My fourpennyworth (Business)

13.6.20068.5.200619.3.200610.3.2006

Tuesday 13 June 2006

External subtitling

A couple of entries ago I wrote about ‘Money into Light into Money’ – some ideas for making money out of my film interests. This is a sort of update (and as such is filed under ‘Business’ like that one, even if ‘Cinema’ or perhaps ‘Computer’ would have been more suitable).

Research into the idea of watching DVDs with separately-sourced subtitles was hampered at first by my Mac’s not having a built-in DVD player. But then I got a cheap second-hand external DVD drive (Plextor – not much to look at, but perfectly serviceable, even if the Firewire connection isn’t perhaps as solid as an internal one would be), ran the various patches needed to force a reluctant Apple system to use a non-Apple player, and – yesterday – got a film running on NicePlayer. This freeware application has the apparently unique ability among players to run two (or more?) films simultaneously: one of the films can be from the inserted DVD, while the other can be a QuickTime Text Track. The text track’s dimensions need to be specified (after some experimenting I think I’ll be settling on a width of 800 and a height of 120, with a type size of 20) and the box needs to be pulled around to get the ideal shape (the 800 x 120 ratio seems to combine the minimum height of the box with the width of my screen) and moved to the bottom of the screen. The film from the DVD tends to be much easier to play with – automatically expanding into the right shape, and so forth. The film has various preliminaries – copyright warnings then possible trailers before the main menu – which the text track lacks, and of course once you click on the ‘FILM’ button, it starts right away. The key is to pause the film just after it starts, take the timer back to ‘00:00:00’, and then use NicePlayer’s command ‘Play All Simultaneously’ to start both film and subtitle track at the same time. If you need to stop at any point there is a command ‘Stop All Simultaneously’, which is conveniently accessible via a keyboard shortcut. As AppleScript has a strong presence within NicePlayer, it is presumably feasible to create a script to synchronise the two screens automatically, and possibly at a given point of time within the film’s running. (I notice that the application came with an AppleScript that lets you go to a specific point on the ‘upper’ screen.) Altogether a very encouraging beginning.

Another interesting aspect to this is the ease with which the text track can be changed. The film I watched yesterday to try the thing out was the French thriller Qui a tué Bambi?, the first feature by Gilles Marchand, which was recognised by much of the French press for its clever atmospherics and very elegant mise-en-scène, and dismissed by the British press for not being enough like the thrillers they were used to… (‘Oh the state of British film criticism’, etc, etc.) The subtitle track – derived from an srt file which presumably started life as a non-English subtitle extracted from a version of the film on DVD – had a number of translation and orthographical errors, but of course since the file is text-only, I was able to open it in my favoured text editor BBEdit, make specific or global changes as necessary, and reopen the amended file in NicePlayer again. It would be great to be able to stop the film, change the titles and start again within an application – one imagines that the same application could be used for writing subtitles from scratch – but I’ve not found a way of doing that yet: the program I mentioned in the previous entry on this, InqScribe, proved impossible to get to work, and I’ve not been able to find an alternative.

(Category: Business)

11.19 pm

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Monday 8 May 2006

Money into light into money

For much of the fag-end of last year, keen to kick-start my failing finances, I cast around for ways of making money from my over-riding interest in films. In recent days I’ve found myself re-thinking two of the ‘better’ ideas (relatively speaking). Curiously, neither of the new versions of the two ideas seem particularly profitable – in the short run, at any rate.

The first idea, and one that I pursued with some tenacity (for me) well into the new year, was a portable subtitler. I’d had the idea many years ago, sitting watching a foreign film with poor (or maybe non-existent) subtitles, and originally I thought of it only for cinemas, so that the same, unsubtitled print of a film could be shown in different countries; later on I wondered whether the same could be done for unsubtitled DVDs. Last year, the idea took what seemed a great leap forward when I worked out how to use the so-called ‘text track’ of QuickTime (a distinct film, in other words), and when I started discussing it with other people it was soon pointed out that separate subtitles could, of course, also be useful for the hard of hearing and for people learning languages. However, I thought of the subtitler as a separate piece of kit, sitting under or on top of the TV, and it turned out that the monitor I had in mind would make it absurdly expensive. So it looked as if I had to give up on that.

Now, however, as I’ve been thinking of putting together a UK site for those specifically interested in French films (having found nothing that already does the job), I’ve wondered whether I could incorporate the subtitling idea: after all, a computer screen should have no trouble with showing two films simultaneously. By coincidence, as I hunted around on the internet for a player that might be able to do the job, I found a very new, free Mac application called ‘NicePlayer’ (http://niceplayer.indyjt.com) which can play two movies (which in this case would be a DVD and a separate subtitle track) simultaneously: it’s not yet properly set up for displaying subtitles properly, but the makers apparently have this at the top of their ‘to do’ list.

As usual, problems remain – in this case, the most pressing is how to get hold of the subtitles. I’ve found a couple of subtitling sites that were evidently put together for that rather suspicious-sounding video format DivX, eg http://www.divxsubtitles.net/. There seems to be a handful of English subtitle tracks for French films available. As far as I can make out, these subtitle tracks are created by converting a set of subtitles that come with the DVD (using, say, SubRip if you are on PC, or D-Vision (http://www.objectifmac.com/) on the Mac) to a file (eg in srt format) and then translating the text in the file into the required language. (I wonder what the legal position is with this?). The other, rather tiresome option – ie the one I shall probably end up going for in most cases – is to transcribe direct from a DVD. There is apparently a program called Inqscribe (http://www.inquirium.net/products/inqscribe/) that makes it easier to do this – though how much easier is a moot point. I suppose my thinking is that if this service starts looking like a good idea, then I could re-examine the feasibility of a subtitling hardware… (This is, I think, what the Americans call ‘taking baby steps’.)

The second idea is, again, to do with foreign-language DVDs, but in this case ones with English subtitles. The French themselves produce some 600 original-language DVDs with English subtitles (not very many, really, but that’s the French, I suppose), and there are similar pockets of subtitled DVDs in most other European countries. For those with a multi-region DVD player, there are even greater pickings: the large number of foreign-language DVDs produced in the States and Canada and others from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, for instance, plus the almost-invariably English-subtitled DVDs from Hong Kong, Korea and Japan (markets which also have a curiously arbitrary selection of European titles, often unavailable elsewhere). When I realised just how many titles there were, I wondered whether I could create a business importing them into the UK. Two problems, however: one, the demand for foreign-language DVDs is apparently very small, and even an obsessive like me finds it painful to fork out 15 quid or so for a film that, by the nature of things, I know very little about; two, it’s illegal to import DVDs from different regions for business purposes (which is why, for instance, you can only buy one Region 1 DVD at a time from the UK branch of Amazon), and as for the Region 2 DVDs (from Europe and Japan), they would all have to be given certificates by the BBFC, which is insanely expensive.

More and more I see the internet as a series of different, and fairly specialist, ‘clubs’, and I wondered if a solution here would be a proper internet ‘foreign film’ club, where each member ‘buys’ a DVD from abroad with part of their subscription (thus bypassing the problem of importing it commercially) and then ‘lends’* it to other members (thus allowing people to see lots of different films without having to shell out for them). Of course, if a member really likes a film, then they can buy a new copy for themselves through the club. This is rather sneaky, but when the law is an ass, then I think one is entitled to be a sneak… As with the subtitler idea, this is really a prelude to a more comprehensive service one could offer members: if successful, one can imagine offering films directly through the internet, special cinema screenings, etc, etc…

There I go again, thinking big. (My problem in a nutshell.) Why can’t I be content every so often just to see the smaller picture?


* Lends, swaps – something along those lines…

(Category: Business)

9.55 am

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Sunday 19 March 2006

Playing games

I spent yesterday afternoon sitting round a table and playing a couple of mad games with friends and acquaintances. The maker of one of the games – and a familiar name from earlier Saturday afternooons – is Cheapass Games, an enterprising (and necessarily American?) company whose interests tend towards the offhand, macabre and black-humoured: their most famous game is called ‘Kill Dr Lucky’… They keep their prices down, thus justifying their name, by supplying only the cards (and, if necessary, the boards) and expecting the players to come up with the more generic items needed for such games: dice, counters, money. As always happens when I happen across something new that I rather like, I am possessed by a spirit of emulation (read: imitation), and am currently trying to think up similar games of my own.

The two subjects I have in mind are Adultery and Succession. The first is easily the more interesting, though getting it to work as a game, even in the most basic theoretical terms, is proving troublesome. Should each player represent both a ‘cheat’ character and a ‘cheated-on’ character? (That limits the minimum number of players, I would have thought.) What is the setting for the game – an overheated village, perhaps, where everyone turns out to be sleeping with everyone else? Is the purpose of the game to commit adultery with lots of different people (say over a period of days), or to cover up a liaison that has already taken place? It would be nice to inject a shock gay affair into the mix, but how? Are there detectives involved? Etc, etc.

‘Succession’, on the other hand, lends itself so easily to the format that it might be difficult to avoid resembling other games. For instance, I have thought from the beginning that the game would end when the winning player, armed (perhaps literally) with the requisite means of keeping power, made it to the palace balcony – the setting would be the capital of a small country whose leader had just died, leaving a power vacuum. It just so happened that the new game we played yesterday, Zombies!!! (from ‘Twilight Creations’, though very like a Cheapass game in structure and tone), ends when the first player gets to the helicopter, having dispatched all the unlovely undead from the helipad… I suppose both endings can ultimately trace their lineage back to Snakes & Ladders, so I shouldn’t feel so bad about the similarities.

The pleasures for both games will be in the details, though I suspect with some of the Cheapass games that the amusement of some of the character/weapon/surprise cards masks deficiencies in the game itself. For ‘Succession’ I envisage three ways of taking power – coup d’état, democratic election and hereditary succession. There is, of course, no moral highground here – any election will be won by corruption (bribes, graft) rather than good policies, while the heredity angle will doubtless be based on forgeries. It’s perhaps a little too complicated for its own good at the moment, but it certainly allows plenty of opportunities to be funny…

And as I have filed this entry under ‘Business’, I ought to stop skirting around the issue and ask myself whether there is actually any money to be made out of this. If you get the game to work and it’s a success, what sort of return are you like to get out of it? Is this likely to end up as another of my ‘interesting but profitless’ ideas?

Another notion I picked up yesterday was about the ultimate ‘cheapass’ game accessory – the pack of cards. Why not come up with a pack that had photos of actual spades, clubs, hearts (ugh) and diamonds, to say nothing of kings, queens and jacks, on them? (Perhaps ‘knaves’ would be better than ‘jacks in this case.) It’s funny, of course, that we never play card games anymore – I did play poker with some villains before Christmas, but that was more an act of worship before the great god Sinatra than anything else. When I think of the great cardgames I used to play – gin rummy, cribbage, the wild and wonderful bezique, that very peculiar Norwegian game mattis – I wonder why we don’t bother any more. The rules are certainly no less peculiar than the Cheapass ones. (Funny I should care, really: I’m not sure I even like playing card games, as I so often get bad hands and then manage to make them worse…)

(Category: Business)

3.49 pm

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Friday 10 March 2006

Something else

I suppose I ought to have added that the Business category is grey…

(Category: Business)

11.46 am

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