Rants of a Digital Bard

OMG! Who gave this idiot a blog?

Being successful in Microstock Footage game

My good friend Jake Hellbach wrote an excellent article on the Shutterstock forum about some of the keys to his success in the stock footage business, which you should definitely read.  Besides being extremely talented, Jake is a pretty modest guy.  He really doesn’t like to use the word “successful”, although I think he has been.

The folks at Shutterstock edited his original article a little bit to center on the stock footage industry, but the basic premise that Jake discusses can be used in stock photography or pretty much any “hobby” that you want to monetize.

One thing that I wanted to point out is that while it does make it “easier” to spend the thousands of dollars Jake has on equipment, it doesn’t always make it better.  It’s a short article, so he briefly discusses how important lighting is, but in my experience lighting is pretty much the whole game.  Especially if you don’t have a $3000 camera that makes almost anything look good.  If you are using a camcorder instead of a “Video DSLR”, you are going to run into low-light noise issues.  That’s where having lots of light and proper lighting really helps.

I did a recent shoot in my home studio and I’m spending a lot of time fixing noise issues with dark clothing.  Anything in the image that is light (skin, light colored clothes) looks beautiful, but I didn’t have enough light on the subject to deal with dark clothing.  Lesson learned.  I talked my local library into getting the book “Lighting for Digital Video & Television” by John Jackman.  I highly recommend it, and the library is going to be lucky to get it back from me.

I can tell you from the many, many, many discussions I’ve had with Jake on his techniques and trying to pry details of his shoots out of him (he’s actually very forthcoming), I have learned that Jake plans every shoot as well as he can before any filming actually takes place.  That’s another lesson I learned the hard way this last shoot I did.  I made a shot list beforehand, but I had the talent for 2 hours and I only had about an hour’s worth of ideas on my list.  I lost 15 to 20 minutes during the shoot because I had to stop and think up more stuff for her to do.  In the future, I’ll have a MUCH MUCH longer list that is prioritized on what I really want to accomplish and if everything goes right, we’ll run out of time before we hit the end of the list.

What is not in Jake’s article, but if you were to talk to him he would tell you is that patience is THE most important skill you can have to be truly successful in the Stock Footage game.  If you are just starting out, or you’ve been doing it for a short time, success comes slowly.  Not every clip you produce is going to sell (even if it’s your personal favorite).  In fact, only a small percentage of your portfolio will ever sell even once.  And a tiny percentage will sell on a regular basis.  This business is a numbers game.  The more clips you have online, the better your chance of being seen.

But that doesn’t mean that you can shoot everything you see and uploads hundreds of clips at once to build a large portfolio.  Those days are gone.  Most stock sites are starting to reject clips that are too similar to those already online. Sunsets, time-lapse clouds, time-lapse moonscapes, etc…  Everybody has done it and unless your shot REALLY stands out as unique, it’s gonna get rejected.  It’s a very tired cliche, but “you need to think outside the box” and you need to come up with something new and unique.  Tough to do when everyone has a video camera these days.  But I think Jake’s article touched on something important…

Buyers are looking for a “Cinema Look” on clips.  If you spend time on each clip to color correct it, maybe even do some color grading to make it softer, harder, darker, or some unique artistic look then you’ll have a better chance of standing out in the crowd.  Some sites, like Pond5, will even let you submit the same clip multiple times, but with different artistic looks.  The important thing, however, is uniqueness.  If a buyer searches for “sunset” and your clip is in the middle of thousands of others, it won’t get noticed unless there is something unique and special about it.  So don’t just upload your footage without any kind of artistic touch any more.  Because I already did, Jake already did and so did the hundreds of others who started a long time ago in this business with us.

One last thing for those of you just getting started or who have only been doing this a relatively short time…  Look at the clip count on the home page of each site..  Over 250,000 on Pond5 (congrats, btw), almost 150,000 on Shutterstock, etc…  Your 50 clips, or 100 clips simply aren’t going to stand out in that large of a crowd.  Especially if none of it is unique.  Jake has over 1,700 clips on Pond5 and over 1,000 on the other sites.  So it’s much easier to find his stuff.  That’s where patience comes in…  Until you start getting around the 500 clip mark, don’t get frustrated or depressed because you’re not making $1,000 a month in sales (or even $100 a month).

To paraphrase one of my favorite fish… “Just keep producing, just keep producing, producing, producing”…  As long as you keep producing new stuff your value on each site will grow and you’ll get in front of more buyers and you’ll sell more.

November 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Queen of Diamonds – Retrospect

Kyle is an amazing writer and the story he wrote is truly a gift to mankind.  And I’m totally serious.  Especially after watching Stephanie, Theodore and the rest of the cast give it life.  But he wrote a 20 minute film, not a 7 minute film.

Having now viewed the footage shot on my camera, I am even more impressed with it.  But for this (or any) project we really needed to have two of them so that we could have shot each scene from two angles.  Having two angles of the exact same take would have helped the editing process move a lot smoother and a LOT faster.  The second camera we had was an SD camera and the picture quality wasn’t nearly as good as that from my HD camera.  Not to mention that when both were used together, the “look” from the SD camera was very different.  We lit each scene for my camera and we had not done much before hand on fiddling with manual settings to get both to shoot similar video.

I really wish we would have shot more “behind the scenes” stuff.  And taken a million photos during the process.  It was fun, it was hilarious at times, it was frantic, and it was extremely exciting…  For most of it, all I have are memories…  A shame.

In my opinion, Vegas failed us.  I don’t know if it was just the Mac version or it was because we editing a lot on PCs and copied the projects to the Mac.  But had Vegas not crashed we would have turned in the vision we wanted the film festival to see and not what we could cobble together at the last minute.

But, while the festival audience won’t be able to see “our film” the way we intended at the showing next weekend, all is not lost…  After we’ve had time to recuperate from an extremely intense weekend, we’re gonna get back together and do a “Director’s Cut” that has all of the scenes, all of the music and shows Kyle and Jess’ vision of a truly remarkable story.

I am looking forward to that process and I really hope that I get a chance to work with the team again.  It was an exciting time and a great experience.

I don’t know if I’d do another 48-hour project, but only because I’m 42 and most everyone else was in their 20’s and early 30’s.  Keeping up with them was a little bit of an ordeal (it doesn’t help that I’m a fat bastard).  And I haven’t gone 38 hours without sleep in a very long time…  It’s gonna take me a few more days to recover.

But I would love to do another indie project.  I learned a lot and I hope that I taught others a few things as well.

I’m going back to bed… 🙂

(I wrote this after only having an 11 hour nap, so some of my facts about the others might be a little off, but not intentionally…  Mostly I just wanted to get my experience down while it was still pretty fresh in my memory and to make sure that Jess, Zach, Merlin, Tanya, and the rest gang know how much I appreciate being invited to their team and enjoyed both their company and the experience they’ve given me.  Thank you so very much!)

August 3, 2009 Posted by | Touchy feely..., Videography | , , , , | Leave a comment

Queen of Diamonds – Day 2

The original plan was to use Vimeo or some other service to upload footage so that I could download it and work from home on my computer.  I don’t have a laptop and I haven’t gotten around to installing Adobe After Effects or any of my other tools on my fiance’s laptop yet.  So when I came back on saturday morning, I brought my computer with me and decided to set it up at UMKC and do my work from there.  The rest of the editing team were all set up on laptops, except for Merlin who also had a Mac in his sound editing studio.

When I got to UMKC I processed the rest of the footage from my camera and got it backed up onto my computer and a portable USB hard drive.  When the rest of the editing team got there, they copied the footage to their laptops and started working on the editing.

None of us had ever edited a complete film before, but I’ve been doing a lot of small stuff over the past couple years and I’ve developed a work-flow for getting my projects done as easily as possible.  I suggested that Zach and Jess drop one clip from each scene into Vegas, even if it’s not the perfect clip, and build the entire story.  We’ll watch it and then make decisions on what scenes to drop.  That would give us a current length of the film. It was 22 minutes.

The final film had to be 7 minutes max plus 1 minute of ending credits and a 20 second starting clip with bars and tone and the 48 hour logo for 8 minutes and 20 seconds max.  So there was a TON of editing work ahead.  To make it even harder, since we had recorded the sound seperately, we had to have the footage edited and ready for Merlin to do sound and we had to note which takes we used in editing for each scene so that he could find the correct sound.  Fortunately, Merlin had a lot of experience with Vegas since he used it often in his daily work.  But he used version 6 and the editing crew were all using a trial version of 9…  Begin the pain…

Jess made a shot list and notes on how long each shot should be to fit in the 7 minutes.  Noel and Zach started in on the editing.  Merlin imported all the sound he recorded during the day and worked on getting it ready to put into the footage when Noel and Zach were done.  He also installed version 9 of the Vegas trial on his Mac where he does his sound editing.

I did some “post work” on some of the clips in After Effects where we had lighting issues and the clips needed to be color matched to other clips in the same scene.  I also worked on the ending credits and a title graphic.  We had planned to do a 20 second title sequence, but we had to fit 22 minutes of story into 7 minutes, so it was decided to just put a title graphic over some of the footage instead in order to use up the full 7 minutes to tell the story.

Between 1am and around 8am, Zach, Noel, Merlin and Jess worked on editing.  Occasionally one of them would take a 10 minute or 30 minute powernap and then it was right back to work.  And although I’d had only 2 hours sleep in the previous 30 hours, I couldn’t sleep.  At first I had too much adrenaline because this whole thing was very exciting… Later I was hopped up on too many energy drinks and caffiene.  Besides, I have a hard time sleeping anywhere but my own bed.

As the production manager, this was actually Tanya’s time to shine.  She was the group’s cheerleader and slave driver. Keeping everyone on task and making sure everyone was properly fed and hydrated.  I started to crash a bit around 3am and if she hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have gotten much done.  Jess’ girlfiend Rachael also came in and helped with cheerleading.

By noon I think they had managed to get it edited down to around 11 minutes, so it was just a matter of tweaking a few seconds here and a few seconds there to get it to 7 minutes…  At that time the hand of fate started to bitch-slap us around.  They started having problems with Vegas.

As good as Vegas is, I don’t think we were using it right in the editing process.  Noel and Zach would edit a scene and then give the Vegas project to Merlin to do his sound thing.  But Merlin was working on the Mac versi0n while Noel and Zach used the Windows version.  And there were issues when giving the project files to Merlin that eventually started causing Vegas to crash on the Mac.  Every time it crashed, it took about 20 minutes for Merlin to recover things and move forward.. then it would crash again.

My personal work-flow is to edit a scene to where I want it, render it out and then use the individual renders in the final project to render the entire movie (when I do home movies).  I think Merlin was working with all the project files at once instead of pre-rendered scenes and that was what caused Vegas to crash all the time (that and I’ve read a lot of stuff today about the Vegas trial cashing a lot on the Mac).  Every time they asked me to do something, I did my editing, rendered it out and gave them back the ready to use rendered footage.

By 5pm panic set in and we were still at 8 minutes plus very little of the sound work had been done.  None of the sound effects had been put in or the beautiful score that had been composed for this project.  At 5:30 we decided to just render out individual clips of each scene then give everything to me and I’d render out the final on my computer in After Effects.  We still had 34 seconds to cut at that point and Jess gave me the places to cut in AE and I rendered out the final film.  However, a little bit of a miracle happened while I was removing those final seconds… Merlin got Vegas working and was able to render out the whole thing on his machine.  Which is what we ended up turning in at the last minute before the deadline.

We didn’t get the narration in or the individual music componants… and none of the sound effects… but we did get a 7 minute movie with 52 seconds of credits and a 20 second intro turned in on time.  And it has some really amazing acting in it.

August 3, 2009 Posted by | Touchy feely..., Videography | , , , , | Leave a comment

Queen of Diamonds – Day 1

We left the bar and headed over to UMKC.  Kyle, the writer, was working fast and furious.  After we got there, Jess informed us about the basic “gist” of the story and gave us an idea of where primary filming would need to be done.

The goal was to have Kyle finish the main draft of the script by midnight which would be emailed to the entire team.  A final draft would be sent out at 2am.  The actors would meet at 7am Saturday morning to get instructions from Jess and do their initial read through, etc..  At 11am we’d start initial filming at our primary location with one planned 3 hour break and hopefully complete all filming by midnight.  At midnight the editing team would start putting it altogether for an initial screening of the final draft by 2pm and then delivery of the final project to the contest people around 6:30pm (the hard deadline was 7:30pm).

As I had mentioned, originally, I was just gonna do the motion graphics work and some light effects.  And I was hoping to be around to do some behind the scenes filming now and again.  Over all, I expected I’d have to do a few hours of actual work, a few hours of watching the process unfold and I’d get more than a couple hours of sleep… Life is funny…

I stayed with the group at UMKC while Kyle wrote the script.  We left briefly for a half hour to check out the primary filming location, a nice old house where the sound editor lived.  At a few minutes past midnight, Jess and Tanya had the main draft of the script and emailed it to everyone in the group.  The film team and I discussed the basic plan of attack and ironed out some of the editing questions.  Merlin, the sound editor, was familiar with Sony Vegas as he used an old version in a lot of his work.  So it was decided that the editing team would download and use the Vegas 9 trial version to edit the whole film.  Zach and his buddy Noel, who were the primary editors, had downloaded it a few days before the festival and edited together a HILARIOUS 2 minute viral film.

At around 2:30am I headed home to get a few hours sleep before principal shooting began at 11am.  There was a bad storm, so my 90 minute drive home took a little over 2 hours.  I was still pumping with adrenaline when I went to bed, so by the time I got up at 8:30am I had only slept for about 2 hours.  I was a little late getting out of the house and I got a little lost in Kansas City, so I didn’t get to the shoot location until a few minutes before 11am.

Things were a little chaotic when I got there and we didn’t actually start shooting anything until almost 11:30, but once the ball got rolling, most things started to fall into place.  I mentioned earlier that Jess and Tanya are very organized people and thank goodness.  Had I been in charge of shooting instead of Zach and Jess, we’d still be shooting today, a full day after the contest period was over.  I kept wanting to shoot at different angles, in different light, etc…  Some of the actors worked on the weekend, so we had them for a limited time.  So it was important to get just 2 or 3 takes per scene and move on.  Especially given the time limit of the whole project.

Jess and Zach had a pretty clear vision for the film, and like I said before, Zach has a “photographer’s eye”.  While I did do a little bit of the filming, when I look at shots of the same scene that Zach did versus what I did, I am amazed at what I don’t know about how things look on camera versus the naked eye.  I learned a lot from Zach about that.

I mentioned earlier that the entire cast were fantastic, you can definitely tell that they are indeed “professional actors” and not people who act (or overact) occasionally.  But I have to single out Stephanie, the lady who played the main character, as one of the most amazing actors I have ever had the pleasure to meet.  Having only known her during the shooting process, I find it extremely difficult to seperate her from Abigail, the main character in the film.  She was just so convincing with not even a hint of overacting in any of the scenes.

It’s funny because when I first met the group, there was a lot of talk of “if nothing else goes right, we’ll still have the best actors of any film at the festival” which I took at the time as bragging and over-confidence.  But now, after we’re finished with filming, I can see that it wasn’t “over-confidence” at all.  Indeed, they were all fantastic.  And incredibly well prepared.  When we were ready to shoot every scene, they knew the lines and because they had worked together so many times before, they “ad-libbed” smoothly.  It was just like eavesdropping on a real conversation.

Shooting went pretty well.  We kept running into time issues, mostly from shooting too many takes in some cases (mostly my fault) and from how long it took to set up for each shot.   In retrospect, given the time crunch of the contest, the whole thing should have been shot hand-held.  Setting up the tripod and changing angles took longer than just walking a few feet or crouching/standing up and we could have got a few more takes in (my preference).

After shooting most of the group scenes where we needed the main group of actors together, we started on some of the smaller individual scenes.  Several of the actors had day jobs they had to do, so we only had them for limited amounts of time.  But Jess and Tanya had worked out a shooting schedule.  We moved from the house to the second location to film a lobby scene… then a third location for a doctor’s office scene… then a high school football field for a bleachers scene.

While we broke for a late lunch/early dinner, I went back to UMKC and backed up the footage we shot and started the preprocessing of the AVCHD video from my camera into editable H.264 footage.  The final product had to be delivered as SD, so I downconverted the resolution from 1920×1080 to 960×540.  Merlin, our sound guy, recorded the sound seperately on some professional sound equipment.  My camera records stereo sound, but I don’t have a mic for it and Merlin didn’t have anything to hook up his boom mic’s to my 1/8th inch jack.  And he got much better sound from his own equipment.

After the break, it was back to the house to do the final shooting.  The original schedule was to finish shooting by midnight, but we actually finished at 11:15pm.  So I headed back to UMKC to process the rest of the footage while they cleaned up Merlin’s house. (Once again, Dave manages to avoid house work.)

August 3, 2009 Posted by | Touchy feely..., Videography | , , , , | Leave a comment

48 Hour Film Festival – Queen of Diamonds

Well, that was a very exciting experience…

A few months ago, a friend on mine (Mark, aka IronStriker) was doing a lot of talking about indie films and it peaked my curiosity.  I’m not all that interested making my own indie film, but I have always been curious about the process and I love to learn all I can about film making.  So I started doing some research and hanging out in some online indie forums.

I also did a search for anything going on locally in my area (I live in Topeka, KS) and ran across the 48 Hour Film Festival. After reading about it on their web site and seeing that they were coming to Kansas City, MO (about a 90 minute drive), I decided to sign up as an team member.  Essentially, you post what your experience is and what you would like to do and if any team leaders need extra help, they can contact you.  I figured someone might need some help with doing the title sequence and ending credits.

Although I started getting emails from the 48 Hour group weekly, I had pretty much forgot about it after a few weeks.  And I started ignoring the emails after a month or so.  But about a week ago I got an email with 48 Hour in the subject and it wasn’t from the group, it was from a team leader.  He was asking what I was “able” to do and how much I was “willing” to do.  After a couple of emails back and forth, I decided to join his team and he accepted.

So, Friday, July 31st, I showed up for the opening “ceremony” and met Jess, the leader of our team (Go Team Earthquake!) and most of the rest of the team.  It was held at a small downtown area bar in Kansas City.  There were 15 total teams this year and I think about 80 people showed up that night.  About 20 of which were from my new team.

Jess and his friends are primarily “theater people” from the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC).  He got his master’s degree there and teaches in the theater department at the school.  Most of the group also does some Television and Film work as well, but mostly they do theater.

Essentially the 48 Hour Film Festival is mostly what it sounds like, you have 48 hours to make a film.  At the kickoff they give you a genre (Drama, Comedy, Horror, etc…), a line of dialogue that has to be used, and a prop that has to appear.  All of the creative process; writing, filming, editing, etc.. has to be done within that 48 hour period.  You can’t use any stock footage or pre-filmed stuff.  The finished film has to be between 4 and 7 minutes long.

Our team included a very talented writer who writes radio dramas on a regular basis, an incredible composer duo, a professional lighting expert, a professional sound expert, a professional costume designer/makeup duo, and some of the most talented actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  Jess and his assistant Tanya are incredibly well organized and handled the production process which was mostly wrangling the rest of us and getting stuff done when it needed to be done.  Jess and Tanya had worked up a schedule a couple days before things got started so that the process would “hopefully” go smoother.

At the kick off we got our genre, which has “Holiday Film”.  A line of dialogue, which was “So, what’s your story?”  And a prop, which was a rubber band.  The writer took off immediately after we got all the info and headed to UMKC to start writing a script.  Jess had reserved several rooms there for us to use for the weekend.  The rest of us followed after a short toast by Jess.

My original role was to just do the title sequence, the ending credits, and any effects or compositing work that was required depending on the story and what footage was shot.  However, that changed during the kick off…

I brought my personal camcorder with me because I wanted to film some stuff myself “behind the scenes”.  I was extremely interested in the entire process of making an “indie film”, so I planned on being there during as much of the process as I could to soak in as much knowledge as possible.   After pulling my camera out of my bag to film some of the kick of process, Zach (the D.P. and camera guy) started asking me questions about it…

Zach is an amazing photographer.  He does a lot of theater posters and like all great photographers has a great “eye” for esthetics.  He is also incredibly knowledgable about PhotoShop.  But he hasn’t done a whole lot of filming and is not very experienced with camcorders.  I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve been doing a LOT of work with my camcorder and reading voraciously about every aspect of filming (lighting, composition) and the process of shooting footage.  So after about 15 minutes of conversation with Zach, we decided that my camcorder would be used as the primary camera for filming and I would work as his assistant during the filming process.

August 3, 2009 Posted by | Touchy feely..., Videography | , , , , | Leave a comment