Creative Commons Soundtracks: And Another 4 Weeks Worth

My project to take the free 8Pack released by Sony each week, to turn it into something else and then release it under the creative commons licence continues. I'm still not confident enough to think that they can stand alone but if you need a clip of music to back some video then I think they work and I have fun making them:
Suck It Up by the other Martin Taylor
Just Sit Back and Chill by the other Martin Taylor
Jigzag by the other Martin Taylor
Go With It Again by the other Martin Taylor

In addition I've been messing around with NanoStudio on my iPhone some more. These couple of tracks were also made with the intention of using them in video work and they're released under the same creative commons licence:
Go To Sleep by the other Martin Taylor 
The Return Trip Effect by the other Martin Taylor

Freesound: Give & Take

If you're a filmmaker at any level from just starting out to an industry expert you know that, in the edit process you always find a few sound effects, foley or ambient noises that you're missing. If you've been in that situation you've probably been to freesound.org. Freesound is a constantly growing library of Creative Commons licensed sounds. If you're looking for something their search engine usually returns a few hits of sounds that might be useful and it is often quicker and much more convenient than digging out your field recording equipment and hunting down the sound for yourself.

That said, I'm sure lots of us have a few eclectic sound recording languishing on our hard drives that we recorded for one project or another. If you have something you're willing to share the process of uploading them is a little geeky (ftp) but they do have a web interface too and it is a simple way of uploading a bunch of files at once. You simply upload your files, then describe and tag them and then wait a couple of days for them to be approved. What's in it for you? What goes around comes around and what good are those files you're hoarding especially if you're not going to use them again. I just uploaded some of the sounds I've collected in recent months and it felt good to share. I hope other filmmakers will consider doing the same and freesound will become an even more comprehensive and useful resource for everyone.

Skullcandy Hesh Headphones: Refinish

I have a slight headphone fetish. As I'm not encouraged to blast my music anymore I listen to music, write music, produce and edit video all while wearing headphone these days. I don't like in ear buds, I prefer big, over the ear headphones with my favorites being the chunky but beautifully solid and neutral Sennheiser HD 280's. As a result of this obsession I have several pairs of decent over the ear headphones lying around both at home and at work.

When I saw the Skullcandy Hesh Headphones in NBA Cavaliers Colors ridiculously cheap (they're usually $40-50) I couldn't resist. They had a built in iPhone microphone which I thought would be useful but I didn't like their paint job - I don't follow any American sport so I planned to refinish them.

This weekend I finally got chance to do that. Here's the process:

Disassembly:
  • Remove the earphone soft pads - they just pull off
  • Undo the 3 screws hidden under the ear pads
  • Separate the plastic holding the driver from the shell
  • Desolder the wires from the drivers (2 joints per driver) making a careful note of what goes were when we get back to reassembly.
  • Unscrew and remove the detail pieces in the shells (they were gold in my case).
  • Remove the connection cord from the left shell.
  • Carefully expand the c-brackets where the headband meets the shells and prize out the shells
Painting:
  • Using a fine sanding block, remove the existing paint from the exterior of both shells
  • Remove all dust then carefully spray paint the shells using several light coats
  • Let the paint cure at least for 24 hours
  • Using cutting compound, cut back the paint surface.
  • Polish the newly painted shell exteriors.
Assembly
  • Assembly is the reverse of disassembly.
  • Take care when soldering wires back in place.
  • All plastic components are labeled Left or Right somewhere in their molding
  • Take care not to scratch your new paint surface when reattaching the shells to the headband.
  • Drivers can only fit back in the shells one way, with the plastic lump towards the bottom.
  • When refitting the soft pads you can persuade the vinyl edge back into the crack between the shell and drivers with a blunt knife blade.

To complete the de-badging I also unpicked the badges from the fabric covering the headband. There you have it; slightly less obnoxious Skull Candy Hesh headphone but how do they perform?

You can tell the market these headphones are aimed at (not me); the headphones are very bass heavy. But it's not just the the bass is over powering the mids and highs - the mids and highs seem to be completely missing. Construction wise the Hesh plastic is very creaky which does affect your listening experience if you move your head at all while wearing them. Ear seals are far from perfect so they don't exclude as much of the outside world as you think they should. A cheap pair of Senneiser HD 202 headphone's easily out performs the Heshes acoustically. The Hesh headphones don't sound that bad if you haven't just been wearing good quality headphones. I do keep them around specifically for use with the iPhone as the cable fits with the bumper in place, they have an inline microphone and they do sound better than the apple included earphones.

Creative Commons Soundtracks: Another 6 Weeks Worth

I"m still continuing my project to take the free 8Pack released by Sony each week, to turn it into something else and then release it under the creative commons licence. As before, these pieces aren't meant to stand alone but be used in video or other media pieces for soundtracks, although I've yet to hear of anyone using them for that purpose but me. But even if I'm the only one using them they serve as a great learning opportunity - I'm now confident I can go in and make something appropriate for a scene in little time.

Ready? Set.... by the other Martin Taylor

Hot & Heavy by the other Martin Taylor

Backyard Siesta by the other Martin Taylor

Lose Changeling by the other Martin Taylor

Forbidden DMZ by the other Martin Taylor

Reabsorbing The Infinite by the other Martin Taylor


Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum: Render Error Still Occurs in v11

Update: Since I wrote this post I upgraded to Movie Studio Platinum 12 - the program has gone 64-bit which seems to answer this problem that we were experiencing in prior versions.

I am a huge fan of Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum. For the money (around $100) it is impossible to beat on the Windows platform. However, ever since I started using it 3 versions back it has been plagued by a bug that Sony are either unwilling, or unable to fix.

The problem occurs when you are trying to render HD video out above a certain, unknowable complexity on a 64 bit platform. The error you see when you're trying to render out (just before the application crashes) is "The system is low on memory. You may be able to reduce memory usage by closing other applications." I'm here to tell you it doesn't matter how many programs you close, once you hit the threshold and start seeing this error your video will not render. I am also here to tell you it is not an issue with the amount of memory you have in your machine (unless you have less than 3gb). I have 8gb memory in my Vista 64 bit desktop and 3gb in my Win 7 64 bit laptop and both were plagued by this issue trying to render the same project recently - the project had 6 video tracks and 8 audio, with effects on most clips and tracks but it was only three and a half minutes long.

First an introduction to some boring Windows fundamental architecture. 32bit versions of Windows can only use a maximum of 2gb of memory. 64bit versions are not restricted in the same way which is one reason geeks like 64bit systems. Unfortunately many consumer pieces of software are 32bit. Now, you can run a 32bit program on a 64bit version of Windows but it won't be able to use more than 2gb of memory itself. With me so far?

Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum is a 32bit program (Pro is 64bit) which runs well on 64 systems but has had this memory leak issue when rendering in all versions I can see to date. Basically the render process is using as much memory as it can get (2gb) but at some point it doesn't release a part of memory it has reserved - it then tries to get more memory and the crash occurs. Why Sony haven't fixed this issue is infuriating - I was sure they would have it done in version 11 but no; I installed the software and the bug was back.

Luckily for us there is a tried and tested way to address this issue that has been documented for previous versions of Movie Studio and this is my update to those instructions for v11.

  • Close Sony Vegas (if it hasn't already crashed on you.
  • Download and install CFF explorer from www.ntcore.com/exsuite.php.
  • Run CFFExplorer
  • File > Open "C:\Program Files (x86)\Sony\Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 11.0\VegasMovieStudioPE110.exe
  • In the left plane of CFF Explorer click NT Headers > File Headers
  • Bottom right of the resulting grid will read "Click here" - click there
  • In the resulting dialog window check "App can handle > 2gb address space" and then click "OK"
  • File > Save As and save the file to a local directory (somewhere in your documents or desktop)
  • Close the file in CFF explorer
  • In Windows file explorer make a copy of the original file you just opened (this is so, if things go wrong, you can get back to where you were)
  • In file explorer move the file you saved in a local directory over the one in the installed directory: whenever you try to copy or move a file in the installed directory Windows will probably ask you exactly what you want to do to try and stop you corrupting installed applications - Click "Move and Replace" and then hit "continue" if it says you need to confirm your administrator privileges. This may seem long winded but you have to get around Windows security that is trying to stop you messing up your system.
  • Repeat the CFF edit for the following files:
    • VegasMovieStudioPE110.exe (you just did this one)
    • vegasmoviestudiope110k.dll
    • all dlls in the FileIO Plug-Ins dirrectory - in my installation this was:
      • ac3studioplug\ac3studioplug.dll
      • aifplug\aifplug.dll
      • atracplug\atracplug.dll
      • aviplug\aviplug.dll
      • compoundplug\
        • compoundplug.dll
        • mc_dec_aac.dll
        • mc_dec_avc.dll
        • mc_enc_mp2v.dll
        • sonyjvtd.dll
        • sonymvd2pro_xp.dll
      • fhgaacplug2\fhgaacplug2.dll
      • flacplug\flacplug.dll
      • gifplug\gifplug.dll
      • lpecplug\lpecplug.dll
      • mcmp4plug2
        • mc_dec_aac.dll
        • mc_dec_avc.dll
        • mc_enc_aac.dll
        • mc_enc_avc.dll
        • mcmp4plug2.dll
      • mcplug2
        • mc_config_mp2m.dll
        • mc_config_mp2v.dll
        • mc_config_mpa.dll
        • mc_dec_dd.dll
        • mc_dec_mp2v.dll
        • mc_dec_mpa.dll
        • mc_demux_mp2.dll
        • mc_demux_mp4.dll
        • mc_demux_mxf.dll
        • mc_enc_mp2sr.dll
        • mc_enc_mp2v.dll
        • mc_enc_mpa.dll
        • mc_enc_pcm.dll
        • mc_mfimport.dll
        • mc_mux_mp2.dll
        • mc_mux_mp4.dll
        • mc_mux_mxf.dll
        • mcplug2.dll
      • mp3plug2\mp3plug2.dll
      • mp4plug3
        • aacaenc.dll
        • mp4plug3.dll
        • savce.dll
        • sgcudme.dll
        • sgocldme.dll
        • sgpuclb.dll
        • sony4vem.dll
      • mvcplug
        • mvcplug.dll
        • sonyjvtd.dll
      • oggplug\oggplug.dll
      • qt7plug\qt7plug.dll
      • rm9plug
        • rm9plug.dll
        • pncrt.dll
      • sfpaplug\sfpaplug.dll
      • stl2plg\stl2plg.dll
      • swfplug\swfplug.dll
      • wavplug\wavplug.dll
      • wicplug\wicplug.dll
      • wmfplug4\wmfplug4.dll
This fixed the crashes while rendering for me and I hope it works for you but if you're not comfortable messing around with dll files please be careful - you could do more harm than good .If you can't see the dll files of the folders they are in you may need to make hidden files visible. All the dlls in the file IO directory that I listed may seem like overkill but I just wanted to never face this error again ... until the next time when Sony release v12 and I've forgotten all about this pain. Then again, Sony might actually get its act together and fix this issue for us ... fat chance :)

How 3D is spoiling 2D

This weekend I saw the last Harry Potter twice: first in 2D and the next day in 3D. I am a fan but not that big of a fan but it was just a accident of circumstance that led me to see it twice in quick succession but it did allow me to compare the 3D and 2D prints while each was still fresh in my mind.

Quite a few critics are citing HP as an example of 3D done right. I'm not so sure. I know you're rolling your eyes and dismissing me as yet another 3D hater but hear me out as I think I've finally put my finger on what it is about the current 3D movies that doesn't work for me.

Harry Potter demonstrates the problems that still remain in state of the art 3D technology. I am not an expert in this technology so I can only report what I perceived through my own eyes. As I understand it, there are two ways of making a 3D movie: during production (with 3D cameras) or in post (on 2D source material). HP is the latter (except for one scene). Converting 2D source material to 3D is a big, labor-intensive industry. Artists go through by hand rotoscoping the elements in the frame which can then be set on different 3D planes. So, if you have a character in the foreground, another in the mid-distance and then the setting as the background you would separate the three elements so you can put one in front of the other, in front of the other. It does give an illusion of depth but, as far as I can see, it doesn't convey the subtitles of real world 3D.

In the real world there aren't just three 3D planes in the scene described above. The character in the foreground is 3D in his own right - his nose is closer to than his ear and the perspective between the two points is gradual. As a child did you ever make a 3D diorama peep box, or shadow box, or cardboard puppet theater? It seems to be the same principle. One thing is in front of another giving the illusion of 3D but each of those things is flat which ruins the illusion in a paper model and a multi-million dollar movie.

To my eye these flat 3D movie planes layered over each other actually look flatter than and normal 2D movie. When you're watching a normal movie you quickly forget that you're watching something flat and 2D. 3D is represented by depth of field, lighting changes and camera movements and by the viewers own, intrinsic, visual intelligence. In someways that is taken away from you in a 3D movie. The flat areas layered over each other look flatter because you're fighting to interpret the flat areas within a layered 3D environment. It's also hard to become unaware of this visual trick and once you see flaws you constantly get pulled out of the illusion as a result.

'So, why not just go and see it in 2D you Luddite?' I hear you ask. Well, because the emphasis is on 3D the 2D print suffers. What do I mean specifically? You seem to see some artifacts in 2D as a result of the 3D process. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 there was a specific scene that made this obvious to me. After Harry, Hermione and Ron have dropped into the lake off the dragon's back they are walking around a hilly area, getting warm and talking about what they are going to do next. When I saw the scene first in 2D something didn't feel right. It almost felt like they had been filmed separately from the background and green-screened in - like they were stuck on to the background rather than really being in it. If it was a still photo I was examining I would have said it was clumsy use of in PhotoShop - the kind of thing you see when someone hasn't used shallow depth of field when they took the shot but they have faked it after the fact by masking the subject and then blurring the background. You can always tell - there's something about the edge of the subject, a slight halo or something, and the background is too uniformly blurred. It's not how natural bokeh looks. Whatever the equivalent is in filmic terms, that's what I'm seeing and that's what I object to.

This all said, I loved the final movie and am very sad that the decade long journey is now over. I still give it two thumbs up in 3D or 2D but a lesser movie I might not feel so magnanimous towards. 3D is not an evolution from traditional 2D movies but an alternative to them. For the moment it is still a matter of personal preference but I'm still far too aware of the technology and process to get sucked into a 3D movie as easily as I can slip into the world of a traditional 'flat' movie.

You pays your money and makes your choice....

Editing Exercise: Vincent Laforet Edit Contest

If, like me, you're relatively new to the world of film editing Vincent Laforet (yes, the person behind Reverie) and creativeLIVE have a great exercise and competition for you. It's the “Complete the Edit - Win Vincent Laforet's Redrock Kit” CreativeLIVE challenge. You download the takes you want created at a recent workshop Mr Laforet held - unfortunately, if like me, you're not a Vimeo pro user you have a limited number of downloads available per day so assembling the footage you want can be the longest part of the process. You then edit the clips into a finished piece and submit them to the vimeo group. You could win some great Redrock Kit but real benefit of entering is the exercise of piecing together an edit from someone else's footage (warts and all).

This is my first time editing anyone else’s footage but my own and was a lot of fun and very educational. It took a lot more time than I anticipated to even get a first assembly and then I spent even more time tweaking everything to get to a final cut (I've already re-uploaded my entry 4 times):


I edited it using Sony Creative Software Movie Studio HD Platinum 11($76 from Amazon) on a sub-$500 laptop. The score (little more than atmospheric sounds and a couple of string swells) was also created by me on Sony Acid Music Studio 8.0 ($36 from Amazon) and footage audio edited, augmented and sweetened using Audacity (free). Color adjustments and titles also done naitively within the consumer version on Sony Vegas. I’m hoping that the results from my budget/amateur system measures up to those with more professional suites - in an ideal world I hope that you don’t even notice I’m using consumer, cut-down versions of NLE and DAW software.

I purposely edited it in a linear way (no Memento tricks) in keeping with what I felt was the old-school, 50’s feel of the footage and script. In my imagination the man’s back story has to be that he is a gum-shoe detective getting his comeuppance. In keeping with this classic 50’s feel I edited the dialogue slightly to remove the overtly sexual lines and a couple of other phrases I personally felt weren’t in keeping with the scene. I’m not usually that prudish but I wanted the details of the affair more implied than stated.

I found myself spending as much time editing the audio as the visuals. From a visual stand point the footage is very clean but the audio took some work to normalize, and remove clothing, static and breath noises (probably from wireless lavs?) and the off camera dialog. Any unwanted noises I removed I then had to replace with room sound or Foley sounds from other footage which I did in Audacity. After I added the soundtrack you couldn't even hear the room noise anymore so this may have been wasted effort but it was a good exercise even so.

The only visual challenges I couldn't address included the hand grabbing the letter opener from the desk being very white compared to the lead actor but I wanted the footage to move from the desk to the door. Also, the clock at the beginning is an hour behind the clock at the end but again, I needed the footage so left it in and, hopefully, nobody will notice but me. Finally the reflections in the picture frame glass I just decided to live with.

This said, I am far from an expert so any constructive criticism is gratefully received. Seeing the other creative entries I doubt I will place but I feel like I already got a lot out of the exercise just by taking part. If you wanted to give it a try yourself the competition runs until 12th August, 2011 so you have lots of time to obsesses over every frame between now and then. Good luck.

Creative Commons Soundtracks: Even More Fun With 8Packs

I'm still sticking to my resolution to take the free 8Pack released by Sony each week, to turn it into something else and then release it under the creative commons licence. As long as it's fun I'll keep doing it.

I am working on a simple video tutorial on using Sony Acid to score video. Hopefully that will be available before I post my next bunch of 8Pack pieces.

I hadn't realized that it has been over a month since I last posted anything here so here's the last 6 weeks:

Voiceless Glottal Plosive by the other Martin Taylor

Rerolled Credits by the other Martin Taylor

Carried Away Again by the other Martin Taylor

Extensions Extended by the other Martin Taylor

Solar ReCycled by the other Martin Taylor

Simulcast Expressions by the other Martin Taylor

Windows 7 Sound Issue: Unwanted Reverb Stuck On

I had a strange problem with my little, Dell laptop (Inspiron 1318) the other day. I thought I'd put the issue and solution out there just in case anyone else encounters it. The issue was as if a reverb effect was stuck on.

I was about to work on a podcast that I edit in Audacity when I noticed that the source audio was dripping in reverb. If you have edited any audio yourself you'll know that you want the audio as dry as possible so that you can choose when and how to apply effects. At first I though the reverb had been added to source audio as it was recorded but then I noticed there was reverb applied to any audio I listened to - YouTube videos, MP3s in my music library, they all came through drenched in horrible reverb. Something was wrong with my machine.

The funny thing is that I wouldn't know how to add blanket reverb to all audio on my machine. I checked my audio driver from Dell and reinstalled it even through it was already up to date.That didn't make any difference.

To get rid of it I had to uninstall the audio driver and then reinstall it from scratch. To do this:

  • "Start" button and select "Computer"
  • Select "System properties" from the top menu bar of the "Computer" window
  • Select "Device Manager" from the left-hand "Control Panel Home"
  • Select "Sound, video, and game controllers" to show your audio device(s)
  • Select the audio device you are currently using then right-click and select "uninstall."
  • Reboot to complete the uninstall.
  • On startup, Windows will detect the sound card and re-install drivers.
  • It may require another reboot but your sound should now be clean
I hope this information is clear and useful to anyone else who encounters this weird problem.

Creative Commons Soundtracks: Fun With Acid

I'm still really enjoying messing around in Sony Acid Music Studio. I claim to be a photographer and a videographer so there is often a stress to perform in those roles. I make no such claims to be a musician so nothing is expected of me and I can just play. Acid is like finger painting with sound and it takes no time to be able to create something out of nothing and isn't that the appeal for many creative activities?

I've continued to take the free 8Pack downloads each week and make something of my own out of them. Hopefully I'm not remaking the same piece over and over but I have noticed  a signature in the way I work: I trawl through the loops until I find one that really appeals to me , usually a drone, or percussive sound (but not full drum loop) that I can use as the backbone of the piece and build everything else around. Perhaps I should challenge myself to write something that does not have one loop that runs through almost the whole thing? As that one constant is what holds everything else together in my head that may be tricky for me but I'll give it a go.

Tales To Be Retold by the other Martin Taylor

Duality Reexamined by the other Martin Taylor

Even More Dynamic Low Z by the other Martin Taylor


I've also entered a couple of challenges; the first Soundcloud Soundbites challenge:

Sound Bites: Soundtrack for Train, Utility Poles & a Sunset by the other Martin Taylor


and Frequent Traveller's East Croydon Remix Competition:

East Croydon Taylor-made Remix by the other Martin Taylor

Again, there's something very low-stress about entering a competition and putting your work out there in a field in which you're an absolute beginner. By contrast, I have started assembling my entry for the next Blurb Photography Now book contest. Last time I poured days of time and effort into my entry just to be ignored and it destroyed me. It's taken me two years to recover the strength to consider putting myself through that again. Ignoring my music is fine because that is just messing around - I'm serious about my photography through; if I put my photography work out there and it get's dissed or ignored it's a whole other ball of wax.

Creative Commons Soundtracks: 8 Pack Remix

Mixer If you happen to be in to Sony Acid Music Studio (or Pro) you'll know what the 8-Packs are. For the rest of the world the 8-Packs downloads are a song and all the source loops required to created that piece that Sony releases to the world, generally each week. You have one week to download the current 8-Pack and then it's gone forever. With the help of my handy RSS reader I've been religiously downloading the 8-Packs for a year ot more. The loops they contain are valuable. Deconstruction the songs is inspiring. The fact that it's all free, Royalty-free music that you can customize easily yourself makes them invaluable.

However, I've recently been thinking that I should be doing more with each 8-Pack than downloading it to my Acid resource repository on my PC, rendering out an MP3 and then forgetting about it. I should take advantage of these little collections of loops and see what I can come up with using them as opposed to the 'official' song that comes with them. I've done this for the past 2 weeks and I'll try to keep doing it for the next 50. It's a great way to learn how to score for your own movies - even if what I come up with is not as good as what a real musician would make at least I'm learning the techniques and language and that has to be worth something doesn't it?

I've looked around and I'm surprised that no one else is doing this but here are my first two efforts. In the future I'll post a month's worth at once. Of course, if you want to use anything they're all available under the creative commons licence from SoundCloud.

Post-Apocalypse Revisited by the other Martin Taylor

They Rise Again ... Again by the other Martin Taylor

Creative Commons Soundtracks: Part 3

I am having trouble finding much in the way of tutorials for Sony Music Studio. Not that there's a lot out there for the pro version either and what little there is largely works in the consumer version too. Luckily, if you're a Vegas user already, Acid is very intuitive but I thought there'd be a huge fan base especially among semi-musically literate film makers looking for royalty free scores they have control over. I'm still only playing with the looping part of the program but I am trying to find a midi controller keyboard on Craigslist to start playing with that third of the program and I'll look at the audio recording part of the program too. Until then here are my latest creative commons efforts:

Saturday Morning Drive by the other Martin Taylor

Nothin' to be Blue About (Acoustic Blues In E) by the other Martin Taylor

Creative Commons Soundtracks: Part 2

I try to lead a creative life; as much as I can fit in around the wage-slave mundanity of the 9-to-5. Part of that is I allow myself to play and dabble in as many fields as I want. I know the cliche "Jack of all trades, master of none"  may apply to me but I do consider myself a reasonable accomplished photographer. The danger of mastering a craft is feeling stale. I can knock out pictures of a reasonable standard but I've lost a little of that wonder and magic I felt when I first saw a print fading out of the ether in a developing tray, or when I first realized what I could do with my first digital camera and an early version of PhotoShop.

It's a feeling I've rediscovered playing at making soundtrack music. The last time I recorded something was on cassette on a hissy 4-track. Like all arts and crafts, technology has changed all that and lowered the bar to entrance and participation. Instead of having to patch a load of things together with midi cables and bounce down tracks I can now just mess around for a few minutes here and there on my laptop. I'm sure what I'm coming up with is the equivalent of those first Photoshopped pictures I made: cliqued, over-saturated, over-sharpened, amateurish messes but I am having as much fun as a kid with finger paints. And to get past those musical, amateurish messes I first have to make them. Lucky you can even hear my fumblings thanks to SoundCloud which seems to be to music what Flickr is to photography. Just like a newbie on Flickr I am lost in the crowd on SoundCloud and am having a hard time working out how to separate the wheat from the chaff but the novelty is still working in my favor.

Deep Dive Drift by the other Martin Taylor

Wednesday Loopy Blues by the other Martin Taylor

Creative Commons Soundtracks: Theme for the Digerati

Theme for the Digerati (v2) by Martin Taylor
I'm not much of a musician but, like many filmmakers and other content creators, I do sometimes create a soundtrack when I need something specific and I can't find what I need with a creative commons licence (I never use music without having the licence even for the smallest job). It feels a little hypocritical to always be taking others creative work in this field but never putting anything in the pot myself. So, for what it's worth, heres a little something I came up with for the background of a technology video.

Here's an older theme I created for a short architectural rendering video:
WFH Cottage Theme by Martin Taylor

Finally, a short orchestral theme I created with Sony ACID Music Studio just to see if I could create something traditional for a soundtrack if I need to:
Theme For An Imaginary Prairie by Martin Taylor
I might not be a musician but I still like to mess around with my guitars, Sony ACID Music Studio and various iPhone apps.

Using The DIY Mini-Rail Dolly


Last time I described how I made a mini-rail dolly. I finally found a little time to take it out into the backyard and try using it. Here's the result followed by a few tips and tricks for using it:


I couldn't find any real instructions on using a slider so here is what I learned after using my home-brew device once (there should be more authoritative voices than mine out there but I can't find them):

  • Have a planned start and stop point for your move and pre-focus accordingly.
  • If you're rolling into a focus point pre-focus with your camera in the final location and use a finger to mark where that position is on the rails - your finger makers a pretty soft stop point.
  • Don't use the end buffer of the rails as your stop point - the way the camera stops is too sudden. 
  • Give yourself 5 seconds with the camera still at both the start and end points of your move to give yourself more options when you come to edit.
  • Start the movement slowly and end slowly - avoid sudden acceleration and braking.
  • Don't move the camera too quickly - you want to induce a feeling of sophistication not motion sickness.
  • It's really hard to move the camera consistently at a very slow speed.
  • Pulling focus on a DSLR while rolling is very hard - avoid if at all possible.
  • When you're trying to get a smooth move you can hold the sled or head but it seemed to work best for me if I held the camera itself.
  • Objects must be close or mid-distance to work effectively with small movements of 5ft and less
  • Keep your tracks, horizon and horizontal lines level - shim the tracks to achieve this and make sure they don't rock part way through the move as the center of gravity changes.
Again, these are just my personal findings. If you know better I'd love to hear from you.


DIY Mini-Rail Dolly

DIY Mini-Skate Wheel Dolly Painted Up
Finished truck sitting on rails
As more and more people get into video the number one accessory they seem to want after a shoulder rig is a slider. A slider allows short trucking camera movements. Commercial sliders run the gamut in price (from several hundred to several thousand) and design. A slider usually has a captive body that you mount a tripod head to. The body runs on a track on mechanical bearings or some low friction material. The tracks seem to run anywhere from 2 to 5 feet and can mount on a tripod themselves or some have feet that allow you to lay the slider on the ground for a low profile shot, or rest it on a convenient table or counter top.

Sliders are popular because camera motions are shorthand for high production values but, because a slider unit is self-contained, setup times are significantly less than a full size camera dolly on rails. Not to be out done I wanted to be able to achieve these kind of shots sometimes but my need wasn't severe enough to justify commercial prices so I went into CAD and then to my toolbox to come up with the following.

This is less a slider than a scaled down version of a floor mounted dolly and rails system. The truck isn't captive so, unlike a slider, you can lift it off the rails. This makes it easy to transport and also allows you to create many different rails configurations for different situations that can utilize a single truck; the following tutorial offers one rail design but you can easily make longer rail systems that this truck can run on.
Exploded design view
My design requirements were as follows:
  • to be cheap
  • to accomplish perfectly smooth camera movements silently
  • to be easy to construct with the minimum of tools
  • to be light and compact enough to be transported in my tiny car without having to put the roof down (I have a MX5 / Miata)
  • to be strong and reliable.
Total cost of materials was $50 and consists of the following:
  • PVC & Lumber (actual lumber dimensions are smaller than quoted eg. what is called 1" thick actually measures 0.75"):
    • 6"x1" plank ($5)
    • 2"x1" plank ($1)
    • 1.5" (inside measurement) PVC pipe length ($5)
  • Hardware:
    • 8 x Rollerblade wheels with bearings and spacers ($25 from Amazon)
    • 4 x 5/16", 3" long screws for axles
    • 4 x 5/16", 1.5" long screws for bottom guide wheels
    • 8 x 5/16" washers
    • 8 x 5/16" T-nuts for wheels
    • 3/8" and 1/4" T-nuts for tripod head mount
    • 3/8" and 1/4" screws for tripod head mount
    • Box of 1.25" wood screws (for track construction)
  • Consumables:
    • Wood glue
    • Nails
    • Paint or stain for finishing
    • Wood filler
    • Sanding sheets
Tools required:
  • Miter saw (miter box optional) or power saw that can accomplish same
  • Drill & bits (preferably powered)
  • Hammer
  • Screw driver
  • Pencil & square edge to measure and mark cuts
  • Sanding pad or electrical sander that can accomplish the same.
  • Hacksaw and file or Dremel
Walk Through:
Construction of the truck:
  1. Cut 2 x 9" lengths from your 6x1" board.
     
  2. Cut 4 x 5.5" lengths from your 2x1" lumber
     
  3. Glue and pin together as shown in the illustration
     
  4. Clamp and set aside.
  1. Cut 4 x 1.5" lengths from your 2x1" lumber to use as the axle blocks
     
  2. Glue and pin to the truck body as shown in the illustration
  1. When solid drill 3" long holes in the center of each axle block - they should be deep enough that they can accept the remaining threads of the axle bolts when they have the skate wheels in place.
     
  2. Widen the entrance of these holes to accept the t-nuts
     
  3. Press or hammer t-nuts into place for the axles.
Illustration 3
  1. Mount the 4 main wheels: each has a long bolt, drop on the wheel, then a washer then screw into place - the wheel should be able to spin freely.
     
  2. Using a pipe as your guide estimate where the guide wheels need to be on the bottom of the truck body so that the main wheels run on the top of the tube and the guide wheels keep the truck running true.
     
  3. As you did for the main axles, drill holes for the shorter guide wheel axles, fit t-nuts and mount the guide wheels in place.
     
  4. Find and mark the center of the top of the truck body. This is where you will mount a t-nut of the correct thread (1/4" or 3/8") that your tripod head will mount to. You can see that I put both sizes of t-nuts on my truck so I can mount any tripod head on it. You can do the same or chose the thread you most commonly use. You can also use the smaller 1/4" screw with an adapter to scale it up to 3/8" when required. Mount the t-nut(s) as required.
     
  5. Take a 1/4" or 3/8" bolt appropriate for the t-nut(s) you just fitted and the tripod head you want to use. With a Dremel cut off wheel remove the bolt head. File your cut smooth so that it will easily mount in your t-nut and the base of your tripod head. You can cut a slot in one end of the screw to allow a flat screw driver to get purchase of your headless bolt if required.
Illustration 4

Construction of the rails:
  1. Take your PVC pipe and cut it exactly in the middle to make two identical rails.
     
  2. Cut 3 x 10.75" sleepers from your 6x1" board.
     
  3. Cut 4 x 10.75" sleepers from your 2x1" board.
Illustration 5
  1. Use your completed truck to accurately space your rails. It is important that your rails the right distance apart for your wheels and absolutely parallel. Using your assembled truck to space the rails will ensure you get this bit right.
     
  2. Mount the center 6" wide sleeper to your rails first. At the center of both rails, using the truck to accurately space the rails, drill a pilot hole and screw the sleeper to both rails - use 2 screws each side. A wood screw should cut into the PVC pipe as well through the wood with ease. It helps to have a extra pair of hands when you're trying to hold the rails the right distance apart and drill and mount the sleepers at the same time.
     
  3. Mount the two other 6" wide sleepers about a third of the way down each rail in the same way, again using the truck to ensure the rails remain the right distance apart, screw the sleepers into place.
Illustration 6
  1. Mount 2 of your narrow sleepers between  the 3 wide sleepers - these only need to be mounted with 1 screw per side.
     
  2. Flip the rails over and mount the 2 remaining narrow sleepers at the very end of the top of your rails. These sleepers not only add strength and rigidity to your rail component but they act as a buffer so that your truck with your precious camera on it won't fall off the ends of the rails and crash to the floor
Illustration
Testing and finishing:
  1. Mount a tripod head to your truck with the headless bolt you made.
  2. Put a camera on the tripod head.
  3. Put your rails on the floor with the sleepers on the bottom
  4. Put the truck on the rails and check that the truck runs freely and smoothly on the rails.
  5. If everything works well you can take the tripod head and wheels off your truck and sand and paint it if you want. Everyone seems to like the truck better when it's painted black even though it has little real practical purpose.
You're done and ready to roll! Next time I'll post some demo footage and write some tips on using this system.
DIY Mini-Skate Wheel Dolly Pre-Assembly
Truck with wheels removed, ready for paint
DIY Mini-Skate Wheel Dolly Body
Bare truck body
 If you're a SketchUp geek you can download and explore my construction model for this design.

Deciphering Craigslist Creative/Crew Ads

I've been trawling through the Creative and Crew Ads on Craigslist for the last couple of months trying to get attached to a cool project. Even though I'll work for free for a project I believe in the signal to noise ratio is massive. I'm starting to understand how to filter out some of that noise; if you're in the same boat here's how I've learnt to translate the various ads so far:

  • Producer wanted = need someone to get money for us
  • Good for student, recent grad or enthusiast = you won't get paid
  • Credit & copy = you won't get paid
  • We don't have much of a budget but this gig could lead to more lucrative work = you get paid now or in future
  • Wanted: camera operator with own gear = director/DP just found out how much camera package rental is and think they can get both you and your gear for next to, or absolutely, nothing
  • Wanted, editor to complete this project: 75% complete = we thought we could do it ourselves with a pirated copy of FCP but we've messed it up so bad we'll never get it done
  • Ground floor opportunity = you won't get paid
  • High profile festival potential = we're submitting it to Sundance along with 25,000 others - they'll accept it right?
  • Will be a great addition to your portfolio = you won't get paid
  • Deferred Payment = you won't get paid
  • Simple gig, 30 minutes tops = we'll pay you for 30 minutes work, not your traveling time, prep-time, setup time, break down time, waiting around time - pencil in the day, here's your $30 - now you will be editing that for us won't you?
  • Experienced director = I've read The Idiot's Guide and watched Extras
Your mileage may vary but I've sent out countless emails, for which I've only received a handful of replies, none of which have led anywhere. Bitter much? Yes sir, I am.

Hulu Resources for Filmmakers

If you've been paying attention this week you can't help but have noticed the hullabaloo about the Criterion Collection abandoning Netflix and moving to Hulu. As a subscriber to both Netflix on demand and Hulu Plus the only difference to me is the portal I use to get to this great resource. If you're not a Hulu Plus subscriber but you are a movie lover, the Criterion might be a good impetus to subscribe for a couple of months. If you're a filmmaker you don't even have to subscribe to Hulu to get a little education and entertainment - mostly not as high-brow as Criterion's movies but fun none-the-less. If there's nothing on TV here are a few suggestions from Hulu and, if you're a film student either in a real school of through your own invention, you can even count this as studying:

DIY Photography: Ikea Macro Lighting

Ikea JansjoI was in Ikea the other day when I stumbled across the JANSJĂ– desk light for a laughably cheap $10. Sometimes Ikea's pricing is just weird: this version of the lamp is $10 but the same lamp with a clamp base, or a wall mount instead of a weighted one is $30. It's basically the same light for a third of the price.

Once I got over the bargain price I realized how useful the Jansjo might me for table top studio photography. The Jansjo is a 4watt LED bulb at the end of a very long, thin goose neck. It produces a very clean, focused light source while remaining relatively cool. We think of LEDs being a very efficient, cold light source but when one is producing this much light there is some heat loss and, although to can comfortably take hold of the lamp and position it even when it has been lit for some time, it is warm to the touch.

In my table top photography I've found that it is a relatively simple matter to light that high-key, floating on white look. Basically, you stick the item in a softbox and then flood it with light and you end up with something like this:

Portrait of George Taylor
Example of flat white light in a softbox
If you want something a little more controlled to bring out modelling in your subject you need to be able to control the position, direction and relative strength of your light sources. The Jansjo lights are perfect for playing with this kind of setup. Not are they cheap but their long, thin goose-neck supports and heavy bases make them simple to position and adjust. The next picture is a similar subject to the previous soft box shot but this time I used 3 point lighting for the subject and a couple of broader lights for the background:

F-86 Sabre Pilot, Col. Walker "Bud" Mahurin
Example of directional light from the Ikea LED lights

Table Top Portrait Studio
Ikea Jansjo lights being used to create
the above action figure portrait
Both kinds of lighting setups have their place but the little Jansjos are now a favorite of mine for macro and table top photography. During the work week the 4 lights I have have the life of standard task lights on my desk but some evenings and weekends they can quickly be re-purposed for use in my desk top studio. Just remember to manually set your white balance with these lights - they're a little warmer than you might expect.

Highly recommended

Sketchup WIP: Valley Forge

I love Sketchup and am an unpaid evangelist for Google's free, 3D, conceptual design tool. I do, however, get bored of seeing the same old subjects: houses, kitchens, Google Earth buildings - Sketchup has the potential to be a much more creative tool than that. Marry my love of Sketchup with my love of models and props from Sci-Fi movies and you get something like this.


This is a model of the Valley Forge spaceship from the 70's movie, Silent Running. I've been working on and off on this model for years: for many months I won't touch it and then I'll spend a couple of days trying to make headway. This weekend I pushed on trying to make some progress by adding the main living section and the fuel pods at the back. It's still nowhere near finished but I couldn't wait to show it off.

There's something amazingly satisfying about creating something from nothing even if that something is just virtual. Once it's finished I'll post it to the 3D Warehouse where I hope it will remain the most accurate rendition of this ship available. By now you should know how geeky I really am - this is just another side to my nerdom.

Pocket Cinema: Is That a Movie Studio in Your Pocket or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?

Pocket Cinema RigThe promise of the HDSLR is the democratization of video and film making. The idea that, that new DSLR you just bought for stills can make amazing HD video files so why don't you just start making a movie?

The reality is, before you begin you need to buy a new tripod and head, rail system, matte box, follow focus, video monitor, viewfinder, shoulder mount, sound recorder, microphones, lights, computer and software if you want to take it seriously. And that's just the gear: there are new technical skills to learn and you can't man all that gear yourself so you need help, plus you need something to work on worthy of all that expense and hassle and suddenly that promise of anyone being able to make a movie get's paralyzed by the work and expense involved.

Which is why I was inspired when a friend suggested I listen to a BBC radio program on Pocket Cinema. Sadly the show isn't available for you to listen to anymore but the nub of the show is what creative filmmaking people are achieving with the the most modest of gear; a Flip or their cell phone or, at the very most, a consumer camcorder. Little in the way of crew or gear or hassle - filmmaking in its loosest, cheapest most accessible form.

Visiting the French Pocket Film Festival mentioned in the BBC Radio piece shows a diverse representation of what Pocket Cinema is. Viewing the prize winners, Pocket Films are pretty avant-garde but I wouldn't expect any less from the French. A couple worth viewing as a taster are Turbo 2008, Home and Much Ado but you can loose a lot of time exploring the entries. This led me to The Disposable Film Festival for an American point of view. Again, exploring the entries and winners is inspiring and redefines what filmmaking is.

It's hard to be inconspicuous
carrying all this gear
We live in interesting times. Blockbusters cost more than ever to make. More 'films' than ever are being made as the cost of making an indie comes down. The opportunities to make a living making film or video are fewer and harder than ever to break in to. We watch fewer movies in a theater, we watch less live TV but we spend more screen time than ever before. Video on demand is almost ready for prime time. We can watch more stuff for free. We watch 'movies' on our phones although the average maximum time anyone one can concentrate on a phone movie is 9 minutes. The short of it is, times for low/no budget filmmakers are changing at a rapid pace.

We've had the best camera is the one that's with you movement for stills so why not have the same thing for filmmaking? Looking at all those pocket film festival entries you see people not waiting for creative or practical permission to make movies. You see creative people making art, narrative and documentary movies with the closest tool to hand: their cell phone. A device so ubiquitous than no one will blink an eye if you take it out and start shooting footage. This was the promise of the HDSLR but, in my experience, even the lightest run and gun HDSLR rig attracts all sorts of attention when you take it out in public.

It is liberating not to have to consider exposure, white balance or even pulling focus - the iPhone won't let to adjust any of those things so you can just get down to the business of capturing footage. That's not to say that you should forget all you have learned, you just need to apply it differently. Just because it's acell phone doesn't mean that footage has to be shaky and badly framed. In fact, the easiest way to make your pocket film footage stand out is to use some support. Mounting you iPhone on a massive fluid head may be over kill but a cheap tabletop tripod for locked down shots is useful and you can use it as a handle when you're moving around so that you don't have to hold your iPhone in the double finger pinch grip.



I'm inspired enough to start shooting more video with my iPhone. If that results in something that's great but if it doesn't I have lost nothing. I already have the iPhone with me so why not use it? I can only learn more by doing even if I don't have permission from anyone yet to call myself a filmmaker.

Impressions of the Syma S206, Mini-3 Channel, IR Helicopter

By the time it arrived direct from China I'd almost forgotten that I'd ordered the little Chinook Helicopter from eBay for $25 shipped. It took 21 days from purchase to arrival so was it worth the wait?

Syma S206 Nose Forward
Syma S206 Nose In
It certainly had some big shoes to full as I love my little S107: it is so maneuverable, fun and easy to fly as well as being virtually indestructible and easy to repair when you do eventually snap something. The S206 is a very different animal despite being another coaxial IR helicopter from Syma. I was expecting them to share more components than they do; they do share the same charging mechanism and battery and a couple of components in the rotor-heads and the controller is similar but beyond that parts look unique.

The S206 is a vaguely to scale Chinook transport helicopter with double rotors - a similar configuration to the real CH-47. Compared to the S107 the S206's fly bar and rotor blades are shorter but work in the same way with two motors per head providing lift and directional control. Two sets of blades makes the S206 handle very differently than the S107: I don't feel like I have such precise control of the S206 but it is very stable and easy to hover. It doesn't feel as nimble but it seems to be able to move forward quicker but this may be a symptom of the way I have the S206 trimmed. The S206 controller has two buttons as well as the rotary trim. The two 'inch trim' buttons allow you to set up the amount of forward or reverse momentum the S206 has at center stick. Of course, I have mine set up to be moving forward at center stick so I can have lots of forward momentum but this means that you have to apply reverse stick to get this helicopter to hover and you need to apply reverse stick as you lift off or the S206's ground effect will cause it to shoot forward into the wall.

The S206 is a little twitchy: you can have your hands off the directional control and sometimes it hovers perfectly - at other times it seems to get caught in a spin. This may be a result of the specific model I have - the non 'G'. The G version may be more modern and have a more sophisticated gyroscope to keep things neutral. My version with the smoked cockpit glass and mains charger may be a little more agricultural in its handling but it is still a lot of fun.
Symma S206 & Flight Helmet
Syma S206 backed my Helicopter flight-helmet

The way the S206 turns is very different to the S107. The S107 turns on a dime pivoting exactly around the drive shaft: with two drive shafts in play the S206 pivots less quickly somewhere around the middle of the fuselage. As usual with these 3 channel coaxial helicopters the S206 wants to turn faster to the right than to the left.

Because my S206 came direct from China the mains charger supplied did not fit in a standard US wall socket without an adapter (the price of saving a couple of bucks). Those that appear to know more than me about battery charging technology claim that the mains charger is a little brutish on batteries. Unfortunately, the mains charger that comes with the S206 is the only means to charge it: unlike the S107 the S206 controller does not have a charging cable. Luckily the USB cable that comes with the S107 works perfectly well on the S206. Flying and charging times are as advertised; 8 minutes flying time and about 30 minutes to charge.

From an aesthetics stand point the fuselage detail is fun although decals of rivets around the around the porthole windows and and the silver of the turbine engines is a little silly and unsubtle. It feels solid, maybe even a little heavy which may account for its performance; as the battery falls from full charge it takes more and more throttle to get it to lift and in the end it struggles to get off the deck at all. My only concern with strength are the wheels that look flimsily but are they taking the knocks although I try to avoid the kind of heavy landings I know the S107 would take in its stride. As the fuselage acts as a kind of soundbox the S206 sounds a little plastic when compared to S107, not that that means anything.

If the S107 is the cheap Miata roadster of the Syma line the S206 is the little import pickup. If you already have the S107 and you want something similar but a different flavor the S206 is a lot of fun and at $25 it's terrific value.