Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nitty Nuts and Gritty Bolts

Next entry, I promise I'll wax all political. But first, a bit of the nit and grit.

On Tuesday morning, I released video #2 "Wherefore Art Thou Juliet?" I'm not saying it wasn't exciting or fun because it absolutely was. But I'd be lying if I said it was easy. There were lots of little steps, all of which involved numerous nuts and bolts, many of which got screwy along the way (pardon the pun). The first video, "You Renegade Vamp", I decided to do quick and dirty. As much as I'm a sucker for perfect execution, it was more important for me to get it on its feet and out into the world. This time around, I decided to up the production value a little. Rather than shoot it on my Canon PowerShot, I waited until I found a cameraman. Being the type of person who wants it all done yesterday, this in itself was a challenge for me. But I had the feeling that recruiting a DP (director of photography) would really pay off. And it did.

I had contacted one cinematographer friend who had not responded. It's a funny thing, though -- as was the case with my pianist, the perfect person found me in the nick of time. Just as I was starting to get antsy about finding someone, I got an e-mail from my friend Kerri Kuchta, whom I know from Scary Cow Productions -- the Bay Area filmmaking collective that got me started on all of this movie madness. Kerri and her boyfriend, Andre Lomov -- also a talented filmmaker from Scary Cow -- moved down to the LA area to pursue careers in screenwriting and film. (Andre didn't have a website so here is the link to my favorite film of his, Smash Grab Therapy.) The e-mail from Kerri, written early Friday evening, said "Andre just bought a camera if anyone you know needs a camera guy." Gee, Kerri, funny you should say so...

We agreed to meet and shoot the thing on Sunday. I went over to Kerri’s Sunday afternoon, thinking it would probably be a 1-2 hour ordeal. (Famous last words, right?) Of course, there were tons little kinks to work out. The camera Andre bought was a Canon 7D which, for any of you who are unfamiliar, is a high-quality digital still camera that also shoots extremely nice-looking video. The downside of the 7D is that it doesn't record very good sound. We thus had to use an external mic and capture the audio via Garage Band. Luckily, Andre had a lavaliere that suited the purpose nicely. Or at least, it would have had it been working properly. For some reason, we couldn't seem to get any sound. We tried and we tried. Nothing. Finally, Andre realized that the issue was with the battery, which had not been changed in 12 years. It was one of small silver disc batteries; not the type of thing you'd have lying around your house. So he, Kerri, and I had to go out and find another one. First stop: CVS. Fail! Second stop: RadioShack. Ding ding ding!

We went back to Kerri's and tested out the mi. It did indeed work, but for some reason the levels were low. "You're going to have to boost the gain on this when you cut it together," Andre told me. Okay, I thought, not knowing exactly what that meant, much less how to do such a thing. But I figured I'd cross the bridge when I came to it. For now, we needed to get this thing in the can before it got too late.

By the time we solved the mic problem, it was already approaching 6:00. The daylight was fading fast. Andre relit the shot to accommodate the change in lighting. In hindsight, the new lighting actually worked a lot better. We added more artificial light to compensate for the lack of natural light, which created some shadows that were highly appropriate to the vampire theme. 13 takes later, the video was done. We copied all of the video files, along with the external audio track, into my computer. As the files were importing, Kerri sang snippets of my lyrics back to me, which amused and flattered me to no end. The video looked beautiful -- a vast improvement from the previous song. I went on my merry way, knowing that my work had only just begun.

After recording "You Renegade Vamp", I really didn't do much besides slap some titles on and upload the thing. Wherefore Art Thou Juliet? required a lot more work. First, I had to sync the external audio with the image. This wasn't too difficult since I had done a clap at the beginning of each take (make a note of that, young filmmakers!). Still, my mind played tricks on me, which prolonged the process. Once that was done, I had to sync the music track to the vocals. Because the lavaliere captures only direct sound, I had to do it completely by feel. This was a bit of a challenge since the rhythm of the music shifted slightly throughout the piece, due to us recording it in a short amount of time without using a metronome. Again, I kept doubting myself. Is the music ahead? Behind? Should I shift the audio a frame forward or back? (This process went on for what seemed like forever in the wee hours of the morning.) Somewhere toward the end of the piece, I realized that my vocals were significantly behind the music, probably because I ended up using the last take (Lucky 13). 13 was by far the strongest performance-wise, but I was also pretty tired by that point and consequently my timing was off. I split the music track, adjusting the timing on the final section. Lucky thing about post-production: everything can be changed.

Now, for a dirty little secret. I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but if you guys are hard-core enough to be reading this blog, you deserve to know. As I was doing all the sound mixing -- which involved lots of boring tasks like tweaking the volume levels on each track, quieting the hotspots in the vocals, and fiddling endlessly with the gain (whatever that means) -- I realized that my voice cracked in the final phrase. I was set on using Take 13 because everything else about it was awesome, but I needed a strong finish. Take 9 had the ending I wanted so I cut and pasted the final phrase of Take 9 onto Take 13. It synced up surprisingly well. There is probably no need to feel guilty, since people splice and mix and tweak in the recording studio all the time. In fact, in this day and age, it would be considered peculiar not to. I wanted to have a single audio and video track without any cutaways so that people could see the "real me". Splicing the audio seemed somehow deceptive. But I did it anyway, and I think the song is stronger because of it. I do, after all, want to put my best foot forward. And I didn't actually do anything to alter my voice so for all intents and purposes it's the real, raw me.

Wow, this entry is getting pretty long. I suppose it's appropriate, given the process I went through. Video editing is rather addictive. Once you start tweaking, it's very hard to stop. Even though I was only dealing a single shot, I found endless audio glitches that needed fixing. Finally, when I was through, it took several rounds of rendering to get the perfect compression settings. Each render took the better part of an hour, which meant a lot of anxious waiting around. On Monday afternoon, after long, nearly sleepless night, I got my perfect video image -- or so I thought. Little did I know that uploading AVI’s to YouTube is a very bad idea. I kept looking at the counter on the upload screen, counting down the minutes from 418. At 6pm, I went out to meet a couple friends. According to YouTube, my video still had a few hundred minutes to go. Later that night, Eric Chauvin -- bless his soul -- told me that my video would be YouTube compatible if I made it into a flash file. By Tuesday morning, it was correctly formatted and up on the web. What an ordeal!

Hopefully when you see the thing, it all looks effortless. But for the record, here's how it really went down.

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