Lights! Camera! Action!

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This last week I finished up a new piece for rezlife’s upcoming series, Lights! Camera! Action! I generally do animation for the videos I create, but wanted to go a bit of a different direction with this one. About a week prior Megan and I had purchased a 50mm lens for our Canon T2i, and I really wanted to see what kind of videos I could get out of it.

Rewind to last Tuesday, which was supposed to be Snowpocalypse. Well, it really wasn’t, but it was technically a blizzard and the roads were pretty snow-packed, so both Megan and I stayed home for the day. All morning I was attempting to come up with ideas for this video, and for some reason I couldn’t really think of anything. Finally, at around noon I began to have some spark of an idea, and was able to fully flesh it out in my mind within an hour. So at about 2 pm we started to film.

I wanted to approach this by using the concept of a movie as a metaphor- how movies are simply the running together of a bunch of different frames, each a snapshot of single moment in time that is here for a moment and then gone forever, and how each one is important to the film as a whole. Metaphorically, our lives become like that in that every decision we make, every moment we live creates the story of our lives. In this piece I wanted to capture the idea of having the choice to let life happen, or to make it happen.

Thus, I decided to use the metaphor in a two-fold sense: both as the foil for itself (in that we see the subject watching a blank tv, waiting for something to happen) and as something that transcends itself. (in that it ends by getting up and turning off the tv, the idea being that life is something you do rather than passively engaging.)

Anyway, that’s kind of the idea behind the concept. Here’s how I made it:

Throughout, I wanted it to be somewhat contemplative and conceptual, so I used a lot of shots that abstract the scene from the actual room it is in- close-ups on Megan’s face, tight shots of hands and chairs and remotes, etc. This abstraction allows the story being told to transcend itself and allows anybody to feel as if they could be the one in this scene. Additionally, it had the advantage of letting me use a very small space (our apartment living room) and still make it feel as if it could be anywhere. There size of the space also contributed to this- there were actually two couches in this room at the same time, and so many of the tight shots just barely kept them out of frame or used the chair or Megan as a screen to block them from view!

For lighting I got a little lucky- there was already a lot of snow on the ground by then, but it was still snowing, so it created the perfect lighting conditions which I don’t think I could recreate if I tried. We have this large screen door that goes out to a deck, and so I basically just set up the scene a few feet from it. The light from outside coming off the snow created this nice soft glow through the window, which turned out to be perfect. I wanted it to be a little ethereal, so I didn’t try to illuminate the other side, but let the play of light and shadow work to my advantage. In some of the close-up shots of Megan (especially the final close-up on her face) it was really effective, in my opinion.

As I already mentioned, I shot this on the Canon T2i with a 50mm 1.4 lens. Since I was in such a small space and needed to hide some of the background elements as much as possible, the 50mm really helped with its amazing depth of field. I intentionally kept the aperture around 2.0 or so to get as much of that as I could while still keeping it as sharp as possible. The lighting allowed me to keep the ISO around 400 with a pretty fast shutter speed.

The entirety of the shooting probably took 45 minutes at the most. I just had Megan stand/sit/look in different ways and positions. At this point I had a basic idea of what I wanted to see, but it wasn’t completely scripted or story-boarded. So for much of the time I was simply looking for good shots, and sometimes just had Megan sit there and do different things hoping to catch something good. Part of this was intentional to capture the essence of life being unscripted and happening as we go along, while part of it was just experimenting. Some of the angles simply wouldn’t have worked- there was one where I was standing on the arms of the chair trying to get an overhead shot, and nearly fell off!

Due to the nature of the piece and the lighting, I tried to get shots that played around with light and shadow quite a bit. Thus, for some of the shots I intentionally used the window to backlight the scene. It created a nice contrast I thought, and perhaps says something on a visual level within the whole of this piece.

The next day I finally got to start putting this together in Final Cut. My first step was to go through all the footage and create a quick edit of all the clips that I might possibly use- this included not only the ‘wow’ shots that I wanted to keep, but also the ones that might help tell the story even if they weren’t great in and of themselves. This probably pared it down by about 60%. This became a rough cut sequence from which I would draw. By then I had a script written out of the text I wanted to use to tell the story, so the next step was to find the scenes that would really sell it. But as I started to do this, I realized that part of what would pull it together was the music. I had already picked out a track, but after looking at my imagery, I decided it needed something else. I did a little searching and found one that I think had the right feel and timing.

At this point I laid down the track in the timeline (in a new sequence) and started what would become my final edit. At this point in my mind it was still a rough sketch- I was toying around with possibly doing some re-timing, (slowing some clips down a little) but wasn’t necessarily sold on that idea. I chose to get the nearly final edit laid out before I decided about re-timing. After watching it, I realized that re-timing would kill the pacing completely, and so I kept it full speed and was pretty happy with it. I probably played it back about 15 or more times and made minor tweaks and edits here and there to get the imagery to really match the pacing of the music. I only made about 1 or 2 major edit changes at this point (which involved switching the positions of a couple clips) because I was nearing a final edit.

For me, editing is the fastest aspect. I am sure that I spent far more time watching it than actually editing it. (which is probably how it is for everybody.) At this point, it was time to do all the post-production things that would really pull it together and make it (hopefully) a really compelling piece. At this point it was pretty good, and if I had exported it it would have been a good video. But I wanted it to be really good. πŸ™‚

The first thing was to correct some shaky footage. I do not (as of yet) have a motion stabilizer mount for my T2i, so filming was mostly me trying to be as un-shaky with the camera as possible. The lens has some stabilization built in, but it still cannot compensate for natural shakiness of hand-held operation. Fortunately, Final Cut Pro has a really amazing plug-in built in to it called SmoothCam. It has a couple of draw-backs: 1. it has to analyze your footage, which can take quite a while 2. It can seriously distort the images if you are not judicious in its use. For some footage you can basically just use the defaults, but I took the effort to manually adjust the settings for each clip, which gave me much better results. While its not perfect, it really saved a lot of my footage and gave this video some nice and smooth movements that helped to sell it a little more. (I intentionally dialed back the smoothness on the last two scenes- in the music you hear this kind of piano swell leading up the cut-off, and I wanted to capture that chaotic feeling a little bit, so I left a lot of the shake in there for that.)

The next thing was color correction. I am not a purist by any means, and almost any video I shoot or picture I take will undergo some kind of color-correction. Don’t get me wrong- the images out of the T2i were beautiful- this first example is the untreated image.

But I wanted to have a particular feel, so I used a couple of color-correction tools. The first was the 3-Way Color Corrector. I used this mainly to adjust the white and black levels- I pumped up the darkness of the blacks a little and added in just a tiny bit of whites. The second was the RGB balance, which I use to soften the skin tones and add a little blue to the images.

At this point I was really happy with the way my imagery was looking, so it was time to add in some text. I hate using Final Cut for text, so I sent the project over to Motion 4 to do the titles. The graphic for the series used Helvetica as a typeface, so I kept that for the titles. There wasn’t really anything spectacular or difficult about this part- mostly just finding something that complemented the video. At this point it can be tempting to go overboard with motion graphics, but I felt the imagery was so compelling that the last thing I wanted to do was distract from it. In fact, I was extremely hesitant to even use titles at all, but finally decided that it helped to tie everything together cohesively. Initially I simply had the text fade in and out, but I found a text behavior that randomizes a blur across each character (called “Ghostly”) which gave a nice ethereal feeling to the text movements. I usually don’t use presets like that, but it was what I was wanting to do anyway, and saved me the trouble creating my own parameters!

Once I was happy with the titles, I sent everything back to Final Cut Pro to finalize the project. I made one more modification- I duplicated the main video layer and placed it on the track above. I then added a blur to it and set it to Screen composite mode and dropped the opacity down to about 15%. This created a faint glow which gave the final piece a more dream-like quality.

That’s it! Special thanks to my lovely wife Megan who starred in this and really made it great. πŸ™‚

Enjoy.

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By deviantmonk

Jason Watson

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