Greenscreening lessons

Below is a video I made about a YouTube feature, in which finally, thanks to the wonders of chroma key, Tarquin and his boss get to wreak havoc on a global scale from a proper secret lair. I’ve always wanted to do this.

The thing you may notice straight off, especially if you switch to high definition 1080p and view in full-screen mode, is that Tarquin looks a bit fuzzy and green around the edges. One of the pitfalls of a budget greenscreen setup involving a piece of green paper and a sunny day.

It goes without saying that if you are going to greenscreen at all, don’t wear anything green. What doesn’t go without saying, and therefore bears repeating here for the benefit of budding Hollywood directors, is that if you are going to greenscreen without proper lighting, don’t wear anything yellow. Yellow, basically, is green with a bit of red mixed in, and this makes keying out the green very, very difficult without also keying out parts of the yellow.

In future, at least until I get to the point where I can give up my day job (hah!), Tarquin will wear a different shirt, and a new baseball cap — his alternative baseball cap is mostly grey, but the logo on it has a lot of yellow.

Hosni and me

Last night, the heating stopped. I restarted it. This morning, the heating stopped again, and wouldn’t restart at all. Turns out, our oil tank is empty.

This is a fairly major problem, as you can imagine. Not only do we have no heating, but we also have no hot water. How could we have let things come to this?

Simple. I just didn’t think about it, and my wife… well, my wife had thought about it, but was waiting for Mubarak to resign so that the price of oil would come down (as if the price for consumers would come down as magically as it went up). Basically, Egyptians, could you not have waited a bit longer?

Of course, the way things are in this house, the gauge on the tank is actually broken, so measuring the oil in the tank involves using a yardstick as a dipstick (which sounds like a line from a very bad hip-hop track) followed, in my experience, by a strange conversation. It began something like this:

Me: “The tank is empty.”

Wife: “What do you mean, ‘empty’?”

See? Already I am floundering. How do you answer a question like that?

Me: “I mean there is no oil in it.”

Wife: “But there must be some sludge in the bottom.”

Me: “All I know is, I put the yardstick in, it reached the bottom with a clang, and when I took it out again, it was clean.”

For a moment, I thought I was going to have to go back down there, remove the lid and clamber in, wearing a fedora and holding a torch and a whip, but luckily my wife was convinced that I had actually gone to the oil tank and not, as she had obviously feared, the bathtub.

Anyway, we’ve ordered some more oil, which will be arriving, we have been promised, sometime this afternoon. Meanwhile, the cats, resigned to their fate after half a morning’s plaintive mewing, are now snuggled up together, while I am reduced to eating hot Weetabix for warmth. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in the permanent warm glow promised us in our youth by Readybrek, but it’s barely possible to get Weetabox here, let alone Readybrek.

We have a new camera!

First of all, once again I feel it necessary to renew my pledge to update this site regularly. My profound apologies, but at least it gives me a New Year’s Resolution.

So let me start the year by talking about our new camera, which, because I make money from my YouTube videos, my wife suggested we splash out on. The old camera was a cheap (but pretty good, all things considered) MiniDV camera bought on the assumption that we were going to make a few shaky holiday videos for our own amusement, little knowing that it would develop into a money-making hobby.

It’s a Panasonic HDC-SD707, which is at the upper range of the amateur market.

It’s a pretty darned good camera for the price, and one of the very few within our budget that features a viewfinder and an external microphone socket. It has its drawbacks, but in this price range, you expect that. The worst thing is the cooling fan, which is noisy enough to be picked up by the internal microphones when switched to surround sound, but who needs surround sound when all the microphones are clustered in one place, and when I get an external microphone, who will care?

The disadvantages are heavily outweighed by the advantages, not least of which is a fantastic optical image stabiliser. A much larger lens means the camera performs so much better in low light, meaning I may not have to wrestle with studio-type lighting. And best of all, I get to upload high definition videos in 1080p quality.

I have one or two other things to buy (top of the list is a microphone pre-amplifier, which I will use to improve the sound quality of commentary tracks and voiceovers), and then, it seems, the sky’s the limit. I have a hunch that the reason my previous experiments with greenscreening failed is not so much the lighting as the camera.

Looking a bit further ahead, my plan is to revisit some of the places I visited for my “Day Out In” series and make new travelogue videos in glorious HD.

This should be an interesting year for me, YouTube-wise, and there may be a few changes ahead. I hope I can summon up the stamina required to make this pay off. Wish me luck!

World Wide Wait

Our ISP is a normally fairly good company, and has normally given us pretty decent service. Over the past few months, though, our connection has occasionally dropped, which is annoying, but I can live with that.

A few weeks ago, they called me to ask if I wouldn’t like to upgrade to a faster tariff, which was not only much faster (16 Mbps instead of the current 6 Mbps) but offered a whole bunch of other extras, and wouldn’t be so prone to crashing at inopportune moments, which was happening because the old system was overloaded. I discussed this with my wife and decided that, on the whole, we were happy with things as they were: the bandwidth we were getting was more than enough to watch videos in HD quality, we didn’t need any of the extra extras, and being disconnected once in a while was inconvenient, but not the end of the world. Besides, we reasoned, if everyone else switched to the faster tariff, the problem with overloading the wires would solve itself.

A few days later, we got a letter, asking us if we would like to upgrade… and so on. That went for recycling.

Today, our internet connection played up something rotten. It didn’t just occasionally disconnect; for the entire morning and some of the afternoon, it was down more than it was up. And then, lo and behold, I got a phone call. Guess who it was and what they were offering me.

A heated exchange followed. Part of it went as follows:

You want me to pay extra for services I have said I neither need nor want?
Not very much more. Only four euros a month.
That’s still €4 more than I’m paying now.
But you’ll get more bandwidth.
But I don’t need more bandwidth.
How can you not need more bandwidth? Besides, you get lots of other extras.
But I don’t want any other extras. And my bandwidth is more than enough for what I do or want to do.

Incidentally, this “not very much” extra cost actually represents an almost 10% price rise. And as the conversation progressed, I learned some interesting facts. It turns out that our ISP has decided, unilaterally, that they can no longer afford the maintenance costs for the creaking old 6 Mbps network and want to switch everybody over to the 16 Mbps service. They’re not forcing anyone to do this, you understand; they’re just going to let the old system rot. To ensure that our internet connection remains usable (it won’t speed anything up in reality, as there are always things I can be doing during a long upload or a very rare long download), we are being made to pay 10% more, in the guise of a “special offer” which, of course, must end soon: a special low price for us and they’ll even waive the connection charge. Yes, but we’re still faced with a 10% increase just to keep things as they are (or rather: as they should be).

I’m sure they can’t actually do that, since we signed a contract which should obligate them to maintain the service to a certain standard; but it would be a long and expensive court battle to find out for sure, and I’m not sure I can stomach that.

So we have to decide what to do next. Do nothing, and hope they’re bluffing? Wait until the offer ends and see if the next offer is a 0% price rise? Switch now?

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories, but this came with amazingly good timing, today being a day when I could hardly get online. Stranger coincidences have happened. But I do object very strongly to this almost mafia-like approach: “That’s a lovely internet connection you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it, wouldn’t it?” The only thing stopping us from finding a new provider is that the others are at least as bad.

Cat progress report

Bonnie and Clyde are about four months old now, give or take, and to celebrate, we took them to see the vet yesterday afternoon. They were not amused, and Bonnie even hissed at the vet, which was most unlike her.

To be fair, they’d had a car journey and a wait in the waiting room, where the sight of lots of big dogs made them tremble so much, their carrying boxes shook. I don’t think they’d ever been quite so frightened in their lives, apart perhaps from the first time they called the fire brigade out (we live just a couple hundred yards from the big siren).

As well as a repeat of the shot they’d had before, they got a rabies shot (although in fact rabies is probably as good as extinct in Germany). You can’t be too careful.

Of course, Clyde, hormones starting to take effect, wasn’t going to take this without protest either, and decided to have a short, but violent, tantrum after we put him back in his basket.

And incidentally, the cats have grown. And by “grown”, I mean grown. When they first arrived, they came in one box with room to spare. Now, you’d need a crowbar. Clyde has grown the most, and is almost as big as some full-grown cats I’ve seen. It was when he reached up to scratch the yucca in my office the other day when it hit home: a few short weeks ago, he had to stand on his haunches to see into the pot; now, he can reach halfway up the plant without any effort. He’s also developed a beautiful glossy coat, and is in the process of developing some frighteningly powerful-looking muscles.

Bonnie has a much smaller frame, but has put on a massive growth spurt in the past week or two. She’s always going to be the more petite of the pair, but she looks set to grow up to be a fair size all the same. And no weakling, either; but in addition to a fair amount of clout, she’s demonstrated in the few serious fights she’s had with her brother that she has the tactical edge over him, and has even managed to throw him judo-style. And seems to be in danger of reclaiming her title as top cat.