Archive for the ‘DIY’ Category.

Nirvana through Motion and FileMaker Pro

If you’ve only known me since I helped start Automatic Duck in late 2000, you might not know that in a previous life I was an editor in the Seattle-area.  I was pretty good at what I did, but in addition to my creative chops and ability to handily talk through a render I used to dazzle clients with my prowess for combining the wonder powers of several different pieces of software.  I cut on Media Composer, but I would do a lot of stuff in After Effects, plus create elements in Photoshop, maybe even create an animated matte in Elastic Reality or Commotion and then use Cleaner to compress a web copy for client approval– all this back in 1997-2000, a while before this is what everyone did.

Anyway, I’m used to combining the strengths of different tools, and the work we do at Automatic Duck is a ten-year extension of this approach.

I don’t get to edit professionally anymore, but I like to dip my toes back in once in a while.  Recent projects have included a video promoting a local 50+ condo building plus visuals for a Helios house concert.  And since last year I have become the defacto video guy for my daughter’s dance studio, a mostly thankless job selling recital DVDs for way too cheap.

It is the recital videos that have presented some interesting challenges in balancing the Good-Fast-Cheap conundrum.  It has to be cheap, there’s no way around that.  I need to get it done fast, too, because I’m doing it in my spare time which I don’t have a lot of.  And it has to be good, that’s how I roll.  So I shot 720P60 using a Panasonic HPX-170 camera, sending HD-SDI out to a Kona 3 inside a Mac Pro.  Plus I have a consumery Canon HF20 that I used as a wide locked-down safety.  This year there were two shows, each well over two hours and between the two there are nearly 130 performances.  The goal: to finish with one DVD for each show, with DVD menus and chapters and lower third titles identifying each song, dance group/class as well as teacher and choreographer.

You can tell I love my daughter, there ain’t no other way a sane person would agree to do all this.

Enough preamble, let’s get down to it

Of the various tasks involved in producing a four hour DVD set, probably the most daunting was creation of 129 animated lower third titles.  These titles included a lot of information: the name of the performance, the name of the dance class or group, if it was a solo, duo or trio the names of the performers, and finally the name of the instructor.  This is a lot data, the typing alone would have taken me forever.

Lucky for me I was able to get the showcase program as a PDF, something I could get the text out of quite easily.  Ok, so I might not have to perform a bunch of data entry, but I’d still have to spend a day copy and pasting to create the titles, right?  Thankfully not.

I edited the Pacific West Performing Arts Spring Showcase 2010 in Final Cut Pro, and it turns out that Final Cut comes with an excellent titling and graphics application called Motion.  Motion is good for more than just titles, but when it comes to banging out a lot of lower thirds that share a look, Motion just can’t be beat.  And not just for FCP users, Motion can also be quite a good tool for you Avid users too.  I can hear a few of you in the back snickering because you think Motion is no match for After Effects.  I grant you that, you’re right, After Effects is the power tool, but in this particular situation even After Effects can not do what Motion makes possible.

You see, Motion’s project files are written as XML, meaning they are text files that can be read, edited and written by any application.  The ramifications of this are huge:  You can create a template Motion project file, open it in a text editor and make some changes and when you reopen the project in Motion– or better yet, switch back to your Final Cut Pro sequence containing that Motion project clip– your changes are reflected immediately.  See where this is going?  What if I could somehow combine the text from the PDFs with a template Motion project and make my title creation easy?

There’s an App for that

I could tell some of your eyes glazed over  during that last paragraph when I mentioned XML. It is like your creative antibodies started screaming, “I’m an artist, not a programmer!”

Lucky for you there’s a very user-friendly application called AutoMotion from Digital Heaven that leverages Motion’s openness and allows you to combine a Motion template with data you had your assistant type in– don’t worry I totally get you’re an artist and don’t do “data entry”– creating many many titles in just seconds.

AutoMotion’s interface is easy to use.  First you import your data into a simple column view, next import a Motion project file to be used as a template, then finally assign which of your data fields link to which of your text objects in the Motion project.  That’s all there is to it.

When you’re ready you tell it to do its thing and process through them all.  It takes no time at all to create many many animated titles.  Better yet you can update your design in the Motion template project then have AutoMotion update all of your titles, again in just seconds.

The Road Less Traveled

But I, I took another route.  I first faced this challenge of the avalanche of animated titles last year, when I produced the first DVD for my daughter’s recital.  I was aware of AutoMotion but I was also very curious in achieving a similar result DIY style.  Plus, I’m quite a closet nerd, so I decided if Motion was the key to the castle I could pick the lock using FileMaker Pro (that’s right, the database application).

A bit dramatic, maybe, but I embarked on some cool shit.  Turns out this cool shit was a lot easier in the spring of 2009 when I first tried it, at the time I had Motion 3 installed and it was more forgiving of the XML my scripts produced.  When I decided to reprise my FileMaker Pro/Motion “solution” I was now using Motion 4 and it was a lot harder to pull off because it required some elements to be present in the XML that Motion 3 didn’t care about. But I persevered.

Here’s a summary:

  • Copy and pasted text from program PDF into text file
  • Used some Find and Replace routines to convert line endings to tab markers so that in the end I had a tab delineated list of all of the performances and associated credits.
  • Imported the text list into a FileMaker Pro database
  • Created a Motion project that had the look I was after, then replaced the FPO text with unique placeholders
  • In FileMaker pasted the .motn project XML into a global field then created a series of calculated fields that replaced the text from my template with the record fields of the database
  • Created a script that would write the new calculated Motion project into a file
  • Edited all my new Motion .motn titles into my Final Cut Pro sequence

Later realized I needed to tweak my title position and font size, so I adjusted the template then re-ran my FileMaker Pro script.  Switched back to Final Cut Pro and just like magic the sequence updated with the new look.

Doing it the hard way had some advantages, too, I was able to customize my solution to my exact needs.  Like: make the font size controlled by a calculated field that, based on a count of the characters in a line, would cause lines with more characters to slim down the font size to allow more characters on screen.  I could also populate the database with all of the data from the program but then choose which fields I would actually “publish”.  I also had more control over the file names of the generated .motn files.  My solution was far from elegant, far from general purpose, but it worked great.

Motion is XML, and also QuickTime

There’s another secret that Motion is hiding, another remarkable feature that may entice you to try using it even in conjunction with a non-FCP NLE.  A Motion project file may be just an XML file, but QuickTime can read those .motn files too.  In fact, if you change a motion project’s extension from .motn to .mov just about any QuickTime-savvy application is able to use the files too.  So you could import the .mov-named version of the .motn file into your Media Composer.  You could also drop a list of .motn files into Compressor and have it run a batch to render out proper QuickTimes with alpha channels.

I encourage you to play with it yourself.  Animate a video layer around in Motion in some fun way, then save the project and open it in a good text editor.  Search for <pathurl> to find where the media file is described.  Replace that file path with a similarly formatted path to another media file (note that spaces are represented by %20), save and open the project again in Motion.  Pretty cool, eh?

Maybe this will give you some thoughts the next time you find yourself needing a systematic approach to a motion graphics or titling problem, it could be that by building a template in Motion then running it through AutoMotion or your own processing system you could achieve this kind of nirvana.

Playing VJ

Last weekend I had a special experience, one of my favorite musical artists came to my house and performed a living room concert.  Helios is the name of the artist, the music can generally be described as electronic and ambient.  If you’ve ever seen electronic music performed you will know that visuals are commonly performed alongside the music, and since I had been curious about the VJ experience I decided I would provide visuals for this show.

Overall the show went very well. We had 50 guests attend the show, and we tied in a Haitian charity donation opportunity for our guests and we raised $415.

In this post I’ll talk about some of the logistics I had to tackle in order to bring the visual aspect to the show.

Several friends at the show asked what software I was using for playback of the visuals.  I tried a few different VJ applications and the one I settled on was Resolume Avenue.  Applications such as this are intended for live performance, with the ability to mix different source movies, even different sources such as live cameras, plus application of effects to the video streams in real time.  These apps typically accept MIDI input for the triggering and adjustment of clips and effects, so I got an inexpensive Korg nanoKONTROL device to give me some knobs to twirl and sliders to push along with buttons to press.

With the software and the hardware interface I set off to learn how I could be a “VJ”.  I’ve been making video for more than twenty years so it was fun to learn a way to deliver the results.  But it became clear to me pretty quickly that if I was going to combine multiple visual elements in real time it was going to a) be a lot of work, b) require a lot of concentration and as a result probably c) reduce my enjoyment of the show.  So I decided that I would instead largely pre-build my performance and use the VJ software to play back my videos in sequence.

I shot most of the elements I ended up using and I also sourced some stock footage elements, plus I had a friend send me some video he shot on his sailboat, I thought it might come in handy.

Production of elements was fun.  I used Final Cut Pro to arranged clips in time then treated everything in After Effects.  I loaded on and experimented with the effects and kept myself entertained late into the night.  Overall I spent about a month working on my clips, and before long the 2TB of drive space I set aside for this project became almost nothing and I had to add another disk.

The next major consideration was how I was going to project my show.  I knew where the “stage” was going to be in our house, but there wasn’t going to be room to put a screen behind the performer and have the projector somewhere in the room.

Since we were going to have Helios play in front of the large windows in our living room I thought it might be cool to project the video from the rear, meaning the projector would be outside shining into the house.  This way the audience would see the imagery behind the musician and it would all be very natural.

I built some screens using PVC pipe as a frame and spandex material from a local fabric shop stretched across, affixed with Velcro.  They were very lightweight and it was easy to hang them on the outside of the house with hooks and eye bolts.

I felt very makey-makey as I was building the screens.  I used two different kinds of velcro, one with adhesive backing and the other kind meant for fabric that ironed on.  So one night I cut PVC sections, attached velcro to the assembled frames and ironed the other side of the velco to the spandex fabric.  Only once did I leave the iron in one place for too long and I slightly burned/melted the fabric, but it was minor and didn’t have any real affect.

My next problem was where to put the projector outside so that it could cast its light onto, and through, my fancy screens.  The windows are on the second story as viewed from the back yard so I decided to build a platform for the projector to sit on.

I’m not much of a carpenter, and maybe because of that I managed to build something that was later described as a lifeguard tower, a trebuchet, even a guillotine. I was proud of it, though, especially the top platform that was able to tilt so that I would be able to adjust the up and down throw of the projector.

Finally I had to consider protecting the projector from the elements.  I knew that the chances of rain or other wetness on a February evening in the Pacific Northwest was pretty high so I needed a weatherproof box, and that box needed to be ventilated because projectors make a lot of heat.

I considered building a box from scratch but recognizing my limitations knew I was unlikely to build something waterproof and useful.  So I chose instead to use a Rubbermaid storage container as the basis for my projector housing and I modified it to become a projector protector.  I cut a window on one side, covered it with clear plexiglass then duct taped the heck out of it, adding some caulking for extra good measure.

I cut a hole in the bottom for cool air to enter the box (through a matching hole in the stand’s platform) and cut holes in the sides for air to be exhausted.  I mounted two 120v fans from Radio Shack against these holes and then for extra credit I attached vent covers on the outside of the box to protect the fans and projector from overly enthusiastic rain drops.

The entire thing was way over-thought but in the end it all worked very well.  The visuals shined through the windows behind Helios as he played and it felt incredibly natural.  And thankfully I was able to enjoy the show even as I had to pay attention just enough to the software to trigger a clip and to fade out at the end of a song.

It was a very fun experience and I look forward to hosting another show in the future.

I have posted the individual movies of my visuals over at

Since the show I’ve found this writeup on the evening from The Stranger. The writer was so complimentary about the event I won’t make a big deal of his 20-person underestimation of the number of guests in attendance. 🙂

UPDATE: This performance is now available on DVD through the Unseen Music shop…

DIY camera dolly

I have seen several times over the years online posts about how to make a DIY camera dolly that uses PVC pipe as track. It came up that I could use a camera dolly recently so I put one together and it is great!
There are many many tutorials, guides and videos online explaining how to create one of these, I took inspiration from these…

I used some thick plywood as the platform, then mounted inline skate wheels to aluminum angles, then attached those assemblies to the bottom of the platform. To take the thing to the next level I affixed some indoor/outdoor carpeting to it. The entire project was pretty easy and the results are fantastic.

Here is the finished edit of the video I did for PacWest, there are a few dolly shots in there:

How to make Sun Jars

I recently came across a Lifehacker post about a DYI project to make Sun Jars and was inspired to try it myself. It is easy to do– in fact my method was even easier than Lifehacker’s– and the results are spectacular.
For this project you need a jar, a solar LED garden light, frosted glass paint and epoxy.

First, a few words about the materials used.

I found these excellent Westinghouse solar garden lights in the Home and Garden section of our local Fred Meyer. The label on the underside of the box calls them “WH Gladiator 1PC Pewter”, the packaging also calls them “Item #474005-41” from International Development Corp. and Westinghouse. I’ve searched Google for all of these keywords and can’t find these lights anywhere, so I just bought a bunch from Fred Meyer. These lights are perfect because they fit perfectly into the lid of the jar so you don’t need to dismantle the light like the Lifehacker post instructs.

Commenters on the Lifehacker page reported problems finding jars for this project. I found quite a few at local stores (Fred Meyer and McDaniel’s Do it Center), and McDaniel’s happily ordered me more when I exhausted their stock. Amazon lists them as in stock, so they’re out there.

[UPDATE] it rained recently and we were dismayed to find that the Fred Meyer jars actually filled with water! The “Fido” jars I got from McDaniel’s, however, did not have this problem. So I definitely recommend getting “ermetic” jars.

Let’s go!

  • First, dismantle your jar, removing the lid and the wire latch. Keep the pieces, especially the small wire loop that keeps it all together.

  • Paint the outside of the jar with your Frosted Glass paint. You don’t need lots of coats, just one will probably do just fine. You do want even coverage, however, so spray lightly and don’t get too close to avoid pooling the paint on the surface.

  • While the paint dries let’s work on the lid.

    Remove the light from the stick/reflector part, just rotate it and it will come apart. Discard the stick/reflector part unless you can find another use for it as an olympic torch or magic wand or something. Mix your epoxy and apply it to the top of the light assembly as shown in the picture. You should first place your light into the lid of the jar to a) make sure it fits and b) get a sense of what surfaces of the light come into contact with the glass lid. To me it felt like the contact was around the ring of the light, not just the top face, so I applied my epoxy to the edge as well as the top.

    After the epoxy is on the light, set it into the lid and allow the two to bond.

  • When your paint is dry and epoxy completely set you’re ready to reassemble the jar.

  • If you haven’t already done so, pull the plastic tab from the light assembly, this engages the rechargable battery.

  • That’s it! You’re done.
    Put in the sun to charge and when it gets dark enjoy your new Sun Jar.