Rethinking Video Part Three

Been a while since I’ve done one of these. You may remember in the last part of this series of articles, I hinted at a documentary I was doing (It’s posted below, but you can check it out here if you don’t want to wait). This was April, seven whole months ago.

I got busy. That happens with life and I wish it didn’t. On top of that, my computer couldn’t handle the high definition video that I wanted it to. I wish it could have, but it couldn’t.

The documentary in question is about my friend and his barn. For a little background, he lives in a house that was built around the time of the American Civil War, and the property also includes a barn from the same era. Back then, my whole town was farm land (apparently my property 30 seconds away was part of an orchard) but now the original properties have been substantially broken down for housing. From what I’ve seen, his is the only one in town to include the original barn. Anyway, I called him up and asked him if he’d be interested in letting me do some filming to test out my camera. He agreed.

Now, it’s important to note that this filming had no plan. I came over and told him to just start talking. We didn’t hash out too much of a story, there wasn’t any logic to the way the footage was shot, and we concluded filming when there wasn’t enough light to go any further. Having said that, don’t expect the resulting documentary to follow any logical flow. It was more an act of shooting as much as possible, and then seeing if I could somehow work all the footage together in a way that made sense. In this regard, I think it came out well.

Let’s talk about where I messed up. For one, lighting. I brought a measly halogen light when I went to film, but quickly abandoned it. It made absolutely no difference whatsoever in illuminating the room. I probably could have produced better footage had I handled the ISO settings better, so that’s something to take into consideration for next time. Really though, it’s difficult to get a good sense of things when you have only a two inch screen to look at and adjust with. On top of this, I also purchased an inexpensive NEEWER LED lighting rig that sits on top of the camera. Though off-brand and cheap, it’s particularly bright and comes with several gels so it should help out tremendously. A smaller mistake I made was where I had my friend looking when on camera. While I tried to follow the rule of thirds as best as I could, I didn’t know about having the subject look to the far side of the camera. If you have him look at the edge of the screen he’s on, it’s as if 2/3 of the screen is wasted. Unfortunately, it’s something that you cannot unsee after it is pointed out to you. Lastly, I had some problems in audio. While I did monitoring with headphones, it was difficult to gauge the sound quality when I could hear everything from outside the headphones as well as through them. Ultimately, I’ll probably get a pair that do noise cancellation. I’m also interested in getting an inexpensive shotgun microphone for something a little more directional.

For editing, I ended up completely building a new computer from scratch. The process and all the little details can be found here, so give that a glance if you have not already. While I did a rough edit on my laptop, it would frequently crash and I could not get an fine edit because the playback was so choppy. This new rig does the job nicely and cuts through the video like a warm knife. Now, I started editing this in Sony Vegas and that’s what I finished in. For future projects, I am hoping to switch to Adobe Premiere. I’m a bit sick of Vegas at this point, especially after finding a glitch wherein I cannot render using the beefy GPU I got for the build. Anyway, I feel the editing went well. I’m not fantastic at color correcting. I did some minor correcting and light balancing, but some of the footage was hard to do anything with since it was so dark.

Below is the final edited video if you care to check it out. I originally planned to do a few of these mini documentaries, but it took so long to do one and I ultimately ran out of time to follow through with anything else. While I had some problems with this project, I can say that few of these issues would effect how I do Obsoleet or any similar tutorial-based segment. I recently created a segment for The New Tech which will pop up soon with any hope, and I can now turn my attention more towards this type of content once again. Let’s just hope real life tones it down a little.


Rethinking Video Part Two

So before I get into talking about my next film, I’d like to do a brief writeup on some of the audio gear I’m now using. Right after I filmed my ‘Monday’ video, I was already making my plans for the next one I’d do. As soon as I moved past the conceptual ideas, there was the question of what additional hardware I might need, and it came down to a few things I wanted to pick up to handle sound better. There are quite a few people out there that embrace the built-in microphone for the T3i, but let’s just be realistic and state the obvious: it is a built-in microphone on a camera designed primarily to take stills. So you already have a camera not designed to do video, though it is capable of doing it nicely, and then you have the microphone it comes with and let’s face it, when was the last time you bragged about the microphone on your digital camera. At first I tried to be a optimistic and shot a little video indoors with me talking a few feet away from the camera. Even at a few feet, the speech was low and the background noise was high. If you consider the comment I made in the last post about filming in the wind, filming anyone talking outdoors with this setup was simply out of the question.

It came down to what combination of audio components would I want to assist my camera. If you do any sort of searching around for information about digital audio recorders, you will quickly stumble upon the company Zoom who manufacture a slew of recording products for both amateurs and professionals alike. For the DSLR filmmaker, the Zoom H1 and H4n are the popular products: the Zoom H1 being an entry level recorder with two on-board microphones, mic in and line out jacks, and the H4n boasting four channel recording and a sturdy rubberized chassis. For $300, I didn’t want to spring for the H4n, so I decided to take a gamble and try the H1 for less than a third of the price of its bigger brother. Yes, there are other digital recorders out there (Sony actually offers a similar looking recorder for about $20 less than the H1) but the reviews I looked up more than sold me on the H1, as well as hearing it do its thing.

If you do any sort of video searches for the H1 to see it in action, you may be pleasantly surprised. The recorder itself looks a bit like a toy, but the audio you can get out of it can be downright amazing at times. I quickly found videos using the H1 at a live music event and was stunned by the clarity of the recorded music. I also found another video of the H1 being compared to the internal T3i microphone and a Rode VideoMic. I have to say that to my ears, both the Rode microphone and the H1 microphones blew the T3i out of the water and the H1 very slightly outperformed the Rode mic as well. Even when they did a test of the Rode microphone plugged into the H1, I still preferred the sound of the H1 directly.

So as I said, I ordered the H1. I also got a shoe mount, since it made more sense to mount the recorder on top of my camera than to hold the recorder near it, or use a second tripod. The H1 can be screwed on to a standard tripod mount, but with a shoe mount costing under $2 I could slide one end into the slot on my camera meant for an external flash and screw the recorder onto the other. I also got a windscreen from Rode called the “Dead Kitten” which lives up to its name in appearance. Windscreens were highly recommended for the H1 which just leaves its microphones exposed  with no cover. Some people say to go foam, while others will point you to the fur-styled ones. I wanted to get fur, and the two main names seem to be Rode and a smaller company called Redhead. I ended up going with Rode simply because I could get a better deal on it through Amazon. Lastly, I also ordered a 16GB microSDHC card so I could record for a long time and not have to worry about swapping cards.


Mounting the Zoom H1

When everything arrived, most things went together without a hitch. The H1 recorder has extensive settings for audio quality, and switches in the back for lo-cut, format, and automatic leveling. I switched the format to WAV and turned off automatic leveling as I have read that you will get inconsistencies: the recorder will start recording loudly and cut the sound down a few seconds in which can be nightmarish for recording music. I also pushed the quality as high as it could go, and saw that I had about 7 hours with my microSD card. Plenty of space there. The windscreen fit the recorder like a glove, but I really wonder about the blocking power in strong winds. I also noticed that it really picks up handling noise, so if you are simply hitting buttons while recording you will pick up a lot of unwanted noise. Since I am mounting this on top of my camera, there is no problem there, even with moving shots I cannot notice any movement noise. I also read wrapping the unit in some rubber bands helps, especially around the battery and card doors, and that did actually help eliminate vibrational noise to a degree. It looks a bit strange, but it works.

I’d also like to mention that while you can use the line-out on the recorder to the input on the camera, I decided for the sake of quality to record separately and synchronize the streams in post. While this may be a little more time consuming as I have to line up tracks, it should produce an overall better sound. I tried the T3i sound side by side with sound from the Zoom H1, and I have to say that I can confirm on the the fact that the H1 is much better. Even with the lo-cut filter on the H1 off, there is so much less background noise I can’t even do it justice in writing.

You’ll just have to listen to it.


Rethinking Video Part One

Last week, I took my first footage with my Canon Rebel T3i camera (You can watch it here if you want before I mention it later). I had been wanting a DSLR camera for around 5-6 years and took the step a few months ago to order one. I did my research beforehand, though. For a few weeks I was looking up reviews on professional sites and web forums, asking friends, and comparing specs. Overwhelmingly, I was turned to the Canon line of cameras. That isn’t to say that I jumped right on the bandwagon. I did weighing between the Canon lines and Nikon lines before I made any decisions, and made sure I got plenty of sleep as to cut down on 3am impulse buys. Both companies produce fantastic products, but I was just pulled more towards the world of Canon, and I’m happy where I ended up. After my internal deliberation over brand, it came down to what camera from the Canon line I wanted. I would have loved to go out and spend $2500 on a 5D MKII with the full frame sensor and slew of lenses, or even $1600 on a mid-range 7D, but I didn’t have the resources to spend more than $1000, so I turned to the nicely priced 600D with an 18-55mm IS lens.

When I was looking at cameras to buy, I was also looking at the video capabilities. The 600D had great reviews for it’s video features, and I was excited at the idea of being able to both replace my point-and-shoot camera  and my mini DV camcorder in one go. So of course, I thought of how this camera could impact my filming process with Obsoleet and how I could take things to a whole new level. Shortly after my purchase, I tried out the camera and was hooked. I was really stunned by the image quality I was getting from my stills, and really hoped that I could squeeze everything out of the video features as well. But first, I bought some gear. I ordered a UV filter, two more batteries, two 16gb SDHC cards, a lend hood, a microfiber cleaning cloth, and a carrying case. As the packages poured in, my setup began to fill out and it was exciting seeing everything come together. I’m not normally one to go out and buy the little extras, but I felt that if I was going to do this I should at least take the time to do it correctly.

The Canon EOS 600D / Rebel T3i

Before I took my camera out to shoot some video, I first decided to install a third-party firmware called Magic Lantern. If you want to get technical, it’s a piece of software that runs on top of Canon’s stock camera firmware, and the package supports many DSLR’s in the Canon line. It was originally developed for those wanting to use their Canon cameras for film production, but has evolved to give an all-around enhanced and fine-tunable experience for you and your camera. I’d like to state that the group who creates and maintains Magic Lantern does not recommend it for someone just starting out with their camera, and it does pay to get to know what you’re doing before you go and add a whole new series of complications to what you’re doing. So if you’re thinking of dropping ML onto an SD card and trying it out, get a bit of a feel for all of the settings your camera has before you go and get your feet wet. You can go out an buy all the expensive accessories and install the fancy firmware but if you don’t know what you’re doing fundamentally, you’re as well off as you would be with a camera phone.

So I went out, spent four hours taking small clips of footage, and eventually assembled them into something tangible. It’s not the most fantastic video, but it is something, and something is better than nothing at all. The video is called ‘Monday’ because, well, I made it on Monday. It features some places that are all in walking distance of my house, and the day was nice enough that I felt like going out and doing a little something with my time. If anything, this video is just a proof of concept. I wanted to get my first feel of recording something nice in high definition, and seeing what it looked like when compared with my grainy digital video camcorder. I’m a fan of the environment I was filming in, and I think I ultimately ended up with some beautiful shots.

It was a learning experience though, and you can see my mistakes in the video. For example, the first few shots were over-exposed (though I get some strange enjoyment from the ghostly look they carry), and my handling of the camera was shaky at times. Other downfalls are hidden from you. The wind was horrendous, and if I actually included the original audio tracks from shooting, you would want to rip out your speakers and smash them on the floor. Editing was challenging to say anything. Trying to preview the edited footage caused the video to stutter lag. I can’t tell you how often I had the editing software crash either. As a side note, I was also unhappy with my use of text but that’s a whole separate issue. I don’t think anyone gets anywhere without being their own worst critic, and ultimately I want to create something I’d enjoy watching.

Even here, there are already clear things I can do differently next time, most of which I either realized or discovered through my adventure: know what I’m doing with respect to exposure, ISO, and shutter speed, use a tripod or steady-cam, use a windscreen, etc. I also didn’t do much with the video after taking it. I made some rough edits, a few basic transitions, but nothing too solid. I also did not do anything with color correction, which I am hoping to pursue with my next video. In all, there is work to be done. I never expected any of these skills to come overnight, and they won’t, but I feel like I’m off to a good start and am on the path I want to take. The more I shoot, the more I can play with, and the more I’ll ultimately learn which is just what I’m looking to do.

So here ends entry one of many centered around my trials with DSLR video. The video I took here, Monday, is going to be the first of a series I’ll end up taking as I refine my abilities and hopefully don’t run out of ideas.

It should be exciting.


High Definition

Up until a week ago, I used a standard definition television set for just about everything. I’ve always been what you could call a “late adopter.” I rarely spring for the newest and best. My computers are crumbling, my mp3 player is scratched on every surface, and my is phone brick-like. Yet, all of these will last me well into the future. I figured I would take the dive into the world of high definition. It wasn’t a necessary transition, but one I wanted to explore as my taste in cinema expands.

My first testing of the water was a year and a half ago. I got a smaller HDTV at a flea market. It was an impulse buy at $30, but had a slew of problems that prevented me from wanting to use it every day. There were vertical lines of “seemingly” dead pixels that would eventually return to full form if you happened to be watching for a few hours. The antenna jack didn’t work. The audio was shaky. It wasn’t even as big as my clunky, second-hand CRT. In all, it turned out to be a fun little 20 inch tv that could be whipped out for some gaming if I felt like treating myself to something different.

After finally deciding I wanted my own HDTV, I embarked on the process of research. I feel like this has been lost on the general public. Go to any big box electronic retailer and linger near the more expensive devices. The majority of people will basically have the decision of what they want to buy made by someone working there. That isn’t for me. I like to pour myself into Amazon and Newegg reviews, sifting through pages for days in my downtime. I finally decided on a Panasonic Viera, the S2 series to be more precise. I played the waiting game, to see if the price would drop, but it seemed to hover steadily a few notches below the MSRP. When I finally decided to spring for it a month or so down the road, finding it proved to be the most difficult task. Now, what I learned about these televisions is that when they new models are close to rolling around, different stores approach this situation in different ways. I noticed about a week before going out to buy that many stores had them taken down from their online websites, but said stores may still have them available. Visiting these stores turned out to be a bust. They had them listed for sale, had a demo unit, but no stock. Clerks informed me they were on closeout, and would not be able to get new stock. Calling other stores in the chains turned up no televisions hiding out in other store rooms, so I turned to Best Buy. Now, the clerk there informed me that the televisions were still in stock and could be ordered for at least another month. This confused me a little bit, but started to make sense considering most stores would not want to be left with stock when the new models come around. Not wanting to waste anymore time, I snagged it, bagged it, and toted it home for a quick setup.

The first thing I did was go through all of the settings, and I mean all of them. It amazes me how much can be packed into the menus on a modern television. The second thing I did was plug in the Xbox 360 to play some Halo for an hour or two. When the menu popped up on screen, I was sold. It was exactly what I wanted from gaming that I lacked with a standard definition set. The next thing I did was pop in a DVD. That impressed me almost as much as the game did. It wasn’t high definition, but you could have easily fooled me. The picture popped, the detail level was high, and I found myself noticing stuff I never did before. It was an experience.

Now, at this time, I was using the Xbox 360 through component cables. I, according to Wikipedia, have the only model of 360 lacking an HDMI port. A bit of a bummer, but one I can live with. I didn’t bother buying any HDMI cables for my other devices locally. I checked around Amazon and found nicely rated ones for four dollars a pop, so I ordered three and they got to me in about a week. So upon getting them, I hooked up my DVD player and my DVD recorder and went to town setting all the picture options and adjustments. I have to say, I’m really impressed. If you did the math, you might notice I ordered an extra cable. Hopefully, this will facilitate a Blu-ray player at some point in the near future, but that is another story.

When it came to all of my other components, they hold up nicely. My original Xbox (sporting XMBC) looks very nice when using it with the component cables. The Wii also looks pretty nice via component, but is not much of a step up from the classic composite connection. My VCR looked surprisingly good. A lot of people go on about how the image quality of a VHS tape looks awful on a big screen, but I noticed no difference between that and your basic television. It might have even looked better, but that could be stretching things a bit.

Considering my love for IPTV, I might be seeing some more bandwidth and hard drive space being gobbled up now as I could start jumping on the high definition video train. I’ve streamed a few high definition XviD’s through the Xbox 360, but it seems to have problems with some of the more popular formats. So having said that, if anyone can recommend a standalone player or something that does network streaming and can play basically any HD format, drop me a line. I’d love to get more high quality playback, and am somewhat limited with my current setup. And yes, I know the PS3 can stream, and I know there are some Blu-Ray players that can handle a wide spread of formats, but they respectively cost a bit too much and don’t seem to review well.

When I got the television, I had a bit of a fear. I love the warmth of analog. There is something that feels cold about digital that I just cannot place. Even through this, I get a great feeling from this television, and feel that nothing has been lost.

If anything, I don’t feel like I’m being pushed from my ways. Instead,  I feel like I’m being supported in them through some odd, unexpected twist.