Comm Lab: Video & Sound, Final Video

First, here is the final cut of our group video:

My class spent an entire class period looking at each group’s video and then critiquing the hell out of it.  Our professor, as I mentioned in the last comm lab post, taught us what to look for when revising our videos.

My group decided to do some more shooting, since our video jumped from one vignette to the next without establishing much context.  I was late to the group meeting because I remembered the wrong time, so I apologized for that.  But then we went out to the NYU-Washington Square Park area again to film.  This time we used a tripod, which made our new footage much smoother.  We actually brought the tripod along with us the first time, but I think we were still so unused to the equipment and to filming in general that we didn’t think it through, even though our professor told us to always use a tripod!  It’s funny how you can tell someone to do things, from his own experience, but you won’t listen until you learn the hard way yourself.

We also paid more attention to lighting this time, avoiding direct sunlight and areas with varying sunlight, to avoid hotness later when editing the video.

We took long shots of our characters walking or skateboarding or eating, with The Asshole walking as well, to set up the convergence of his Assholish event.  The footage came out a lot better, though I think some of my zooming was still kind of rough.

When we were done, we went back to school to edit.  Final Cut Pro X went a LOT smoother this time around.  We took turns editing, so we’d all be able to watch each other and learn how to do certain operations.  While this can be more laborious, it 1) lets everyone learn what everyone else knows and 2) retains continuity since everyone is involved in the same editing process.

We were not planning to use any audio from the footage but when we ran the first cut with music, we found that the sound effects could add context to the video without taking away from the effect of the music, in carefully-placed spots.  I think I had wanted originally to use Denis Leary’s “Asshole Song” for our soundtrack, …

… thinking it was perfectly suited, but my team rightly kept seeking ideas and we found Crystal Castles.  The song worked great, and I think the rest of the group was right that Denis Leary’s lyrics would have distracted too much from the video.  The audio editing was fun, raising the sound effect levels in some areas and dampening the street sounds in others.  We lined up some scenes with changes in the song.

Color balancing helped a lot.  Final Cut Pro X has a color matching function which lets you choose the colors from one frame and map it onto another, so you get more continuity.  We had footage from one day of shooting where it was cloudy, and shooting from another where it was sunny, so we minimized the disparity using this tool, plus some of Danne’s color editing skills to clean it up.

Thanks to Stefanie, Michael, and Danne.  And to our professor, Marianne Petit, for the wonderful instruction!

Comm Lab, Video & Sound: Our Final Video Project

My group went out to film our movie a couple weeks ago, and we’ve spent the last week or so editing it and putting the story together in Final Cut Pro X.

Final Cut Pro X took up the bulk of our time, as we fought it like a big fish on our line.  We knew what we wanted to do, but had to translate our wishes into Apple terminology.  That said, it got easier, of course, with time and practice.  Some crashes, but the software is constantly saving.  The non-destructive editing is nice too, for expanding the size of a clip on the fly.  We had problems with adding titling and with keyframes, though.  Really, it seemed like way too much work after I’d put together a pretty quick, nice video in Adobe Premiere.  But that was on a PC.  I hear Premiere runs like trash on a Mac.  Plus, real video editors are using Avid anyway!  One can’t win.

Clearly video literacy has not quite reached the internet yet, despite large advances and the advent of YouTube.  But I think I’m going to stick with Premiere…

So our video, which details vignettes of an asshole in NYC, has been quite a learning experience.  While we thought we had a pretty good rough cut, once we saw it projected on a white wall, a lot of blatant errors stuck out immediately.  Especially after our professor, Marianne Petit, taught us what to look for in critiquing videos.  We had massive color inconsistencies, scene continuity issues, you name it.  Plus we didn’t shoot nearly enough footage.  We came in with the least footage of the groups, and so we’re starting at around 1:30 while others are trimming down from 4 minutes to 13 minutes.

I felt like the Panasonic camera we had was gorgeous but we should have used a tripod.  It didn’t really occur to us.  Lighting outside was constantly a problem.  Now I understand why so much money is spent and why so many people are involved in movies.  It takes a real pro to get the taping right, getting the audio right, the lighting, then the actors doing the takes right, etc.  Plus you’re dealing with real people so you need pretty strong trust in a director to keep doing takes over and over and knowing it’ll end up right.

One of my goals for ITP was to come out being strong in video, since it captures things so well in today’s internet era, but man, it is a lot of work.  There are so many things that can go wrong that you just don’t notice until you look at the footage later.  We had our bags in a lot of shots, and we even had footage of one of the other teams filming in Washington Square Park that we didn’t even notice till class viewing.  Which is actually kind of cool — if only every team could have a scene with another group being filmed in it for some connection.

Computers have definitely gotten better with finalizing videos — especially now that the standard is quad-core and will soon be SSD as well.  The age of video has barely begun.

Here are some screenshots of our favorite asshole, Michael.  We’ll have the final version up sometime next week.

Below you can see one of the other groups filming in the middle, in front of the fountain.

Comm Lab, Week #2: Audio Equipment Test and Short Sound Piece

For my comm lab class, our assignment was to get a Zoom H4N sound recorder and record some sounds and then compose them into a short audio piece to present in class.

Here’s our piece:

CommLabWk2 by Benghis Khan

My partner, Stef, and I got the H4N and a shotgun microphone and, after spending an hour and a half trying to figure it all out, took the equipment out into Washington Square Park and onto the subway for the duration of one stop away on the N,R subway line.  We got some ambient noise, some construction noises (a circular saw powering up, a guy hacking a machete at some branches, big trucks starting up), we recorded some kids babbling to each other in the park, and we talked to some people in the park including a guy named Darryl Goodwine who did some spoken word for us after we sang along to a portable radio which had Bon Jovi playing on it.

We took audio of the subway trains coming to a stop and then leaving, which maxed out our audio levels and which we ultimately didn’t end up using much except for one small clip in the beginning.  The reason we chose that clip was that it sounded creepy — Stef’s original thematic idea was to make our sound piece Halloween-themed, with a normal beginning that got distorted and weirded for the rest of the piece.

We began putting the clips in order planning for this theme, but what we ended up doing was working the sound piece around Darryl’s rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Ben”, which he sang to me after learning my name.  I think what we learned from all this is that it is easy to lose the thematic origin of your work, but it is important that it all makes sense at the end, which may mean removing some sound elements when they no longer fit the new theme.  It’s good to let the audio clips guide which direction you go in, but in the end, it still needs to be thematically consistent to make sense.

We wanted to take the children’s clips and slow them down and change the pitch to make them creepy-sounding, then use the circular saw and subway noises as scary ambient noise.  Urban sounds can be fairly scary, or they can sound a lot like you’re listening to a clip on Fresh Air or Ira Glass on NPR.

We found that the shotgun mike picked up really good audio (suffixed filenames with I), but the microphones on the H4N (suffixed filenames with M) tended to be strongly affected by wind, ruining a lot of our two-channel audio.  We’ll need some wind guards for them next time.

We used Audacity to produce the sound piece (learning quickly its limitations, while we yearned for ProTools, but no laptops were available with ProTools installed).  We saved often, and made several copies, trading with each other using OS X Lion’s awesome Airdrop feature.  We used effects to echo the Michael Jackson piece (which I bought off and not iTunes, because gives you an MP3 format that’s easy to import) and elongate it and fade it out.  We did a duplication and inversion of the sound of the circular saw starting up, so it would also spin down.  We duplicated the laughs to make fun of the Bon Jovi karaoke — what was funny about that was no one knew the next line of the song.  We used a Blue Snowball to do the intro audio, which definitely picked up the cavernous classroom ambient noise and which made Stef sound like she was speaking from inside a closet.  We’ll have to work on getting closer to the mic.

So the long and short of it was that we tried a lot of techniques and used different sources, and so we learned a lot, but we found that our theme changed halfway through.  Good teamwork, Stef! ^5

We also have a ton of audio on Darryl Goodwine’s spoken word.  It’s pretty awesome in a “hey, says Stef, let’s ask people to sing for us” kind of way, which I was hesitant to do.  It turns out New Yorkers have almost no inhibitions!

Goodwine clip #1, Goodwine clip #2, and finally (!), Goodwine saying he is Blackula.

Via SoundCloud:

Goodwine1 by Benghis Khan

Goodwine2 by Benghis Khan

Blackula by Benghis Khan

Comm Lab (Video & Audio), Week 1: On Copyright

Ever since I downloaded my first MP3 in my freshman year of college in 1996, amazed at how small the file was (I think it was a Shaggy track), I don’t really think much has changed in the music industry with regards to copyright.  The timeline is (pock) marked with the detritus of used-up and destroyed start-ups and companies that tried to find a way around the RIAA.  Spotify and and others are the latest to find temporary ways to sidle into the prickly graces of the recording companies…until they are shut down or bought out and taken apart wholesale.  Google, Apple, and Amazon, with their priorities being to build distribution platforms via hardware, are the only real challengers short of a Renaissance of digital thought in Congress.

The arms race between downloaders and labels has been escalated to a fairly sophisticated level, resulting in an unofficial detente in the courts.  While I think to a large degree, even with the death of the physical act of interest in buying a CD, that the music industry has managed to formalize a lot of piracy through iTunes, Amazon, and other sources, what has been happening over the last fifteen years is defined more by what HASN’T happened than by what has.

The chilling effect is something I’m particularly sensitive about, since getting in trouble in the Army for blogging about my time in Iraq (though nothing was ultimately found to be wrong), and after witnessing the censorship efforts on communications networks during the Arab Spring and in Oakland during my time working for a Homeland Security contractor. The RIAA has lost most of its momentum (and the MPAA will soon enough be there too, but it’s still dangerous enough to conduct psyops and bully telcos into sending warnings to individual IPs), but it has certainly managed to turn artists against each other (not particularly hard, I guess), turn music fans into private consumers of music because they can’t remix and share and admit to downloading illegally, but most importantly perhaps the RIAA has turned its product, “art”, into something smeared as commoditized and fake, while at the same time making the act of obtaining music illegally an act of political defiance.

Rohter’s NYT article revealed two things to me that I think are worth investigating further:  1) the recording industry itself has significant disagreements about the public face of its position, and 2) the current Congressional trend is to argue in favor of extending the length of copyrights. The first is instructive because, since we can’t rely on artists to really share much of an opinion with each other, even in their attempts to unionize, we might find that the solution might be as simple as lobbying to prevent the current revolving door of recording industry executives into public policy positions in Washington (FCC, mostly) where they will argue for their RIAA masters. The second is interesting because it’s another representation of a chilling effect: block information and art from reaching the public domain where it can be freely remixed and reused.

Thankfully the internet has provided enough creative off-the-radar networks of music fans and technology to allow “illicit” sharing to continue.  While I do hope that artists can be paid for their works, I also think their main input to society is their labor — that is, relying on a one-off artistic creation to provide a lifetime of income is absurd, and that any human’s main contribution will not be one or two projects, but a continuing font of creativity and execution — in other words, labor which is rewarded with at least some basic regular wage.

The Garnett/Meiseles article was a rare take from both the copyright holder and the copyright abuser.  I understood Meiseles’ take on defending the context of Arauz’s act, but I strongly disagree with her.  Frankly I think she assumed far too much credit for Arauz, as if she became his guardian after taking his picture.  She certainly did her job as a photographer, and even followed it up with figuring out who the people were in her photo.  I would love to see a digital connection between people, objects, and locations in photos and the context for them, available through some sort of touchable interface, so that I could touch the kissing couple in New York City after World War II ended, and find out how they met, and what happened to them afterwards (they were strangers, I believe).

But once that photo was put out to the public, it’s game on.  It’s up to be remixed.  It’s up to be reinterpreted, reused in different contexts.  I thought immediately of Shepard Fairey’s famous HOPE portrait of President Obama, which now (somewhat contentiously) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in DC now.

Did Meiseles ever criticize non-Americans, outside of her legal system, for remixing the image outside of her own private context?  There was not evidence of her doing so in the article, nor would she be able to do much about bringing a Sandinista rebel to, er, copyright justice.  Meiseles was taking the position of a journalist here, but not of an artist, for she cared more for the importance of investigating the context than reimagining the emotion the image evoked. She should be happy someone else found her image so powerful as to use it for another work.  It begs the question of whether we need alternate systems for rewarding people, beyond a simple copyright or job system.  There is also the gift economy and the reputation economy.  If Meiseles were properly rewarded in the reputation economy (for taking a powerful photo), then perhaps this would un-burden the hulking inefficient system we currently have, which rewards in only one currency, the almighty dollar.

Naturally I loved Lethem’s essay for Harper’s, for its subtlety in addressing the underlying issues and for calling for the practical necessity of a gift economy.  Copyright holders who defend their turf have, in my opinion, made defiance and rebellion “cool” in the eyes of downloaders, anti-corporatists, etc.  I fully welcome their attempts to blow holes in the oligopoly which exists, and the mere acts of developing software and networks to circumvent weak and hamfisted attempts to block them have become acts of art in themselves.  Today’s artists and musicians are too beholden to the system to veer very far from it, so one is not likely to see many artists in today’s generation challenge copyright regimes without a lot of help from others.

But I would expect the generation of kids who grew up in the downloadable world of art (and in the age of Anonymous and 4chan) to create their own music outside of the formalized system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the system assimilated that style of music as well, but it would bring along with it, perhaps, a better model for rewarding artists and avoiding chilling effects against their fans.

[Note:  The New York Times article was made available via PDF for class, but it does not include the second page.  Clicking the PDF’s second page link will take the reader to the web site though.  Suggest inclusion of second page into PDF for future students’ accessibility to the whole article.]