6 Ways to Be a Good Client

Writer’s note: For the duration of this article I am going to be using the term “Creative” to mean anyone who works in a creative field, be it a Web Designer, Videographer, etc. However, this can really apply to any field where an expert in the field interacts with a client.

 

As much work, dedication, and time as it takes to be a great creative, it takes equally as much effort to be a good client. Most businesses, if large enough, have a dedicated person whose job is explicitly to deal with contractors and/or creatives. They fill a whole position with this because it’s difficult, time consuming, and not everyone is cut out for the job.

As much as I would like to blame clients and corporate types for being the end-all and be-all of bad creative communication, not all creatives are great at dealing with clients. Both sides suffer from what is called “expert blindness”, which is the phenomena where at some point in your professional career, you completely forget that everyone else in the world has no idea what you’re talking about. If I go into a meeting with a potential client and start spouting technical jargon, it not only makes them feel like you are talking down to them, it also most likely means nothing to them whatsoever.

Because this article isn’t about how creatives should better deal with clients, we are going to assume that you are the client and that you are stuck with a creative who is particularly bad at communicating. Here are a few simple rules that will get you through any creative interaction.

Rule 1: A Creative Will Not Save the Day

What this means is that as much as you want them to, if you have a major problem that you need solving, a creative will not rush in and save your business. Overloading a creative or group of creatives with too many decisions, or the infamous “Just make me something good” speech, will end horribly 120% of the time. Solution: Do your research, know what you want, and know what you don’t want. Give them a starting place and state your expectations.

Rule 2: Have Money

If you are running a business and you want to hire a creative to accomplish a task for you, have the money to do it. The worst and most insulting thing you can do is expect a creative to work for free. Don’t forget that what may seem like a “minor tweak” to you might be a multi-hour commitment to them. If you are worried that paying money for your website, video, or flyer won’t earn the money back that you have put into it, then it is probably not a good investment.

Rule 3: Communicate

There is nothing worse than being a creative and waiting for a response from a client. If you give a creative a deadline, it must be a priority to give them any and all information they request as soon as possible, and in the format they request. If they ask you for a vector version of your logo sent by email, don’t fax it to them. If they ask for the PMS number of your company color, don’t say, “kind of a lightish blue”. Referring to my previous article Why Thinking Others are Stupid May Mean that You Are, although the requests may seem pedantic, they’re not. A simple error on the client’s part can completely halt the creative’s ability to do work.

Rule 4: Have a Need

The scariest meeting a creative can sit in is the one where nobody knows why they want what they’re asking for. “I want a website” or “I want a commercial” or “I want to build the new Facebook” comes up with alarming frequency. Have a reason and a business plan for developing what you are asking for. If you want to sell online, there might be a better alternative to a website. If you want to build the new Facebook, don’t. That’s stupid. Do your research ahead of time to avoid a very awkward, unneeded conversation.

Rule 5: Explain Your Needs

This ties in with rule 3, the need to have open communication. In order to avoid a confusing conversation up front or a frustrated conversation later on, you should always explain what you want, when you want it, and how you want to do it. If your photographer is going to be taking photos for the Internet versus photos for print, that’s a completely different workflow and needs to be said up front. If you have no idea where, why, or how you want them used, then maybe it is time to take a step back and plan on your own time.

Rule 6: Be Respectful

This goes for any field, but always remember that you are in a professional transaction. A business, especially a small or at-home one, is a very personal thing. Creatives understand this, and when they are offering decisions or alternatives you should always remember that they have your best interest in mind. Don’t be afraid to change mid-stream, or consider alternatives that may have gone against your original idea.

Most of all, don’t forget that the reason you are hiring them is because they know more than you do. If you could do it on your own, you would. Give them everything they need to do what you want them to do, and then let them do it. They’re here to make your life easier, and in an ideal world, it will be a quick, comfortable, and exciting interaction.

 

Why Thinking Others are Stupid May Mean that You Are

For some reason, I have a distinct memory of a trip to Home Depot (or THE Home Depot, if you are of that school of thought) when I was about 12 years old. My mother took me along for the ride, and it was shortly after the technology became available that scanned colors and created a big bucket of paint that matched it exactly. This of course was wondrous and new, no more endlessly thumbing through thousands of paint swatches trying to remember if it was Lilac or Mauve. Instead, you could bring in a reference of your own and in ten minutes have enough of it to cover the Berlin Wall.

My mom always loved painting the house. She is a huge fan of accent walls, and whiled away many hours applying and reapplying coat after coat of rust, pale blue, bright green, cherry red, and numerous others over the years. She had never tried out this magical paint-matching service, and with a stroke of inspiration spent an afternoon flipping through magazines to find just the perfect shade of green she sought.

Magazine in hand, we drove to the store and marched confidently up to the counter. We showed the light shade of green to the young paint technician, but an immediate look of indecision came over him.

“I’m not going to be able to match that…” He said regrettably.

We were both confused. You have a perfectly good machine that does it all for you, we thought and perhaps said out loud. He went on to explain that the photo of the wall that we were showing him had a lot of elements to it. That it was not just one color, that the light and/or color correction in the photo would not give him the right shade, and he kept trying to convince my mom that whatever color he could get out of the picture would not give her a wall of that color.

By this point my mom, and by extension me, were getting a bit frustrated. A tone of “Just scan the damn picture already” fell over the conversation. Mom and I looked back and forth at each other with a “this guy is an idiot” look on our face. We couldn’t believe he didn’t understand that he could just scan it and we would all be happy. Reluctantly, the poor paint technician behind the counter took the page and scanned it, measured out our paint, shook it up, and sent us on our way. Mom and I chuckled at his incompetence and left.

Later that day, Mom painted the wall. It was a small upper portion of the living room that was mostly covered by a large bookshelf but was right next to some rear-facing windows. It looked decent, but it was the afternoon and we had to wait for it to dry. The next morning I got up blearily and readied myself for school when the wall she had painted caught my eye. I called to the other room, “Did you repaint the wall again last night?” She was confused at my question, and I explained, “It’s purple.”

A light green wall in the morning light turned an awful, sour purple. That poor technician man might have been onto something after all.

Many years and many lessons in color theory later, I realize that that poor, underappreciated technician man was trying to explain subtractive color systems and the downfalls of relative color perception across different lighting schemes to a new homeowner filled with impatient excitement and a twelve-year-old boy. This is a concept that I have paid a lot of talented people many thousands of dollars to explain to me, and that took me almost six years to understand.

In my thinking that this poor man was stupid, I was, myself, the stupid one. He knew exactly the kinds of trouble we would run into, and like any good professional he was trying to steer us from it. Alas, like most consumers we did not listen.

Modern culture, especially here in America, has taught us that professionals are really no better than you save for a few tools that you don’t have, and that anything they suggest is to be taken half-heartedly. We undervalue knowledge and immediately assume that just because we don’t understand something, we don’t need it. Perhaps it is a lifetime of being told that our car needs a new Johnson rod, or that your arm probably isn’t broken but let’s order a CAT scan and a blood panel “just in case”. More likely though, it is the misunderstanding of what it means to be a smart consumer. If you are going to hire a professional to do your work for you, try trusting them and see where it goes. The next time your Voiceover guy says he shouldn’t record your commercial into an iPhone, or your camera guy says that you should definitely change that tie, they’re not being picky, they are trying to get you the best product that they possibly can.

Mischief – Mind-Blowing Drawing Goodness

Image by Cavin Weber

Every digital artist has their favorite program for drawing, and the field seems flooded with good contenders. The go-to is Adobe Photoshop, but if you start asking around you will hear a dozen other names: Autodesk Sketchbook, Corel Painter, Paint Tool Sai; and each has their own weaknesses and strengths.

The problem is that there is one huge limitation with all of these programs: the way they save their data.

Every painting or drawing program (except Flash, but we will get to that in a minute) available today uses what is called a Raster image format. This is nothing new or fancy, all it means is that, like all images you see on a computer, your picture is saved as a huge grid of pixels.

What this means is that if I want to do a drawing in Photoshop, I sort of have to know early on if I want to do a sketch or a printable, production piece right from the start. When you start up a file in Photoshop you choose how big you want the image to be in pixels. A decent size is at least 2,000 pixels in either direction, but you will get blurry prints unless you make them tiny. If you go much bigger you can get big, pretty prints, but you run the risk of your computer slowing way down and getting absolutely massive (over a gigabyte per drawing) file sizes. Neither of these are good for a creative workflow.

A program like Flash, also made by Adobe, saves its files as Vector images. This means that through some very mathy, computery whatchamacallits the computer saves lines instead of pixels. The advantage here is that you can zoom, scale, rotate, and transform the image as much as you want and it will never, ever get blurry. Take any drawing you make in Flash and you can scale it up to fit on a billboard with no trouble at all, and you have the advantage of very small file sizes.

Unfortunately, if you have ever tried to paint in Flash you will know that it is soul-tearingly awful and should never, ever, be attempted. It is not a drawing program and was never intended to be one, and it is arguably impossible to get a painterly look, forbid you should try any sort of realism.

For a long time, we artists were devoid a program that could save us from the tyranny that was the Raster-Vector war. Now comes our knight in shining code: Mischief.

Mischief was created by two computer scientists that invented the math behind it. Through a new-fangled means that completely eludes my understanding, they have managed to summon forth a program that combines the creative freedom of Raster art with the limitlessness of Vectors.

Paint like Raster, scale like Vector, microscopic file sizes. Literally magic.

The program also comes with what is called an “infinite canvas”, a concept which has until this point never been executed with this level of control. What this means is that there are never any borders, pixels, or measurements, and you can zoom and pan quite literally forever.

That means that you could draw the planet Earth, all of the people on it, and all of the cells in all of the people, ON THE SAME CANVAS. TO SCALE.  And your computer would likely not even explode due to lack of hard drive space.

Best of all, the program runs on your GPU, and if you do not understand how happy and tingly that makes me, feel free to read this blog. Basically, everything runs super smooth and without issue.

Mischief makes no bones about the fact that it is a drawing program and a drawing program only. It does not intend to become Photoshop or extend into its user base. In fact, Photoshop would be a fantastic finishing software in combination with Mischief, so don’t go scratching out your Adobe CD key just yet. The program is in its infancy and should certainly see a whole lot of good things to come.

Oh, and I almost forgot, it only costs $65. If you are a digital artist and you don’t own it by the end of this article, you are either a communist or you are so stunned with excitement you forgot how to use your thumbs.

If you still can’t bring yourself you make the buy there is a full-featured 15-day trial at your disposal. Check it out here:

http://www.madewithmischief.com/downloads.html

As a side note, the image I drew above came to a whopping 1.96MB(!).  By contrast, the print-resolution export I made from it was 11.6MB. Like I said, literally magic.

Box: A Wonderful Step Forward

Stop the presses! Put everything down and watch this video. Are you delivering a pair of kidneys to a hospital? Are you at your best friend’s wedding? Are you at your own wedding? Regardless! This video must be watched posthaste.

Every once and a while somebody makes something truly unlike anything else, and here is a fantastic (in every sense of the world) example. Before you finish the rest of this blog, please take a look at this video, it will be well worth your time:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lX6JcybgDFo

Woah. Just blew your mind, I am sure. To clarify, this video was shot in realtime with no edits nor special effects of any kind applied to the final video. This was achieved through a number of very clever camera tricks and a lot of money.

A lot of money.

Thankfully the company responsible for this achievement is called Bot N’ Dolly, a California-based company that rents out motion control robots, which will be explained more later. Ultimately though it means that they already owned all of the equipment they needed to produce the video.

In Box you can see two large robots controlled two plain white canvases. These are, in fact, just white canvases with no special properties. The robots on the other hand are very real and very expensive. These are known as “Motion Control Rigs” and they are crucial in special effects in movies. They are primarily used for the planning and repeating of special effects shots.

In special effects land, if you want to combine computer-generated imagery and real video there are a number of methods including green screens and fancy computer tricks. Often those tricks can be more complicated and sometimes more expensive than regular old natural in-camera effects. These problems are multiplied about a million-fold if you have a moving camera: The bane of special effects artist. Everything is easy when you have a shot on a tripod. A talented SFX artist could practically do a shot like that in Photoshop. When the camera moves though, you are bound to have a lot of problems.

This is where the Motion Control robot saves the day. What this device does is make it possible to make the exact same camera move over and over again. Basically, it is a robot that can move a camera around however you program it to move. This means that I can do a shot of an actor walking across the street with the camera following, and then the same exact shot without the actor in it. This helps me because then I can very simply cause the actor to fade away, get cut in half, any shot that would require the background behind him which is normally covered up by his body to come into view.

Box used motion control for a completely different reason. With several (again, very expensive) projectors, they projected video onto a pair of white panels which gave the effects that you saw in the video. This is precisely the kind of ingenuity that keeps our field thriving. If you ever have tens of thousands of dollars to blow on complex video, be sure to check out Bot N’ Dolly.

 

Special thanks to http://pacificmotion.net/ for their information.

A New Kind of Art?

I am certainly not the first to talk about it, but there is a real shift happening in video games these days.

Before you go running away thinking this is going to be a blog about how much cooler it is to blow things up, you can relax, I am not talking about visual effects or mainstream games. If you enjoy art or storytelling, please stay along for the ride.

Over the last two or three years gaming companies have put an incredible amount of focus into the story element of games. What before was an endless ocean of hopelessly similar first-person-shooters and platformers is now blossoming into a landscape of truly incredible stories.

Unfortunately this wave of ingenuity has not made its way into the console world yet, but PC gamers have the luxury of a wide developer base due to its complete lack of regulation. Consoles have big, bulky licensing rights and proprietary testing hardware, and ultimately the entire process becomes very expensive.

PC (Mac and Linux fall into this as well) has the upper hand due to the fact that anyone with a computer can make a game on it with no strings attached. There are no entities to which you have to pay development fees. As a result, some very talented individuals have had the ability to make the games they always wanted to see with nearly no cost to them, and more importantly they do not have to worry about making all of that money back. What this means is that an independent developer is free to create a game that is not “mass marketable”, the same way that an independent filmmaker can come up with a story that would not necessarily appeal to a large audience. A lack of a board of directors and a team of marketing experts means that creativity and ingenuity is allowed to flow unchecked, a trait that is not typically appreciated in modern game development.

At this point you may be asking why I am writing about video games in what is supposed to be a blog about motion graphics. Part of it is simple self-gratification, but most of it is due to the fact that like many other media, video games are becoming commonly accepted as art. The lines are being blurred between the two fields with games like Gone Home and Dinner Date, both being highly conceptual and in stark contrast to traditional gaming. Many of these have none of what you might call the “traditional” video game elements to them, and might be considered more akin to an interactive movie or story, one in which the player can feel more connected to the character than in many other media.

Imagine the impact of a mind-bending movie like Memento, a suspenseful thriller in which the main character is piecing together his life backwards. If you were quite literally standing in his shoes and the decisions you made actually influenced the outcome of the story, would you be more engaged than sitting in front of an otherwise static screen? These are the things to think about when discussing the new (and often controversial) media that is popping up around us.

If you want to get into this new trend, explore a website called Steam, the go-to resource for PC gamers, and check out their Indie section. Want a head start? Try out the games “Gone Home” and “Papers, Please”, and feel free to be shocked by how different these are than you expected.

Adobe Typekit: What is it?

Adobe Typekit Interface

Adobe just officially released Typekit, a huge database of fonts that are accessible to all of their Adobe Creative Cloud (CC) subscribers. Why is this a “big deal”? Read on to find out:

One of the biggest problems with handing off projects to a freelancer or another firm is fonts. The fonts that most people have come standard with the operating system, and some of them can be found for free on the internet. A lot of these are very well made, but your selection of truly high-quality fonts can be limited.

What most people do not know is that fonts are not traditionally “sold”, but instead “licensed”, as might be professional software or royalty-free music. If you have ever tried to purchase a font before, you probably know that it is very expensive with some costing $500 and above for a mediocre license.

(Think that’s bad? Try hiring a foundry to make you a custom font. I hope you have $100,000 to spare!)

So far ther are no real methods that work in all regards. Sending a contractor a font for a project is not always strictly “legal”, and handling the expenses for an outside license is, while being what you are supposed to do, expensive and pretty unnecessary.

Adobe Creative Cloud’s new Typekit is the solution. Typekit has been around on its own for some years now, but only recently has Adobe included a membership with its software. Adobe gives access to some 700 fonts for use on the web and desktop, and nearly eliminates the hassle of trading fonts back and forth between contractors.

I was giddy as could be when I heard that I had 700 new fonts at my disposal, even the fancy brand-name ones like Futura and Myriad Pro. Unfortunately, my dreams were squashed a bit when I found out that my AfterEffects projects can not, in fact, have as many fonts as it wants. Many fonts are marked as “web only”, and can not be used on your desktop, only on your website. This brings the 935 fonts that it boasts on the site to a measly 205, which is not the most impressive figure I have ever heard, especially since this all but removes some of the most familiar fonts like Bodoni and Bickham Script Pro.

While I would normally be quick to judge, I know that Adobe’s new method is to roll out releases slowly and methodically, so I look forward to seeing if Typekit is in the priorities list for updates and revisions as well.

A New Adobe

For those of you who are in the design world, you will be interested to know that there has been a rather recent (and very important) change to the way you will be working. Adobe, the well-known maker of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, After Effects, and many more, has completely changed their model in a way that is inarguably very drastic.

For thousands of years designers have been purchasing their software in a box at the store, then ordering it online for it to arrive at their house in a box, and then eventually when internet speeds were cheap and plenty they invited the ability to download your software and not have to worry about a box at all. Adobe has switched to this exclusively, it seems, and while that may not seem very drastic right now, here comes the kicker:

You can not buy an Adobe product anymore, just rent it.

If you are like me, you will like things EXCLUSIVELY if you can own them and put your two little hands on them yourself. I have always bought boxes of software (excluding my PC games, go Steam!) in preparation of, say, Adobe going belly up and me losing access to my software because their license servers no longer exist. This is of course a silly fear, but it is enough of one to cause me personal concern.

I was deeply offended when I heard that Adobe was making this switch. If I were not a personal slave to their products I would have considered dropping them completely. The nerve! A product I previously owned was now “subscription-only”, something that the powers that be could steal from me as they pleased?

Upset as I was, I still figured it was my societal duty to read about it. That is when my mind changed.

The average price for an Adobe package (usually consisting of a few programs tailored to a specific skill set (web design, video production, etc.) costs about $1,700. That is a big chunk of change for the average consumer, but considered a necessity for anyone in the field. The Master collection, containing everything that Adobe has to offer is more along the lines of $3,800. Ouch! That is a lot of money for something that almost nobody will need. Very few people would ever actually put forward the effort to learn 20 different programs, much less pay specifically for the ability to do so.

This is where the Adobe Creative Cloud (henceforth referred to as Adobe CC) comes in handy. There are no more “packages” that cater to one profession or another, just one giant Adobe subscription. This means that you get EVERY (and I mean EVERY) tool that Adobe has to offer, plus a few absolutely brand new ones, for one pretty low monthly price.

Let us go over a few points:

The good:

1. No more big spending every few years to upgrade. Now you can spend your money in nice little digestible chunks.

2. In a few years, no more version worries. I have had the conversations a dozen times if I have had it once, “What version of (insert program here) are you using? Oh you have an older one? Well damn.” Adobe programs are not known for being hugely backwards compatible, and versioning can be a pain. Now that everyone is forced to have the same version, we will hopefully never have to worry about this ever, ever again.

3. It plays nice with your current software. I installed a new subscription (NOT AN UPGRADE) and the new CC programs sat nicely next to my CS6. It was even kind enough to update them for me!

4. An absolutely massive font library. Oh sorry typographers, I meant “Typeface”. Adobe Typekit is releasing soon and will provide many excellent fonts for us all to choose from. Again, if we all have CC, no more “Hey can I send you a bill for Futura because I don’t have it on my PC” woes.

5. A Dropbox-like cloud system. My suspicions are this will be useless, but it is neat nonetheless.

6. More programs than you could comfortable shake a stick at. Take a look at the cover image for just a sampling of all the stuff you can download. I can not imagine how I can possibly use most of these, but I know I’ll be buying an extra hard drive to cram them on my computer anyway!

7. The chance to try something you have always wanted to. Whether you are a special FX artist with a passion for painting or a photographer who wants to build his own web page, now you get to try what only the elite of the elite (people with a lot of money) used to have access to.

And the bad:

1. Many do not like the idea of having to worry about paying every month, and for anyone on a budget the non-fixed price structure is not at all idea. Although unlikely, Adobe could raise it up to a million dollars a month next year if they really felt like it and you would be out a whole host of programs. The good news is that if you have an old CS somewhere you can still install that instead.

2. Yearly-based. I hope you have $360 set aside in an account somewhere, because you can not get out of the year-long contract early. Part of me wants to pay them the full amount upfront and get it over with, but of course there is no option to do so.

3. Sometimes the new Adobe stuff sucks. As some of you may have experienced with earlier versions of Adobe software (ahem CS4 ahem) there is occasionally a version that just is not very good. This is a good and a bad, because Adobe will be doing “rolling updates” instead of big releases, so that means that big fixes will be easier to implement with their new update structure, but it also may mean that bigger changes will be hard to make. This is one that we will have to see with time.

I have to say that Adobe did this very much the right way. From a business standpoint, this was a HUGE decision that could have very potentially ruined their company, and I am glad that they spent some time planning this one out. If you are the occasional photographer who is still happy with CS2 then certainly stick with it. If you are a true “multi” media pro who can’t work without AfterEffects, LightWave, and Dreamweaver open all at the same time? Go for CC. Even if it ends up being awful you are out 1/10th of what you would be normally.

Why Expensive Stuff is Important

Now I know what you all are saying, “Didn’t you just write a blog about how important free stuff is?” I did indeed! And I am here to tell you now why cheap or free is not ideal for every situation.

The average consumer camera costs about $150 nowadays. That will get you everything you need to take pretty good pictures. Unfortunately, the scale for professionals has never heard of “pretty good” and aims more for, “Oh my holy cow, that is completely ridiculous, how could that possibly be useful?”

Unfortunately, there is no good “average” for professional pricing, but a good estimate is that it is about 40 times what you might expect it to be. I have seen bolts that fasten cameras onto tripods for $400 a piece, and suits that help keep video more stable go for hundreds of thousands. When you ask a professional how much their camera costs, you will likely get a heavy sigh and see them slip far away, deep into thought, and the reason for this is that there is no good answer. The camera body cost money, upwards of $5,000 alone, the lenses cost money, over $2,000 a piece, the batteries, bag, memory cards, lights, remotes, tripods, all of which are considered part of the “camera kit”, could be another $2,000-$3,000 altogether.

A professional affords this because he knows that (and this will sound crazy) it will earn and even save him money in the long run. For example, a professional (one of the big-time guys) is at a big wedding. He brought all of his fancy equipment with fast lenses and high-quality lights. He gets great shots all night long because he has a big array of batteries, and his reputation is sound. Being made or broken can depend on one photo, one mistake, one battery running out just before the big moment, your whole career (or at the very least, that month’s rent) could be dashed by one unfortunate mistake. Like it or not, expensive things are traditionally tested and tested again to ensure the highest possible quality and lack of hiccups in the field.

This does not mean that you should go buying yourself a $45,000 Haselblad (like the one pictured above) however, in fact I would guarantee that the photos you would get from your cell phone would be of far greater quality than what you could pull from a professional camera at that price. The more expensive something is, the more knowledge it requires to operate and the more time you will need to set up, use it, and then get the media from it.

My camera of choice is the Canon Rebel EOS T2i. It is a smaller-frame sensor with a high resolution, low noise, great range, and takes very good video. For the money (pretty cheap, all things considered) it is the best you can buy if you are looking for a great all-around camera. Taking photos with it and pulling them off to share or use is much more complicated, though. If you do not know what you are doing, photos can come out very poor or blurry, dark, or noisy, and once you get them onto your computer you may not be able to view or use them at all if you do not have the proper software. Why would I buy a camera that might give me terrible pictures? If I spend the time to learn it, it will give me absolutely beautiful images every time.

Now this blog was not mean to just be about cameras, but cameras are a great example because they go from very cheap to very, very expensive, and almost everyone uses them. This principle will follow for almost anything that you plan to purchase professionally, though.

If you are asking yourself how you could possibly afford to break into the professional creative business and you have absolutely no equipment whatsoever, you should do what I have always done: buy the most popular product on the market. This may sound as I am suggesting you “fit in with the crowd”, but I have a distinct set of reasons. For one, something that is very popular and well-reviewed means that is has both served the customers well and is something that has stuck around for them. Also, and this is most important, if you ever have a problem with it there are tens of thousands of others online that have used it and can most likely provide and answer.

 did an incredible amount of research before I bought my camera, and it was the ideal “middle of the road” option I was looking for between price and quality. If you make a good purchase it might not end up being the best camera the world has ever seen, but it will still be a million times better than anything you have been using, and it will not be so above your skill level that you can not reasonably use it.

Another excellent example is with audio. If I wanted to buy a whole audio kit (which I know almost nothing about) I could have spend thousands of dollars. Instead, I decided to go with the Zoom H4N, an incredible little all-in-one recorder. It gets absolutely amazing audio, and it improves the quality of my video tenfold. While it is not something you are going to see in a professional recording studio, my purchase has caused me to be able to take on jobs and earn more money than I would have without it.

All in all, it is important to be vigilant and do your research before making a purchase. Never go for the “bargain” or the cheapest possible professional equipment, because it will end up costing you much more in the end. If you are serious about being a professional, invest in yourself and make a smart buy.

Why Free Stuff is Important

Photorealism in Blender - made by Major4z

So somewhere, at some point in time, there was a person who decided that it was vitally important that all high-end things should be expensive. This is not the worst idea, of course, in some cases it makes sense. If I am going to be using high-quality materials they usually cost more money and therefore the final product will be more expensive.

What about in the case of software? The only materials involved are brainpower and time, both of which tend to be in short supply.

The answer is a sad one. In the production world there is a “snootiness” about most professionals who believe that you absolutely without a doubt need expensive paid-for software to execute a job properly. In some cases this is true, in others it just becomes silly.

What happens is at some point one software becomes a “standard”. What this means, very basically, is that if you call yourself a professional in a field and you do not posses this software, you will be laughed out of your contract. Little do most people know, though, there are free alternatives to nearly every piece of software currently on the market. The best part? You can use all of these for professional and commercial projects out of the box, unlike “free trials” or “student versions” of most programs.

The reason this is possible is because most of these programs are released under what is called the GNU public license, a sort of contract that the original software author agrees to that says that anyone can take, modify, use, and distribute this software in any way they see fit. What this also means is that tens of thousands of people have tried it and can in fact add to and fix the program as they see fit. If the modifications are good enough to use they will be added to the program for everyone to use, and this is all done for free.

There are apparently some people in this world that still do good for the sake of doing good.

The best examples of these are:

Best free “Photoshop” – A program called The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) has been around as long as I can remember. It is the standard program to use for any kind of photo manipulation if you are short on the dollars and cents. While not as powerful as Photoshop, if you are an enthusiast wanting to get into photo touchup or digital painting, The GIMP is for you!

http://www.gimp.org/

Best free “Pro Tools” (audio editing) – “Audacity” has been around for a very long time now and is still extremely capable in its field. The perfect tool for cleaning up and leveling music, speech, and anything that your little audiophile heart could hope to do. While you probably will not be arranging dozen-instrument orchestras with perfect precision on here, this is the program for most of you.

http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Best free “3DS Max” or “Maya” – If you want to be able to do absolutely anything with 3D, look no farther than Blender. Often looked down-upon as a free tool, this program is one of the most incredible programs you can possibly learn. Everything from camera mapping to modelling, sculpting to making materials, this program is a production suite in itself. 100% free and completely backed by the community, Blender will get you where you want to go. The image at the top of the page is not a photo, it was made 100% in Blender with completely free software. No fancy camera tricks included!

http://www.blender.org/

Best free “Microsoft Office” – What used to be included in the Windows operating system, Microsoft Office managed to become an extremely expensive, clunky piece of software. As an alternative, Oracle Corporations released a completely free set of programs called OpenOffice, a suite of tools designed to replicate Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, as well as a few very handy tools of its own. Again, this is completely free to download and I highly encourage its use.

http://www.openoffice.org/

Best free “Windows” or “Mac” – While not always for the faint of heart, if you have a dying computer that you no longer have any real use for, try your hand at installing “Linux” on it. Just like you might use a Windows Operating System, Linux is faster, safer, and comes with literally thousands of free programs and tools at your fingertips. Easily the most-developed operating system in existence, it is backed by millions of techies around the world contributing to its many parts. If you are switching from Mac or Linux (and have a computer you are fine with having wiped clean), try downloading Ubuntu Linux and remember what its like to have a brand new computer. The best part? Everything I have listed above works on Linux as well.

http://www.ubuntu.com/

It is time for us to make a paradigm shift and remove the stigma from free stuff. It isn’t “cheap”, its efficient! You just have to be smart about what you are downloading.

P.S.

I seemed to have skipped an important addition or two!

Best file archiving program (Zipping program) – The absolute (and provably, see here: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/winrar-winzip-7-zip-magicrar,3436.html) best file zipping program on the market is 7-Zip. IT is an absolutely free and open-source program that allows you to smash down those peskily large files of yours. Now remember, no zipping program is magic, your two million JPEGS probably will not compress down very well, but someone with large documents, DSLR photos, anything big and chunky will benefit from archiving their data for later use.

http://www.7-zip.org/

Why CSI Hates Technology – “Enhance” Edition

As a wee young’n I distinctly remember being fascinated by the technologies on television shows. CSI, NCIS, and a dozen other “who dunnit” TV shows have the common thread of incredible technologies aiding them in their journey to find the hidden criminal. One of these is so common, so often seen, that people do not realize that it itself is the most heinous of offenders.
That’s right, boys and girls, I’m talking about “Enhance”. You have seen it a million times, the detective has a grainy picture, and with a click of a button and a few moments of strenuous processing from the computer out pops a shiny, high-resolution photo with detail to spare. I spent many a nights searching for this marvelous tool, trying to find anything that might be able to take the sad, lack-luster cell phone pictures or old home-scanned images and turn them into the detail monsters that you see in the movies. After many a long, arduous search I came up empty. I wondered why it was so impossible to find what seemed like such a common, easy task. There is detail there, hidden away in the photo, why wasn’t there a program out there that could help me unlock it?
The answer came several years later. As I developed as a digital artist I came to understand digital images much more clearly, and with that clarity came a terrible, terrible truth. All of those thousands of hours of television and movies were a lie.
Let’s start by taking a couple of steps back to talk about how digital pictures actually work. A digital picture is made up of thousands or millions of tiny points of light called “Pixels”. You can see them by zooming way in to a photo on your computer, at some point you will see the image show up as a bunch of tiny squares of solid color. If you put your face close enough to your monitor or television screen you will see many similar pixels with the exception that each will have individual red, green, and blue lights called “sub-pixels”. With enough of these pixels from far enough away your mind sees, or “resolves” (if you want a fancy technical term), a full image.
Each of these pixels are completely distinct, individual points of color, and they are all that a picture is made from, there is no “special” data inside a photo other than an array of single colors.
Side Note: If you want to be extra specific, some image formats like JPEGs support some extra data like time taken, lens and camera used, etc., but these are primarily stored for human use later to help organization.
Now for the technical part. If you are interested in the nerdy stuff, please read on, if not, feel free to skip the next paragraph. My feelings won’t be hurt. Much.
In most cases pixels are stored and displayed in what is called an “8 bits per channel” format. Each pixel is made up of exactly 24 ones and zeroes, 8 for each the Red, Green, and Blue components of the pixel. Each value in the Red, Green, and Blue “channels” gives a brightness value to the corresponding sub-pixel, and the three added together gives a total number of 16,777,216 possible colors per pixel. For the most part that takes care of anything that a human might ever have to see. What this also means though is that that is the ONLY information inside of a pixel, 24 not very descriptive ones and zeroes, and there is very little “magic” to be extracted from it. Moving on!
You could think of a screen full of pixels like a big library shelf full of small books. Each book is like a single pixel containing a small amount of information. The books might form a cohesive story, maybe they are all one big story in a bunch of little volumes like pixels might be in a photographic picture. Let’s say this is the case, and now I want you to “increase the resolution” of the story, or add more volumes. Enhance it, one might say!
How might we go about this? We will have to add books between the books that are already there, but where do we get the information? Since there are no books between the books, we will have to do our very best to guess. Let’s pretend that at the end of book 35 the main character is walking out of a grocery store, and at the beginning of book 36 the character is inside of his house. We can assume that the character had to do some walking between the store and his house, so we can make up a book inbetween the two where the character is doing some walking. Not very interesting, but it is our best guess.
Here is where the problems arise. We are not really determining what happened, we are merely guessing the most likely option. What if on the way to his house he was attacked by a group of ninjas? Or teleported back in time? Or got stuck reading a blog about pixels? Any one of a million (or 16,777,216) things could have happened in that span of time. This is equally the same with pixels; the real world has nearly infinite detail, but cameras can only capture a portion of it. What if, far away, a cat was in the picture? This happens all of the time, but the entire cat may be expressed as only one or two pixels. A computer certainly doesn’t know what a cat looks like, or even that it should be looking for one. Just as you can’t be expected to know what the author intended to say between volumes, a computer can’t possibly know what is supposed to be between pixels.
To play devil’s advocate, when you see an “HD” version of an old movie or if you have ever put a DVD into a Blu-Ray player, you will certainly say that it looks better and that you may even see more detail. Unfortunately as much as one might like this to be true, it is all just clever methods of enhancing lines and sharpening (which is yet another fraudulent effect!). Even though they may not really be adding detail I will admit that it does look better, and at some point that is all that is important.
Whether you’re a fan of CSI or Criminal Minds, the next time you sit down in front of a show full of high-tech software, do your own detective work and laugh through all of the beeps and whirs. Those are the only computer enhancements that they have ever done.