Five Things I Learned From Shooting My First DSLR/Horror(ish) Video Ever Ever

I would’ve done this a while ago, but I didn’t realize there was a post in this until now. Call it obliviousness to excess, call it being very silly indeed (and if you do, say it in a Monty Python-esque kind of way), whatever.

First, the specs; I have a Canon Rebel EOS t3i, 18MP with a 18-55 mm lens. (I know, I know, but there’s a process to getting the next one. It’s special process called ‘Waiting for Taxmas’.)  To edit, I have my trusty iPad (known as iSherlock, by the by), with all the graces iMovie can bring.

Now the situation: I’ve been on Vimeo for a while now, watching and admiring the work of others with only the slightest shades of bitterness. They had the resources, I didn’t. Until I could get the money, I’d have to appreciate and draw what I could from them.

Until now!

Now that I have my own little piece of shiny (not up to date, I’ll grant you, but still solid and mine), I’ve been taking pictures and putting them up on DeviantArt, and looking for the inspiration to cut together some new little videos someone might actually be interested in aside from me. Naturally I want to be happy with what I do first, but it’s always nice to have that little extra piece of satisfaction when someone else gets interested.

And then I found it. Vimeo has Weekend Challenges, where they post an idea and let creative types floating around the site run with it. The Halloween challenge was, essentially, to create something spooky in under a minute. I decided to go as simplistic as possible; I’d film a walk up the street in my neighborhood, and through the power of selective editing and sound effects, make it scary. Thanks to the power of freesound.org , I got everything I needed for sound effects.

Now let’s find out what I learned on this little venture…

1. Handheld, no matter how ‘natural’, is still steadier than you think. Numbnuts.

My thought, undisputed in it’s genius, was to play with going handheld. I wanted the viewer to be able to feel like they were looking through the walker’s eyes. I held the camera at eye level and did the walk with not too firm a grip to try for the natural bounce that comes with walking. Wherever my head turned, the camera would turn. Whenever I looked down or up, so would the camera. All this made perfect sense at the time…

I think you can see where this is going.

Upon viewing the finished product, it looked like my poor Walker Girl (she’s a girl because she was me, and I’m a girl) contracted some sort of palsy and/or randomized failure of neck muscles. Either that, or she’d developed a severe case of Fish Eye. Wibbly wobbly doesn’t even begin to describe it. Safe to say that alone made the footage entirely unusable. But hey, now I know.

2. Make sure everything you’re using has the capacity to actually do what you think it does.

I first used iMovie when I was still going to school in Boston. It’s Apple’s easier, lighter answer to Final Cut, and I recommend it if you’re not doing anything too involved with what you’re shooting. Even if you are, entire movies have been cut on it, so I still wouldn’t discount it. After getting my iPad, when I discovered the app for just five bucks, I jumped on it. But aside from messing with a few videos I made on the iPad itself, I’d never gotten to use it much. So, naturally, I didn’t have a clue that doing this on an iPad, and doing it on a Mac, aren’t exactly the same thing.

First off, the camera exports its footage as a .MOV file. The iPad won’t take them. It just won’t. After converting it to .MP4, which the iPad likes so much better, After uploading, I realized it sent the footage direct to the videos section, and that wouldn’t export to iMovie. At all. So after some obsessive Googling, because I refused to be beaten (thank you very much), I found Dropbox. One of those Cloud knockoffs, essentially. I had to load the file to Dropbox, then download it to the iPad through the corresponding app. To say that this took an age in which even Lazarus would’ve gotten bored enough to find a way to die for good is not even an approximation. But I did it. The best part? I exported the finished product into an e-mail for a friend, a copy of which I sent to myself. The file… Was an .MOV file.

3. Even if some of the best things happen off camera, horror does seem to require a few visual elements to provoke an emotional response. Duh.

I’ve written scary things, but I’ve never shot them. Safe to say that in spite of the absolutely great sounds I found (frightened breathing, a beautiful inhuman snarl, and a particularly perfect scream , just to name a few), there was nothing to imply any need to be scared. The idea was that Walker Girl would be stalked by some beastly monster, and after being startled a few times as it got closer, would be finally taken down.

Upon looking over what I did, I could see the camera didn’t move quick enough during the startled shots, and it was just way too bright. Sure, part of the challenge was to try and make it creepy anyway, but oh God was it so unfortunately bright. You just couldn’t buy it. At all.

4. Rhythm is everything.

Another idea I had was to make little jumps in time during the walk to make it pre emptively disorienting before you even heard that first growl. Let’s just say it didn’t work. You couldn’t tell the little jump cuts had been made somehow. I’m still working that one out. At any rate, I tried for a rhythm of threes, one jump every three seconds. After all, I only had so much time.

Looking at it now, it should’ve been something a bit smoother. Maybe a 4-3-4 kind of thing. At any rate, something to think about next time.

5. No matter how obviously doomed it is, finish the project.

This one is the most important of all, I’d have to say. Doing these small little training wheel exercises before I attempt anything bigger, given just how green I am, is a big deal. I knew the second I saw the footage that this wasn’t going to work. I still spent the hours it took to transfer the video, find everything I needed, and cut it down to the best possible finished product I could. That way, I can sit back after and figure out what I did wrong, and what I’ll do better next time.

Said finished product is absolutely not going on the internet. I showed it to a few of my roommates, they were as amused as I was, and I’m comfortable with that. I can congratulate myself on the sound effects at the very least; I love everything I found, and I think I layered it in well. The ambient sounds, footsteps, growling, frightened breathing… I even layered in her breathing so there’d be a change when my poor girl started freaking out.

At any rate, awful as it turned out, it was fun. Botching it means I’m just going to have to try again sometime. I’m looking forward to it.

Feel the Burn

“Experience is everything!”

Just one of the million and one platitudes I deal with on a near daily basis. The saddest thing about them? They’re mostly true. That’s why, thanks to being on the recieving end of an e-mail blast from IFP, I decided to take the plunge and go for Bombay Sapphire’s annual Imagination Series competition.

It’s simple, at least in theory; Geoffrey Fletcher writes a bare bones script with a few handfuls of dialog, and you build a story around it. It can literally be about whatever you want, just so long as you’re using what he’s laid out for you. Should this short win, they’ll make it, take it to the next Tribeca Film Festival, and take you with it.

Since this was entirely on the fly, I wrote the first idea I came up with. It was a cute tale about a little boy trying to impress a girl on the playground, only for it all to go terribly awry. Just as I’d filled out the entry form on the website and was about to hit submit, Providence (or Writing Gods, or Jesus/Bhudda/Odin/Etc), caused me to accidentally scroll to the bottom. Here’s (a version of) what I found:

Bombay Sapphire isn’t going to associate anything involving violence, drugs, or little kids. We have no idea why you would think that we’d be interested in that, as we’re an alcohol company. Silly girl.

So, back to square one.

After a bit of grousing, and then a little more because I felt it was well deserved, I tried again. I took the same idea, because I’m frighteningly original that way, and aged it up. The setting was adjusted to a Comic Con-esque sort of deal, and I was off and running. The end result was a little piece I call ‘Geeking Out’, and it made me giggle. That, you’ll find, goes a long way with me.

But as we all know, that can’t be everything. As a budding screenwriter who did fiction beforehand, I have the terrible curse of excessive verbosity. That simply doesn’t fly on this side of the craft’s coin. I spent some time after that shaving it all down, adjusting and readjusting, and all those things writers do when we’re agonizing over something we’ve created. Excited over what I’d done, and that I’d been able to work this out so easily, I readily bounced over to my friends and roommates, making each and every one of them read it. After garnishing their approval, I shot off a few e-mails to others I knew would be online.

After all, even though there was still three weeks left before the deadline was up, I was excited. This made the whole thing time sensitive. Clearly.

The readers all approved, bless their hearts. One even commented on how it just ‘jumped off the page’. With all of their backing, I filled out the form again, and hit submit.

Now all that was left was to wait.

And wait.

And… Yeah.

Maybe it was the Universe trying to tell me something (or any other of the aforementioned people/things), but Deadline Day came… And it was extended two weeks. Bombay Sapphire was even kind enough to offer those who’d already entered the chance to adjust and resend their entires, if they so desired. Wink wink, nudge nudge, right?

But I was confident, so it was back to waiting. I compulsively told people about it, mentioned it at random to others, checked the Twitter page on a far too regular basis, and prayed so very much. October rolled around, and at long last, the day I’d longed for (last Thursday, to be exact), came. They announced the four winners, and the shortlist of people who the public would vote on to fill the final fifth winning slot.

I wasn’t on there.

So that’s that. And just in case you couldn’t tell by the notes of bitterness laid throughout this yarn, I’m a bit bummed out by it. I posted on Facebook to tell everyone in one fell swoop that I hadn’t won, after being stupid enough to not check that comments can’t be disabled for a single post. After all, I didn’t want pity; I had plenty of that for myself, why did I need a ready supply from others? But I got it regardless, even from people who I rarely talk to these days.

Then, out of the blue, it came. One of my good friends, a librarian I’ve known for over a decade that ran Teen Poets’s Society (a local writing group), and used to terrify us all with her fearsome Red Pen, forsook condolences for the sake of something a lot more important:

“Ah but what did you learn? 😉 “

What did I learn? I was chock full of self pity, with a smidge of self loathing for even trying in the first place, but where were the lessons in the whole thing? It took a lot less time than I thought to work out my sins, and I admitted to them:

“Never enter something after writing it in a day, no matter how good several people think it is, or how good to go you feel about it. Or how much time you spent editing it, for that matter. If it’s written on the fly, even if it came out well, it’s probably not a winner. Find more critical readers. Drop the parantheticals at all costs, for they are the devil. Figure out how to leave the verbosity to prose. Also, don’t pray for validation on the first go, because it just isn’t going to happen. Iiiiii’m sure there’s more, but that’s a start…”

The funny thing is, a lot of this? I already knew. But it never really sank in until I laid all that out. That’s what makes this loss okay; it beat those lessons, those platitudes, those things that sound vaguely condescending coming from the mouths of the learned who made it before you, into my head. I feel that burn, that mind bending depression, but it’s okay. I’m not done.

For those of you that might be interested, here’s the finished product that didn’t win in all it’s not glory. I jumped the gun, and it’s not perfect, but I still like my cute little piece. If I hadn’t let it fly out of my head, I’d’ve regretted it. After all, it literally cost me nothing.

I’ll just call it a dry run for next year.