Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Fish and Other Mysteries

This video was shot in the Pennypack Creek on the last, lazy Saturday in June. I bought a cheap, refurbished Kodak PlaySport several months ago that was supposed to be waterproof to three meters, and wanted to give it a proper test. Fish inhabit a murky, alien world and this camera made a convenient probe with which to explore it.

Behind the Scenes

Underwater, the camera's low weight proved to be a hindrance as even the gentle current insisted on knocking it over when I tried to balance it against a stone. Eventually, I just shoved it about an inch or two down into the silt and gravel, and that was enough to hold it in whatever direction I pointed it.

From the surface, the fish aren't immediately obvious; their coloration combined with the flickering reflections of sunlight off the water disguise the creatures from casual observation. One has to stand and stare at the water for a moment before the fish become obvious.

The fish also didn't seem too interested in hanging around the camera, so I hatched a simple plan to catch them on video: wade into the water downstream of the fish, then walk towards the camera while my son and my buddy tossed rocks into the water around me, thus herding my ichthyic subjects into frame. Fish, however, are remarkably averse to herding and they challenged us repeatedly by swimming towards shallow water to skirt around me and the fusillade of stones.

We kept modifying this strategy and shifting the camera's position in an effort to negotiate a happy outcome for fish and human, but this process took about twenty minutes before we were sure something had swum past the camera's lens.

I later learned there was no need to be so aggressive in my approach. Each time I placed the camera and walked away, the silt churned up by my exertions proved an attractive banquet and plenty of creatures swam into frame within moments. Still, the variety of locations and angles proved interesting, and I edited down some of the more interesting footage into the shots seen above.

In addition to throwing stones in my general direction, my buddy also pulled out his smartphone and made numerous recordings in the hope that I'd slip or lose my balance and fall into the silty stream. I'll let him post his results elsewhere.

Refurbished and Waterproof Don't Go Together

Proud of our efforts and satisfied that I'd gotten some interesting video, I plucked the camera from the water and stored it in the pocket of my wet shorts. After all, if the thing had been under a couple of feet of water for almost a half hour, it certainly should have no trouble with wet pants. Right?

Wrong. The PlaySport has two latched doors that hide the unit's I/O ports and battery compartment. I think one of those little doors sprang open inside my pocket, because about fifteen minutes later I found the display had misted up and the camera was no longer responsive. I immediately pulled the battery and hoped for the best, but I was disappointed that I'd probably only gotten one use out of the camera.

Something's Fishy with YouTube

I thought all the interesting parts of this story were behind me when I edited the movie together last night. Knowing that YouTube is quite obsessive about catching copyright-protected songs and realizing that the bubbly underwater sound captured by the camera wouldn't hold attention as well as a punchy piece of music, I went off to Amazon in search of something royalty-free that I could drop in as a simple soundtrack. I chose "You Took Advantage of Me" by Richard Rodgers from the CD "Royalty Free 1920s Music, Volume 2". It had a quirky vibrancy that worked well with fish going about their fishy business.

I mixed it all together in Blender, then uploaded the finished piece to YouTube so it would be easy to share with friends.

But shortly after uploading, my video got flagged with a copyright warning. I rolled my eyes and investigated, thinking that YouTube didn't distinguish between royalty-free music and RIAA's little fetishes. But YouTube instead claimed that I was using Bix Beiderbecke's "(What Are You Waiting For) Mary" from The Orchard Music.

I'd heard about YouTube getting confused about birdsong before, but now it's clear they can also be mistaken about songs. It seems their algorithm for identifying intellectual property "theft" is a bit shaky. I filed a dispute over the claim, but the form for the dispute didn't include a choice matching "Hey bozos, your computers picked the wrong music", so I went with the closest match: "This video uses the copyrighted material at issue, but with the appropriate license or written permission from the copyright owner."

I can appreciate the need to support musicians, and while I think RIAA gets carried away, I'm happy to make adjustments to ensure no one is denied fair compensation. I specifically bought this music to use in videos uploaded to YouTube, but their process for identifying copyrighted material is flawed. This was intended to be a quick, throw-away piece of video seen by less than ten people.

If I had used Beiderbecke's piece, what difference would it have made? The musician died in 1931 and had no children. With no heirs, only The Orchard has an interest in the matter, and it's not like recordings of "What Are You Waiting For" are flying off the shelves. I doubt any of my friends were likely to buy copies of either Beiderbecke's or Rodgers' pieces before I made my video, and they're only slightly more interested (at best!) in such a purchase now. The only way such dusty, old pieces are likely to generate any income for their owners is through public exhibition.

YouTube used to be a fascinating place that reflected the cultures of the planet. One could go there to view all sorts of productions in grainy, low-quality in ten minute chunks. A lot of that material belonged to major studios, but there was something vibrant and exciting about a repository of all visual media. When RIAA and MPAA went after YouTube and Google, that shared culture was compromised. It would suck if YouTube so significantly hurt profits from music, television, and movies that big companies started going out of business, but I rather doubt that was ever a serious possibility. And the reaction has been just as bad; a war on culture that has undermined people's ability to share their own creative efforts.

I haven't quite given up on YouTube yet. There are other sources of royalty-free music I'd like to try, and I keep hoping I'll someday come up with a few tolerable compositions of my own to use as soundtracks for experimental videos like this one. But at this rate, YouTube is proving to be more trouble than it is worth.

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