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Digital Killed the Video Star

by Alan Graham

A lot has been going on in the video industry lately. Emmy winner and master of the documentary film, Ken Burns, has re-released a digitally remastered copy of his epic film The Civil War. The Digital Hollywood conference has come and gone. And someone named Chris Meyer has released a $10 application called Photo to Movie, which I consider a milestone in video production.

Basically, this small app (approx. 1MB) allows you to take a photo or image and do a panning motion effect across it (Pan & Scan), a la Ken Burns. This caused me to have a strange time warp experience; all of a sudden I thought about my old studio. I remembered editing video and doing animation on my $100,000 Mac Media 100 workstation (with a $15,000 10GB drive array, $20,000 in software, a blazing fast 8100 running at 110Mhz, an unheard-of 256MB of RAM, etc.).

Then it dawned on me that I can now do more advanced video work than I could with the above system, with a $1,600 laptop and a $9.95 program. Heck, you don't even need a video camera to use iMovie.

Thanks to Apple, more and more people are exploring digital video, but I wasn't sure if people realized how far we've come in such a short time. The whole art form has been liberated and simplified. I recently set up a Bryce server farm in my house to render animation between three Macs and a PC. It took about 30 minutes of setup time. Six years ago, that type of computing power would have been nearly impossible without several SGI machines and $1,000,000. Apple has opened the door to new filmmakers who have no idea how lucky they are.

Related Reading

iMovie 2: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue

Anyway, Photo to Movie inspired me to do a tutorial on making your own documentary movie. And although I can't promise that our work will ever measure up to that of Mr. Burns, it doesn't mean we can't aspire to do great work! It is important to note that this isn't an article on video art. The purpose of this piece is to empower and inspire your imagination. When it comes to art, you're on your own. Also, this is not a highly technical article on editing video. This is just a fun exercise to get your feet wet.

What You'll Need

  • Scanner or digital camera
  • iPhoto or PhotoShop
  • iMovie
  • Some music
  • A piece of freeware called Audio In (optional)
  • Photo to Movie ($9.95)
  • Stopwatch or watch with second hand
  • A few spare gigs of drive space (or an iPod)

Photos & Music

When making our documentary video, we need to make the decision of what it will be about. Remember, video is story/concept driven, so pick items that have a narrative thread. I thought that I would use some photos from my childhood on the farm.

My first decision is about how many photos I plan to use. Part of this decision has to do with the length of the audio track. So, if you plan on setting your movie to music, you need to do a quick and dirty calculation of time per shot. So, let's get our audio piece lined up, shall we?

As a source of audio, you can use any MP3 file or even pull a CD track right from your CD-ROM while in iMovie. I decided to use an audio track from one of the selections up on iDisk. There is a folder in Software->Extras called FreePlay Music. Inside you'll find hundreds of royalty-free MP3 audio clips for use in your movies. The clips' length ranges from 10 seconds to several minutes.

Quick Tip: If you view the tracks in Column View, you can sample the audio before you download.

Now take the length of the audio track and divide it by the amount of images we've selected. My audio track is 2:03, so I convert that to seconds and drop the extra three seconds so I can work with a simple number. Later, I can always fudge the length of (trim) my clips to accommodate the extra three seconds. I take 120 seconds and divide it by the number of photos I'm using. In my case, I decided on six photos, which gives me 20 seconds per clip. Now, I know that 20 seconds doesn't sound like a lot of time, but go over to your TV and count to yourself for 20 seconds. How many shot changes do you see in the typical commercial?

Image Prep

I took my six photos, and scanned them all on one sheet. This saves me a great deal of scanning time. If you're using iPhoto, you can mimic Photoshop's editing abilities by importing the image several times and then cropping each copy, or just scan individual photos. Let's not forget you can use any images for this, not just scanned photos.

Let's talk about image resolution for a moment. Later, when we get to the Photo to Movie application, we want to avoid getting artifacts in our video (the same goes for iMovie), so when I scanned my image, I opted for a minimum of 300 dots per inch (dpi) to prevent unwanted distortions. You can get away with 72 dpi images for video, but when zooming in and out of an image, it is best to start with a higher resolution.

Since the look of the video we are trying to mimic is that of a Ken Burns B&W documentary, I decided to alter my photos by:

  1. Converting them to grayscale (In iPhoto, change them to Black and White.)

    Screen shot.

  2. Adjusting the curves (in iPhoto, play with the Brightness and Contrast), and adding some grain and imperfections to each image. I don't want the photos to appear perfect, or the illusion of time will be lost.

    Screen shot.

Go ahead and save the file as a jpeg or Photoshop file, and duplicate this process with each additional photo.

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