Thursday, September 19, 2013


So... I don't know about you, but I find the furore surrounding Edward Snowden's revelations regarding the NSA and big tech companies betrayal of it's users and their data astounding. I mean we used to joke that privacy on the internet was a thing of the past and now we know conclusively that it really is.

Edward, we ALL owe you a beer, and probably a LOT more.
I realised we were living in a surveillance-state online only about 8-12 months ago when I began to use Ghostery in addition to adblock in my web-browsing activities. In using these tools I learnt more about online advertising's pervasive intrusions into our everyday web-surfing habits involving cookies, image tags, HTML mail with triggers pointing back to companies letting them know when their message had been even simply opened by me, and more. But I still thought that my communications were basically safe, let alone un-interesting enough that I wasn't really concerned that it might be true that someone, somewhere could be reading or listening in. I wasn't using encryption beyond https or SSL and the idea that I might want PGP or anything else seemed like an unnecessary encumbrance.

"If you have nothing to hide you don't need any rights."

Things have changed dramatically in a few short months. The online landscape has forever altered. US spying programs with names like PRISM, Five-Eyes, Xkeyscore, Tempora and more yet to be revealed are illustrating [much to the US' chagrin] just to what extent ALL our communications are being hoovered up 24/7 in rolling caches of searchable records. And individuals like NSA head General Keith B. Alexander are struggling to stay on top of the leaks and are forced to engage in a comedic cat and mouse game of leak vs assurance in what increasingly is a massive abuse of the trust of the every American citizen.

And it's not just the US. The UK have a three-day rolling store of pretty much everything going in and out of the United Kingdom in electronic form. And metadata storage for up to 30 days. Metadata can be more revealing in analysis than the actual conversation in your phone call. Information about who and when you spoke to someone and for how long can be manipulated in ways that yield connections between parties otherwise invisible at first glance.

New Zealand

Here in New Zealand, the ongoing saga of Kim Dotcom being illegally spied upon by the NZ government simply won't seem to lay down and be quiet. This is likely because the GCSB and NZ Police force used PRISMs data supplied by the NSA in their efforts to raid his Auckland home and place him in police custody on behalf of the US government. If the NZ government is using PRISM to look for copyright offenders where do they draw the line with your information? PRISM was designed to facilitate US government surveillance of foreign intelligence targets "reasonably believed" to be outside of the United States during the Bush era, not spy on what music you might be downloading.

"The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

This famous quote by activist John Gilmore from the Electronic Freedom Foundation seems to suggest that the internet can heal itself and work around problems like censorship. Organisations or governments that wish to know what your internet connection is carrying use technology like deep packet inspection and internet filtering that are designed to detect the nature of traffic on the internet. However in the wake of the knowledge that the NSA and GCHQ actually fibre-tap the very cables that cross undersea between our countries before they come into contact with your countries different landing points and ISP's, this sentiment now seems more like a wistful, rose-tinted vision of the pre-Snowden era that we'd now like to magically come true. And it's really not going to.

Laura Poitras and Glen Greenwald

The two reporters chosen and initially contacted by Edward Snowden are now under tremendous pressure from multiple governments and go to great lengths to protect themselves electronically. They are at the pointy end of the very tools they are exposing and the measured pace with which they reveal each new piece of information is vital in keeping these issues on the tip of public awareness. If they revealed everything in one release WikiLeaks style, the scandal would likely froth over and the US would quickly return to pointless outrage over Miley Cyrus' VMA costume choice or other such matters, and it'd soon be business as usual.

Sympathy for the devil?

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Skype and most recently Apple...

We all use something from one of these companies in some shape or form, right? And they all let the NSA in the door and they all share data with the US government. They are now clamouring for permission from the US government to reveal the amount and type of data requests placed upon them in an effort to own up to their part in the information hoovering. I find it very hard to have sympathy for them at this point and indeed so it seems does Europe and other large parts of the world. Confidence in cloud-based storage products is taking a bashing as anything connected to the internet is vulnerable. I'm not about to trade-in my cellphone for paper and pen but it makes me think twice about *free* services like Gmail or Facebook.

Now the conversation about real privacy begins.

I think we're lucky that the debate is happening. I believe we're lucky that a democratic world-leading country is at the heart of these revelations and is attempting to deal with them in any sort-of public fashion. I find it hard to imagine many other countries owning up to the nature and extent of programs like that which the NSA are engaged in and discussing ways of backing up and out of the current situation. I acknowledge that there are necessary lengths that governments need to go to in order to protect it's people and I don't pretend to know where that line gets drawn. But it simply does not include my internet t-shirt orders by default, right? Or your phone call to order pizza? Or our drunken text messages from last night? Or your Facebook status update about how you just fed your cat. Or indeed the photos of your cat on your cellphone.

So now the rush to build proper NSA-proof encryption begins as it's revealed that the NSA has worked hard to undermine established encryption standards so they can peer into hidden communications. Discussions and tips about how to remain unseen by the NSA and secure online are highly informative. Can you reliably use TOR or not? And who wants to? Who wants to have to jump through all these hoops to protect our privacy? What is it worth to you or me who previously took it for granted that no one was listening?

I'm not sure but we are going to find out. Sooner rather than later thankfully.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

LightPulses from MrWinter

Mr Winter requested my assistance for his latest release entitled LightPulses, an ambient ride through some of his latest sonic meanderings mellowed with tasty tidbits and aural treats from sessions gone past. This being a purely digital release, Chris requested an animated gif for the cover, and let's face it, who doesn't love an animated gif lately?

w00t, two for two.
After listening to a pre-release version of the mix [putting my headphones on and going 'somewhere else' for a bit], the music demanded something spatial and ethereal...

I'd been gagging to experiment with LEDs and fibre optics and longer exposures some more and this led the charge into creating the imagery this time. The final result is a combination of some long exposure images like these:

Some Maya motion-blurred object rendering, a little comping in Shake and finally some logo and colour work in Photoshop, et voila!:

Thanks for the opportunity to work with you again MrWinter!


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Palmer Lucky, OculusVR and the Rift

The shipping developer version may differ a little to this.  <== take a look here for a quick clip explaining what it's all about. If you're like me you were rather excited in the mid 90's at the thought of virtual reality taking off but ultimately disappointed as the tech and implementations never materialised beyond The Lawnmower Man, then you'll understand my enthusiasm for this whole project! As Michael Abrash [now a developer at Valve] puts forth in posts on his blog, the time may finally be right for the holy trinity of micro-componentry [tracking chips, hardware gyros, LCD displays with enough density], computing power and audience acceptance for VR to finally arrive.

Enter Palmer Lucky and his Kickstarter campaign to create the Rift which ultimately raised nearly 2.5 million dollars US [ten times what they asked for], and now the developer kits look like they'll ship to keen recipients in March/April this year. There's talk of a commercial version in the coming months which may be compatible with current and future gaming platforms including consoles that should include an internal display capable of 1080p.

The Oculus Rift's FOV can be summed up in the image below:
Now that's immersive.
This widely expanded FOV [Field of View] is achieved through a combination of anamorphically pre-distorted stereoscopic left and right views and LEEP optics. You can get an idea of what the pre-distortion looks like in this image here... check out the monitor view:
 Cue moments of vulnerability where friends and family re-arrange the furniture while you're in RiftSpace or pelt you with projectiles in an effort to increase the immersion.
Alongside Mr Lucky are some heavyweight industry proponents proclaiming their involvement including John Carmack [of ID software and Doom fame] supplying space-industry know-how in the form of low latency gyro software and hardware, Gabe Newell and Valve Software [who have already prepared Team Fortress2 for the Rift], Epic Games' Unreal SDK and game engine, Unity3D's game engine [ready alongside the Unreal SDK with built-in support for the Rift's launch] and Adhesive Games' outstanding Hawken already Rift-ready. The list increases almost daily!

Naturally this head mounted display will offer the kind of immersive experience gamers have been craving for years, but as an artist as well as a gamer I see a new possibility opening up, that of creating experiences that people simply want to be part of - moments of exploration, virtual sculptures and the kinds of visual poetry that is rather lost when displayed on a normal computer monitor. Alongside the entertainment options I'm interested in creating and sharing 'places' that cannot be visited physically and moments that are otherwise impossible to be part of.

All in all it's a very exciting time for game development and game consumers and I can't wait to try a set of these things out!


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hardcore realtime HDR stereoscopic welding helmet

It is a very exciting time to be interested in imaging and potential VR/AR developments...

"In this demonstration, we present a specialized version of HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging (use of multiple differently exposed input images for each extended-range output image [2, 1]), adapted for use in electric arc welding, which also shows promise as a general-purpose seeing aid. Tungsten Insert Gas (TIG) welding, in particular, presents an extremely high dynamic range scene (higher than most other welding processes). Since TIG welding requires keen eyesight and exact hand-to-eye coordination (i.e. more skill and more visual acuity than most other welding processes), being able to see in such extreme dynamic range is beneficial to welders and welding inspectors."

This is a fantastic example of current realtime stereoscopic image processing in an application where AR [augmented reality] can be of real benefit to the technician... you can see in the associated video clip where the AR overlay indicates critical information like the speed of the weld and the TIG tip distance so the technician performing the weld can close in on the creation of the optimum join in the metal. Normally not only would the join itself be nearly impossible to see where the tip is, but the technician can see other things like the smoke emanating from the weld, the surroundings, the rest of the metal involved. Plus the helmet looks cool! Reminds me of this:

Coinciding with Michael Abrash's blog at Valve about his involvement in and development of the Oculus Rift mean things may be coming together at the right time finally!!

So excite!


Thursday, August 23, 2012

CG horsing around

Here's a brief clip of our current CG horse tech at Weta Digital. I built this digital animal last year utilising reference captured at Massey University's Equine Veterinary lab... It took a few months to put together and is a bit of a snapshot of the current state of our deformation technologies for muscle, fat and skin simulation. Some derivatives of this piece can be seen in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and of course our upcoming The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and it's other two parts.

I worked on the digital double horses and riders for The Two Towers and The Return Of the King and it was a privilege to be making our new horse far, far more detailed this time around.

Take a look: [the clip has been edited and excludes the fascia, fat and under skin layers sadly].


UPDATE: there's now a story on the site about it and Abraham Lincoln etc... plus I just listened to a review on National Radio about Chris Rogers' involvement in working with us. Chris was in charge of the team we worked with to gather the reference and was not afraid to put a horse on a treadmill at the drop of a hat ;-)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Wedding Photography - Some things I've learnt.

I shoot the odd wedding to expand my portfolio and keep myself up to speed. I started by doing it for friends and family and now I'm branching out into new clients as I become more confidant. I've reached the point now where I feel comfortable with people and scenarios enough to roll with the punches ie: go with the chaotic circumstances and changing conditions...
You only got one chance. Best you be on your A game.
I've also reached a point where I'm comfortable enough with my gear to stop wrestling with it and focus on the people in front of the lens more. I liken this to the days of having clients over my shoulder while I was producing artwork on Quantel or Discreet Logic machines. When someone is paying NZ$1000 per hour to have you put their television advertising together you want the machine to be the last thing on your mind. You need to be able to operate the 3D keyer [showing my age here] while counseling your client on how her dog is gonna be fine cause it ate too much sashimi [this has happened to me BTW and there were actually negative repercusions hahaha - no animals suffered I assure you, just humans].

I realise, [and this is something I say to my clients], that this is an important day and there are no second chances. There will never be this combination of people, dressed the way they are, with this weather, in this situation, in this mood, here for this reason, feeling like this, looking this good... EVER AGAIN.

So that's why I'll be all over the place like a rash, getting shots and getting in people's faces and making people laugh and feel relaxed so that when they look the images they don't cringe and say 'I look terrible in photos'. It's a lofty goal but if I've taken a photo of someone who hates having their photo taken and they don't mind the shot, then I've won. You gotta aim for the stars right?

This is not going to happen again.
These are some of the complications you face doing wedding photography as opposed to shooting in the studio or more controlled circumstances:
  • A schedule that is not in your control.
  • Challenging and often adversive lighting conditions.
  • Children and possibly animals!
  • Uncooperative people who may not want to be photographed at all.
  • Unforeseen equipment problems or limitations.
When presented with these things I try my best to go with it and make up new shooting possibilities on the go to make the most of the available backgrounds, lighting and weather. This is not to say I don't go with a plan and a backup plan too, it's just that even these things can be torn to shreds by well meaning clergymen and the whims of the wedding party.

Be ready to change your plans.
So, with this being said here are a couple of things I learnt on the last job:
  1. Leave as LITTLE as POSSIBLE to the last minute in terms of organisation. The bride requested that I get more shots of her leaving for the venue than my schedule allowed. I accommodated this at the expense of getting to the venue with 30 seconds to spare in terms of prep for when she arrived. I forgot to sync the clocks between my main camera and the backup. I should have done this the night before. [Exiftool to the rescue!]
  2. Have more storage than you need. Seriously, 22GB is nothing when you're using a 5DMKII. I filled up and borrowed an extra 4GB from a friend who appeared with his camera. D'oh!
  3. Plan the formal arrangements with the bride and the groom so you don't miss them. I got what needed to be got last time but the location for this changed and getting everyone required there was a challenge. If we'd planned even better this would have gone smoother, and it really helps to nominate a member of the gathering who knows who's who to be your wrangler and get the right people to the composition at the right moment.
  4. Have a backup camera. I didn't have an equipment failure on the last job but I realised on the day that this extra camera meant I could have two lenses for the ceremony and other moments. This meant I got some more intimate moments with the 100mm during the ceremony that would've otherwise not been possible with the 16-35mm.
  5. Find a nice way to avoid managing other people's photos. I found a few well-meaning people were hoping I might manage an extra 20GB of their photos and 'just upload them'. I cannot do this. There's no way I'll put them of my site with my name on them even if I wanted pretend they were mine cause they were better than what I shot!
I still had a lot of fun and the couple whose wedding it was were relaxed and flexible and open to playing up a little in front of the camera. I think we got some shots they're be happy to look at for the rest of their lives... which is good otherwise we gotta do it all again!


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Standing up desk

So, after working at a standing up desk at Weta for about 5 years now, I decided it was time to give it a go at home too. Both Anna and I were fed up with sitting at the kitchen table for our sessions of nerding/reading/photography etc and finding it gave us both a sore neck and arms. Besides, the benefits of not sitting down all day are now becoming more widely known.

After investigating the local pre-built options I decided to buy the frame from a New Zealand supplier and order the Blake Electric height-adjustable frame kit. This arrived in short order and my only remaining choices were what to put on the top and the backing plate/"modesty panel". I decided to save money and bought a door from Bunnings for $50! Sweet as.

Some bits! Oooo I love bits.
Upon unpacking my boy Jamie wanted to know where the motor was and how it was going to lift the desk. We found the motor and I explained the way a worm gear worked, how strong it was and how he could find the same thing at work in his Lego Technic dump truck.

Mate, I think it's like this... ooo look, you've got one too!
The first thing to do was to cut the modesty panel wood to the right length and mount it onto the leg frames. This is the piece that prevents people from seeing up your skirt at work. I never wear skirts at work for precisely this reason! I chose untreated 18mm pine from Bunnings for this and got down to drilling some holes for the mounting hardware. The leg frames have a peg system with internal fasteners... this needed some precise drilling, and without a drill press or routing kit I was just going to have to use the force and keep my hands steady.

Good job I did some practice holes, it was only on hole #4 I figured out how to do it right.
I didn't help that the hole cutter wouldn't fit in the chuck of my cordless drill and I had to use the corded drill with the wobble in the shaft - this offset in the rotation produced a hole about 2mm larger than I required. However, given that the mounting force of the fastener wouldn't put letting the locking bolt out of the frame, it didn't really matter that much. With all the holes drilled, it was time to put the modesty panel on the legs and get them standing up. This also involved connecting an extendable drive rod from the motor [which is situated on one of the legs] across to the lifting mechanism inside the other leg. The lifting mechanisms are almost entirely contained, so there's nothing to get your skirt caught in. [phew! I mean, yeah... safety]

Ain't no-one gonna be lookin' up my skirt here man.
With that in place it was time to hook up the power supply and test the lifting capability. It was very smooth and reassuringly strong. This lifting unit is rated to lift 70kg. I'm not sure if that is including the desktop surface, but I guess it must. Still, I'm sure while I'm at work the kids will try using this as their personal elevator to... to... the spiders around the window frame of course!

Now it was time to turn my $50 door into a desktop.

Who'da thought that the hollow core doors are actually baffled internally!? FOR THE WIN.
So, I thought that my cheap desktop surface may sooner or later become the victim of a cave-in ie: the very thin customwood/MDF panelling that bonds the outer surface of the door might be damaged by excessive weight or dumping of stuff on top of the desk. We've all been to parties with a damaged hollow core door somewhere right? Right? Of course you have, you just don't remember cause you were too drunk or something.

I'd anticipated chopping the end off the door and inserting a bracing piece of pine to reinforce the surface, but when I cut into the panel to reduce it from 1800mm down to 1600mm in length I discovered internal cardboard baffling. Hooray! No need to reinforce and I could get on with trimming and plugging the end of the cut with some more untreated pine. With this done it was time to screw the desktop on and tidy up the wiring etc.

Cool stretchy spiral cables weren't just for the 60's you know. And you thought your laptop had a big power supply.
With the desktop surface [door] screwed down, it was time to fit the power supply to the underside of the desk and tidy up the wires. The power supply and cabling was very user-friendly with really simple plugs to connect everything up, and a nice stretchy spiral cord to accommodate the varying distance from the power supply to the motor unit. Now to attach the control unit.

Dual-switching gang sign required. I don't know what this means on the streets.
The up or down activation is achieved through simultaneous pressing of two rocking switches on the control panel. Push them both in the same direction to activate the motor [which thankfully cuts out automatically at the full height or bottom of the range - sorry kids!]. The lifting is smooth and though not silent, it is a confident whirring sound. The height range reaches from 660mm [approx 2 feet 1 inch] to 1180mm [approx 3 feet 10 inches], which I think is going to be enough even for pretty tall people. I'm a short-ass however at 172cm.

And with that, it was done.
Here it is in it's tall state. Or 'angry', however you prefer to think of it reared up to full height. Incidentally this is the best appearance the desk will ever have as it is not covered in crap, which it soon will be.
So, I'm writing this on the computer standing at the desk now and it's so full of win I must share with you a couple of thoughts:

  • The frame is expandable, so you can create a wider desk than what I've done to fit in the space we have. It's up to you, to a maximum of 1800mm [nearly 6 feet]. And that's just the frame - you can put an even wider top on it. I made ours 1500mm.
  • I think ours needs to be painted with something durable like maybe even enamel. If you're going to use your own top, what surface do you want? 
  • You may want a tall chair. I use one at work because the desks there NOT adjustable. We don't have the freedom to sit at the normal height. However, this is good cause you end up standing a fair bit, and you can still slump for a break if you like.

It already feels better. If you do any desk-based work at home I suggest you consider doing the same for your own good!