying a digital camera. But there are a few optional things which might be interesting to consider should two or three cameras in your budget end in a tie when comparing their MPs and ISs!

Basically, the two points above are a requirement for all; but those hereafter are either optional or are for people with specific requirements. I have them below in the order of preference:

Image Stability: Nobody keeps their camera perfectly still while shooting (although there are a few tricks I, myself, follow to increase stability manually) so a digital (or preferably, optical) electronic image stabilisation feature is an excellent addition for your money.

Optical zoom: If you plan to click pictures from afar, the optical zoom feature is a must. My PowerShot has a 4x zoom in its Canon Zoom (full of awesomeness) lens and I find it sufficient for my needs. However, manufacturers add a digital zoom feature to lure innocent consumers. Find the option that lets you throw it out of the window. Digital zoom merely crops, enlarges and wrecks a part of your photograph so much that you would not even want to take credit for it any day.

Battery type: Often the option in cameras is between two battery types: AA dry cells (NiMH) or rechargable Li-ion. (when I say option, I mean cameras come with either; you cannot choose it yourself!)

The advantage with AA batteries is that there is no headache of charging. Most Nikon p&s cameras adhere to this trend. But, from experience I can assure you that if you do not get the rechargeable AA batteries, you will run out of juice soon. And even if you do, they will not last as long as Li-ion built-in batteries. Moreover, recharging makes no difference with the Li-ion batteries!

The Li-ion batteries are similar to phone batteries and nowadays come with the option of charging them in-camera as opposed to using a second charger to charge them. They also have a USB-charging feature that works best with USB 3.0+ and is considerably fast with lower versions.

Flash: Best if placed on the left of the lens (right, if you view the camera from the front.) This allows for free handling of your right hand which operates the shutter button and prevents your fingers obstructing the flash. Also use Through The Lens flash (or TTL for short) sparingly. Of better use would be the fill flash option if your camera has it, because it uses surrounding environment light as a reflector/intensifier to give you a better picture without clumsy flashes and red-eyes.

[As a side note, remember those guys in the middle of the football stadium, flashing away on their cameras? Well, they were wasting their batteries. Flash is useless beyond a maximum of eight to ten feet. Beyond that, it just consumes your battery and makes no difference to the picture. The advice therefore is, learn when not to use your flash. Parenthetically, make sure your camera has the option to turn off flash when it is not required, just like it has an option to get rid of digital zoom.]

Aperture Priority (Av): This is an indispensable semi-manual mode of shooting. If your camera has this and the Shutter Priority mode (we will come to that soon) then it is a one up. In this, one has the option to manually set the aperture size (like f/5, f/2 and so on—my personal favourite is f/8 which I find perfectly suitable to most situations.) This creates, most commonly, a depth of field. I have yet to put up photographs with varying depths of field on my photography website, and I plan to pick up a few of my older shoots and do so soon.

Depth of field is really the amount of your picture in focus (based on relative distances from the lens.) Now follow this closely: a large aperture number means a small aperture opening; a small aperture opening means the amount of light entering your camera is restricted; less light entry implies a greater depth of field where a large number of objects in the scene are in clear focus. This is best for landscapes.

Now doing just the opposite (small aperture number and so on as I explained above) gives us a small depth of field, or all the objects in the scene are not in focus. To be precise, the nearest one (most often the subject) is in focus. This is particularly helpful in macro (shooting up close) or when the viewers’ attention has to be directed to something in particular, regardless of the background (which almost always gets thoroughly blurred.)

I call this a semi-manual mode (actually, quite a few people do) because, while we control the aperture, the remaining details—most interestingly the shutter speed—which we have to set manually in dSLR cameras, is set by the camera itself. In general the formula, quite understandably, is to go in for a slow shutter speed for larger depths of field.

Shutter Priority (Tv): The other important semi-manual mode where you set the shutter speed manually. This is most useful when photographing moving things, like water, over a split second because this gives a surreal effect most commonly found coupled in HDR photographs (High Dynamic Range imaging: those almost artificial looking vivid coloured photographs some people still think are digitally created.)

Automatic mode: I do not have to put this here, because without this, the concept of a digital camera breaks down. If I still have to explain it, it is that evergreen mode some fellows refuse to switch from where the camera does all the work except clicking the shutter button.

Programme mode: This is actually a non-standard semi-manual mode one finds in select cameras which often lets the user make considerable adjustments in hue, tone, saturation, white balance, contrast, brightness, exposure, ISO and so on. (ISO is the International Organisation for Standardisation which used to set the standards for reel films; but the term has remained in use even for digital cameras and simply suggest what reel quality/standard the particular shot is going to be equivalent to if you were using a film-camera in its place.

I call this a non-standard mode because there is no single definition for this mode in the marketplace. There are even manufacturers who merge this with the automatic mode, disregard it or call the Auto mode as the Programme mode.

Internal and expandable memory: The standard internal memory for a camera nowadays is around 30 to 50 MB. Sufficient for a couple of good quality pictures, insufficient for videos. Anything lesser is bad value for money, although not a prime concern because, whether we wish to or not, buying a digital camera always means buying a memory card along with it!

Make sure you get good option to expand the memory of up to at least 4GB. This optimum amount makes sure your older photos do not get buried if you do not have the habit of regularly formatting your card and clicking tonnes of pictures and experimenting. While this is unanimous industrial standard, some cameras sway away from this rule. And you need to stay out of their path.

Panorama and Movie modes: Useful to most, and an added up to some, these give you the option of shooting films (often up to half an hour) and taking a series of pictures spanning 360 degrees. While some cameras allow you to stitch the panorama in-camera, others require a provided software package.

Pre-set modes and effects: If all the three we saw above were semi-manual modes, these pre-set modes are fully automatic. Examples include landscape, portrait, face-priority, smile/wink detection, night, fireshow, discrete, copy and a number of others. These need not all be in all cameras, but it would be a good criteria to look into before buying a camera merely as good value for your money.

Along with this are effects, such as sepia, black&white, vivid colour, red-eye reduction and so on. And additional features such as locking select pictures, cropping them and so on.

Good luck buying a camera!

Tat is quite all I have to say at the moment! Bookmark this and do keep coming back to this post because I might just keep making additions and changes (which I will clearly mark as and ‘update.’)  And if you have questions, do get in touch with me and I will do as much as I can to help.

Good luck buying that envious new camera!

Unauthorised Indian Adaptation

Indian film makers are getting on my nerves. As far as I remember they have been unable to make a single good film by themselves. There are two parts to this sentence: one, that they have made made a number of original films, all of which are terrible and a waste of time; and two, that they have made good films, all of which are unauthorised adaptions of a film in another language. Especially English films.

A while ago I watched a movie called Rascals and would have got out of the theatre after the first ten minutes if my curiosity to find out to what extent they had adapted it had not got the better of me.

As it turned out, they had adapted every bit of one of my favourite films, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Unfortunately, the names were on similar lines too.

Perhaps the only difference was a small segment at the end which was far more unbelievable than a cartoon.

And just today I watched another acclaimed Hindi film, Dhoom 2, and realised that I had come close to hating all Hindi films.

Unfortunately I had not watched Heat (Al Pacino, Robert DiNiro, Val Kilmer) much earlier (I only watched it at the start of this year) so I had not spotted the similarity. I might as well call it reproduction, save with different faces onscreen.

Lt Vincent Hannah (a cop played by Pacino):You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we’ve been face to face, if I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I tell you, if it’s between you and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.
Neil McCauley (a gangster played by DiNiro): There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second

It goes on with the Lieutenant saying one has got to do his job, and McCauley agrees, saying his job is being a thug, robbing banks, and he has to do his job.

Now those lucky fellows who are proficient in Hindi might want to read the entire quote in Hindi and you get the scene from Dhoom 2 where the cop and the thief are at a Carnival, meeting face-to-face, saying the exact same thing—or at least paraphrasing that ineffectively.

However what disappointed me most was learning that one of my favourite Hindi films (perhaps among just a handful that I really liked,) by name Yakeen, was an adaptation of the English film, fourteen years its predecessor, by name Shattered.

Watch the two and I assure you you will have a déjà vu.

IMDb names it an Unauthorised Indian Adaptation. I do not blame the actors; no doubt they are talented, but it is the other lot, the lot of producers, actors, screenwriters and dialogue writers (yes, the shocking thing is, they are two different people in Indian cinema: why that is so is beyond me.)

Perhaps a new generation ought to replace them? Or will they too follow the footsteps of the very able existing pre-production group in Bollywood—the name being an unauthorised Indian adaptation of Hollywood. Now perhaps some of you would care to re-read this article replacing adaptation by copy?

This is what Facebook is for!

The social world online, I believe, is divided into three categories: Facebook fanatics (who live half their lives on Facebook,) Facebook users (who know their limits,) and Facebook ignorant (Facebook? What is that?)

I watched The Social Network seven months after it was released (I got my hands on it only in May!) and thought the film was interesting and well-laid. The screenplay was Oscar-worthy but most of the story was made up–except Zuckerberg’s wardrobe which, he said himself, the film had portrayed correctly every single time. But the point in a film is that it has to entertain and The Social Network did its job well.

Who would have expected now, three years after the incidents in the film, that Facebook would become so entertaining to people? Continue reading