The Home-Produced Movie Revolution

Will independent movie production grow in the garden fertilized by lousy broadband service? That's the question on the floor.

Let's start with the gear.

The Golden Age of Mass Production began after World War II, when Allied industries defeated Axis industries, and after which winners and losers both industrialized out the wazoo. Among the most significant industrial trends in the '50s and '60s was the branching of consumer electronics off the stout trunk of professional gear. Low-end gear — from Brownie cameras to home stereos to transistor radios — equipped the consuming classes with abilities that could often mimic, though not quite rival, production qualities still available only to professionals.

This era began to end when personal computing stripped the gears of the professional computing. It almost finished ending once the Net became ubiquitous in the world's industrial regions and dial-up became the retrograde exception for Net connection from homes. It will finish ending when professional-grade photo and video gear becomes available at consumer-grade prices, and the only distinctions that matter will be intrinsic to the gear rather than to the customer.

The next era — the one in which the bulk of producers will emerge from a mass market formerly filled only with consumers — will begin when video customers begin to realize they can produce higher-definition video than what they can get over their cable and satellite connections. That will happen quickest for customers who buy 1920 x 1080 screens to take full advantage of their new 1920 x 1080 camcorders. While spending under $2000 for both.

Add in cheap storage on zero-DRM Linux-based NAS (network attached storage) boxes, and we're home free. Literally.

We're getting close now.

Consider the Sony HDR-HC1 HDV Camcorder. It's been out since last Summer. Listed at around $2 grand, it's selling on the Web's street (Froogle) for $949 and up. The HDR-HC1 will shoot at 1080i, which is 1080 vertical pixels of resolution. The "i" stands for interlaced. Meaning, each scan covers every other line. The next step up is 1080p, with the "p" standing for progressive scanning. True, 1080p is better than 1080i, but both are far better than the 720 dots (or, in the old TV parlance, lines) of vertical resolution you get with most of the plasma and LCD screens they sell at the big box stores

On the display side, I saw lots of 1080i and 1080p screens at CES in January, and talked to makers who said the prices of both would be under $1000 at discounters by Christmas. Some are already out there, if you do some digging.

Production is still a gating factor. LinuxDevCenter has an excellent interview with a developer at Cinelerra, an open-source package modestly described by its makers as a "50,000 watt flamethrower of multimedia editing power". That was over two years ago, and it's just one package.

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of amateurs doing high-def production on new Macs and PCs. The "content" will be there. Will most of it suck? Probably. But so what? Some of it won't. Considering how many producers we'll have in the world, the raw number of good source material will go straight up. Nearly all of it will be personal. And persons will be doing the watching.

For a hint of the growth curve here, look at how many high quality photos are showing up on Flickr. Project that on video. Then film, and the death of the distinction between the two. Steve Weiderman writes,

George Lucas used a prototype Sony-Panavision 1080p/24 camera to shoot several scenes in the "Phantom Menace" Star Wars feature. Nobody is saying which scenes they are, but people in the know will tell you not to look for video artifacts, look for the really nice scenes. The video scenes were printed to film and intercut with the rest of the film material. The success of that test drove the decision to shoot the next two installments of the Star Wars series completely in the 1080p/24 HDTV format, not in film.

Now, what about distribution?

The problem with cable and satellite carriage is that they have to carry more and more channels, all running 24 x 7 x 365 at whatever bandwidth can be managed. They'll make room for a few 1080i channels, but how much will those be compressed and how will they look? Home users showing stuff off their NAS (or equivalent) boxes won't have to compress what they show. Or at least not as much.

I've been talking with Jim Thompson about the situation. Jim is an expert at too many things to name, as well as a Unix/Linux/etc hacker of long and substantive standing. Here are a few nuggets he passes along:

  • Wikipedia has an excellent rundown of the technologies and choices involved in its Digital Cinematography entry
  • Check out the Kinetta 4K Film Recorder:
  • Panasonic's HVX200 is about $9k and shoots in 1080p 24 (that's 24 frames per second, or fps).
  • JVC has a 1080p 24 camera as well.
  • Sony's HDC-X300 camera is a 3-ccd 1080p unit and costs $15K for the body alone. "Someone is sure to clone this (as a single-CCD unit) and introduce it for $5k", Jim says.
  • North American video runs at 29.97 fps). Elsewhere it runs at 25 Fps (don't ask). Film for the world's theatres, still runs internationally at 24 Fps, so the 1080p/24 format maps nicely. There are issues around converting back to NTSC or PAL video, but let's not go there. Look forward.
  • Transport bandwidth is the big issue. Jim: "Current 720p and 1080i cameras output video at about 1.5 Gigabits per second, but 1080p would roughly double that to 3 Gbps. To convert that into a standard 19.4 Megabit per second channel for transmission across a cable network, there's a whole set of other technologies that have to be accomplished in between there. 1080i barely fits for some types of content, for example, almost anything "live" (sports, concerts, specials) where you can't do the off-line compression, you're going to see "artifacts".
  • A factor: Mark Cuban's 2929 Entertainment, which owns all the Landmark "art" theatres.
  • Check out VirtualDub. It's a video capture/processing utility for 32-bit Windows platforms (95/98/ME/NT4/2000/XP), licensed under the GPL. "It lacks the editing power of a general-purpose editor such as Adobe Premiere, but is streamlined for fast linear operations over video. It has batch-processing capabilities for processing large numbers of files and can be extended with third-party video filters." It's aimed toward AVI files, although it can read (not write) MPEG-1 and handle sets of BMP images. Also, "the author groks linux, but has had bad experiences. Maybe some readers can correct that, or carry the project forward on a penguin platform.

Back to broadband. On both cable and DSL, it's barely growing and still not symmetrical. Offsite storage and backup won't be good businesses until we get symmetrical service to the home, which will happen fastest with phoneline-based (DSL) providers looking to compete aggressively with cable. I doubt this will come from the big phone companies, which can't think outside the regulatory box where they're busy fighting the cable companies. Instead it will have to come from the smaller phone companies, of which there are still a few.

The cable companies, unfortunately, are pickled in asymmetricality. Proof is in the DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) pudding. Here's one excerpt from the DOCSIS 2.0 spec:

In the downstream direction, the cable system is assumed to have a passband with a lower edge between 50 and 54 MHz and an upper edge that is implementation-dependent but is typically in the range of 300 to 864 MHz. Within that passband, NTSC analog television signals in 6-MHz channels are assumed to be present on the standard, HRC or IRC frequency plans of [EIA-S542], as well as other narrowband and wideband digital signals. In the upstream direction, the cable system may have a subsplit (5-30 MHz) or extended subsplit (5-40 or 5-42 MHz) passband. NTSC analog television signals in 6-MHz channels may be present, as well as other signals.

Translation: cable Internet service is, by standard, something asymmetrical packed around the edges of TV service to which it is subordinate in importance. Glenn Fleishman in Wi-Fi Networking News recently said, "DOCSIS 3.0 has more upstream capability, but it’s highly asymmetrical".

Bottom line: the fattest pipes will be local inside homes. Sharing across the Net will be slow but supported in a store-and-forward way, especially using BitTorrent. Which is good enough to route around all the carriers that still think consumers aren't producers.

And thus homes will become production laboratories for next-generation videos and movies.



Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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$950 hdr-hc1, not quite

Maitland's picture

Just wanted to say that those sites from new york that advertise cameras for extremely low prices (like $950 for an hdr-hc1) are a complete scam. If you try to order one, they will email you, asking you to call them to confirm the order. When you call, they will try to tell you that you have to buy a $200 battery pack and a $150 power cable and an $80 256MB memory card. (Usually, the exact stuff that is included in the retail box). If you refuse to "upgrade" your order, you will never see your camera, and some of them will even try to charge a 10-20% "restocking fee." No kidding.

However, an hdr-hc1 can be had for around $1350 easily, or $1200 if you look closely. Just a friendly warning!!

Happy film-making! :)

1080p screens coming on the market

Doc Searls's picture

Consumer Reports has a first look at 1080p screens. This is all happening even faster than I had expected.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

WikiTainment Revolution

AwedJob's picture

WikiTainment is where the audience is the author.

We are very close indeed. For image editing, try using Blender. There's no audio sync but for adding titles and simple cuts and transitions it's a bit more robust than Vdub. I recently posted a vlog entry [here] in which I edited the whole piece using GPL software or freeware.

There is still no killer app for video capture/edit on linux. Piecemeal solutions do come close.

High Definition != High Quality

D Holland's picture

The prospect of millions of Web Cams enhanced with production quality video does not set my heart a-twitter in anticipation. It will still be hard to create good content. Even the big media companies have a hard time with it, and our collective tastes aren't even that discriminating. The only good thing about home movies is that they generally AREN'T publically distributed.

The hurdles aren't that big now.

FARfetched's picture

I've written a few entries about the resurgence of the creator-consumer on my own blog. Good to see someone a little more prominent picking up on it too!

The thing is, you don't have to wait for today's pro equipment to reach consumers; what's out there now is good enough to get started. Even single-CCD consumer cameras can produce some pretty decent video: I took some footage of the in-laws' poultry houses recently. My wife, a freelance video editor, said my footage was better than what her partner took with his pro gear (and she's usually pretty critical of anything I do).

I also don't see distribution as being a huge problem due to compression, and even bandwidth isn't as bad as you might think.

Even DVD-quality MPEG-2 smashes an hour of video down to 4.7GB, give or take, and we haven't even started reducing the frame size (which you pretty much have to do to accommodate video iPods or PSPs) or even the frame rate. If there isn't a lot of action, you can squeeze another GB or so out of the file size by cranking up the compression a little more. People will tolerate a few video artifacts if the story is good, and they probably wouldn't notice them on a portable viewer anyway.

On the bandwidth issue, DSL and cable have been competing on bandwidth numbers (and I expect someone to write an article about "The Megabits per Second Myth" soon). Upstream bandwidth is often a significant fraction (256K to 512K bps) of a T-1 line, especially in the late-night hours when there are fewer people to share it with. If you have a 2GB video and a 512K upstream, it would take a little over 9 hours to upload... just start it before you go to bed.

I suspect that future video hosting sites will optionally take DVD or DV tape in the snail-mail, and copy it directly to the servers for a reasonable handling fee. Never underestimate the bandwidth of a UPS truck full of DVDs. :-P


Russ Nelson's picture

Distributed production of video content will grow with distributed local networks. It's relatively inexpensive to provide gigabit networks to people's homes. Anybody who knows how to hang wires from poles and can splice fiber can do it. Those networks connect local parties with zero bandwidth charges. They've been doing it in New Zealand for several decades now. Want to ship a gigabyte CAD file to a customer? No problem, it'll only take a minute.

Sports will drive this. People will film local games and put them up on their terabyte server (which you can buy off the shelf for $900). People who couldn't make the game, or who want to analyze it in stop motion and argue each call, can fetch the game quickly.