Ignite Denver – March 2, 2010

Here we go again. Here’s the thing, when I learn stuff, I want other people to know. I can’t help it. Knowledge should be for everyone. I share with you, and can learn from you. It’s important to me. My dad was a teacher, so I guess it’s part of me, too.

In my latest presentation, I wanted to share some of the things I figured out when I started doing hardcore video production at work. (Not p0rn) We had several fits and starts to get video incorporated into our projects, and finally one day it broke loose into every project using video in one way or another. Video for CDs and DVDs, websites, mobile applications, and even on game systems like the Wii. Fun stuff, but there was a trial by fire learning curve.

Here are some of the basics that I think will help anyone just starting with video. Let me know what you think, and if you saw the presentation, give me a critique on that as well. I enjoy public speaking, but know I need to get better at it. Even teaching a weekly game design class doesn’t prepare me for standing in front of a big group who expects to hear something interesting.

It's not your mom's video shoot

Remember when your parents got either a new Super 8 film camera or maybe a video camera (depending on how old you are)? There was always that day when all the kids were put to bed earlier than usual and mom said stay in bed, and if you need a drink of water, go get it yourself. And don’t come downstairs.

The difference between then and now is pretty simple. Distribution. It used to be that you needed to have a huge studio that produced films that appealed to a wide audience just to make enough money to continue production. Film was (and is) expensive, and few people could waste that money on something noone would pay to see. Even if you did spend the money on production, then you would have to spend even more to get that film in a theater for people to see. Not many had the cash to do it.

Now and into the future, full motion graphics (including film, video, and animation) are everywhere. With every device getting a full color viewer and a live internet connection, if you don’t have your sights on creating visual content, you are way behind.

Which open the door the the traditional *low budget* productions: P0rn, instructional videos, and horror flicks. Jump in and create something. For work or for play, get your feet wet now. YouTube is already getting saturated with stuff, and some of it sucks. But how can you avoid making the same old shit that everyone else makes? Here are some tips.

Humans love stories. We love to be engaged and entertained. Even the dullest subject can be made into something interesting. Tell a story. This is the most important thing. Tell a story. Read this again. Tell a story. Find a message that you want to deliver. If you do this well, you can actually create reuseable pieces that can work for several different productions, saving time, money, and making you look awesome.

You may know everything in the world about your subject, but are you a writer? Do you know how to craft words and phrases that connect with people in their emotional and intellectual soul? Probably not. Don’t feel bad, most people can’t do it. Find someone who can, and work WITH them. Give them the points that you want to make and let them work their craft. You are probably too close to the material to make a clear statement. No offense intended, but get out of the way. The more you tweak it, the more it will suck.

Again, get out of the way of your message. Real actors control their voice, body, and gestures to add to the message they are delivering. Michael Caine does a great demonstration of how much meaning you can deliver by not blinking. Find someone who is an actor and allow them to do their thing. Respect them and pay them well. It will be money well spent.

When you actually get into production, there will be sounds, and every sound that gets on your recording becomes part of your message, whether you want it or not. Keep in mind, even the absence of sound counts as a sound, and can effect your message, too. Odd, right? Watch The Jetsons Movie. There are very few background sounds, and the entire film has a creepiness to it that is hard to place. All major productions have people who fill in all the needed background sounds that we associate with different situations. Either use the sound that you have, or control the environment that you are in. Either way, try to use it to your advantage. Also, find a microphone that serves your needs. If you don’t know what you need, ask someone. Call me and I’ll help you work it out.

Not, you, but your camera. It is just a tool. Don’t be a slave to what your camera can do. Learn how to use every setting on your camera. Don’t open the box on the first day of shooting and expect to shoot your opus. Figure out what it can do, and then use what it can do to tell your story in the best way. This goes for all you equipment, too. You are not an operator for the tools, they are your tools. Learn how to use them. Be a craftsman/craftswoman.

Just like the sound, everything that gets into the frame becomes part of your message, whether you intend it or not. Watch the entire frame, not just your subject. If you can’t control what’s in the frame and it is distracting from your message, tighten the shot, change the angle, shoot some place else, do something different. If you have no control of it, use it to your advantage. Figure out a way to make it work with your story. It’s not always easy, but it makes a difference.

If you want total control of the scene, you can go to a green screen setup. This is totally possible and within reach of *low budget* productions these days. Put your message in front of a green screen and you can do what ever you want in the background. It’s not as difficult as it seems. Keep in mind, it is a lot of extra work, and if you can get what you need shooting live, I highly recommend it.

Why green screen? Technically, it doesn’t have to be. It’s just that the bright green is one of the pure properties of light that isn’t as common of a color in our world. You can use a bright blue also, especially if you are shooting a person with blonde hair. Works better. You could probably use any color with today’s technology, but these are the ones that have proved easiest over the years. Why fix what isn’t broken?

Another thing to consider is your time. Time is money is especially true in the video production world. If you search for video studios, you’ll get lots of places with giant lighting systems, cyclorama (cyc) walls, and multiple backgrounds at your disposal. That’s all great if you have the budget, but if you don’t, search for boutique video and photography studios. Some photo studios have cyc walls set up that you just need to paint yourself. Creative agencies like ManMade Media have a full green screen setup at a fraction of the cost of a giant video studio. They use if for themselves, but when it is open, you can use it too. Plus, you get their expertise to draw on as well. Good deal. (Ask for Marcin, and tell him Bugfrog sent ya.) The point is, look around for options. Sometimes all you really need is a big empty warehouse space, so why rent a studio for 5 times the price?

If you do an internet search, you’ll get all kinds of recommendations for paints and fabrics that you “absolutely” need to get a good key on your subject. But the truth is, it doesn’t need to be perfect unless you are at George Lucas’ level. Chromakey green paint is $50 a gallon, but Behr S-G-430 Sparkling Apple Green is just about the same color for about $14/gal. and it will give you a great key with decent lighting. Chromakey green foam backed fabric – $16 a  yard. Bright green or blue fabric from a fabric store is about $6 a yard, and gets a similar job done. If you are not using  a system that is specifically designed to key off of Chromakey green or blue, you don’t need the expensive stuff. Just make sure your background color is even and smooth, and you should be fine.

When you go to light your scene, there really is nothing special to it. Just use normal photographic 3 point lighting on your subject. The place that trips people up is they try to light the whole scene as one scene, and end up with too much light. Think of it as 2 scenes, the forground or subject, and the background. If you can light the background and get closer to a silhouette of your subject, you are off to a good start. Try to keep shadows of your subject off your background, too. Many people flood the entire scene with light trying to blow out the background. What actually happens is the light reflects and spills all over the subject’s edges, making it harder to get a good key, and sucking tons of energy and blowing fuses.

Speaking of lights, you can easily go out and spend thousands of dollars on an excellent indie video studio lighting kit. It will absolutely get the job done. But you don’t need to. If you are not shooting a lot of fast motion footage on a high frame rate, you can use cheap florescent shop lights from a hardware store. $20 a fixture. Buy some broom handle clamps to screw into the back, and  you have a very cheap and flexible light that you can clamp onto just about any pipe, photo stand, table leg or lay on the floor. As an added bonus, these lights pull a ton less power, meaning you won’t be blowing fuses in the building every 10 minutes, possibly shutting down the computer lab in the office next door. Not that I am familiar with this. Really. Plus, studio lights use very specific and expensive bulbs and fuses that are a pain to find and replace. Avoid it. You can get florescents that match the lights where ever you are shooting for $20 for 10 these days. Hardware stores are your friend.

Sometimes you’ll have a full body shot that you will key out. Take a look. You will be wasting about 2/3 of your available pixels on either side of your subject. Turn the camera on it’s side and reclaim a good portion of those pixels and put them to use. Once you pull your key, noone will see what aspect ratio your footage was shot at, and you’ll get  a much cleaner shot. Give it a try.

For a low budget green screen, fast motion can cause lots of problems. If your footage has a blurry edge, it is going to be really tough to pull a clean key. You don’t have to be a statue, but fast and jerky movements should be minimized, or done on  a section that isn’t going to get keyed out, like an arm moving across a body. The outside edges where subject meets green is where we are concerned.

Once you get your video shot, you are going to have to deliver it from somewhere, and video takes a lot of memory. If you are storing on a CD or DVD or streaming through the internet, video files are huge and you are going to either need a lot of space, or a giant pipe do deliver it. CDs and DVDs have finite space. Find a balance between how much you want to compress and how good you want it too look. I advise you keep it looking better whenever possible, and keep the audio quality high. People tend to forgive bad video if the soundtrack is clean. Strange but true.

Fortunately, there are lots of service sites that can help out with the internet delivery. Some people will tell you that you need to buy software like Flash Media Server and learn how to run it. Not true. You don’t have to host it on your own server and risk taking down your entire site. Keep your site on your server, link to video files on a remote server, and everyone is happy. Influxis is one that I have been using and works great. There are others with different strengths and weaknesses. Send me a message and I can send you a list to get you started in your research.

The point is video files are demanding, and you need to consider how it will be delivered before you start production. If you are doing little how to videos, YouTube could be the perfect solution.

Any computer dealer will have their favorite tool to use for video production, probably on the main system they sell. It’s what they are familiar with, so they will say it’s the best. The truth is, any platform has the tools to do just about anything. What you need to do is really think about what you want to do now, and in 3 years when you better be buying a new computer anyway. You want a system and a software that will let you learn, grow, and most importantly, complete projects. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t make something. I seen people buy a full blown Mac setup with Final Cut Studio, and when they get it home, they are so overwhelmed, they can never figure out how to use anything but the most basic features. That’s a waste. There are lots of cheap and free tools out there. Get on the net and ask people what they have done with their software, and more importantly, see what they have done. If they aren’t making videos, what can they know about what tools to use?

This could be the most important thing to remember. Get signed releases from actors, musicians, extras, locations, just about everything. File them in a big yellow folder. Nothing hurts as much as having to tell Hollywood that you can’t find a release from your star actor, and therefore can’t sell your movie to them. Even if you never intend to do anything with your film, get a release. It’s easier when they are there with you than 3 years later when you can’t remember where you found the guy.  If you use music that you didn’t make, get a release. If you shoot in a recognizable place, get a permit. If you have a scene with people in the background, make sure you get their OK to be in your production. The legal issues are complex, but if you go in planning to get permission, things will be a lot easier in the long run.

Finally, figure out what you want to do, and then ask for advice on how to accomplish it. Even if you just ask a video professional to lunch to pick his/her brain. It will save you so much time and struggle in the long run that it will be worth it. There are tons of instructors, studios, students, and professionals that can give you guidance. Just be sure to have an idea of what you want to accomplish and try to ask specific questions. If you have no idea where to start, call me. I don’t know all the answers, but I can push you in the right direction towards someone who might.

Most importantly, make something. Shoot as much as you can. Even if it’s crap, shoot it, cut it, and put it up. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t much faster.

Break a leg.