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murder of crows

September 2, 2011

Murder of Crows,  Providence RI

These rather large birds congregate just before sunset in great numbers after the leaves have fallen through to the melting of the snow. In Providence, these gatherings can reach several thousand.

Discovery:

Between my house and my favorite supermarket is the East Side of Providence RI. It is a rout I loath to take at rush hour. One day, while waiting in traffic, I saw crows in the tall trees of College Hill. Edgar Allan Poe, met and courted a love interest named Sarah Helen Whitman who lived in Providence. He and  H. P. Lovecraft (who was born in Providence) were regular fixtures; both of them influential writers of gothic literature. I imagine the writers perambulating in horse drawn carriages under this very murder of crows cawing from the treetops. I imagine these creatures as inspiration for gothic writers who penned stories of love and horror. I rank my own experience of walking under thousands of crows as darkness grows to be among exceptional, spooky and beautiful moments in my life.

These birds congregate in one of several places.  I found if I followed the small groups (families) as they flew across the sky, they would lead me to a large cemetery, a tree near the Marriott Hotel, the East Side of Providence, or an area directly to the west of RT95. Over the course of several months… I would get into my car and search the sky for small groups of crows… usually five to ten in number. I would then follow the group until they joined the larger group. At times if I was too obvious with my tripod and camera they would move in great numbers to another location. Several times I think I drove the entire murder of several thousand around town until it got so dark I could only hear their cries and see their dark shadow bellies lit by the dim glow of streetlights. Eventually they would settle in a group of trees for the night and I would leave.

Technical Details

The camera original presented several limitations. The original video was shot during sunset the light was constantly changing. Magic hour devolved into muddy twilight. Colors shifted from moment to moment. The closer to sundown the clip was recorded the fuzzier the image. This was due to longer shutter speeds. The CMOS sensors in the cameras I used sample pixels over time to increase the camera sensitivity at the expense of crispness of moving objects.  I also needed to shoot in a westerly direction to obtain a bright sky behind the flying birds.

The first recording was done during a trip to the market. I always carry a pocket video camera which records to the MP4 (mpeg 4) video format. The 3GP encoding of cell phones presents issues during processing. This is the main reason I always carry a Flip Mino or Kodak ZI8. Hardware compression also introduces issues of dropped frames when post-processing so often I will transcode the pocket camera footage to a individual tiff sequence or by using an Animation codec. Animation and JPEG compression avoid the I and P frames of temporal compression. The image size was  720 HD. I generally don’t use full HD because it extends the render time considerably. As it is the software render will take up to an hour for one minute of original. Multiple renders of the same footage and rendered footage that has been discarded means I can expect for or five days of rendering to accumulate ten minutes of acceptable footage.

So the initial recordings were done with a pocket camera propped on a curb or a fence. There is little control over exposure and the auto exposure performs in steps. This limited the length of time to the interval between the exposure steps caused by the setting of the sun.  As the event became more predictable I chose to use a borrowed Panasonic Lumix GH1. Eventually I purchased a GH2 for myself to do this work. This resulted in using high ISO numbers when shooting and allowed me to stand away from the murder as to not drive them to new ground.

The camera original is processed in After Effects. Since these are black birds I depend heavily on the “darken” blending mode. This is the usual filter set.

Corner pin distortion – to fix parallax issues

Tint – to make resolve the changing colors of sunset

Auto levels  or levels – to drive the blacks darker and the lights whiter

Echo – at 66 frames (wanted to use 666 for the spookiness of the number but this is fairly arbitrary);  The blending mode set to darken; the lower number set to .97 in order to fade the tail of the flight path.

The entire process is fairly straight forward. The video clip below was a test to see if I could combine more than one section of the camera original. I decided not to do this. I also decided not to effect the video by “stretching” the time base. By this I mean making the video go faster or slower.

Screenings

The Rhode Island School of Design – Museum of Art – 1/2010

E32 – NYC June 21st, 2011

UMASS Amherst, Hampden Gallery – Incubator Space – Amherst, Mass  – Spring 2010

Danforth Museum –  Danforth Mass – Spring 2010

Mobius – Cyberarts Festival – Boston, Mass – Spring 2010 – review

Toronto Urban Film Festival – 9/2010

Interactive Futures – 11/2011 – Emily Carr – Murder of Crows – introduction to talk by David Bogan

From → video

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