So, you're a good photographer (better than me, I'm sure of that). You spend a lot of time perfecting your art, and of course you want it to be seen. You've got some stuff out in the world — on the Web, maybe even in galleries and books. What next?
Well, how about television?
I'll show you how to make a compelling piece of video from your still images, make it fit TV broadcast standards, and get it shown on TV — with a potential audience of millions — for free.
Sounds like a late-night huckster, right? But it's really possible, thanks to the magic of digital technology and the openness of public access television. My movie-from-stills was beamed to more than a million homes in Southern California last year.
Even if you don't want to go the final step to get your stuff on the enchanted box, you can simply output your video to a DVD to give away or sell, or put the video on the Web. I'll cover the TV handoff in the second half of this article. In this part, we'll learn how to make the movie.
But first, I should address the aesthetic question: why showcase your art on the boob tube, the lowest common denominator of American culture?
I hate TV. It has so much potential, but most of it is nothing more than blank food tubes selling bits of plastic crap and fried cheese to other blank food tubes. I usually finish my TV-watching day by yelling at the screen, "STOP LYING TO ME!" Then I hit "Off" on the remote and toss it across the room.
However, I spent the last five years making films and writing books. Eventually, I felt like taking a break from the pressure of making something great; I just wanted to make something cool. I wanted to make something that would take about a day, starring my cats and my wife (the lovely and talented Debra Jean Dean). Something I could make "in house," literally. And I didn't care if it made money, but I didn't want it to lose much money.
As a musician, I found something else intriguing about TV. I've noticed that most of the information is actually contained in the audio, not the video. I spend a lot of time working on the computer with the TV on as background noise, and if I pay attention, I can follow 70% of whatever's being told without looking at the screen. So I decided to base my show largely on the power of the audio.
I decided to name my show Stink Fight — Radio on TV. (Stink Fight is my blog. And why not name my show after my blog? I cross-promote everything I do, and besides, it's a memorable name.)
I also decided to make my show mostly still photos, since I didn't own a video camera at the time I started to do this. I could have gone out and purchased one (for about 300 bucks), but remember, my mission statement included not spending money.
The trailer for the show will give you a good feel for the techniques we'll be discussing today. My friend London May (who loves the show) described it as "looking at someone's scrapbook while listening to someone else's phone conversation."
There are also some ten-minute (the longest YouTube allows) chunks of actual shows on my YouTube channel, Kittyfeet69. While you're there, check out my feature film DIY or DIE, which I've mentioned here before.
I start by collecting my images into a folder. I copy it, because I'm going to be making a lot of changes to the files, some will render the images unrecognizable, and I may want to use the unaltered photos for something else later.
I name the copied folder something descriptive like "SFTV - EPISODE ONE -UNPROCESSED IMAGES." Then I make a new empty folder called "SFTV - EPISODE ONE - PROCESSED IMAGES."
I set up a batch automation in Photoshop to fix the levels of the photos — usually brightening them a bit — and make them NTSC safe.
"NTSC safe" is a slightly reduced color range (a.k.a. "color set" or "color space") that looks good on TV sets. Non-NTSC-safe video looks really blown out and crunchy on TV. There is a lot of non-NTSC-safe video on cable access channels, and I didn't want my art to be among that junk.
It's not just a matter of looking good. Non-NTSC-safe video, particularly if it's non-NTSC-safe whites or yellows, can leak into the audio channel of the broadcast. Many times on cable access channels, they'll throw up a mostly white title card and you'll actually hear 60Hz hum the entire time the card is onscreen.
(If you're in a country that uses PAL, and your show will never be shown on NTSC sets, you can skip making your images NTSC safe. PAL has a wider range of colors and can display your images correctly without this step.)
I just set up a batch process script in Photoshop and run the NTSC Colors filter on all of my images.
I do assorted creative manipulations on some of the photos — filters, invert to negative, etc. But not many. Most of the photos I just crop artistically, then re-crop to DV size using the Photoshop crop tool, set to 720 x 480 pixels.
I do all my cropping and manipulations before I color correct for NTSC. Color correcting should be done last, because otherwise, some of your manipulations may take your images out of NTSC-safe color space.
I try to avoid too much fancy stuff, because it looks amateurish. Mostly, I go for sweeping images, landscapes, and close-ups of my cats. I will occasionally do three or four close and closer crops, which when dropped into the timeline, give a nice "zoom in" or "zoom out" feel.
(When you get to the editing phase, the default for most video editing programs is that the images will align in the timeline in alphabetical order by file name. Keep this in mind when creating groups, such as increasingly close crops of the same image. Name them something like FlowerClose1.jpg, FlowerClose2.jpg, FlowerClose3.jpg, etc.)
You can also time-compress sections by using the "time" function in your video-editing program and sub-rendering a sequence. I did this with motion video on this YouTube video shot from the car while my wife drove, called Mister Peep's Wild Ride.
A few years back, I produced a beautiful, artistic, soft-core fetish/fashion DVD called Living Through Steve Diet Goedde. It features photos by my famous photographer friend Steve Diet Goedde. (Some of the images are unsuitable for minors, so click carefully.) I also did all the music, in Sony Acid.
Steve is one of the top photographers in that realm, and his work is shown in museums around the world. He's one of the few fetish fashion photographers who still shoots on film (medium format), and he's renowned for only taking five or ten photos every shoot — and using all of them — because they're all great. (There are a couple of making-of featurettes on the DVD. Check 'em out.) Most fetish photographers shoot digital, take hundreds of exposures on a shoot, and hope the odds are in their favor that a few will be great.
The Living Through Steve Diet Goedde DVD project involved a lot of graceful, sweeping pan-and-scan camerawork simulated in After Effects. It's a unique and stunning use of the technique. But in general, pan-and-scan is extremely overused.
I also opted not to use any video cross-dissolves, because I think they're the most overused technique in filmmaking. Cross-dissolves are mostly unnecessary and they take time to do. I did do a few dissolves on audio, but they're quicker to do, not as obvious, and the show is more about the audio than the video. I also do short — half-second or so — fade-ups at the beginning of audio sections and short audio fade-outs to make things smoother.
Instead of dissolves, I use the more austere technique of a very few (maybe three or four per half-hour, tops), one- or two-second fades to black, and fades from black. And I only do it for a reason, usually dividing sections or "chapters." I'll sometimes even let a little music play softly through the black to keep a feeling of continuity, so viewers don't feel like the movie's over.
The source imagery of Stink Fight — Radio on TV is mostly still photos of me, my cats, wife, friends, and objects in my house, cropped to different and interesting dimensions. I occasionally put in a few moments of video shot with my Canon PowerShot A460, a $110 digicam that can shoot some tiny video. I have to resize the clips up to 720 x 480 and render the video in my editing program to get the footage into my DV project, but it's a nice change from the stills. Here's a video the wife shot with that camera. It's me singing on a hill, a song for my dear deceased daughter.
Using relatively large images — around 2,000 x 1,000 pixels — is good. (You can use even larger images, but it will make your rendering times longer.) Even though the video editing program resizes all NTSC-DV images to 720 x 480 pixels on output, you will probably want to do some cropping first to get more creative looks, and close cropping can look awesome, especially if you do a series of several closer crops on the same image. Throwing in a small image, like 300 x 200 pixels, can be a nice effect. It's grainy in a computer-destroyed way that looks cool for an occasional accent.
Due to some computer voodoo that doesn't need a technical explanation to work around, TV screens will stretch still images in video a little from what you see on your computer screen. But it works in people's favor, making them a little skinnier, and who doesn't like that? The change isn't enough to look distorted, so I leave it. If you want to compensate for this, crop your images to 720 x 540, and then uncheck the "constrain proportions" box in Photoshop's resizing dialog (Image > Image Size) and squish to 720 x 480. Then it will look perfect on a TV.
Perform the sequence of events you want to record. Go through the steps in program mode, then name and save so the automation is reusable.
The events I choose for preparing for video are:
The soundtrack of Stink Fight — Radio On TV is mostly the wife and me talking. (I'll share tips for recording high-quality audio at home in an upcoming article.) Some of the audio came from our "Clone the Homeless" podcast, but I created some of it especially for this show. I throw in bits of music I've made, and some trippy effects — reverb, backwards audio, pitch changes — used very sparingly. Our target demographic is insomniac stoners. I used to be one, so I know how they think, and edit accordingly.
(Even for stoners, too many effects in audio and video are distracting and take the viewer "out of the show." Effects are really fun to play with, but don't put too much pepper in the soup.)
Pay attention to the audio format. CD audio has a 44.1kHz sampling rate. DV audio has a 48kHz sampling rate. (DVD is the same.) If you import audio from a CD into some video-editing programs, they will change the pitch and duration to compensate. This will make the audio sound a little "chipmunky" and also remove any sync you have. (That sync issue won't be much of a problem here, as you probably won't have any video of dialogue. But if you do, it could end up looking like a poorly dubbed karate movie.)
Higher-end editing programs like Avid xPress and Vegas Video will often resample audio without time and pitch changes, but lower end "grandmaware" (my word...like it?) programs may distort the audio or simply crash.
You can resample audio from 44.1kHz to 48kHz in many pro audio editors without changing the pitch and duration. I use Sony Sound Forge (Figure 1). There's also Audacity, a free open-source program that I highly recommend. It's available for Mac, Windows, and Linux.
Some types of music work better than others under speech. First of all, music with any vocal sounds (singing, rapping, talking, grunting — anything produced by a human voice) is going to distract from talking on top of it.
Also, music with a lot of dynamic range (variation between very loud and very soft) is not usually a good choice. Nor is music that has any samples or percussion that sound like noise. (In other words, material that has a "spray" or "water falling" or "wind" sound.) And music with very tinny or bright sounding percussion, especially cymbals (real or sampled) will usually compete with any talking on top of it.
A lot of techno and industrial is a bad choice for beds (the industry term for background music) because of the noise factor and/or bright percussion.
Basically, there's a big difference between good music and good background music. A lot of music I LOVE to listen to makes horrible background music to talk over. Conversely, a lot of music I wouldn't listen to on its own makes great background music.
I find the use of distracting beds is a mistake that's often made in independent filmmaking (and occasionally in pro filmmaking). Inexperienced directors will use music with vocals that sums up the mood of the film and then have people talk over it, and it's hard to hear the people talking. For instance, a punk rock track with shouted vocals or a hip hop track with rapping on it is great to set the mood for a film. (Or a podcast, or any audio media. I look at podcasts as "little movies without visuals," and approach my production with this in mind.)
But music with singing is not great background music for scenes in a drama where characters are talking, or in a documentary film under interviewees speaking. It's best to save vocal music for montages where there's no speaking, or use it to set a mood before or after actors (or interviewees) speak.
I don't listen to hip hop much in the course of my week, but I tend to use it (without the rapping) in films I make, and under talking in podcasts. Hip hop is made to talk over, ya know? Rapping is talking, albeit rhythmic talking.
Trip hop (mellower, spacey music made with similar production techniques to hip hop) makes even better background music under talking. It's got the level dynamics of hip hop, but is a little mellower and less obtrusive.
It's really easy to make great background music in Sony Acid, and they even offer a free version, Sony Acid Xpress. Mac users should check out GarageBand.
Here's a YouTube video that demonstrates types of background music that work, and ones that don't:
And now, the fun part. After you've got all your stills and audio ready, open a new project in your video editing program. Specify standard NTSC-DV (720 x 480) resolution (Figures 2 and 3). [Ed. Note: Michael uses Sony Vegas and Adobe Premiere, but the techniques are similar in video editors like Apple iMovie and Windows Movie Maker, as well as in still-oriented programs like Boinx Fotomagico and LQ Graphics Photo To Movie.]
I'm assuming you have a basic understanding of video editing. If you don't, there are plenty of books that can help. (I wrote one called $30 Film School.)
First, import your image folder into your media pool (Figures 4 and 5).
Then import a folder with all your audio into the media pool. Select all images and drag them into the timeline (Figures 6 and 7).
All the images will align in the timeline in alphabetical order by file name. The default in most programs is for each image to display for ten seconds and then change to the next image. You can drag the edges of the image in the timeline to get a longer or shorter duration, and you can select images or groups of images and move them around on the timeline. It sometimes helps to zoom in or out on the timeline.
For the most part, almost any image works over almost any music (given the tips above), but there are places where it just won't. For instance, you don't want an image of one person on the screen while you're talking about another person. That's just confusing.
Now drag your audio into the timeline. Put the music on one track and the speaking (if any) below that on another track. You can adjust the volume of each, at any point in the show, as needed.
Once your images and audio are in the timeline, place the cursor at the beginning (left) of the project and hit the spacebar. Your movie will begin to play in the little monitor window on your computer screen. (You may have to move things around and resize the monitor window in order to see everything clearly.)
You'll want to cut images and sections mostly on the beat of the music, though you may find artistic reasons to break this "rule" from time to time.
You'll get a feel for this whole process the more you do it, and will get better with each successive try. Making a movie from stills combines artistic talent in photography, video, and music, and the more you have a feel for each, the better you'll be at this.
In the second half of this feature, I explain exactly how to get your new movie onto cable TV.