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Why I Do What I Do (Pt. 1)

OK, I’ll admit the following may seem a bit self-indulgent, but taking a cue from one of the big-shots here at Adobe who recently began a large team meeting by giving us a presentation on his personal history (and how it relates to why he’s chosen his particular career), I thought I’d pause for a minute and consider the same thing myself. How did I get into this field anyway? Why do I do what I do? It’s a good thing for everyone to stop and take stock of these things now and then, and I think it’s a good lead-in to explaining to you why I have the passion for the work I do today.

So if you’re looking for the “tutorial of the day” you should probably skip this post, otherwise, please do read on.

My fascination with television began when I was 7 years old. My father had decided to become a serial Game Show contestant (and by that I don’t mean he was a contestant on a “Serial Game Show”, but that he was a contestant on a few different game shows) –anyhow– on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1974 I got to attend a live taping at ABC’s studio on West 54th Street in Manhattan, to watch my dad compete on the then-popular program The Big Showdown.

Having already spent the lion’s share of my first 7 years front of the TV set, it was a huge thrill to spend an afternoon in an actual TV studio. I got such a huge charge out of the whole experience that I decided right then and there that I would work in the television business when I grew up. The fact that my dad won $7,000 that day probably didn’t hurt either.

My repeated pleas to mom about turning our living room into a game show set didn’t pan out so well.

Fast forward to 1984 and high-school-age Bob was watching cable TV at a friend’s house in Manhattan (we didn’t have it in the Bronx yet). He put on a show on channel “D” . . . well, you could hardly call it a “show” as it consisted of 2 knuckleheads around the same age as us horsing around in a TV studio. My friend though it was hilarious, and I thought it to be the stupidest thing I’d ever seen on a television screen — but I was able to see past the crappiness of this particular show and realize that one could rent such a studio and put on a show and actually have an audience.

I had read about Public Access before but had never actually seen it. With a phone call to Manhattan Cable’s Public Access coordinator, and a fake Manhattan address in hand, I secured a half-hour slot on Thursdays at 5:30pm on Channel “C”, and found the cheapest studio deal in town at a place called Metro Access — a fully equipped Black & White TV Studio, with a live feed into the Manhattan Cable master control, for 30 bucks an hour (incidentally, this was the same studio that the infamous Robin Byrd Show originated from).

I wasn’t aiming to just spend the weekly half-hour just horsing around as that seemed pretty lame. I wanted to “Produce” something – get talented people involved and make a real program. Since I was then a student at the famous School of Performing Arts (the school that the movie & TV series “Fame” were based on) I had loads of friends who could help me create something really entertaining. And so the “Darren Behr Show” was born. I don’t want to get in to who Darren Behr is, or why the show was named after him since he was never actually on it, but we did some pretty interesting stuff in our weekly half-hour, “cablecast” live on Channel C. I produced and directed the show (and funded it with the proceeds from my after-school messenger job) with several of my talented classmates working as the cast & crew (including Chastity Bono, daughter of Sonny & Cher).

What made the whole experience so amazing in was that there was this platform (Public Access) which in a place as large as Manhattan pretty much guaranteed you an audience. Remember, there still weren’t that many channels to choose from back in 1984.

Along came the time to start thinking about college, and my first thought was to study TV Production. But I was a Music major at Performing Arts (I’m a bass player), and was also thinking about that as a course of study. The decision was actually made for me when I discovered that you needed excellent grades to get into the really good TV Production programs. So off to Music Conservatory I went.

I didn’t really do anything at all with TV or video for awhile, as the short supply of bass players kept me pretty busy for the next 13 years (I had a pretty successful career as a professional musician). But in 1996 I decided to leave the music business behind (for reasons I don’t want to get into right now) and had to figure out what to do next.

I did have to make a living, and I did have some graphic design chops from my days of laying-out my college newspaper on the then state-of-the-art Macintosh Plus with it’s whopping 1 Megabyte of RAM and 20 Megabyte external hard-drive the size of a shoebox. And so I was able to B.S. my way into a temp job designing Power Point slides at the big Wall Street firm Smith Barney. Not a “career move”, for sure, but a relatively painless way to pay the bills.

I’d been there a few months when one day the head of the video department walked in and asked if anyone knew a program called After Effects as he needed to have some animations created for a video he was producing. As was my habit in those days, I said “yes” right away (despite not having a shred of an idea what After Effects was, nor any experience in animation) and immediately hi-tailed it to a large Manhattan bookstore to buy a copy of After Effects Classroom In A Book for AE 3.0.

Being a musician and having an astute sense of pacing, tempo, and time, I picked up the concepts of motion graphics and animation pretty quickly (I would learn later on that this is a common thread with many AE wizards). Being already adept at Photoshop made the interface and concepts in AE pretty familiar (as my friend Dean Velez likes to say “if you’re a Photoshop user you already know 50% of After Effects). I also understood video workflow from my days of producing a live TV show every week back in high school. It seemed that I’d hit on something that could be an actual career for me.

Soon after that, I landed a full-time job in Smith Barney’s in-house video department. I taught myself how to edit video using the (then rare and expensive) Avid systems, and helped launch the company’s in-house TV network “NextGen TV”, which was the first of its kind on Wall Street.

But creating corporate videos for a Wall Street firm can be . . . well . . . kinda dry, so I started branching out.

Tomorrow . . . on to making some “legit” TV and globetrotting in in hi-tech startup land.

Bin There, Done That

In the world of video and film editing, we sort our clips into “bins”. Why do we call them bins and not folders? It goes back to the pre-editing-on-a-computer days (not so long ago, really) when you cut the actual film with a razor blade to separate your shots and sorted them in actual bins (which had to be pretty darn big to hold all them clips). We still use the same term today, but it’s definitely gotten much easier to sort and locate your shots.

In Premiere Pro CS3, we’re introducing a new feature called FlexBins. The first thing about this feature that will be happy news to all you current Premiere Pro users is that you can now have as many Bin Panels open as you want, each with its own view settings.

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Many of us like to edit with 2 monitors, keeping our bins on one and the rest of the app on the other. Now we can do this. Yes.

In addition, we’ve added powerful search capabilities to the bins – you just type what you’re looking for in the Find field at the top of the bin and Premiere Pro sorts your clips as you type. You can also search within any of the columns in the pulldown menu seen below.

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In short, we’ve made it much easier for you to locate, sort, and organize your media in Premiere Pro CS3 with FlexBins. And you’ll be able to try it out when the Premiere Pro CS3 Public Beta launches on April 16. Or for more details right now click here (where you’ll also see a photo of the handsome devil Giles Baker, the Premiere Pro Product Manager).

BTW this is my 100th posting on this blog, for those of you keeping score.

Amsterdarnit!

Just back from a month in northern Europe – my last stop on the trip being the IBC (International Broadcast Conference) in Amsterdam. The “NAB of Europe” if you will – a huge gathering of the television industry, and related fields, the long days being rivaled only by the long nights of carousing with customers, partners, and various other interesting individuals.

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Biking my way through the no-stop-signs-or-traffic-lights-anywhere streets of Amsterdam on my way to work.

The best way to handle being in a foreign country for awhile is to live as the locals do, and in the case of Amsterdam that means renting a bike and commuting to work on 2 wheels. According to a recent article in the NY Times, there are over 2 bikes for every person in the Netherlands, and as far as I could see the bikes outnumber the cars by a longshot. The only thing to get used to is the rather chaotic riding style. For example, as a cyclist you always have the right of way over cars. Cars will always stop for you, except when they don’t. And when they do stop, they wait ‘til the last possible minute. So the first day on my rented Dutch-style 1-speed, pedal-brake beater, I’m thinking “I’d better stop now or that taxi will cream me,” but when you stop suddenly with 50 cyclists right behind you, you’ll get creamed anyhow. I did learn all of the Dutch curse words fast, because I had them yelled at me constantly by other cyclists.

You see, there are no stop signs in downtown Amsterdam. People just go. Every intersection was a game of frogger.

So back to business — we had a really successful IBC exhibit, with some great Adobe users such as Angie Taylor showing off their work. Angie is a super-accomplished UK-based broadcast designer who uses After Effects as her main tool. Her book Creative After Effects 7 was just released, and I was psyched to find a copy sitting on my desk when I got back to my SF office today.

At conferences like IBC, people always ask each other “have you seen anything cool or interesting?”. To be honest, I don’t usually get a whole lot of time to walk around and check things out (what with my busy schedule of presentations, meetings, and trying not to get turned to a Dutch Pancake by a garbage truck), but I did manage to check out a rather intriguing (albeit propellerhead) device from DK Technologies called the Spinner display, which uses a completely new method of displaying the chroma and luma levels of a video signal, something usually done with a traditional waveform/vectorscope.

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The DK-Technologies Spinner display showing the chroma and luma levels of the cow licking my bicycle.

It usually takes a while to learn how to accurately read a waveform/vectorscope, and mistakes can be costly as if you’re creating something for broadcast, it needs to fall within a specific chroma and luma range, otherwise the station won’t air it. You’ll get your tape back with a nice little note from the engineering department suggesting you may have a bright future in the foodservice industry.

For years, I thought it would be a great idea to simplify the display of chroma/luma levels so that a non-engineer such as myself could accurately monitor and correct their work. This looks like it could be a big step in that direction. According to the company’s CEO Karsten Hansen, “we have been able to devise a display that is simple to understand, even for those with no specialist knowledge.” TVB Europe Magazine has an article about the Spinner and more detail in their September issue.

It’s not shipping yet, and I’ve not been able to find pricing information anywhere (aah, the bleeding edge), but if this device lives up to its promise (and isn’t too expensive) it could really make life easier for tons of us.

So, as for the near future, I actually get to be home in SF next week and work out of the office, but the week after I’ll be in Chicago, speaking at the Final Cut Users Group on September 27 (yes, you heard that right) amongst other things. I’ll also be speaking at Flash In The Can in Hollywood on October 6, so make sure to come say “hi” if you’ll be at either of those.

Animated Lobsters and the Pinch-Running Bird

The annual gathering of computer graphics aficionados known as SIGGRAPH came to a smashing conclusion in Boston yesterday, and thankfully not many were injured (although my colleague Steve W-Z had his rental car smashed beyond recognition by the hotel valet, way to go WESTIN BOSTON WATERFRONT !!!). If you’ve not been to a SIGGRAPH conference before, it’s pretty amazing once you get past the ubiquitous motion capture suit demos (I mean, is it really that interesting to watch some actor jump around in a ridiculous looking spandex suit just to animate a 3D lobster on a screen above your head? Did all these mocap companies miss that episode of the Simpsons a few year back?). What’s really cool at SIGGRAPH (other than the After Effects and Production Studio classes I taught – heh-heh) are the new technology exhibits and the “Electronic Theater” which I completely missed this year because I was preoccupied with searching for the perfect lobster roll.

Far and away the most interesting thing for me at SIGGRAPH is talking to our customers. There’s a huge focus on visual effects and animation at this conference, and it’s one of the only ones where I never have to ask an audience “how many of you are Photoshop users?” After Effects would be a close second to Photoshop’s ubiquity with this crowd, and I had some great conversations with people working on everything from feature films to animations for medical training (I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to animate digested food moving through the lower intestinal tract before).

Another rewarding event (quite literally) was visual effects powerhouse ZOIC purchasing 60 seats of Production Studio. Blake Robertson, one of the VFX whizzes at their shop in Culver City, was kind enough to come show some of the great effects work he does on the CBS series CSI:Crime Scene Investigation at our NAB exhibit this past April.

So, despite the fact that it was 100 degrees in Boston the entire week, I managed to get to a Red Sox game with Mark Christiansen (author of the book After Effects Studio Techniques) and despite the fact that they cut off beer sales half way through the game to keep people from becoming dehydrated we managed to have a great time. I tell you, the Boston fans are something else. By the 8th inning the game had become a snoozer, and a blackbird that had been hopping around the field the entire game was standing on second base. As he started hopping towards third, the entire stadium began chanting “bird, bird, bird . . .” and as he got closer the chants and cheers grew louder. By the 9th, nobody in the stadium was paying any attention whatsoever to the game anymore.

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Apparently, even the scoreboard operator got bored with the game.

No beer? Lousy game? Fagettabattit! Now let’s get out of the pahk beefawe the game’s ovah so we can get us a loabstah roll.

Giving Up the Goods

Siggraph 2006 is just around the corner (and thus I end my blogging hiatus, brought about by a particularly non-stop-round-the-clock-style-bake-off here at Adobe kitchens in San Francisco, during which many a noble engineer has selflessly made the ultimate sacrifice, and once again I thank my lucky stars I’m not an engineer). What we normally do at Siggraph is have a theater-style exhibit where you can watch presentations by people such as myself and other folks working in the fields of animation, motion design, etc. – but this year we’re doing something completely different. You’ll be able to sit down in a hands-on classroom (we’ve got 16 computers) and take a 45-minute course on After Effects, Production Studio, Flash, or Photoshop, for free. I’ll be teaching along with Mark Christiansen (who wrote After Effects 7.0 Studio Techniques, the definitive book on visual effects with AE), Richard Galvan, and Steve Whatley. All you need to do to sign up is to come to our classroom, which is on the Siggraph exhibit floor right by the front entrance. It’s first-come-first-served, so get there early – we’ll be open from August 1-3.

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I haven’t been in Boston for a few years – used to go there all the time when I worked for the companies ICE and Anystream. ICE made effects plug-ins and an accelerator board for After Effects, and it’s through that gig that I met Steve Kilisky, the After Effects Product Manager, who brought me into the fold at Adobe last year (for which I will be eternally grateful). ICE folded in 2000 when it’s IP and trademark were sold to Media 100 (a company that now belongs to Boris FX due to a very strange twist of events that just go to show “ya never know . . .”).

It’ll be good to see some friends while I’m there, like Jamie Burke (with whom I worked with at ICE) who owns the multimedia production company mBlaze and uses Flash & After Effects pretty extensively. Check their demo reel, one of the first shots is my mug (with my old red hair-color) on an old video for Anystream.

The World’s Fastest After Effects User

If you’ve been to any of Adobe’s Digital Video exhibits at conferences like NAB or Siggraph, you’ve probably seen the venerable Steve Holmes presenting on our stage (the handsome English guy with the buzz-cut). Steve is one of the world’s foremost After Effects experts (he hosts Total Training’s After Effects series ), and runs his own design shop, Energi Design in Sausalito, CA.

When he’s not sitting at the machine designing up a storm, you can usually find him riding his bike on the unfathomably steep Mt. Tam (whereas you can usually find me dodging and weaving my bike through SF traffic trying not to get turned into taco meat by an SUV). Steve is an incredibly accomplished bike racer, and he’s about to start a 6-day coast-to-coast race on a team which is made up entirely of riders who have Type 1 Diabetes.

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On their 3,052 mile cycling race across the United States, Team Type 1 will be “racing to help cure Diabetes”. They’re attempting to raise $1,000,000 in this effort, and you can support the team by making a donation here.

If you want to see the work Steve does when he’s not racing, take a look at his demo reel.

Back to the Boom Boom Rattle of SF

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The side door of Adobe’s SF office with the source of all the racket in the upper-right corner

It’s not often one gets to return from New York City to a much noisier place. By and large, San Francisco is super quiet, but next door to our SF office, where I work when I’m not on an airplane somewhere, is a major construction project and they’ve been hammering away driving huge metal things into the ground for months.

When I first moved up to this office from San Jose and felt the shaking under my feet, I thought we were having an earthquake (something I thankfully haven’t experienced since moving to SF last year). Then someone pointed out the construction across the street and it was like being back in The Bronx. Aaah, the relaxing vibe of San Francisco . . . NOT!

So after weeks and weeks of travel, I get to actually stay here for awhile. I’ve got a short trip coming up in mid-June to the HOW Conference in Las Vegas, where I’ll be participating in the “Evangelists’ Challenge” on Wednesday, June 13 along with my esteemed colleagues Alan Rosenfeld (Print Designer) and Greg Rewis (Web Designer). This should be a fun session, with the three of us working in our respective disciplines to create a multimedia project before your very eyes.

MOVEing and Shaking

I gave a talk this morning at the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) MOVE Conference at New York University (yep, that’s right, on a Saturday morning). Luckily I had a nice turnout for my session which was about using After Effects, Illustrator, and Bridge to process video with the Live Trace feature from Illustrator (check out my tutorial here), and an introduction to Flash Video workflow using After Effects and Flash Professional. I also got the chance to talk to many attendees, most of them After Effects users, and hear about the great stuff they’re doing with our products. I also got many good feature requests for AE in particular.

So my 10am session was right before the “headliner,” which in this case was Laurie Anderson.

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I guess that made me her opening act (should I update my resume?). What a sweetheart she was, and her session was fascinating (the most interesting part being the work she did as the first ever Artist in Residence for NASA).

The Coolest Thing I’ve Seen Thus Far At Adobe

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Last night, Anne-Lise & I attended a benefit screening for the Educational Video Center (EVC) at the IFC Center in NYC. The EVC is a workshop where high-school kids from some of the rougher parts of New York come to learn documentary filmmaking. Working in small groups, led by a mentor (typically a professional documentary filmmaker), the kids produce films that speak about issues in their world. At the screening, we saw excerpts of the films Alienated (about undocument teen immigrants facing life after high school with no options for legalized work or college), All That I Can Be (a story of a teen who makes the choice to enlist with the US Army during the US occupation of Iraq), and Still Standing (about the challenges faced by Hurricane Katrina survivors). The films were moving, and even more moving were the current students & alumni of the program that went to the podium to tell the story of how they got involved with the EVC and what it meant to them to be able to learn filmmaking in a supportive environment and to express themselves in a profound way.

Adobe sponsored the screening last night, is a major financial supportor of the EVC, and soon we’ll be announcing a partnership with them and several other similar organizations worldwide in what is going to be the largest philanthropic program Adobe has ever undertaken. We’re a pretty philanthropic company to begin with, so you’ll be psyched to hear about it when it’s announced in the coming months. I get to be involved with this, and it’s by far the most meaningful thing that I’ve had the pleasure to do in a really long time.

That’s A Wrap

The “secret project” (darn NDA) came to a smashing conclusion on Friday.

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Above is the crew at _________ with director ___________ behind the camera, as I finish shooting for ________. It was a long couple weeks of work, everything came out great in the end, and it won’t be much longer that I gotta be tight-lipped about it.

I’m not gonna be tight-lipped about namedropping, though. After we wrapped on Friday, I spent the evening with my friend Greg in Chinatown, NYC, then we drove to JFK to pick up Anne-Lise (my fabulous wife). We all then went to our friend Caitlin’s house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she had 15 people or so over for drinks. When we walked in, I saw a couple sitting on the couch chatting it up, and we walked over to introduce ourselves. I extended my hand and said “hi, I’m Bob” and the guy shook my hand and said “hi I’m Mike” and then I realized that I was shaking hands with Austin Powers. Yep, that Mike. Turns out Mr. Myers has been a fixture in our old Williamsburg crew for a while now (see what happens when you move away?) as he’s on a street hockey team with Caitlin and a few other friends of ours. So we talked with him & his lady friend for a good part of the evening – if you didn’t know he was Mike Myers you’d probably think he was just this Canadian dude at the party. Very cool way to end the week.