Francesca Da Rimini

Following yesterday’s post about a music video featuring modern dance and computer visual effects, here is a video featuring classical dance and a robot controlled camera.

Francesca Da Rimini was a historical figure portrayed in the Divine Comedy and numerous works of art, including a symphonic poem by Tchaikovsky. In 2014 the director Tarik Abdel-Gawad and his team recorded a performance by two dancers of the San Francisco Ballet,¬†Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada, using a robot controlled camera. Tarik was also the technical and creative director of the demonstration video featuring the same Bot&Dolly robots (a company acquired by Google in 2013) and which turned viral, “Box”.

In the accompanying back stage video, he explains how seeing dancers rehearse over and over gave him the idea of experimenting with a pre-programmed robot, in order to make the camera part of the choregraphy, and allow the viewer to have a closer, more intimate, view of the performance.

Making of the “spinning house” sequence in Twister (1996)

Earlier this year filmmaker Stu Maschwitz posted on Twitter a series of messages recounting the work he did, as a then junior visual effects artist, on the scene of the house crashing on the road in the 1996 summer blockbuster, Twister. He later copied them to his website: go read it there.

The story comes with a fair amount of detail, hacks and tricks to make the best of the technical limitations of the time, and gives an idea of the amount of work such a scene in a prominent Hollywood film entails.

Commented footage of the space shuttle launch

Ascent is a commented montage of carefully selected videos of the launch of space shuttle, made by the Glenn Research Center. A DVD and a Blu-ray were produced but are apparently yet to be distributed reliably, so meanwhile the DVD ISO can be downloaded on this unofficial website.

The document is 45mn long, and presents outstanding footage taken during launch of missions STS-114, STS-117, and STS-124, from some of the 125 cameras used to ensure vehicle safety. Views include close ups of the ignition and of the launchpad at 400 fps, mid range footage, and up to footage taken from over 30km away (with the equivalent of a 4000mm lens). The comments give abundant detail about what is happening on the picture as well as the camera involved (lens, film, speed…).

As mentioned this video is 45mn long, but I’ve found it so captivating that I hardly noticed the length. If you only have 8mn available though, this other montage shows the launch from the cameras attached to the solid rocket boosters (SRB) with the recorded sound, from ignition, up until separation, then down to landing in the sea.

Book review: The Martian

Published in early 2014, it is a book written by a programmer, Andy Weir, and it is his first book. As any first book, and as any book written by someone whose day job is not being a writer, it’s not perfect. The style is so so, and sometimes even poor. But it is good enough. It is written with an engineer’s attention to technical detail though, and that makes reading a very fun experience for technical people, even if at moments it gets long and hard to follow.

The story is fairly well exposed by the trailer of the upcoming Matt Damon starring blockbuster movie: in a near future, a Mars exploration mission is aborted and the crew leaves the base, leaving one dead crew member behind. Except he’s not dead, and as he wakes up, he realizes he’s alone, without means of communication, forsaken on a lifeless planet, with a month worth of food, and about four years until a potential rescue mission reaches him.

From there, the author tells the story of how his character tries to survive with what he has at hand, while maliciously throwing at him all sorts of traps, accidents and set backs: “haha, today while working you create a short circuit and kill an essential piece of circuit”. It is all story told with care for realism that turns some parts into challenging puzzles (wait, you just killed him there! How can he make it out of that? Oh, nice, that’s clever! – or on the contrary – Ha! I know, he can use this and that, haha, I’m so smart) and includes some parts that rank pretty well on the adventure scale, like when he decides he’s gonna fetch an exploration rover 800km away to use its communication system.

Most of the book is narrated as logbook entries on the Mars side, and from a spectator’s point of view on the NASA side. It makes the reader aware of both sides while appreciating how each side tries to understand and anticipate what the other is doing. So this narration works very well for suspense.

I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you've just bricked something important because you didn't pay enough attention to a loose wire.

xkcd alt text: “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”
Funny coincidence: at the time of writing I didn’t realize I chose the exact same example as the xkcd alt text.

But on the down side, as I was saying, there are weaknesses in style. Essentially, I’d say there are mainly two of them. One is the fact that most of the story is told by shiplog entries, and those entries contain details to serve exposition that would never be logged in real life, like an astronaut explaining how the base works. The other one is the tone of the book, upbeat, casual and funny, conveyed by the tone of the character’s log entries and meant to show his personality in the face of adversity and dire situations. This would be all good if it didn’t prevent log entries from being on par with the strictness and ethics one would expect from an engineer sent to Mars. But of course, that would also make the book reading a much more dry experience, so the author’s choice is understandable.

As a conclusion, I recommend this book, I had a lot of fun reading it and learned a couple of things about practical space exploration along the way which is pretty cool for a novel.


In this 45mn talk, the author Andy Weir presents the book, reads the first chapter, then present a tool he wrote to compute the trajectory of the ship:

Every Frame a Painting

The filmmaker Tony Zhou is the author of an ongoing series of fascinating essays on analyzing film form: Every Frame a Painting. Covered in 5 to 10mn with a critical and passionate eye, his topics vary between directors, actors or single film scenes.

Every single one of them is worth watching, but my personal favorites are the study of the scene when¬†Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter meet for the first time in The Silence of the Lambs, the analysis of Mickael Bay’s intense visual style, and the presentation (and praise) of Edgar Wright’s use of visuals to support comedy.

Those essays can be found on Youtube or Vimeo, with additional comments on tumblr and Facebook. Interestingly, they can also be supported (as in, financially) on Patreon.

The Art of Framing Primer

In a much less detailed way than the cinematography analysis I previously mentioned, yet still very interesting, the film-making site Mentorless covers the visual composition used in the independent film Primer. The article, The Art of Framing Primer, outlines in particular how simple techniques allowed to make up for the extremely low budget (the film was completed for $7000).